Blair King’s practical farming background drives his innovative approach to managing Tararua District Council, writes Ruth Le Pla.
My plans to interview Blair King went from bad to bonkers really fast. It wasn’t his fault. We’d arranged to meet in the nice quiet Koru Lounge at Auckland Airport as he headed out of town. Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite twigged I’d need to actually be flying somewhere to be able to join him there. And despite my years of practice at authoritative bluffing, cajoling and shameless pleading there was no way the security guard was letting me through that departure gate.
Which is how I ended up talking with Tararua District Council chief executive Blair King in a rowdy public cafe, by the whoosh-suck-bang of the coffee machine, under the loudspeaker, next to a family sing-along-plus-guitar.
So my favourite bits of our conversation are… councils need to be authentic… bing bong… arbitrary shriek of laughter… we ask that you make your way to the check-in counters… most people pick up very quickly if something’s not accurate… all passengers for… people know when something’s not right… twang twang strum.
All of which provides a lovely insight into a man known for his quiet pragmatism and logical innovation.
King’s pragmatism shouldn’t come as a shock. He’s a farmer by background and an engineer by training. He looked a bit surprised when I guessed the engineering bit but, given his phlegmatic response to the circumstances and the general thread of our conversation, it wasn’t such a wild stab in the dark.
He tells me Tararua District Council likes to fly below the radar. How the council talks about itself – or more to the point, doesn’t talk about itself − is a reflection of the area’s largely rural population and their traditional values, he says.
These values sound very akin to King’s own background and belief in just getting on with his job without too much belly-aching.
“A number of councils around the country want to be front and foremost in people’s minds,” he says. “But you can rate a good farm by just driving past and seeing that the stock look well fed, the pasture looks great and the infrastructure looks really good. Farmers don’t go into town, get on a soapbox and promote the fact that tomorrow they’ll be doing the silage.”
In council terms, this means Tararua District Council likes to provide relevant services and keep out of the headlines. Or as King says, “If we are upgrading wastewater we don’t go out and promote the fact we’re doing it.”
This kind of begs the question as to why he’s talking with me. In fairness, when I first approached King he immediately told me there were plenty of other “more interesting” people with “better profiles” around. “I just have a different view to some other people.”
King and Tararua District Council mayor Roly Ellis have built a reputation for innovation even though King reckons that’s strange “because a lot of the stuff we’re doing is actually not new”.
A case in point is the council’s early-stage conversations and genuine consultation with people who are experts in their various fields.
Once council decides to initiate a project it gets talking with contractors, landowners, geotechnical experts and all manner of other specialist and interested parties to see what they would do. King says the key lies in everyone understanding their input is valued, no matter how many or few letters they may have after their name.
“When people are treated as equals they’re quite happy contributing their ideas and working together,” he says. “But when you treat someone as though you’re the master and they’re the servant you won’t get anybody bringing stuff to the table. They take the approach that they’re only likely to get blamed for any decisions.”
Such candid conversations help council embrace simple practical ideas such as project designers uploading their specifications into the electronics that control the diggers, graders and other machines on site, thereby eliminating the need for “dumb gear” layouts with pegs and strings.
“That way, we’ve now got somebody working there who knows exactly how far to cut and exactly how much material they’ve shifted,” says King.
Earlier this year, this kind of smart and consultative approach resulted in council sorting a $60 million alliance – style corridor network maintenance agreement − and selecting Downer as its preferred partner − in just eight weeks. That included full consultation, full evaluation: the lot.
“People say it’s innovative because everybody’s used to this really long process,” says King. “I look at some of the processes that we tend to use in local government and we often make things really difficult.”
Heaped on top of the problems created by such long and difficult processes, King says many local authorities are often hamstrung by distrust between themselves and some central government agencies. The situation, King says, seems both “unusual” to those outside the parties concerned and proves “unproductive” to those inside them.
He reckons much of the problem boils down to egos. It’s about “people putting a stake in the ground, standing behind it and making other people negotiate by coming to them”. All of which ensures initiatives can degenerate into win-lose situations pretty fast.
Still, he asserts that when local and central agencies do get on the same page they can form mighty strong and productive partnerships. The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management is a case in point, he says, as are New Zealand Police and the Ministry for the Environment.
He suggests more secondments between local and central government agencies may help resolve this issue in the longer term as person-by- person, organisation-by-organisation everyone gets to understand everyone else’s roles a bit better.
Such measures may also help cut through the huge amounts of consultation that elongate processes and drive everyone bonkers.
“It’s exactly the same as you meeting me here,” says King. “People get to know each other and they know when something’s not quite right. So if you’re working with someone who now sees that their ability to progress something is linked to a partnership, suddenly both parties are really keen to get it sorted.”
King learnt some of this partnership stuff first-hand when as a young guy working for the Ministry of Transport he had to work alongside gruff old police officers.
He worked out pretty fast that the way to even start to win their respect was to go out on patrol with them to see first-hand what they had to deal with.
Now, as chief executive, he uses what he calls “considered judgement” to help people reporting direct to him at Tararua District Council trust their own gut instinct and initiative, and feel comfortable making good, firm and fast decisions. They, in turn, trust those reporting direct to them and the trust and reliance cascades down through the organisation.
And, no, he won’t have a bar of my idea that he can only do some of this lovely consultative stuff because Tararua, with just over 10,000 ratepayers and around 17,500 residents, is a small council.
“A farm can go from milking 200 cows to milking 1000,” he tells me. “And the same principles apply with councils.”
And with that, he’s off.
This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.