Tomorrow the council will make possibly its most important decision for a long time, and for a long time to come: Who will be its Chief Executive.

The importance of the decision has been highlighted by the recent ‘emergency budget‘ which has seen projects slashed and delayed in the wake of decimated revenues following the disruptions caused by COVID-19. Last Thursday, Councillor Richard Hills said of the emergency budget:

There is a serious, serious concern out there that we are being derelict of duty by our safety, cycling and walking budgets being slashed. You know I understand – we all understand – the implications we’re facing, but what it looks like to many people is that we’re putting lives in danger due to these cuts because large roading projects and other projects have been favoured or were underway before cycleways, safety projects and walkways, footpaths were contracted… I don’t know if people have realised how dire our budget is for safety and walking and cycling, and how many deaths and serious injuries that our decision-making – unfortunately due to Covid and the revenue loss – will make… also for the climate – if you read the climate impact statement, this may be one of the only chances this year that we really get on top of, and move our transport and community projects to really attack our emissions or give people opportunities.

And yesterday he tweeted:

The emergency budget is terrible, but in their defence, the Councillors themselves probably don’t feel they’ve been given many options. Having to choose between different levels of cuts to programmes in a way that doesn’t waste money by pulling out of signed contracts isn’t empowering.

It didn’t have to be this way. The emergency budget is the strongest indication yet that when faced with a crisis, the Council retracts into business-as-usual activity and priorities. The “contract is already signed” argument falls flat when you start to ask why projects that worsen our emissions were on the books in the first place, let alone contracts signed for them. Especially when so many comprehensive, progressive approaches to address our emissions are really cheap.

It may be too late to have much impact on this emergency budget, but the appointment of the new CE will be critical going forward in shaping how the organisation responds to issues and conducts its day to day business in the future.

The appointment will be made behind closed doors and we don’t know who’s on the list or what the process is. For example, is this just a rubber stamp job or are there multiple potential candidates councillors will vote between? What concerns us is that, historically, the process used to find and filter applicants for these sorts of roles has always been conventional, and doesn’t select fresh-thinkers who are prepared to lead into a better future.

The urgent need to address our climate and equity issues can’t afford a conventional approach. It wouldn’t be much of a choice if councillors can only select between two similar shades of grey. Appointing a CE who keeps Auckland on a business-as-usual path would be the true dereliction of duty.

With that in mind, here are some of the things we think the successful candidate will need to understand.

We have a Climate Emergency

Last year Auckland Council declared a climate emergency but so far have only given lip service to it.

Barcelona sets the standard for a Climate Emergency Action Plan and we need the new CE to get the council to step up and deliver here too.

One easy place to start could be the council’s letters of expectation to its Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs), such as Auckland Transport. Their current insipid expectation is to only start to think about doing things and only if it doesn’t cost anything.

Council expects the CCOs to continue to deliver on the strategic priorities and key projects/activities as set out in the 10-year budget 2018-28 and reflected in the current annual budget. For the 2020/21 Annual Budget, CCOs should be cognisant of the following:

  • The council group should stay focused on delivering capital projects and services for Auckland
  • Renewing the drive for efficiency and value for money
  • Start taking early actions within the current remit and fiscal constraint to act on the climate emergency declared in June 2019 and contribute towards our 1.5°c target for the region, with a view to making more substantive decisions through the next 10-year Budget
  • There is limited capacity for any new cost pressures, new funding requests or unforeseen events.

Lack of instruction for the interim until the Climate Action Framework is available has resulted in contracts that are poor for the climate being signed in the last twelve months, and therefore included in the emergency budget.

At this point, every decision needs to be put through a climate filter and if it’s not actively working towards reducing emissions, it doesn’t proceed.

We need a compact city

We have a compact city strategy for good reason: it is the best way to reduce our carbon emissions, improve liveability, minimise our pollution, conserve our land for the best use, and minimise our infrastructure maintenance bill in the future.

Our current plans allow for 30-40% of Auckland’s future growth to happen on greenfield land outside the current urban boundaries but if we’re going to properly address these issues, those plans will need to be revised to drastically slash that. We need a CE who understands that, put simply, the more growth that happens on the urban periphery, the more emissions we’re going to have.

The Auckland Unitary Plan (AUP) was passed in 2016 but in many areas they compromised the initial intent of the plan in order to get the wider changes though. This was on the understanding they would go back and fix the issues later. The new CE will need to drive the organisation to do this as soon as possible and not only because it would help address emissions but also because it could help save ratepayers tens of billions of dollars from having to provide new infrastructure.

Fixing the Unitary plan isn’t a small task but even just getting the council to enable what’s currently allowed would help.

An example of the issues the council are creating for themselves can be seen in this thread from urban designer Matt Prasad in which the council are saying you can have a two-storey attached house but not a two-storey attached terrace. It’s stupid and not at all what the Unitary Plan allows for. As Matt says in another tweet, their guidance is “an interpretation, of an interpretation, of the actual rules“.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen situations like this from the council, or heard about them imposing conditions on developments that contradict what’s allowed by the Unitary Plan and all because council officers don’t understanding their own planning rules. The effect of this is to make urban redevelopments much harder than they need to be, which only serves to encourage more of our growth to the periphery.

Support those delivering, not those preventing progress

Despite the rhetoric of needing to deliver more with less and to be more innovative, the council family has a culture of burying or booting out people who push to make actual change while protecting and promoting those who seek to prevent progress.

This was so starkly shown earlier this year where on the same day the Councillors unanimously approved and praised the new City Centre Masterplan, it was revealed the council were disbanding the team behind it, the Auckland Design Office. This is the same team that were also behind the shared spaces, the improvements to widen the footpaths on High St and more recently the COVID-19 response on Queen St. The plan was for some staff to go and others to be merged into other teams within the organisation where they would struggle to be effective or deliver anything.

The widened footpaths were innovative, cheap and quick to install and most importantly, very effective – exactly the kind of outcomes the public want from council.

Following the outcry from Councillors and the public, the restructure of the ADO was eventually put on hold pending the appointment of the new CE.

Pressure will once again come on this, particularly in light of the council’s plans to reduce staff as signalled in the Emergency Budget. The new CE is going to have a hard time as it is, but cleaning out the ‘dead wood’ in the middle of the organisation would be a good start.

Sort out who sets the strategy

The council has a variety of strategies but far too often neither itself nor parts of the wider council family understand them, let alone adhere to them. There are also often lots of duplicate and conflicting strategies. For example, the council have a small team that works on transport strategy but it seems to have no teeth and so seems to be ignored by Auckland Transport who have their own teams doing strategy.

The council family need to work out where the creation of strategy sits – although this is likely subject to the ongoing CCO review. In our view, the creation of strategy should sit with the council and CCOs like Auckland Transport should just be tasked with delivering it.

But even where clear strategy exists it is often not followed. One of the reasons for this is it’s extremely common for staff at these organisations not to know what the strategies, or even just council decisions, are.

As an example of the latter, back in November 2018, Councillors unanimously called for a trial of closing Queen St to cars within 12 months. A year later there still wasn’t even any talk of this happening and even a few months ago we were still hearing stories that some council and AT staff were claiming these sorts of changes couldn’t happen because they wouldn’t get political support, completely unaware the councillors unanimously asked for it. It’s happened now – but only because it was part of the response to COVID-19 – and Auckland Transport are already talking of pulling it out to appease one opponent.

The reality is many people in the council family are working in silos and simply don’t see what the wider plans are. So they keep on maintaining business as usual completely unaware of what’s happening elsewhere in the organisation. The new CE will need to address this.

At Tuesday’s meeting, I’m hoping there will be no shirking of responsibility in choosing a chief executive that will deliver what Auckland needs. Everything hangs on this appointment.

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  1. Great post Heidi!

    IMO ATs failure to charge for park and ride where it is in high demand, despite it being aligned with their own parking strategy, is another example of limited accountability.

    1. yes Stuart, or IMO ATs failure to charge for Sunday parking where it is in high demand, despite it being aligned with their own parking strategy, is another example of limited accountability.

      1. yes Stuart, or IMO ATs failure to increase parking prices where it is in high demand, despite it being aligned with their own parking strategy, is another example of limited accountability.

    2. yes Stuart, or IMO ATs building of new parking buildings, despite it not being aligned with their own parking strategy, is another example of limited accountability.

  2. – In our view, the creation of strategy should sit with the council and CCOs like Auckland Transport should just be tasked with delivering it.

    We know policy isn’t being delivered. I suppose what you’re saying is that shifting strategy to Council will minimise the disconnect between policy and strategy. There could then be a disconnect between Council strategy and AT delivery but this should be easier to manage with specific instructions.

    Doesn’t seem risky to me. Seems like a good idea.

  3. Its all a bit much Heidi the “Cult of the CEO” and the “Sanctity of Contract Law” in the same article. I blame the Romans. Perhaps we should have a more distributed power structure. Bring back the Papatoetoe Borough Council then we can have the Council engineer running things.

    1. I don’t like to name names, Felix, but let’s say the people being represented by this person are very poorly served. It seem to be based on suburban thinking, fear of change, and perhaps the stress from covid-induced downturn in business projected onto street changes.

        1. So Heart of the City get council money to then go and undermine council strategy, outrageous.
          Also why are the Auckland Transport only listening only to them and not the elected officials who have asked for it, or the thousands upon thousands of people who support it.
          Let’s not forget they’re also the ones who opposed changes to High Street for years and now it has happened they love it. Why are they so regularly on the wrong side of history?

    1. They have different roles. The Councillors and Mayor make decisions about direction, but the decisions should be based on evidence. The CEO is tasked with managing the officers who use their expertise to filter and communicate the evidence well to the Councillors. How they do this, and the options they provide is critical. They also make a whole lot of smaller decisions that are considered to be delivery-related.

      In some ways, the CEO has much more power than the Mayor.

  4. If anything is gained from COVID-19 it should be the permanent full closure of Queen St (North/South movement) to private vehicles, north of Mayoral Dr.

    I don’t expect much change from council. Goff is boring and predictable. He can manage the status quo, but not lead change. I don’t expect the new CEO to be any different. And even if they were, they wouldn’t have the support they need to make change.

    1. Do you think you could find a single retailer in the CBD who would support this position? Whilst Albert St is shut down with CRL works, closing Queen St would be the final nail in the coffin for many CBD businesses.

      I would support this happening in the future once appropriate PT links are in place and traffice can move at the edges but not before.

      1. “Do you think you could find a single retailer in the CBD who would support this position? Whilst Albert St is shut down with CRL works, closing Queen St would be the final nail in the coffin for many CBD businesses.”

        How would it be a nail in the coffin? What is the adverse effect of removing cars from the road in front of you if they can’t park, can’t load, and can’t enter your business.

      2. “I would support this happening in the future once appropriate PT links are in place…”

        You mean like buses and trains to Britomart? The former would actually be able to travel at something faster than walking pace.

        “…and traffice can move at the edges”

        A4E facilitates this.

      3. “Do you think you could find a single retailer in the CBD who would support this position?”

        Why would they oppose it? There is practically no parking on Queen St for the private car north of Mayoral drive. No access to car parking buildings either. Private cars can only be passing through – they certainly are not stopping to shop.

        Albert St works have ruined (temporarily) the whole environment. Queen St would be enhanced from a traffic, congestion, pollution and PT and active mode perspective. Shared spaces in other CBD streets have led to a surge in walking and spending.

        So they need to be asked: Just exactly what are they opposing? And why?

        1. And I should have added that private cars still have access to Queen St (A4E) , they just wouldn’t be able to use it as a thoroughfare.

        2. And sometimes the shop keepers are just plain wrong about what is best. From Vienna –
          “It took some time for the people of Vienna to get used to the idea of shared space: Viennese are fond of driving and did not want to give up the convenience of speeding through the Mariahilfer Strasse. Shopkeepers were afraid business would slow down with driving and parking less easy. There even was a referendum about the new design. Prior to the referendum, the City organized information meetings, together with the designers. We closed down the street for traffic one afternoon, so people could experience what that is like. People spontaneously organized picnics and games on the street; public life evolved as soon as it got the chance. We put a long table in the middle of the street with a print of our design. People could write comments and ideas on it. They varied from “I would like a big trampoline” to ‘Finally, shopping will be fun!” and “This will ruin the economy”. This event got a lot of people involved and gave us relevant input for the design. The outcome of the referendum was that 53% voted in favor of the transformation. Half a year after the completion of the renovation, research company SORA held a survey. They asked what people would vote, if the referendum would take place now. 71% of the respondents said that they were now in favor of the new lay out. Shopkeepers were also relatively positive. 38% said that business improved by the renovation. 46% did not notice any change and only 9% experienced a negative influence.”
          “The 1,6 km long Mariahilfer Strasse has been redesigned as a continuous shared space, divided into three zones. Pedestrians rule the inner zone of the street. Here people can stroll and linger freely. Local traffic, buses and suppliers are allowed in, but the street is blocked for cars passing through. Cross-town traffic has to take a detour. The two outer zones are designated ‘shared spaces’. Here, cars, bikes and pedestrians all use the same space, causing everybody to be more considerate.”

  5. The problem isn’t the Unitary Plan. The problem is that Council officers have figured out that almost nothing can be declined if you use the Unitary plan as it is written, so they have set out to ‘save’ the Council from its own document.
    So much for a fast track process. The process removed appeal rights from people and gave all the power to the Council. But that has meant a lot of things have gone into the plan that are half-baked at best.

    1. I’m so glad you put ‘save’ with the inverted commas. It definitely seems like council planners don’t like what the council have agreed to allow and think the council have walked into it blindly so are making up hoops to jump through. They seem to be working on the basis that no development is allowed unless they approve it, and it should be the other way around with anything allowed unless there is a reason to not approve it.

      1. Adding to the problem they also use Independent Commissioners. If the officers like the development you get the independent ones who approve things. If the officers don’t like the application then for some reason you get the ones who turn lots of things down.

  6. All appointments from top to the bottom of an organisation must be made against a clear and executable position description (PD) that at a minimum identifies; deliverables, accountabilities and authorities.
    In all cases the appointee should be the candidate who stacks up best against the position description.
    To me you are raising three concerns with regarding this appointment process;
    1. The CEO’s PD is an unknown & seemingly unknowable document
    2. The Council has a history of ignoring it’s own strategy, policies and declarations so even if the CEO’s PD does existing it is unlikely it will be used as it should
    3. The Council has been engaged in this process for some time now and the PD (if it exists) was probably written well before Covid-19 and is probably out of date or at least warrants some serious scrutiny.
    What would be nice is a declaration by the appointing authority that addresses the above questions. Good luck chasing that down.

  7. Meanwhile has anyone else noticed the AT posters (they are up at my local dairy) with the haiku-ish poem

    in lockdown.
    We become different.
    We walked
    …bla bla…
    A new kind of normal.
    Taking some of that good.
    Into our future.
    Let’s go there.

    I am rather mystified, since AT seems to be actively working against the sentiment expressed. Unless someone has hijacked their PR department?

  8. “We have a compact city strategy for good reason: it is the best way to reduce our carbon emissions”

    Really? Quick back of the envelope guesstimate: even if all population growth was accommodated through intensification, you might be intensifying 1% of the housing stock per year, so just 10% by 2030. Even if intensification led to a 75% reduction in light vehicle emissions, that’s still means only 7.5% of light vehicle emissions avoided. Whereas you’re arguing elsewhere we need to get rid of all light vehicle emissions by 2030.

    1. A compact city strategy is better than an outward growth strategy for reducing carbon emissions. It’s also better than an outward growth strategy for achieving all the goals I listed together:

      “it is the best way to reduce our carbon emissions, improve liveability, minimise our pollution, conserve our land for the best use, and minimise our infrastructure maintenance bill in the future.”

      Your selecting just the first of these goals removed the context of the quote, and implied that I think it’s possible to achieve the level of carbon emissions reductions we need solely through a compact city strategy. I’ve always said we need to use all levers.

      A progressive housing policy would not just be trying to provide accommodation for population growth as you’ve implied, it would be trying to provide housing for all the people currently stuck in overcrowded housing. It would also be trying to replace that housing stock which is unhealthy. To achieve all this requires a significant programme.

      Doing so in greenfields developments is committing the city to traffic problems and high carbon emissions. Providing it as quality developments along transport corridors provides the opportunity to establish proximity to amenities, short trip distances, a 20-minute city and healthy active transport habits. And in the process, reduce our carbon emissions substantially.

        1. Subsidising sprawl, as we do now with artificially cheap new roads and pipes, is interventionary social engineering. Let’s give people a choice on spending that money in ways which are more cost-effective and achieve better outcomers, not force them to accept that 1950’s style decision…

        2. I’m sympathetic to the idea of ensuring that anyone who wants to move to the fringes bears the full cost of providing for that sort of growth (including the full infrastructure cost) and letting them choose.

  9. Being married to someone who has climbed the ranks of lower and middle management at AT has certainly opened my eyes to the sheer ineptitude and incredible confusion that reigns at AT. The period of lockdown exposed me to the Teams meetings they held via Video Conferencing and the way things are run with a lack of accountability and leadership is jaw-dropping. These people spend at least 50% of their time gossiping and talking the most incredibly inane shyte and label it “networking”. Projects that I would have run/managed /controlled within a month have spent the better part of last year and all of this year making negligible progress while different silos seem to be actively undermining and working against each other to gain control. For example, one project for which the contract called for an AGILE methodology to be used, was run by a Project Manager who refuses to use it, this absolves the supplier from any problems that may be encountered in future as the contract is basically null and void. I silently watched this wondering whether I was watching an episode of “Fawlty Towers” or the “three stooges”. These people are paid $150 000 P/A and MORE, I watched people who incredibly have zero IT qualifications and background struggling to understand the concepts of relational databases and the integrations of various kinds of software into a unified asset management vision whilst all the while dealing with all kinds of conflicting and conflicted stakeholders. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
    I won’t even go into the overt Nepotism that permeates every level of the organization where so-called “mentors” promote and enable their proteges to climb the ranks. These people have perfected the “Peter Principle” and taken it to a whole new level, most of them have been promoted to 2 or 3 levels ABOVE their level of incompetence. It really burns my rectum that Auckland Council has the gall to ask for rates INCREASES when I know for a fact they could save us millions by simply restructuring AT into a proper Council led and managed entity instead of what appears to be an autonomous and non-accountable gargantuan Medusa.

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