After last year’s local body elections, Christchurch City Council chief executive Dawn Baxendale and newly minted Mayor Phil Mauger went on a meet and greet tour.

“They arrived with two large bags of lollies as a thank you for the work we had done and a show of their appreciation,” said a council employee, responding to the latest staff survey.

“This act felt condescending and treated us as children. We don’t want lollies!!

“This was especially patronising in light of the fact that the CEO had been given a recent pay increase to the tune of $16,000 whilst we have never had a significant pay rise, and we are all struggling with inflation, increased rates and the general increase in the cost of living.”

Beleaguered city council drops ball on pay
Underpaid council staff leave in droves

The icing on the cake for the half-hour visit, according to the staffer, was after distributing the sugar-hit the top duo retreated to the café to drink coffee.

Another council worker, based in the civic building in Hereford St, said the mayor, unaccompanied by Baxendale, was seen handing out sweets during the “Christmas walk-around”. This was called the “ultimate indignity”, and “particularly insulting”.

The survey commenter said: “Why is it so hard to just carry out the basic responsibilities of being good leaders of staff? To lead by example?

“Staff I talk to in my sphere of work feel under-valued and invisible.”

The council released a summary of its staff survey in April. The 1849 respondents, out of a total of 2856 staff, made 619 unsolicited comments, and a key theme included a lack of confidence in the executive leadership team (ELT). Newsroom asked the council to provide executive-related comments, of which there were 106 – 17 percent of the total.

The response under official information laws comprised a 14-page document littered with disappointment and disillusionment – and the occasional expression of love for the job.

Sean Rainey, the council’s information manager and privacy officer, says Mauger and councillors were also sent a copy of the document.

“ELT members had access to all comments from the survey. Heads of service could view all comments from staff within their respective units and may have shared comments with staff as part of their action planning.”

Working@Council 2023 – ELT Comments by David Williams on Scribd

“I would struggle to recommend the council in general as ‘a great place to work’,” one council worker wrote. “Transparency from councillors and ELT has reached an all-time low in the last few months, in the four-and-a-half years I have been working at the council.”

Another respondent said ELT had “a general arrogance about them”, and expected to read the survey results in the media before they were circulated internally. (To the council’s credit, that didn’t happen this year.)

Poor survey results were expected to be blamed on external factors, such as Covid, cost of living, the recent cyclone, and the war in Ukraine, “rather than having a bit of self-assessment”.

The staffer who mentioned large bags of lollies pointed to the fact councillors went behind closed doors to decide Baxendale’s $16,000 pay jump – despite flagging public satisfaction in the council, and a projected rates hike.

As reported by The Press, the council’s head of legal services, Helen White, instructed councillors not to talk about the pay rise.

Linwood councillor Yani Johanson called for the voting record to be released, earning him a rebuke from Mauger, who texted: “If you are trying to piss me off you are doing a good job.”

One staffer’s survey response said: “I lost faith in the top CCC leadership after the fiasco around Dawn’s pay rise and the push for secrecy led by the mayor.

“This kind of behaviour is disappointing, goes against the council’s mandate to work for the people of Ōtautahi, and really affects the morale of hard-working staff.”

Various comments described pay at the council as appalling, and the disparity between workers’ remuneration shocking.

One of the most disappointing aspects, it seems, is the same issues are being raised in successive surveys.

After the most recent survey, the executive leadership team made promises about the issues raised, such as remuneration. “This didn’t really seem to happen. This erodes trust in our executive team.”

Pay is “unequivocally insufficient”, said one employee, adding: “There is an enormous and hypocritical discrepancy between what ELT professes to want to do for its employees, and what actually happens in reality.

“This has been a glaring oversight for years now, it’s not going away, and failure to not only address it but to even acknowledge it internally will just continue to erode employee confidence in ELT and anything they might have to say.”

One worker said they would have left already if it weren’t for their team leader.

A survey respondent said there were turf wars, and passive-aggressive behaviours, between some general managers.

“ELT constantly micromanages staff, slowing progress to a crawl, and bullies others. Despite rhetoric the level of disrespect for employees remains high.”

Bad news is “ruthlessly micromanaged”.

“It is either buried or deflected down to staff. This is demoralising for our people, which was reflected in last year’s survey results and high turnover. When we look up for top level leadership all we see is a toxic mess.”

High staff turnover would continue, another person warned, unless there was a focus on pay and professional development.

“Where are the training budgets?” one team leader asked.

A survey comment acknowledged the quality of individual ELT members.

However, the commenter added: “I don’t see genuine efforts by ELT to collectively respond to the challenges staff have placed with them: clear messaging about priorities, actively creating space for people to work across silos on those priorities, fixing the high admin and compliance issues for team leaders, driving a positive culture and values, and recognising that the last few years of turmoil has left a lot of staff over-worked and feeling as though any request for help is viewed through the lens of savings and sure to be declined.”

Good staff are leaving – “I don’t blame them,” said a worker with more than 10 years’ experience.

“As a general rule ELT and the CEO undermine staff rather than do what they can to support staff. In my humble opinion I don’t know what ELT are trying to achieve as, from my perspective, it doesn’t seem to be about actually running and supporting a functional business.”

Aloof and invisible

The executive leadership team was described as invisible by one manager – “and despite lots of feedback continue to be invisible”. Their general manager wouldn’t know their name, they said, despite numerous meetings over 18 months.

Another commenter said: “ELT is still being in their ivory tower and invisible to staff despite the last year’s survey results.”

Despite promised improvements, and some “ineffective” team leader meetings and focus groups, there’d been little improvement, one staff member said.

A “happy team” could be seen on the civic office floors trying to lift morale. “Several team members pointed out they would rather be paid a decent and reasonable pay award.”

They had never seen their general manager on their floor, and had never been spoken to by them – she “remains completely invisible and God-like on the sixth floor”.

Qualified staff don’t “just fall from trees”, a veteran staffer warned. Their advice to ELT: “Get on the floor, understand the people and the real work they do, hear our struggle and sort out the pay.”

There were bright spots, tinged with sadness.

“I love my work, I love my team, I love what I do for our citizens and customers,” said one staffer, adding, “but you are making it impossible at CCC to work effectively as a leader.”

A worker said they loved serving the public, which gave them “all my job satisfaction”, but didn’t feel recognised and valued by senior managers.

“I love the work we do,” said another. “I have strong technical knowledge, an excellent working relationship with external customers and a high work ethic.

“But the work environment over the last 12 months has taken a toll on my health and mental wellbeing and therefore I am strongly considering leaving the council.”

The chief executive’s weekly email was praised, but one worker said they’d appreciate a meeting, or even a quarterly email, from their general manager.

Baxendale says: “I’m naturally disappointed to read these comments from some of our staff, but we asked for honest feedback and we certainly got it.

Regarding the lack of visibility, the executive team need to get around the civic offices and other facilities more regularly, she says.

“I and my colleagues continue to be committed to doing this, as it’s important for staff to be able to have a face-to-face chat with ELT in their own work environment.

“I want to reassure staff that we do value everything they do for this organisation and the communities they serve every day, and we continue to focus on making sure this council is a great place to work.”

An action plan was created after last year’s survey – the results of which were shared with staff more than a year ago. A remuneration project will be completed later this year, Baxendale says. A leadership framework, expected to be complete by July, will set out ways of working for all levels of staff.

“You actually have to like people, as opposed to seeing them as a messy inconvenience.” – Former HR boss Chris Till

Though the staff survey is self-selecting, and therefore more likely to be negative, the council’s problems under Baxendale have been well-covered in recent years.

Residents’ satisfaction has dropped, as has staff morale, and turnover at the South Island’s second-largest employer has been extremely high.

Two top managers – Jane Davis and Helen Beaumont – had been on unspecified leave since February, although earlier this week it was reported Beaumont had resigned.

Jane O’Toole, the council’s previous head of human resources, resigned in March after just 18 months in the job.

It’s no wonder the latest staff survey said culture was suffering and morale was very low.

The council is still recruiting for O’Toole’s replacement, who will lead a team of 24.

The job ad confirms the HR boss sits in the council’s third tier, meaning they report to chief financial officer Leah Scales, who is general manager of resources.

“With a new people and culture strategy, and a leadership competency framework already in the final stages of completion, and a review of our remuneration strategy underway, we are well placed for you to drive the implementation of these core fundamentals.”

Chris Till was HR boss at the Christchurch City Council between 2008 and 2014, when the position was at general manager level, or tier two.

He left when the position was downgraded to tier three, and went on to be chief executive of the Human Resources Institute. Last month, he retired from the Clutha District Council, where he was HR manager.

Till has some advice for the city council. First and foremost, he says, the chief executive must understand talent, leadership and culture is just as important as finances, customers, processes and technology.

He’s adamant the HR boss must report to the chief executive and be part of the executive team, with a budget and decision-making powers.

Once the expertise and leadership are in place, a plan can be created to turn the council’s culture around. He says the plan must be given time to be achieved – and be seen as a priority.

“There’s nothing exclusive about having great customer service, and also having a really happy, motivated, high-morale, highly engaged workforce that go the extra mile for people,” Till says.

“You actually have to like people, as opposed to seeing them as a messy inconvenience that gets in the way of all the other things that people want to achieve, perhaps in their narcissistic, self-driven way.”

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

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