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Steve Parry: On making every minute count

Gore District Council’s Steve Parry is one of a handful of chief executives who have been a mayor in a past life. He talks with Ruth Le Pla about that vital relationship, why CEs need to take a long view and the importance of lifelong learning.

Steve Parry is no slouch. I’m not even sure he knows the term to ‘blob out’. When we get together to talk, it’s the only phrase he double-checks with me. And when I helpfully explain that some people, I hear, have been known to spend their downtime watching Coronation Street and eating chocolate biscuits he looks slightly horrified as though… well, I’m not sure what would be worse in Steve’s mind because this law-studying, band-playing, canary-breeding chief executive leads a high-octane life down in Gore.

That’s when he’s not being high-octane at Gore District Council itself, of course. Or when he’s not charging back and forth to the United States to represent Australasia at the Washington, DC-based International City / County Management Association (ICMA).

The group represents almost 9000 mainly American local government management experts. So it’s perhaps a feather in Steve’s cap that ICMA broke its usual pattern to hold a summit in Wellington recently.

I’d imagine it’s not exactly all calm and tranquillity at the Parry abode either. He’s patriarch to a brood of seven offspring ranging in age from 10 to 31. Fair enough that the older ones have flown the nest. But at least one of the boys sounds like a chip off the old Parry block.

“He’s a singer-songwriter,” says Steve, “holds down a regular gig in one of the bars in Dunedin, got a music degree and is now in dental school.”

Steve tells me this while we’re sitting on the Dunedin Town Hall stage. This is where his own band The Pill played at a SOLGM conference after-dinner-bash back in 2004.

This medico-theme, he reckons, must be some kind of subconscious family trait. “My Uncle Chris played in The Formula and later managed The Cure,” he says. “Somehow, the name The Pill just came into my head.”

By all accounts, The Pill was a pretty popular band in that part of the world. Which must have been gratifying for a guy whose grand plan when he left school was to play drums in a world-famous rock band and retire at 30.

“To be honest,” he says, “I left school with no ambitions professionally. I was just a long-haired lout with a pierced ear and a shark tooth. I was just doing a day job while my rock and roll dreams would start to come to life.”

STUDY AS YOU GO

Instead, Steve found himself married young. By the time he was 21 he had two children and the big plan got a bit of a shake-up. That’s probably why he’s lived his life a tad upside down in some respects, he says, with the young parent bit coming first and learning to fit in study later on.

All power to him, then, that he’s been studying part-time now for some 15 years. He’s got a Graduate Diploma in Business Studies from Massey University and has three papers to go before he’s finished his Bachelor of Laws with Honours at Otago University.

Not surprisingly, he says it’s been a hard slog along the way. “It would have been far easier to do by more conventional means. But then again as an older student you get the benefit of life experience.”

Steve suspects some of his drive may stem from one early nugget of life experience when, at school, he didn’t take up chances to develop his promise as a runner.

“Later I regretted it,” he says, “so – since then – when opportunities come up I’ve tried to maximise them.”

He must have got this off pat by 1998 when, working as Waikeria Prison’s first-ever industries and inmate employment manager, he took the plunge to stand as mayor of Waitomo District Council and then held down both roles for a further three years.

BEST ADVICE

This makes Steve one of the few local government chief executives who have also served as a mayor and gives him a distinctly well-rounded view of the important interface between these two roles.

Before he became mayor, for example, he says he used to wonder why concepts such as best practice didn’t really seem to resonate with elected council members. Then, as mayor, his focus shifted and he realised most ratepayers aren’t interested in processes. A mayor’s role is about doing what the people want them to do.

“I think I can now give advice as chief executive with the benefit of that experience – albeit it was a long time ago.”

He sees it as his job as CE to not only advise but also try to help council reach a common decision. “Because a council that can’t reach a position or gets horribly divided is a very unhappy – and usually pretty ineffective – one.”

During his early career as CE he used to double-check he wasn’t overstepping the mark. “I’d say, ‘am I pushing too hard in giving you advice?’ And they’d say, ‘no, actually that’s good. We want you to keep doing that.’

“I think I’ve found that happy balance between allowing debate to continue for council to find its own solution and also to respectfully offer up, perhaps, a way forward when the debate is getting into some sense of deadlock.

“People won’t die wondering what I think. I always tell my staff, ‘we don’t say “your call”. We give the best professional advice.’ And hopefully, that, at least provides a starting point for informed debate.”

Like many local authorities, Gore District Council has had plenty to debate. It faces challenging decisions around the quality and quantity of its water supply. The 3 waters discussion is gaining significance in the light of the need to produce 30-year infrastructure plans. And the current appeal of concrete driveways and courtyards – instead of garden – is putting pressure on stormwater systems and could put a brake on development in some of the most popular parts of Gore.

Steve says he’s proud of the part he’s been able to play in helping transform both the town and the council during his 13 years as chief executive. “When I first came here Gore was considered to be a bit of a no-go zone, to be frank.

“The town is really starting to change… it’s a public transformation in terms of arts and heritage. It’s no longer considered to be the hoon town for country hicks. It’s more about sophistication. And this is bringing people from far afield to our town.”

He’s also proud that Gore District Council is perceived as being a stable “pretty efficient, tidy unit” with good relationships between staff and elected members. “That’s a far cry from what it used to be,” he says, recalling someone on hearing he’d been appointed as its new chief executive, holding his hand and saying, ‘Do you know what you’re doing? That council is riven with division. You’re making a backwards step.’”

That was the case, he acknowledges, back in the ’90s and into the first part of the new millennium. “So we’ve gone a long way from there. Initially, it was tough. There were a lot of changes to be made. But in the past six or seven years the reforms that we introduced at the start – plus the strong sense of political and managerial cohesion and the values we put in place – have brought about a stability and consistency that make it easy to attract staff.”

People, he says, want to be able to make a difference.

DOING THE BIZZO

How has he learnt to stay on top of the big-picture issues while simultaneously managing the millions of tiny details expected of a CE? He packs it all in by keeping a very keen eye on time-wasting activities and focusing on two main fronts. One is an all-out attack on meetings for meetings’ sake, for which he confesses a “pathological hatred”.

“My sister has a lovely saying,” he says. “Meetings are where minutes are taken and hours are lost… And in local government we meet to death.”

He’s long since biffed the regular senior management meetings. For years now the team has met on an as-required basis.

He much prefers a more casual – and for him productive – approach blending an open-door policy with “doing the bizzo” in spontaneous small chats in the tearoom and council corridors. “That keeps things moving and I keep myself free for issues,” he says.

He does, however, meet with his second- and third-tier managers every six weeks, giving them all a chance to hear what the others are doing.

His distaste for meetings aside, he places a lot of emphasis on developing staff and every nine months for the past 10 or so years has held off-site training half days for the executive team and second- and third-tier managers.

Secondly, he points out how easy it is to waste time at home watching rubbish on TV. He seems a bit bemused by other people’s blow-by-blow accounts of the latest TV serials and says that when he’s not being with his family, studying law for up to 20 hours a week, playing drums, or breeding and showing canaries, he might just read something light for leisure or listen to music.

And anyway, he says, he does chill. “My chill is good friends, a beer or two, watching the footy.”

Still, I guess no-one’s perfect. Steve would be useless at talking about Coronation Street and poor Tyrone’s having a terrible time at the moment. Right. Now, where are those chocolate biscuits?

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