Last year, the beleaguered Christchurch City Council was unpopular with the public, unattractive as a place to work, and struggling to deal with what seemed to be a Covid-related staffing crisis. It was hard to see how things could get worse.

Commenting on the departure of 426 permanent employees in 2021, Leah Scales, the council’s general manager of resources, stated confidently its new structure would “enable us to anticipate and respond to significant challenges and remain agile for the future”.

She added this vague, less-than-meaningful sentence: “We are confident that we are now well-aligned across the council to anticipate and respond intelligently to changing requirements in the future so we are better able to contribute to a better long-term future for our communities.”

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Christchurch council execs flayed by staff

That confidence was not shared by council workers, who, in a staff survey, expressed low confidence and satisfaction in leadership across the organisation, with particular venom reserved for the executive leadership team, on which Scales sits, headed by chief executive Dawn Baxendale.

“There are some perceptions that executive leadership team are so disconnected they are oblivious of low morale,” a survey summary said.

Staff turnover figures for last year are in, and, unfortunately, things are worse.

A fifth left in a year

In all, 492 permanent staffers left the council last year – roughly 20 percent of 2450 staff.

Only 10 were redundancies.

More than three-quarters of leavers were from two groups: citizens and community; and infrastructure, planning and regulatory, with 173 exiting the recreation, sports and events unit.

The council’s unattributed response says: “While higher turnover than previous years, a high turnover is expected because the unit has a high number of part-times roles filled by a transitional worker, such as students.”

Eleven senior leaders departed in 2022, compared with 18 the previous year, and 39 “other people managers” also left, compared with 41 in 2021. The balance comprises 442 team members, up from 367.

Ten redundancy payouts cost a total of $367,000, while five personal grievance payouts totalled $119,000.

Council staff are leaving earlier. In 2019, the average length of service of departing staff was 7.58 years; last year the average was 5.64 years.

The pressure on remaining staff is high, presumably, because even though the council has 198 full-time equivalent vacancies, it’s only recruiting for 64 positions.

A big part of the problem is pay. Last year, 57 percent of surveyed staff said higher pay would have the most impact on their work satisfaction.

Annual inflation hit 7.2 percent last year yet some staff – those who haven’t had their pay frozen – had to swallow a 3 percent pay increase.

Baxendale also got a 3 percent pay rise, or $16,000, taking her salary to $549,000. (Before he quit earlier this year, Auckland Council boss Jim Stabback, in charge of more than 7000 staff, earned $630,000.)

Just before Christmas, Mayor Phil Mauger said of Baxendale: “She is an asset to the council and we know everyone has had a tough year so we want to acknowledge her hard work.”

“Some staff are needing second jobs or welfare assistance just to make ends meet.” – Adrian Mealing

Adrian Mealing, local government organiser for the PSA union, says its 900 members at Christchurch City Council are saying they’re unhappy with remuneration issues, including precarious contracted hours.

“We are concerned that pay rates are well below that of the private sector, and at a time when members are facing a big squeeze on their household budget, that is putting them under significant pressure,” Mealing says.

“Some staff are needing second jobs or welfare assistance just to make ends meet.

Councils use a consultancy firm to determine appropriate rates for positions. This must end, Mealing says, as it artificially supresses wages.

Skilled, committed, and experienced workers are leaving the Christchurch City Council because they can’t afford to stay, he says.

“The council needs to take a serious look at its approach to remuneration or these problems will become corrosive.

The council’s emailed response came from acting chief executive Lynn McClelland, who says it’s not immune from labour market constraints being experienced across New Zealand and around the world.

“There are a lot of options for employees in the job market and it’s natural for council staff to move on to new jobs.”

(This overlooks the low morale in last year’s staff survey, in which only 62 percent of staff thought Christchurch City Council was a “great place to work”. By comparison, that figure at Wellington City Council is 76 percent.)

McClelland repeats a line used by Baxendale last year: that the executive team takes “these challenges” very seriously.

“We have highly experienced and committed staff and want to provide the best possible environment to demonstrate how we value them.

“We’re working hard on a wide range of retention strategies including a new leadership framework, flexible working, recognition strategies, remuneration policy and culture, and as this is likely to be a long-term challenge, we will continue to develop further initiatives over time.”

Dismal survey results

It’s worth running through the highlights – or lowlights – of last year’s disastrous staff survey.

Only 57 percent of staff bothered to complete it, and the council’s overall “score” was 56 percent, 8 percentage points lower than the local government benchmark.

Just over a third of respondents thought their remuneration was appropriate to the market.

Only half of staff were confident its executive leadership team “will successfully implement our strategy and vision”. Under the heading “good leaders” in last year’s survey, one line read: “Leaders are obsessed with cost-cutting without acknowledging the effects on staff.”

Last June, Baxendale emailed staff to reassure them the executive team was taking the survey results seriously.

“Together we have done some soul-searching around our own behaviours and the way in which these are perceived. We have re-committed to being the best team we can be and to continuing to build our relationships.”

Council “heads of service” would work with their staff on unit-specific concerns or issues.

After the survey, the executive leadership team adopted a new charter, with a vision to be an “inspiring, unified and high-performing executive team that people respect”.

It wanted to be “transparent and visible and accountable for our actions and decisions”.

However, it’s hard to reconcile the charter’s words with recent events.

First, in February, there was the sudden and mysterious disappearance of two senior managers – general manager of infrastructure, planning and regulatory services Jane Davis, and head of three waters Helen Beaumont.

A month ago, Baxendale said the pair were “currently away from work” but wouldn’t explain why, which has frustrated staff.

Then, a few weeks back, HR boss Jane O’Toole resigned.

Last year, more staff thought the council wasn’t transparent and open with information inside the organisation than thought it was.

‘We’ve listened’

The executive leadership team has, in messages to staff in recent months, trumpeted the charter “which reflects the way we work together and lead the organisation”. Its internal “STAR Awards” is being “reviewed and reinvigorated”.

“Over the last 12 months, we’ve listened to your feedback and implemented changes since the 2022 survey with the aim of making our council an even better place to work.”

ELT members are increasing their visibility, staff were told, through visits and drop-in sessions. The council’s flexible working policy is being reviewed.

A people and culture strategy was expected to be finalised last month. There’s also a pilot of small group coaching sessions dubbed “leading performance”.

This year’s staff survey was run in February, with the results yet to be released. A repeat of last year’s dismal results would be yet another setback for Baxendale’s beleaguered entity.

Whatever the outcome, Mealing, the union organiser, sends council’s management a message.

“Satisfaction surveys do not resolve issues – engagement and relationships do. PSA members look forward to council demonstrating a willingness to solve these issues through early and meaningful engagement.”

Let’s recap.

Baxendale took charge of the council in October 2019.

In the three full years since, 1142 permanent staff have left, including 35 senior leaders and 95 managers. Much of the internal criticism from staff is aimed at the executive leadership team, one member of which is on unspecified leave.

Last year, the council’s approval rating with residents hit a 15-year low.

Yet, last year, Mauger, the mayor, said Baxendale’s an asset deserving of a $16,000 pay rise.

It would be interesting to see what a liability looks like.

* This story has been updated to clarify not all staff were given a 3 percent pay increase last year.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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