A top job

Former DCC chief executive Sue Bidrose says building organisations, not monuments, is what gives...
Former DCC chief executive Sue Bidrose says building organisations, not monuments, is what gives her joy. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Sue Bidrose is Dunedin City Council chief executive no more. Before leaving for Christchurch yesterday, she sat down with Bruce Munro to talk about seven years as the city’s top public servant, health scares, what Dunedin needs to do and the merits of having a "white willie".

The walls are bare, the shelves empty bar the books that did not pass muster for the next phase of life. The rainbow array of workplace furniture and two quirky, faux reindeer heads are the only remaining objects in this second-floor office overlooking Dunedin’s main street that suggest anything of the personality and legacy of the woman who has been the city council’s chief executive since 2013.

Chairs, antlers ... and an envelope lying on the boardroom table addressed to Sue Bidrose, inked in a formal hand.

The piece of mail has just arrived. It contains a traditional greeting card. Affixed inside, is a cutting of a newspaper advertisement that asks "What are you thankful for?". Written in the same cursive hand as the envelope are the words "That you are leaving". Ouch.

"But ... that is balanced up by this," Bidrose says, reaching for half a ream of unsolicited emails responding to the news that after a decade in Dunedin she is about to become the Christchurch-based chief executive of Crown-owned AgResearch.

"My reaction to hearing you are leaving was, oh ****, because you have been a great advocate for accessibility," Bidrose reads from the top of the stack and then rifles through to pick a couple more at random.

"Congratulations. I’ve always enjoyed our open and honest interactions."

"I let out a wail ... You’ve been a progressive, strong and emphatic force within council."

"Well, look at that. I thought he hated me," she adds quietly, reading yet another email wishing her well.

Naturally, Bidrose is evaluating her time in Dunedin — the city’s impact on her, her impact on it — and what lies ahead for both.

It was 10 years ago this week that she started at the Dunedin City Council as its services and development general manager, having jumped ship from the Waitakere City Council amidst the Auckland supercity amalgamation. Three years later, Bidrose became chief executive, replacing Paul Orders.

She has worked with two mayors, Dave Cull and Aaron Hawkins — the daily, hourglass, pinch point meeting of, on one side, the 15 elected representatives who set policy and direction and, on the other, the 1200 city council staff who implement those plans and aspirations.

"That relationship really does matter, mayor and chief executive.

"Dave and I got on well, there was a good deal of trust. He was not averse to ticking me off if he felt that ... we had let him down.

"He knew the difference between governance and management. He didn’t try to tell me how to do my job. He expected me to do my job and held me accountable for doing it."

Hawkins also understands that difference, she says.

"He’s quite policy driven.

"He reads voraciously and does a good job of gleaning information from various sources to help shape his thinking, and therefore to challenge ours about what we should be doing to make this city better and more resilient."

Bidrose has left her mark.

"The chief executive before me began the process of fixing the companies we own. Then I moved on to fixing the council," Bidrose says.

"I’m not someone who gets joy out of building monuments ... I get joy out of working with really good people to build good organisations. I feel like I’ve done that here and that’s kind of why it’s time to go."

Time in the South has also left its mark on her.

Her first cancer scare, cancer of the salivary glands, in the early-1990s, was here in Dunedin. Born in 1961, raised in Wainuiomata in the Wellington region by her adopted family, Bidrose became a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries laboratory technician before working as a counsellor, travelling around Africa and then deciding to continue psychology studies at the University of Otago.

"I popped down to visit a friend who had moved here while I was overseas.

"I thought it was the most beautiful city in New Zealand."

Plans to do clinical psychology, however, were sidetracked by the cancer diagnosis and led to a PhD, then Ministry of Social Development policy research and the city council management job in West Auckland before returning to Dunedin and becoming chief executive.

A second bout with cancer, lymphoma, 20 years later, had an equally significant impact.

"It’s always a bit of a shock ... It certainly makes you evaluate the things that matter most in your life."

As well as reinforcing career goals, the cancer spurred Bidrose to trace and contact biological family — "I didn’t want to die without having done that" — and was the impetus for significant weight loss.

"That’s been quite transformative.

"I thought ... I kind of regard my body as a tool to carry my brain around. I need to change my relationship with my body.

"Taking up running and cycling has just been so good for me."

Bidrose does not believe being a woman — she is the first female chief executive of the Dunedin City Council and now the first female chief executive of any of the seven Crown Research Institutes — has had any noticeable effect on her career or her approach to the job.

She has made a habit of meeting all new city council employees, reminding them their income comes from ratepayers who have no option but to pay them, short of moving out of the city. That puts an onus on you, she tells them, to ensure you are putting in the hard yards to earn your income.

"That’s the basis to a public service ethic.

"Is that affected by me being a woman? I don’t know. The first scientist I worked for at AgResearch hammered that ethic in to me ... He was a guy.

"Clearly there is a glass ceiling ... but I’ve felt I’ve been able to excel in what I do."

Her gender, however, has been a sore point with a small segment of Dunedin’s populace.

As an example, Bidrose mentions an online response to news of her departure. A pseudonymous keyboard warrior suggested the next chief executive would doubtless be "unqualified too. No white males need apply".

"The implication was that having a white willie was the only qualification needed," she says.

"Despite the fact that every other chief executive in Dunedin City Council’s history has in fact had a white willie.

"But you get one who hasn’t and for some reason there is this sad sector of the community who are incensed by that and never quite get over it."

Sue Bidrose champions the Gigatown cause in 2014. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Sue Bidrose champions the Gigatown cause in 2014. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Bidrose has used social media for many years. Tweets were added to her arsenal during the successful 2014 Gigatown campaign.

"That’s a highlight ... knowing we have saved Dunedin people millions of dollars in their internet bills.

"That was extraordinarily good. The whole city felt like it was pulling in the same direction."

The feeling was much less cohesive when, on May 20, Bidrose fired off a sharp tweet. The short message, which included the line "the city loses its s...", was in response to negative public reaction when the council painted blue dots in George St. The road markings were to draw attention to the carriageway being designated a shared vehicle and pedestrian space to enable social distancing post-lockdown. The offending word should not have been spelt out, Bidrose concedes.

But she was exasperated at the ill-informed reaction to the dots.

"Seriously, it only took two minutes longer to drive down George St. The extraordinary outpouring of vitriol was just so unwarranted.

"We didn’t know whether people would want to do social distancing. The Government was putting a whole lot of money into it on the assumption, like us, that people would want to do social distancing."

The dots cost the council $2500 because central government paid 90% of the cost.

The reaction to her tweet was "vile and abusive".

It would be easier not to read or listen to negative comments and opposing views. But Bidrose feels it is a price worth paying to be an effective chief executive.

"It’s the hardest part of the job, for me. What you want is leadership that is self-reflective, that constantly asks, ‘Am I doing a good enough job, ... is there a better way I could serve the city, is the city getting its best out of me?’

"You need to keep reading the feedback in order to be honestly self-reflective but if the feedback is non-sensical and vile you run the risk of getting a chief executive who simply writes it all off. And that’s not a good thing."

A "no" to that "doing good enough" question early in her tenure — when the $1.5million Citifleet fraud came to light and the person responsible took his own life — is the indisputable low point of the past decade, Bidrose says.

"It was horrible ... He was a lovely guy and everyone knew him and liked him."

Systemic failures in council processes — including not ensuring separation of duties — were only beginning to be addressed when the fraud was uncovered.

"That’s how we found the problem.

"In any organisation you have people who are tempted to do stupid things. Part of having good processes is to make it difficult for people to be their own worst enemy.

"We’d let Brent down as much as he’d let us down, in my view."

Addressing that and other organisational issues has transformed the city council as an organisation.

Last year, Local Government New Zealand gave the council an A grade for its performance.

"We got a new general manager recently who came out of the private sector. He said, five or 10 years ago people did not want to work at the DCC; it was not seen as a good thing to have on your CV. But, he said, it really is now."

Recently, the Auditor-general’s office choose the DCC as a case study of an exemplary public sector organisation.

"I am extraordinarily proud of that. Because I have thoroughly decent, honest, transparent, hardworking public servants right through this organisation now."

Today, Bidrose is in Christchurch, busy unpacking the moving van and setting up home with her wife and partner of 20 years, Lisa McCauley, and their two dogs.

"Lisa is a researcher, and a very good one.

"I’ve been very lucky. She’s had to put her career second to mine and follow me around the country."

AgResearch’s new chief executive is looking forward to leading the organisation that gave her her first job; an organisation roughly the same size as the DCC that is tasked with adding value to the pastoral sector, which, in light of Covid-19’s freeze on international tourism, has suddenly been reinstated as the country’s biggest export earner.

It would be improper to give the city’s next chief executive any advice, Bidrose says.

But there are definitely still things on Dunedin’s to-do list. She names two. Water infrastructure and climate change.

"We have a huge backlog in the water space where for decades we haven’t done what we should because people didn’t want to put the rates up.

"Making us more resilient for climate change and doing our part to mitigate climate change — that’s massive."

Bidrose will be keeping tabs. Dunedin has not seen the last of her.

"We really love the city. I fully plan to retire here."

 

Comments

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"But there are definitely still things on Dunedin’s to-do list. She names two. Water infrastructure and climate change.
"We have a huge backlog in the water space where for decades we haven’t done what we should because people didn’t want to put the rates up."
The rates still went up and up because money way poured, trickled and dripped away into Council and DCC managers' fads & nice-to-haves. Every "it's only $2500" and "Only $25000" and "it will increase tourism" - you get my drift? - every one of them is another insult to the ratepayers who are aware of how badly infrastructure has been neglected. The rates-spenders pin their hopes on dazzling the other people, the ones who are impressed with shiny trinkets and assertions that this is "Progress".

Funny really, my memories of her are as leader of a shambolic rabble whose entire decision making has been warped by a focus on ridding Dunedin of cars and other greens initiatives. Tens of millions wasted on bike ways while council ignored South Dunedin flooding and crumbling infrastructure.
She presided over the changes in city planning which previously looked at a balanced future for the city to the mess it is today - the blue dots are only the culmination of years of idiotic decisions by her and the town planners. If she really thinks the blue dots are a one off that just demonstarates how out of touch she was. And the mayor with her.

Overrall I consider her 10 years to be an abject failure.
I only hope her replacement is not a greens zealot, but I doubt it.

Dunedin is so engaged with municipal life, some went spare over dots in the Road. Dots.

You may consider her tenure an abject failure, I may consider it assertive, particularly in the face of Cr bullying. That's of no consequence. We're not in any kind of governance.

Really, a curmudgeonly farewell.

"as the city’s top public servant"
Yeah, I think that's a bit of a stretch! There a scant few executives at the DCC who consider themselves 'servants' ...More likely School Masters for naughty Dunedin residents.

Sue doesn't get it. How do you get having a "white willie was the only qualification needed" from "No white males need apply". It means the exact opposite - that in this age of woke outrage and political correctness, that the role CANNOT be given to a white male because he's only there due to white male privilege. You have missed this by a wide margin Sue.

The knockers are simply stunning. I wish we could sit them down and put the spotlight on their lives and air them publicly. Then set them free and analyse their work in the press. Not a single one would come out anywhere near as successful as Dr Bidrose in anything that they have ever done, but away they yap thinking that they are and waiting on their next victim.

Don't let the door hit you when you go through it. Just got to get rid of Aaron now and the rest of the 'yes men' - apart from a couple who have a brain.

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