Pilot softening historic tensions

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    Council staff have stepped up in the first 18 months of a pilot project to trial greater devolvement of decision-making to the Waiheke Local Board, according to an Auckland Council report.

    Rachael Butler and Jesse Allpress inventoried community, board and staff opinions before the pilot started and describe a more healthy working relationship between council and board in a 55-page progress report out this week.

    “Findings from this stage reveal that consistent staffing and a dedicated point of contact for Waiheke issues within some departments have enabled more productive interactions; further, staff reported involving the board more collaboratively at earlier stages in projects, and projects benefitting from this. 

    “There was also evidence of a less siloed approach across council departments, with several examples of various stakeholders working together to address Waiheke issues,” they say.

    “The baseline interviews revealed an unproductive environment prior to the pilot, with the board expressing dissatisfaction with the performance of council staff and staff reluctant to engage with the board due to sometimes hostile interactions with board members. Eighteen months on, this has improved markedly.

    “The pilot, along with other organisational changes, has resulted in an improved local board environment for staff, an increased willingness of staff to engage with the board, and improved working relationships between the board and staff.”

    The authors quote a staff member saying there’s been really significant change in the way that staff are received, while a board member acknowledged a useful shift in staff attitudes.

    “People are coming now, listening. They’re not trying to impose a regional [approach] unless they have excellent reasons for doing so… But in the general run of things the starting position of people’s attitudes and mind-set is ‘how do we accommodate the Waiheke scenario’. That makes a massive difference,” said the board member. Board influence has increased, says the report.

    “The interviews at the start of the pilot highlighted the board’s frustration with several issues, Namely their limited level of control, power and influence, particularly over how ratepayer money was spent on the island, the prioritisation and design of transport projects, planning and development on the island and the impacts of tourism.

    “Recent interviews found that board members felt that they have greater control over the issues affecting Waiheke, although no board members were yet fully satisfied with the situation. Notable developments, resulting in the local board having more influence, included the prioritisation of Auckland Transport (AT), Community Facilities, and Customer and Community Services spending on the island, developments at Matiatia ferry terminal and input into the Waste Services procurement plan.” 

    The pilot to date has seen a dramatic improvement in the board’s relationship with Auckland Transport, initially identified as a key frustration of the board, with work underway to create a new Waiheke operations manager role within Auckland Transport, says the report. 

    “Key facilitators of these changes included the involvement of AT’s senior leadership in bridging relations, and the flexibility to trial different approaches offered by the pilot programme.” 

    The pilot has given Auckland Council staff permission to step back and do things differently, including evaluating current practices and trialling new ways of working. 

    “Because I was able to say we don’t have to do this for everyone else because Waiheke is special, they do have permission to do this differently,” one said. “That enabled the freedom for senior managers to test the waters and to have that safety net that they could go ‘it’s the pilot, we’re doing this because of the pilot.”

    The report does, however, identify slow progress on devolvement of decision-making, with Matiatia the only formal development in the area.

    Having run a sapient eye over Waiheke’s small but embedded community’s persistent complaints of the last 30 years, the authors identify a threat to the pilot’s success if momentum generated so far is lost as a result of changing personel, either elected or staff.

    Having reported stories of excruciatingly parsimonious local governance over four decades, I would like to think that the report will be a must-read for incoming board members. And that gains in how we see each other will go on to be proven effective in local governance,z much to everyone’s benefit. • Liz Waters

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