It’s been a big year for Alex Parmley. The Waitaki District Council chief executive talks to Rebecca Ryan about his first 12 months in the job.
Alex Parmley is not naturally a patient person.
He likes to get on with things.
But when Mr Parmley started in the role of Waitaki District Council chief executive a year ago, he soon realised one of the best things the council could do was refine its focus.
It was also important to him to take the time to listen to staff and the community, before deciding on the best way to move forward.
‘‘I think one of the things that struck me was that we were perhaps trying to do too much at the same time,’’ he said.
‘‘All the things we’re trying to do are important, but we will deliver more by trying to do less.’’
In June, he presented councillors with a proposal to initiate a $500,000 ‘‘transformation programme’’ to modernise the council and its services. At the time, he said there was a clear need to transform the council’s technology, processes and culture, and navigate successfully through the various coming Government reforms, including Three Waters, the Resource Management Act, health and the future of local government.
‘‘Transformation is really looking at every aspect of the organisation and how we overhaul it — and you’ve got to start with having a look at what we’re trying to achieve,’’ he said.
‘‘Part of our transformation is actually getting the strategy right for the district and being clear as a council, what are our priorities, and what are we going to work on with our community to actually deliver over the next few years and getting a bit more focused.’’
It had also been important to Mr Parmley to get out and meet people across the district — and listen. While he had led transformation programmes at two councils in the UK, the one thing he learned from that was it was important not to use a ‘‘cookie-cutter’’ approach.
‘‘I think it’s important to really listen to community and to staff and to councillors as to, what what are the key issues, what are the key challenges, before starting to help formulate a way forward.’’
Covid had also undoubtedly slowed his progress — New Zealand moved into an Alert Level 4 lockdown a month after he started in the role — as had the bureaucracy in local government in New Zealand, which had been ‘‘a bit of a surprise’’.
‘‘Compared to the system I came from, New Zealand local government is bound by a lot of bureaucracy that’s handed down to us by Government,’’ he said.
‘‘And you can sense there’s a frustration, not just within the council, but within the community in terms of some of the rules and regulations that we have to overcome to get our work done.’’
But reform was on the way and it was a real opportunity to look at how all councils in New Zealand functioned and could get better results for communities — and have a say in the future direction, he said.
The council had been ‘‘very ambitious’’ in developing a new economic development strategy for the district, and Mr Parmley wanted to continue raising the bar, in terms of how the council worked and what it delivered ‘‘with a view to not just doing a great job for our community, but also maybe setting a bit of a path for what local government might look like in the future across the whole country’’.
Since his arrival, he had been looking at some of the council’s key strategies — such as housing and economic development — and there was more work to be done in that space.
‘‘That’s not about producing documents that sit on shelves — that’s about an engagement with our community, on key things that affect life in the district, and really having a good discussion about where we need to go with those and what our priority is and how we’re going to work with the community on that.’’
The draft economic develop strategy was a ‘‘great example’’ of that, he said.
‘‘We didn’t just go off into a dark room, formulating that ourselves. It was a process of engagement with the business community that’s come up with a proposed way forward.’’
After the draft strategy was adopted in June, the council had been re-engaging with the business community and other key stakeholders for feedback on the proposals. Overall, the feedback had been ‘‘really good’’, with some areas for adjustment noted, he said.
‘‘Our plan is to take it back to council with some recommended changes before the end of August, with a view to them adopting it, and then effectively, that then presses go on starting to make the changes we need to actually deliver the strategy.’’
The council was also involved in discussions with Government agencies about supporting its delivery.
‘‘We know we can’t do all this on our own. We want to work with the business community to deliver this, but we also need the support from Government to do this — and there’s a lot in this, we think, for Government,’’ he said.
‘‘The financial benefits to the council from this aren’t that great, but actually the Government, if we’re successful in delivering this strategy, will be $50 million a year better off.
‘‘So we’re saying, ‘Come alongside us and to invest in this’, and whilst we haven’t got any commitments in writing yet, they’re very interested in what we’re doing.’’
Nominations are now open for the October local body elections. While elections could be disruptive to the council’s workflow, they were also an opportunity to bring in new perspectives and fresh thinking around the governance table, Mr Parmley said.
‘‘I think every organisation needs that. We need to have fresh thinking, we need a bit of challenge in the system, if we’re going to get the right result.’’
However, as of Wednesday, the only nominations that had been received were that of Gary Kircher for mayor, Kelli Williams for the Oamaru ward, Stephen Dalley and Calum Reid for the Ahuriri Community Board, and Peter Bond, Ali Brosnan and John Clements for the Oamaru Licensing Trust.
Generating interest in standing for local government was a challenge councils across the country were facing, and Mr Parmley believed there were multiple reasons for that.
‘‘Everyone’s got a lot going on in their lives — and we’ve all been so disrupted [by Covid-19].’’
But he also cited the impact of social media, and the ‘‘small minority of people’’ in the Waitaki district, and across the country, who chose to use it to launch personal attacks on people in public office.
‘‘They need to be open to scrutiny and challenge, but if it gets to a point where good people won’t stand for office any more, that’s damaging for our democracy . . . damaging for our community,’’ he said.
‘‘I know nationally, there are a lot of existing elected members who are standing down purely because of the abuse they receive — worryingly, a higher proportion of them are women than men.
‘‘So that’s probably a worrying sign that we will need to be concerned about as a community and think about.’’
Being involved in local government was an opportunity to not only shape the direction of the council, but also the district. It could be a very rewarding role, and Mr Parmley wanted to make sure Waitaki invested in its councillors more, helping to develop their skills and give them more opportunities as a reward for their dedication to their communities.
Mr Parmley was overwhelmed by the warm welcome he had received to the district, and his wife, Elizabeth, and four children — Mabel (9), Harlen (7), Rory (5) and Aalish (3) — were also settling in well.
One of the bigger adjustments for his family was the profile of the chief executive role in the community, compared with the UK.
‘‘That personal attention has taken a bit of adjustment for me and my wife, but that’s just something we need to get used to, I guess.’’
Mr Parmley was very careful in selecting where he moved to after South Somerset, and Oamaru was one of several places he considered. He chose to take on the role in Waitaki because it was a district with ambition, and was somewhere he could be passionate about.
One year in, Mr Parmley said he was ‘‘largely’’ pleased with what he had been able to achieve.
‘‘There’s lots of things I thought, ‘Oh, it’d be good to tackle that’ . . . but I have to tell myself, ‘No, you just have to be patient, [you] have to wait, focus on getting these things done’, and the important thing in that is the transformation.
‘‘If we’re going to deliver more and better as a council, and get better value for our ratepayers, we need to get that done.
‘‘And that will take a lot of time and effort to do that, and we need to make sure that we carry the council and the staff with us through that process.’’