Listening key to leadership role

Waitaki District Council chief executive Alex Parmley is pleased with the progress he has made in...
Waitaki District Council chief executive Alex Parmley is pleased with the progress he has made in his first year at the council. PHOTO: REBECCA RYAN
It has 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 became 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 making decisions.

"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 the various coming government reforms, including of Three Waters, resource management, health and local government.

"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 him to get out and meet people across the district — and listen.

He had led transformation programmes at two councils in the United Kingdom, and the thing he had learnt 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 are the key issues, what are the key challenges, before starting to help formulate a way forward."

The Covid-19 pandemic had undoubtedly slowed his progress — New Zealand moved into a lockdown a month after he started in the role — as had the bureaucracy in local government in this country, 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 [central] 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 an opportunity to look at how all councils functioned and could get better results for communities — and have a say in the future direction, he said.

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 ..."

The draft economic development 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."

Since the draft strategy was adopted in June, the council had been re-engaging with the business community and other key stakeholders for feedback.

Overall, the feedback had been "really good", he said.

The plan was to take the draft back to the council with some recommended changes before the end of this month.

While the coming local body elections could be disruptive to the council’s workflow, they were also an opportunity to bring in new perspectives around the governance table.

"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."

Generating interest in standing for local government was a challenge nationwide, 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]."

He also cited the impact of social media, and the "small minority of people" who used it to launch personal attacks on people in public office.

"[Representatives] 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.

Nationally, there were a lot of elected members standing down "purely because of the abuse they receive" and, worryingly, a higher proportion of them were women.

"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 shape the direction not only 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.

He was overwhelmed by the warm welcome he had received to the district, and said his family was settling in well.

One of the bigger adjustments was the public profile of the chief executive role, compared with in 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."

He had been careful 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 somewhere he could be passionate about.

A 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."

rebecca.ryan@odt.co.nz

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