Tall Orders: the challenges ahead

Examine the credentials and promise of the newly-appointed Dunedin City Council chief executive, Paul Orders, and it is easy to see why he has been appointed.

Mayor Dave Cull called him well and truly the best person on offer and said Dunedin was fortunate to secure him. Mr Orders, a graduate of Cardiff, London and Cambridge Universities, has 13 years' experience in local government at the Cardiff City Council and a breadth of experience across corporate policy, community planning, economic development, regeneration, transportation, sustainability and environmental services and most recently as a corporate director.

It is that corporate experience, and having to deal with the financial pressures faced in recent times in the United Kingdom, that will be crucial. As Mr Cull said, Mr Orders was not employed for business as usual but for change.

Everyone knows, or at least should be aware, that Dunedin ratepayers face years of unacceptable rate increases and mounting debts. Previous councils have lacked the ability to say "no" to all sorts of spending and various worthy projects when what was required was hard-headed fiscal realism. Previous councils also tried and failed at attempts to address base organisation spending. Senior managers, naturally, promote the importance of their areas of responsibility. Senior staff will, of course, use their time to come up with plans and policies which entail spending. It is up to the council and its chief executive, in the face of these tendencies, to limit spending, while the chief executive and his immediate lieutenants have to be prepared to examine the fundamentals of everything everyone does. Without a decisive approach, staff numbers and costs inevitably will rise. Without regular examination of operations, inefficiencies and waste increase.

The current council has had a mixed first seven month, partly understandable because of the lack of a permanent chief executive. But there have also been disconcerting signs that it, too, lacks the fortitude to stop rises in rates and debts.

Interestingly, the University of Otago appointed its new head from within, and from a not entirely dissimilar background, to the incumbent. That is what organisations tend to do when they are reasonably satisfied with current directions. The city council, in contrast, has gone for an outsider and one who could well have a different style to his predecessor, Jim Harland. In turn, Mr Harland's appointment was, partly, a reaction to Murray Douglas' vigorous personality and his profile. The then mayor, Sukhi Turner, and several councillors, wanted him gone.

It is likely that university authorities read with curiosity about Mr Orders' academic background and the fact he is an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University. Although Dunedin relations between town and gown have been good, the university is so much of Dunedin's present and future that good understanding between the two is ever more important.

Just as Mrs Turner believed a new chief executive under her watch was essential, it is good for Mr Cull and the council to have a fresh person come from the outside. Mr Harland, for his part, showed good sense and judgement to step aside having had a substantial innings.

Mr Orders, meanwhile, appears to know what he is letting himself in for. He has told an Otago Daily Times reporter that he had spoken to Mr Cull and councillors about the financial pressures Dunedin faced. There will, indeed, be no money to appease the pressure groups who plead their "special interest" cases to council at every annual plan hearing; nor the cash to leave any sort of monumental legacy. As for the council itself, it is far from united in purpose or outlook on anything. While Messrs Cull and Orders are making the right noises, it will be much harder - when faced with the reality of commitments, employment contracts and longstanding arrangements - to cut costs, change the council's culture, implement change in the council's relationship with the community, ensure the stadium is profitable and help transform the city. Mr Orders is said by Mr Cull to be energetic and highly intelligent.

He will need both these characteristics and more as he, the mayor and the council lead Dunedin in the challenging times ahead.

 

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