Are ratepayers of Christchurch, who paid for a strategic review, being well-served? David Williams reports
ANALYSIS: Christchurch’s council has released a $100,000 report, suggesting major changes to achieve millions of dollars in savings, earlier than expected after Newsroom complained to the Ombudsman.
The contents of the report by an external advisory group – charged with finding savings in its soon to be adopted long-term plan – can’t be fully assessed as large sections are redacted. Broadly, though, it makes strong criticisms.
The report’s authors, including an ex-mayor and former senior manager, berate the council for “duplication of activities, lack of automation, fragmentation, excessive manual processing and poor use of technology”. (For example, it still uses paper invoices for accounts payable.)
In a sentence that will send a shudder into the hearts of staff used to regular restructuring, the report says the organisation’s structure “does not drive efficiency”. Simplifying and rationalising IT systems could save in the order of $10 million over two years.
The external advisory group report was completed last September, but the public has only been able to read it since last Friday.
In March, Newsroom asked for a copy of the report under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA), but the council refused. We then complained to the Office of the Ombudsman. The council’s chief executive Dawn Baxendale said last month it always intended to release it once the long-term plan was adopted in late June. Within a day that timeline was changed to early June.
The report was released on a Friday afternoon – the day before the start of a long weekend.
Releasing it “early” might put the council in a good light with some. However, it’s worth pointing out this $100,000 exercise – mainly to pay the fees of the group’s five members – wasn’t mentioned in the publicly circulated draft long-term plan, and it was only brought up in public hearings when former mayor Garry Moore, who chaired the group, fronted councillors and raised it himself.
Most ratepayers – especially those who took the time to submit on the long-term plan – wouldn’t know it existed, let alone have the chance to debate its recommendations.
Baxendale’s response to the report, also released on Friday, said she wanted the external advisory group process to be “collaborative, open and timely”. But not for the ratepayers who paid for it, it seems.
Christchurch residents are used to tight control at the top of their council. There was the ‘Bob and Tony show’, of mayor Bob Parker and chief executive Tony Marryatt.
The council’s last boss, Karleen Edwards, was criticised by Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier for failing to act on concerns that members of the executive leadership team hid or manipulated information that could have tarnished its reputation.
Moore, the ex-mayor and external advisory group chair, says: “This bureaucracy has been found wanting by the Ombudsman before. We’ve got a new executive and these guys have to be beyond transparent.”
Baxendale, in her response to the external advisory group’s report, trumpets millions of dollars of savings found through the long-term plan process.
The group recommended the council review its contract management. This has been done, Baxendale says, at a saving, and “cost avoidance” of $7.8 million.
While not referring directly to the report’s recommendations, operational savings of $18 million were found in the “2021 second annual plan”. A further $16.2 million of savings were identified in the first year of the long-term plan. An executive leadership team shake-up announced last December saved $720,000.
“I have proposed some tough decisions to reduce our expenditure, including reducing our lower priority projects and services, and constraining salaries and discretionary spend.”
Some changes, including restructuring the council’s “second-tier structure”, are “consistent” with the group’s recommendations. Other suggestions require further consideration, she said. But readers are left to guess for themselves how much of the report has been adopted by the council.
In a statement last month, Baxendale said 60 percent of the report’s recommendations were built into the draft long-term plan.
“I just find that glib,” Moore says. “Is it 60 percent of the words? Or is it 60 percent of the money? Was it 60 percent of the 31 recommendations – so 18 were accepted and the rest weren’t? What does it mean?”
It’s the third time Moore has been part of such a group providing an external eye on the city’s long-term plan. He says the group’s fees were lower than they could have charged professionally because they were committed to the city.
“And it’s that commitment and professional knowledge and understanding of the system that drove all of this.”
Are city ratepayers being well-served? “No,” Moore says.
An all-access deep-dive
This was no once-over-lightly exercise. It was an all-access deep-dive – the group had access to any information it wanted.
Moore, the ex-mayor, is a chartered accountant. The other members of the group are: Louise Edwards, another accountant and professional director, a former chief executive of the Rātā Foundation; Mark Christison, Fulton Hogan’s national water manager (and former council manager); resource management lawyer and professional director Jen Crawford; and Michelle Sharp, the former head of digital innovation and South Island boss for Vodafone, who now heads UNICEF NZ.
Given the group’s calibre and access, as well as the public money spent, you’d expect its report to be taken seriously. But Moore says it was only after he attended the long-term plan hearings that “things have been addressed” by the council. (He asked councillors: “Have you considered our report during your deliberations?”)
Moore, Christchurch’s mayor between 1998 and 2007, is an outspoken critic of the council. In his ‘Tuesday Club’ public think tank, he’s called out the council for appointing a “GM resources and CFO” who’s not a chartered accountant, and for not having an engineer in the executive team.
What’s his motivation? Moore declares he doesn’t want the mayor’s job back. By being so pointed and frank, he may not get invited back on an external advisory group, either, if such a body was called on again.
He doesn’t mind. What Moore wants is for the mayor and councillors, the very people who appointed the external advisory group in the first place, to hold the council’s executive to account for its assessment of the group’s recommendations. After all, the elected representatives are the governors of the city, he says.
Christchurch City Council’s draft long-term plan detailed $13.1 billion of proposed spending, with a big focus on roads, transport and water networks. If spending is true to form, rates will rise, cumulatively, by 48 percent over a decade. The council’s net debt is proposed to balloon from $1.6 billion to $2.7 billion.