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BRUCE ROBERTSON: On being a quiet voice for local government

Bruce Robertson has spent a career working with numbers. Now assistant auditor-general, local government, at the Office of the Auditor-General, he talks with Ruth Le Pla about looking behind the figures to help raise some of the big issues facing local government.

It’s a measure of Bruce Robertson’s commitment to local government that he agrees to talk with me at an impossibly busy time of year for the Office of the Auditor-General. He and his team are donkey-deep in checking over swathes of consultation documents. It’s an intensive and time-constrained process that, as he tells me, doubles the resource the auditors need to put into working with local government.

He’d even sent around a preparatory memo, of sorts, to his team about handling the stress. It ran something like, “guys, let’s just remember that we’re all going to come under pressure so let’s feel the love. Can I recommend it’s an hour off for lunch and you go for a run or a walk? And if you can’t do that at least eat some chocolate.”

Given that this is from our country’s assistant auditor-general, local government, it strikes me as a masterpiece of Kiwi informality.

I say I reckon I’d be reaching for the chocolate option. Bruce laughs and says he almost got to doing that himself.

He’s just being kind. Bruce is no couch potato. The very first time I met him I’d spotted a pair of those funny running shoes with separate toes in his office. Not that he uses them now. He says he prefers traditional running shoes. But he’s well known for hitting the hills during his lunch breaks.

Exercise does one of two things for him, he says. “It either takes me right away from thinking about work for an hour, or quite often when I’m out there running I get perspective and I solve an issue.”

For behind the focus on the figures he’s keen to explore and share the insights that help move local government forward – which is why he still makes time to get out, listen and present, no matter how busy he may be back at home base.

“I can dream up many things from sitting in a seat in Wellington,” he says, “but if it’s not grounded in the reality of what local government is all about, it will be bound to be wrong.”

We catch up by the pool at a hotel where he’s just been attending the New Zealand Infrastructure Forum, a significant gathering of diverse parties hopefully inching towards some common ground on the future of our country’s assets including roads and water.

Should it eventuate, I’d hazard that such a development would be music to Bruce’s ears. The OAG released its own related report late last year. Bruce sees Water and Roads: Funding and management challenges as a “bit of a watershed” for his Office’s work and thinking on the sector.

The Office, he says, has been building up to “a level of clear thinking around infrastructure assets, how they influence the costs and rating structures of local authorities, and how councils have to think about their impact in terms of successive generations – such as do we provide enough for their renewal now?”

In any case, he says, being an auditor is a behind-the-scenes kind of job. He gets a lot of his sense of achievement from working with a dedicated team and from providing a good audit service.

“Auditing is an interesting exercise in its own right because first and foremost you are inside an organisation and being paid to be sceptical, which is a somewhat negative position to be in.”

In his time, he’s audited everything from councils, to tertiary institutes and hospitals. “I was even doing bunny boards, of all things.”

He’s tried to be a “quiet voice” – an independent party providing comments that he hopes will help an organisation think how it could better manage or govern.

There’s a pride and “quiet satisfaction” in seeing organisations take the Office’s ideas on board, respect its views and actually do something about them.

His current role adds in “a bit more of a visible role to play”, he says.

He’s proud of what he calls the simple things. He’s chuffed the Office has been able to give some life to the notion of long-term planning. It’s cornered the idea of “the right debate” – where local authorities focus on a few make-or-break issues for their community. And he’s pleased the sector now knows and happily uses the term.

He says his office likes to take a ‘less is more’ approach. It strikes me that he’s a natural mastermind at that particular game. He’s well known for his knack of capturing complex big-picture ideas in simple diagrams.

Before my interview, one of his colleagues had suggested we have a side-bet on how long Bruce could talk without drawing me a picture. I’m disappointed it doesn’t happen and that he goes all shy when I give up waiting and, rather absurdly, ask him to draw local government for me in three diagrams.

Still, he’s quietly chuffed that one of his drawings – created sitting up in bed at 5.30 one morning – has been picked up and used by IPWEA albeit in a slightly modified form.

He says he’s bereft in his new office without a whiteboard on his wall. “Any of my staff members know that when they come in to see me I’ll always have to have a piece of paper and I’ll want to scribble.”

Perhaps that’s the teaching genes showing through. Both his parents were teachers, he says, so maybe some of that willingness to share learnings and his ability to stand up in front of a crowd shouldn’t come as a surprise. (Also see box story “Early days”.)

In many ways, the OAG must play a Janus role in local government. It must both face towards parliament to which it has a statutory responsibility to report. And it must also face towards local authorities which themselves are accountable to ratepayers as well. “It’s really important that I recognise parliament is the primary vehicle but it’s also important I try and find avenues to take our reports out to the sector,” says Bruce. “So that’s where I’m very grateful for our relationships with LGNZ, SOLGM, IPWEA and other groups in terms of saying ‘this is why we’ve sent this to parliament’.”

Ultimately, says Bruce, he tries in the OAG reports to meet a challenge laid down to him many years ago when working on an early freshwater quality report. He tries to add to the quality of the debate within the sector.

For Bruce harbours a firm belief that, for the OAG, it is both a privilege and a responsibility to look in on the local government sector and feed back what it observes.


EARLY DAYS

I get to meet the ‘formed man’, as it were, but at some point you were a young person setting out from school into the big wide world. I can’t imagine you were thinking, “oooh, I’ll do auditing. I’ll join the Office of the Auditor-General”. What was the plan?

Ah! There wasn’t a plan. Look, I’m a product of the ’70s when tertiary education was free and you didn’t think too much about what happened after university.

What was your degree in?

[Sucks in air and laughs.] Well, I’ve got two degrees. I always say the more valuable degree was my history degree. That was my initial degree. But I also very happily got married while I was still at university so I needed a meal ticket and in those days accounting was as good a meal ticket as any other. And I enjoyed it. And now, reflecting on 35 years as an auditor and an accountant, I absolutely loved the choice because the sector I work with is just so fascinating.

But at that stage I had no idea. And this guy said, “Why don’t you come and work for us in the Audit Office?” I had no idea what the Audit Office was. Coming from a family of school teachers, I’d always been aware of the public sector, though. A sense that there is a public service doing things for the community is steeped in my background.

So to be an auditor for the ratepayer but also work with organisations that are serving the ratepayer or the taxpayer is interesting. It’s engaging and you’re dealing with the right things. I always say that if you’re going to be an auditor you have to enjoy what your client does.

I’m sure it’s part of your role anyway but to what extent has your degree helped you look at the stories behind the figures?

I’m a strong believer in a good arts degree because it forces you to think broadly. History… yes, that was just me picking up a natural interest which I could follow through at university. Interestingly, most of the stuff I now read for pleasure tends to be historical in nature.

I overlaid my history major with political science and that’s been incredibly helpful. One of the most encouraging papers I did in political science was looking at utopian literature. The idea is ‘what are we trying to model? How do we want to organise ourselves to be happy?’ So it’s not too big a step to pull that thinking into local and central government. How do we organise ourselves? Why do we have government? Does it deliver happiness? Does it deliver fulfilment?

It’s not the only means by which we achieve happiness. But in reality it’s a critical part when you start getting to things like pipes in the ground delivering us water and taking away the waste, or the roads we live on. They’re all part of the way we build our society. That’s a very long way of me coming back to saying, “yes, the arts degree was superb”.


This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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