Less than two years into the job, chief executive Adam Feeley has made some big changes at Queenstown Lakes District Council. He tells Ruth Le Pla how he’s focusing on fewer measures and driving better performance.
For a man who kicks off our talk saying he’s worried about offending other people, Adam Feeley is refreshingly forthright. He’s been chief executive (CE) of Queenstown Lakes District Council for less than two years. It’s his first role in local government and he readily admits he doesn’t have a point of comparison with other councils.
That’s all true. But Feeley’s impressive career to date has criss-crossed the private sector and central government and he brings an energetic clarity and decisiveness to a role that can easily be derailed by detail.
He’s best known for his three-year stint as CE and director of the Serious Fraud Office, boldly telling them when interviewed for that job that some of their performance measures were “nuts”.
He gets quite animated about this kind of stuff, carrying a strong belief that an optimum, small number of well- placed accountability measures will drive the right behaviour.
Imagine his delight, then, when he inherited 150 different performance measures at Queenstown Lakes District Council – a number that he’s since cut back to 32.
“I mean, we had a performance measure for our cemeteries… There was one that said either we would have no deaths, or not more than one, on our roads per year. That was seen as a proxy for ‘we’ve got good roads’. But I said we’re in party town. How the hell can the council influence hundreds of backpackers?… What a dumb measure.”
Feeley got a mixed response when he tried to pool ideas on performance measures with other council CEs in the Otago region.
“I remember one person said it was a really good initiative but they’d got no interest in being involved with it.
“I thought, isn’t that why you get out of bed in the morning – to justify your performance?
“Interestingly,” he says, “the mayors provided good support for the idea. So we’ve proposed that by next financial year the Otago councils all have, maybe not 100 percent but, some of our performance measures in common.”
Feeley doesn’t “even for a minute” think his council’s measures are now perfect. But at least there’s a better rationale behind each one.
To make sure its planning processes are easy to understand, for instance, the council now measures who applies for resource consents. Red flags go up if too many homeowners need a lawyer to help them get a building consent for their garage: a sure sign that documents aren’t written in a layperson’s terms.
Feeley bats away the idea there’s one performance measure to rule them all.
“When you get 10 or 20 measures, you might be high on one and low on another but your true position will ultimately come out. And you know what? If you’re in the bottom of 20 performance measures, chances are that’s a fair assessment that you should be at the bottom.”
Still, he reckons most ratepayers look at councils along simple lines.
“If you ask most people how they rate their council they think, ‘My rates don’t go up or not by too much. The libraries or the pools are nice. The service is great.’
“Service is a huge one. But stormwater? Really? Do most ratepayers spend a lot of time thinking about stormwater?”
He says he’s not sure what he’s proud of achieving so far at Queenstown Lakes District Council.
“You can’t just walk into a local government CE role and [immediately] deliver something meaningful.
“I could say things like we took $3 million off our operating costs in the first year. We had a zero percent rates increase this year and last year, and I think the public is pretty happy with the way the council’s performing. But that’s as much a result of political decisions as anything I’ve done.”
Other less popular political decisions have seen him implementing some confronting bits of change management pretty much since the get-go.
Council instructed him to tackle inefficiencies, performance and relationship issues, and that terrible term “right-sizing” cast its dark shadow over staff.
Within a couple of months of taking up his new role, Feeley kicked off a review that has led to around a quarter of staff being made redundant. “That was a lot of change to go through,” he says, “and to be honest we’re still going through it.”
Feeley says he’s well aware he’s not the most loved CE in some people’s minds.
“I can’t help but challenge the status quo. Certain kinds of people are good at managing change in an organisation.
Certain kinds are good at managing in a steady state. I’m not a steady state kind of person.”
In any case, he says, it’s not possible to have discussions about staff and resources in a vacuum.
“The challenge with a council is that the projects change so much. They are, relatively speaking, quite volatile organisations. So resources will always be a moving target.
“Plus you can’t disengage quality of service levels from resources. So if you’re okay with phones being answered within an hour, I can probably run a call centre with one person. If you want them answered within two seconds I probably need another 20 staff.”
Along the way, Feeley says he’s been “amazed” to discover people who’ve been in a local government job all their life. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he says.
“But we have people who religiously stop work at 10 o’clock, walk downstairs and have 15 minutes for a cup of tea because that’s what they’re entitled to.”
All of which, he readily concedes, is perfectly legal. “But in most central government or private sector cultures, if you need a cup of tea you just go get one, whether it’s 9am, 10 or 11. If you want to grab someone and go out for a coffee, that’s fine as long as you don’t do it all the time.
“If you work in a mine or a factory having breaks at a set time can make sense. But when you’re a professional, that culture of stopping for a quarter of an hour for morning tea, or whatever, is alien to me and to a lot of the new people who’ve come in to local government. It’s just fundamentally habit.”
That said, Feeley’s a firm believer that local government shouldn’t be beaten up. He says he has a “huge appreciation” for the breadth of challenge that smaller councils, in particular, have.
“Fundamentally, Queenstown, Clutha or Gore or any of these small district councils have to do the same range of tasks that Auckland does.
So Gore has to find talented roading engineers, water engineers and planners. There’s a finite number of them and it’s incredibly tough to do.”
Even so, he tells me how he once made himself unpopular in a meeting by challenging the ‘we’ve got a great story to tell’ local government mantra.
“I said I’d never worked in local government before but had been a ratepayer for decades and I’d always just been pissed off with my local council… They were bureaucratic. They threw all this cost at me that I didn’t understand…. There’s a complacency in some parts of local government.”
Then he challenges me to walk outside and ask 10 people what they think of local government.
“I wouldn’t bet that the majority think it’s good. That’s not to say local government doesn’t do lots of things well but it’s got to be far more willing to face up to the expectations of the local community,” he says.
“And the weird thing is that, much more so than central government, we literally live among our community.”
This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.