This article was first published on The Spinoff yesterday.

Cool job alert! Waka Kotahi, the New Zealand Transport Agency, is looking for a new chair of the board, to guide the organisation through the next three to six years.

Okay, so maybe this is only cool to a small subset of transport and democracy nerds. But hear me out.

Here’s the listing, and here’s the full job description. Applications close at 9am on Tuesday 26 October 2021.

The job ad is Weetbix-dry, as befitting the rarefied world of board appointments. It also totally buries the lede. For sure, this is a role for someone with top-notch governance chops. But it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime gig for a visionary who’s keen to leave the world a better place.

Would the ad reach more people at the heart of that Venn diagram, if it sounded more like this?

Your Country Needs You!

We face a climate crisis, and decarbonising our transport system is a vital part of the solution. Waka Kotahi, the New Zealand Transport Agency, needs a new Chair. A governor who can bring the right wisdom, on the right issues, at the right time.

That time is now. We’re looking for someone who understands the urgency of this moment, and the immense potential for transformation. Someone who:

    • has extensive governance experience and exemplary leadership skills
    • has a clear understanding of the stakes of climate change and the need for action
    • sees the potential of low-carbon transport to create better lives for all New Zealanders
    • can create a vision and lead the necessary culture change to deliver what Aotearoa needs
    • is ready to challenge status-quo mindsets and vested interests 
    • can lead an evidence-based approach that prioritises future generations

Is this you? Please step up, so we can all step into a better future!

Seriously. The next few years are critical for saving our planet from overheating, and reducing the consequences that fall unfairly on the shoulders of future generations. There needs to be a lot more climate action, and soon. And, in the words of the great YA author John Green, just like falling in love or falling asleep, it will happen slowly and then all at once.

Which is also, it turns out, how supertankers turn around. As Buckminster “Call me Trim-Tab” Fuller explained, you don’t necessarily need a lot of pressure to turn a ship – you just need to know where to apply it.

(Knowing when and why to cut the engines is also useful.)

That’s why this role is so important. Transport is one of the major drivers – pun intended – of Aotearoa’s carbon emissions. Fortunately, it’s also a sector that’s making good headway on what needs to change.

When the draft Emissions Reduction Plan was released last week, the government was promptly hassled for once againasking when it could be telling. Why yet more consultation, when the way ahead is surely obvious? But commentators did note that the transport analysis was ahead of the pack, and strong on policy directions to support a major reduction in car travel.

For example: rapid, widespread reallocation of “significant amounts of street space to support public transport, active travel, and placemaking” – make way for bus lanes and bike lanes!

Plus more support for micro-mobility – which is great, because e-bikes and scooters already outnumber electric cars by around five to one. More low-traffic neighbourhoods. More walkable cities. (Heck, maybe even some sexy overnight trains? A girl can dream.)

All this policy momentum puts us on a roll. But to deliver the goods, we need eyes on the prize and a firm hand on the tiller, or the trim-tab, or whichever part of a supertanker it is that needs nudging. Which is where the chair role comes in.

Here’s another way to look at the current opportunity: from the ground up.

Check out this short “futurementary” made by Bike Te Atatū in 2014. It’s a brilliant, hyper-local, low budget vision of the upsides of streets designed for sustainable transport, the kind of transport/ climate comms we desperately need. Watch it, and I defy you not to get goosebumps.

I get an extra layer of goosebumps watching it, because one of the little kids in that video is my nephew.

Seven years on, he towers over me, has a driver’s licence, and is off to university next year. His neighbourhood still lacks safe local bike lanes or safer speed zones. Meanwhile, there’s a catch-up plan to retrofit bus lanes on the nearby motorway that was inexplicably rebuilt without a busway.

My nephew’s looking forward to catching those frequent fast buses to town. He marched in the last School Strike for Climate, with a sign that read: “SUSTAINABLE AND ACCESSIBLE PUBLIC TRANSPORT”. (Hell yeah, that small subset of transport and democracy nerds gets bigger by the day!)

Portrait of a young person who totally gets the critical connection between transport, climate, and equity. (School Strike 4 Climate, 9 April 2021)

What I’m saying is, six or seven years goes by in a flash. But also, you can also get a lot done in that time.

Aotearoa’s next top transport governor may already be deeply versed in the field. Or maybe they’ve had a recent road-to-Damascus moment about transport as climate action. They’re out there somewhere: a wise elder, with three to six years up their sleeve and a hankering to make a huge difference for the youth.

Hopefully they’ve already thrown their hat in the ring. But if you happen to know top talent looking for a cool governance job – especially if they have experience nudging supertankers – please let them know: their country needs them!

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  1. One of the requirements is “able to work collaboratively to reach consensus”. If each new board member has to reach consensus with the old members, then only if most of the board is changed is there likely to be progress. Also knowledge of climate change is only an optional extra, but another requirement is “experience in overseeing and delivering major infrastructure projects particularly as a lead contractor or part of an alliance/public private partnership”. That means you’ve got to show you’re part of the existing system, so an added reason for not being a person who will overturn the current roads, roads and more roads doctrine.

    1. Imagine only putting “decarbonisation of transport” in the list of “Additional desirable competencies and attributes”!

      It makes sense, though, as they’ve also chosen to use the “RED FLAG ALERT” of referring to the 2050 zero carbon target without reference to the actual commitments that need to change practices immediately.

      Referencing only 2050 carbon targets used to indicate ignorance about what climate action needs to include. Today, it is a political statement that means “we will delay”.

        1. Yes, or reference to 1.5 degrees, or ‘significant decarbonisation to ensure NZ doesn’t blow its carbon budget’.

          Ha. Does WK’s management even understand that last one, and how transport is a big part of why it’s going to be gone in just a few short years?

  2. Where are the Ministers of Transport and Climate Change? Do they not get to vet ads like this and, if not, why not?

        1. Christopher, if you click on the link I gave, it starts:

          “Formal appointments to boards are made by the responsible Minister…”

          I think what you mean is it would be improper for the Ministers to be involved in hiring staff. Yes, but they do appoint the board.

  3. I am not a follower of the cult of the chief executive often the biggest break through is made by someone in the back room. 99 percent of new ideas won’t work the trick is to have a team who can recognise and implement the ones which will.

    1. The board create the very high level strategy, they decide where the funding goes (with the government’s interference of course). No one in the back room is going to decide to fund a $10 billion light rail project for example.

    2. But someone in the backroom might come up with a route or technology that make the whole project so viable that even the proverbial three blind mice would know how to run with it. This is the problem at the moment the light rail doesn’t stack what innovations in route, scope and technology would make it work. I don’t think this will come from the board. Same for the active mode crossing. A board is just a rubber stamp you might as well just let the Ministry of Works run things it worked well for 120 years.

      1. You’re right, Royce, in that backroom staff have solutions that resolve our problems all the time. But many solutions are being resisted by management.

        That’s the Board’s fault, for not setting strategy that tackles the challenges, and then following through. The problem isn’t slight. The country has a crisis of negligent governance.

        Boards must oversee what needs to be a fundamental U-turn in planning – in transport and indeed most sectors. They can’t do that without understanding the subject matter enough to know how to recognise and pick apart BAU excuses.

  4. It would have to be the worst job in the country. The politicians want to reduce VKT while also funding $12 billion of new/improved roads (and that is on top of the existing fuel excise funding). The CEO can’t possibly succeed and will always be a scapegoat.
    If the politicians were serious about reducing VKT they would reduce the new road budget of Waka Kotahi to almost 0. Now that would make a much more interesting job.

    1. No the worst job must be Minister of Health in a pandemic. Andrew Little is doing a great job, but who would want that gig?

  5. One of the difficulties I have is working out governance. It seems that NZTA role is to fund massive projects rather than check local government have it right. Seems a bit like a child parent relationship. Child reports bike has flat tyre. parent says bike not working so buy child new bike. There seems no checking for an easier solution.

    1. Parent inattentive. Go get pump. Fix tyre. Lesson given. Child now rides happily. Fish for life, etc. Easy solution.

      1. This is what should happen. But I feel in the case I am looking at the parent is simply getting a new bike. The interface between NZTA and AT looks like magnets repelling each other rather than a team linking arms

        1. Extending the metaphor – Its more like a teenager tells their parent they need money because their kiddie bike is too small for them now, it also has a puncture and the brakes need replacement, plus they hear e-bikes are really good so maybe the new one could be one of those.
          The parents reply is: Well I have decided I should spend the money set aside for teenager transport on your older brothers first car. Put together a 40 page business case and maybe you can get an e-bike next year or the year after when there is more money for teenager transport. But until then punctures are maintenance and brakes are safety so I’ll pay half the cost of those and you will have to make up the rest from your pocket money. Meanwhile I have money in the adults transport fund to buy a new double cab ute, and special funding for supporting alternative modes that I will use to put a bike rack on the ute to carry your bike around.

  6. Great post Jolisa, all you lot in the business who know someone good why not shoulder tap them? I am going to start having a few conversations… I have no idea at this point who might be good but by the end of the weekend perhaps I will!

  7. Great post! Loved the film. I wonder if the Te Atatu primary school with 65% biking to school reached their 80-90% dream they had way back in 2014.

        1. Yes essentially the Futurementary was a ” What if” we had safe streets for people to walk and ride – what could our suburbs be like , the scenes of bikes arriving at school etc were real but there was some guerilla building of bike lanes involved in the filming. And just like a real Hollywood movie you can visit the area and imagine.

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