Two years after he first flew into New Zealand on a typical blustery Wellington day, Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery is happy to make the hard decisions and help steer his local authority into unchartered waters. By Ruth Le Pla.
Please don’t tell him but I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Kevin Lavery. He was the first council chief executive who made time to talk with me when I was taking wobbly exploratory steps rethinking this magazine a year ago. I liked that he came along without his wingman. Not that I’ve anything against comms guys. For the record, Richard MacLean is a big bear of a helpful and entertaining man. I just admire senior people who’re prepared to talk with me alone. Anyway, I try very hard not to bite people in meetings.
For what it’s worth, Kevin strikes me as a dive-in and do-it kind of a guy with more than enough kick to deal with anything that may be thrown at him.
He’s got that fresh-faced enthusiasm of a much younger man than the battle-scarred warrior his CV reveals. His career has criss-crossed the public and private sectors and he’s worked in the UK, US, Denmark and Spain. Wellington City Council is his first foray into New Zealand local government and, by all accounts, he’s certainly made his mark in his two years as its chief executive.
“Funnily enough,” he says, he’d always wanted to work in local government.
Years ago on the other side of the planet, a much younger Kevin had emerged from the academic world with a town planning degree from Manchester University and a PhD from Kent. When he landed his first ever interview with none other than the Association of District Councils (ADC) – the UK equivalent of LGNZ – he faced one of those standard interview questions that can make or break an aspiring career.
“I was being interviewed by the Malcolm Alexander of his day: the secretary of the ADC,” Kevin recalls. “He said, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ It was one of those moments when you’ve got to go for it so I said, ‘well, I wouldn’t mind your job but really I’d like to be CE of my home city Newcastle’.”
Which is exactly what came to pass. Some 13 years later, says Kevin, he received a letter from the guy who’d interviewed him. “I’ve been living off your interview for years,” the letter said, “and now you’ve gone and done it.”
Kevin says he kept that letter. “That was rather nice.”
He adds that sometimes there’s just no point in being shy. “You’re asked a leading question like that, so you just go for it.”
By all accounts, Kevin has been “just going for it” ever since. With the obvious exception of Auckland’s Stephen Town, he reckons he’s the only local government CE in New Zealand with hands-on experience of what it’s like to steer multiple councils into one amalgamated unit.
In Kevin’s case, it was Cornwall County Council where he took over as CE just five months before seven former councils were due to merge into one new mega-block. Making matters worse, this was during the most severe local government austerity measures in living memory in the UK.
So what’s a new CE to do? Well, in Kevin’s case, he biffed out all the pre-existing thinking about the transformation. To his mind, the organisation was fast heading for a fall.
“They had wonderful plans when I arrived but I realised the organisation was seriously challenged in many ways,” he says. “So we focused on fixing the problems, then doing the transition, then preparing for the transformation. It was a careful measured sequence rather than us trying to do everything in one go.”
So Cornwall County Council didn’t, for example, reconfigure all its IT systems for day one. “We thought that would be too high risk,” says Kevin. It saved that up for two years later.
Instead, it focused on immediately fixing core stuff such as its housing benefits area and payroll.
And Kevin was mindful to juggle what he calls the “day job” too. “It can’t just be all about big projects, amalgamating and achieving synergies. You’ve got to keep all the essential day-to-day services running too – and running well. That’s absolutely vital.”
Looking back, he still reckons he made the right call in sorting failing services first. But he admits that community engagement was problematic.
“Cornwell is a big area. It’s a region, really, with hundreds of miles from one end to the other, and some very different communities. There was a sense of loss among the smaller district councils that used to look after each part of the county.
“I don’t think we ever quite got that side of it right and you probably can’t be all things to all people. We had several attempts to deliver a sort of localism agenda, if that makes sense. Often it came out as new structures and none of it quite worked, in my view.”
Over on this side of the world, he’s a bit sceptical about the role of local boards, which traditionally are seen as a way of engaging local communities. “I don’t buy that,” he says.
To Kevin’s way of thinking, most people don’t actually have much contact with councils. “For the vast majority of the public, their experience of council is going to the library, getting their dustbin emptied… it’s not about attending a local board, or even a council, meeting.
“Really, the issue with local boards is not to do with engaging the public. It’s about trying to get some buy-in from people who are involved in politics and that’s a very small minority of people.”
He’s been trialling virtual ward meetings since April this year, inviting members of the public to ask questions and get some real-time answers from council via Twitter and Facebook.
In a similar vein, a light-hearted email from comms manager Richard MacLean elicited a surprising number of wardrobe-related confessions when he invited “all you enthusiastic followers of local politics to slip into your favourite cartoon-themed onesie, grab a mug of mulled wine, curl up in front of a toasty-warm fire and watch the latest action-packed monthly meeting of Wellington City Council online”.
“You’d be surprised about the number of people who’ve admitted to onesie ownership in the past hour,” Richard emails me later. All of which conjures up magnificently mad images of the politically-literate elite of this country engaging on special housing areas and the proposed Petone-to-Grenada link road while dressed as an assortment of tigers, cows and penguins. But perhaps I digress.
For Kevin is rightly keen to explore new ways to engage with young people who communicate in very different ways from the over-50s and more than mindful that public meetings in cold town halls just don’t cut it any more.
Speaking the truth
He’s mindful, too, that for anyone arriving in a new organisation – “particularly in my situation where I’ve moved to a new country” – it’s very important to get out and meet people, show respect, get around the organisation and understand what’s going on before reaching conclusions.
“But then be decisive,” he says. “I’ve always followed the line that as chief executive you should face up to the issues. Don’t duck them. You need to tell people what you think.”
An early example of this came at one of his first meetings when he was asked what he thought of a proposed $43.5 million seismic strengthening project for the Wellington town hall – an idea that he predicted would at best only restore the building to its former status and whose cost was likely to escalate. His challenge proved right on both counts.
“As a leader you shouldn’t sit in a seat of power and just enjoy the experience,” he says. “You’ve got to try and do something extraordinary. You’re just there in charge of an organisation for a short time, so use the time wisely.
“It’s all about timing and courage,” he says. “If you’re dodging the issues are you really doing your job?”
That must extend to having the difficult conversations with elected members too, at times.
“There’s an expression, isn’t there? To speak truth unto power. That’s the job of a chief executive. But often in local government you’re doing that in front of the media in public meetings. That’s an absolutely critical part of the role but hopefully it’s not something you have to do every week.”
Two years after his arrival, Kevin looks like he’s more than settled into his role. He’s a big fan of Wellington, to put it mildly. And if he were ever to lose his job as CE I reckon he’d make a great fist of it as a tourism operator.
He tells me how great the sports, arts and culture are there. Plus the huge number of great bars and restaurants. He even manages to wax lyrical about the southerlies blowing into his house in the eastern suburbs, saying they make him feel “at one with nature”. How Absolutely Positively Wellington is that?
And I know Kevin’s fond of saying this but it bears repeating: Before he came to New Zealand, the head-hunter told him he was going to visit a world-class city in a far-off place with really high-quality potential for high-quality economic growth.
“She told me it’s a city that’s in control of its own destiny because it’s not relying on the government for handouts or grants – it raises its own money locally itself,” says Kevin. “I was heading for a beautiful place with blue skies and a nice gentle breeze.
“And as I was flying in to Wellington in the face of a southerly there was just one bit that wasn’t quite true.”
This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.