Local Government Magazine

The way we work

Auckland Council has an enormous opportunity to change the way it handles employment relations in the next five to 10 years. Chief executive Stephen Town details the plan.

What do council employees really, really want? Not certificates for good performance, that’s for sure. Morning teas don’t cut it either. No. As in most other workplaces, local government employees most want someone to tell them when they’re doing a good job and say thank you.

“It’s really so simple,” says chief executive Stephen Town who, charged with reforming employment relations in New Zealand’s largest council, is spearheading a radical change to a behavioural-based remuneration and reward system.

At its core, the council’s “the way we work” programme is a commitment between the council leadership, management and the Public Service Association (PSA) – which with some 58,000 members is the country’s largest union.

In management-speak, its wide-ranging 10-to-15-year vision aims to create a “high performance, high engagement, high trust organisation” through interest-based problem solving.

How council compensates and provides employment security for staff are two elements of an overarching 16- part plan to lift its game and lock in the best bits.

According to Stephen, who was speaking at the latest SOLGM Summit in Dunedin, Auckland Council is already a substantial way down the track. It’s been piecing together its “the way we work” partnership right from the supercity council’s inception.

He concedes that high levels of anxiety about the supercity initially drove many council officers to join the PSA. The numbers continue to run high with around 55 percent of Auckland Council staff holding PSA membership even now.

Former politician and trade unionist Laila Harré was the specialist human resources leader in the Auckland Transition Agency working for Mark Ford on the design of the supercity, he notes. “So it’s no accident that our relationship with our main union, the PSA, is unique in local government .”

While council is committed to the programme, its eight CCOs are not locked in to it and are currently being “encouraged” to adopt as many of its behaviours and practices as they’d like.

The partnership means the PSA should be present in the very initial discussions among a departmental or group management team about the need to think about change. They’re also supposed to be present in the consultation, implementation and post-implementation phases.

“As you can imagine in an organisation with 8000 to 10,000 people [spread across council and the CCOs] the application of that commitment varies quite widely,” says Stephen.

“So I’ve seen some quite stunning examples of change being worked through totally consistent with ‘the way we work’ principles to involve the PSA right through the process, with them confirming for staff at the end of the process that there is wide buy-in from the PSA into what we’re trying to achieve.

“Then we go right along the spectrum to some things that we’re not so pleased about and we’ve had to do some spectacular rescues to pull that process out of a pretty negative place, and then try and rebuild it and retrofit ‘the way we work’ back in.”


The plan also tackles typical organisational issues such as how to manage people who perform either really well or very poorly. Expect the spotlight to fall on some of the latter in the next 12 months.

LG_1_Web“We have,” says Stephen, “to promise to be much better at not using restructuring as a way of dealing with poor performers because that really gets the PSA’s back up and I don’t blame them.”

At the other end of the spectrum, he says it’s hard to believe reports from as many as five departments in council that they have no poor performers. “That makes up about 1800 staff so that’s just not real.”

One group alone, he says, has 95 percent of its 550 employees seemingly “walking on water” with their abilities to exceed their performance expectations.

“That does not happen in organisations so we had to do something quite radical to change the performance conversation. That’s why we have gone for a behavioural-based system.”

“The way we work” encourages people to display four specific sets of behaviours as they go about their work:

•  to serve others;
•  achieve (“actually get some things done that you intended to do”);
•  collaborate (ie, work with others); and
•  develop yourself.

Announced last year, these behaviours draw on findings from a series of exercises during council’s first three years to establish values and develop a framework for performance recognition.

“The way we work” initiative may also help clarify what Stephen describes as one of the most important priorities for people who work in local government – they want to understand what their career development opportunities are.

“With 11,000 people in our group, and 12 percent turnover, if we can create a matching redeployment system and proper career development planning for people there’s a huge opportunity to create well-planned internal movement across our group,” he says, “and that gives people quite superb career pathways within the Auckland Council group.”


Stephen says a sticking point may prove to be the PSA’s policy position to reward everyone irrespective of performance “while we’re pretty determined that if you’re in a poor-performing category you won’t be getting a remuneration reward”.

“So we’ve one challenge that we know each other has a different position on and we’ve got to go to the conversation table.”

To Stephen’s mind, it’s all about being able to demonstrate you can put yourself in other people’s shoes and articulate their issues from their perspective.

“That’s pretty much how I see my relationship with staff, too. I don’t see people that work with me as employees. I look at them as customers…

“And that’s the best way to role-model what you want staff to do with your community: which is to engage and enable and serve. After all, that’s why I turn up for work every day.”

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