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Lorraine Vincent: On freshening up councils

Manawatu District Council CE Lorraine Vincent is keen for councils to stay relevant 
and resilient. She sat down for a chat with Ruth Le Pla.

Lorraine Vincent would be a fun travelling companion. Not that she’s asked me, of course, so no rumours, please. Still, I reckon I’d run the serious risk of getting dragged off to check out the toilets at the Eiffel Tower. Or of Lorraine hauling me round the back of the Colosseum to see if there’s any colourful community art.

For like several others in the local government sector, the CE of Manawatu District Council confesses to “holidaying with local government eyes”, which means she keeps a weather eye out for intriguing infrastructure and fancy footpaths while she’s out and about.

Lorraine is a firm believer in picking up ideas from no-matter-where. And, even when teamed up with some of the world’s brightest and best on an intensive three-week course at Harvard a few years ago, she came back with an un-dented belief that local government issues in places as far-flung as the US, Ireland, Canada and the UK are equally as relevant to the Manawatu.

The course, for the record, rejoices in the grand name of Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education – Senior Executives in State and Local Government which, to the average ratepayer, probably sounds as exciting as you can get.

Among other eureka moments Lorraine returned armed with the concept of what she calls “upside-down inside-out thinking”.

“You don’t have to finish with a solution or an answer,” she says. “It’s much more important that you have a breadth and freshness of thinking.”

In true Harvard style, course participants were never told if they were right or wrong. Much like real life, they had to figure that bit out for themselves.

Lorraine is high-energy enough for two. Which is maybe a clue to her disconcerting knack of referring to herself as Vince, which kept me wondering if maybe there was a third person in the room when we were talking.

Still, she’s got that chatty natural curiosity that often stems from a background in communications and a career dotted throughout start-up roles or organisations that have given her ample room to experiment and grow.

“Comms is a wonderful foundation that can transition into whatever you do in life,” she says, noting that working in “fairly embryonic” organisations instils confidence.

“When I was working in sports admin, regional sports trusts were relatively new so it was lovely to have the challenge of building up something that hadn’t been there before,” she says.

It was much the same when she segued into local government in 1996 as Manawatu District Council’s first ever community services manager – or “person responsible for toilets and cemeteries”, as she called it.

“I could mould the role to serve the organisation.” The lack of parameters was “liberating and lovely”, she recalls.

So it’s interesting that when Lorraine rose to the rank of CE at Manawatu District Council in 2009 she held fire for quite some time before unleashing a restructuring programme. And even then, as she tells it, she only did so after much soul-searching on what exactly was niggling away at the back of her mind.

She’s only the second ever CE for Manawatu District Council, taking over from Rod Titcombe who had held the role for more than three decades. SOLGM gave him a distinguished management award as he stepped down – just the seventh person to receive such recognition in the award’s then 15-year history.

Bones and benefits

Unlike many local government restructuring initiatives, the unease eating away at Lorraine was not centred on finances. “They were fine,” she says. So the main driver was not cost-saving.

To her mind, it was more of a “relevance and resilience” issue.

“There had been all these tack-ons to jobs, a bit of sticking plaster here and a bit of cellotape there for a couple of decades. As I watched and listened I became more and more frustrated. I thought if I didn’t do something with my council we were going to fall off the back of the boat.

“It was more an intuitive sense that the world was passing us by and part of my job is to make sure my people are ready for whatever the future is going to throw at us.”

In Lorraine’s view, the cage needed to be rattled hard and the new reality put in front of people. Her message? “This is not old local government: we’re a jolly business. The only reason we exist is to help our communities.”

It was as if we’d forgotten that, she says.

Timeframe

For staff, the change process must have felt pretty nippy. Lorraine and her senior executive team introduced the idea to them on February 28, 2014. Just three months later, at the start of June, the new structure kicked in.

“There’s anxiety and uncertainty that rests with staff when you mention the words reorganisation or restructure,” says Lorraine, “so we wanted it to be fast.”

Behind the scenes, however, much of the spadework had already been done. Conversations and decision-making spanned the 2013 triennial local body elections. This meant the political endorsement for her change process had to survive the potential for a whole new set of councillors arriving with other thoughts on the matter.

“There were so many balls up in the air,” she says.

Survive it obviously did, though. And the executive team pressed on with its work on what the organisation could look like and what processes would be needed to get it there.

In the rethink, customers, technology, business and agility zoomed up the priority list.

Manawatu District Council ended up with six extra positions. “But it wasn’t the number of positions that was important to us,” says Lorraine. “It was the roles and where we’d refocused.”

So changes included redefining ‘regulatory’ as ‘business’. “We put in economic development resources and my group managers became general managers because I wanted an ‘across-organisation’ approach – not silos,” says Lorraine.

She reckons her council had been quite leading edge in its use of technology “a couple of decades ago” but had slowly morphed into being led by technical expertise rather than strategy.

“So we put in place an information management strategy which I drove because I was frustrated at us being a non-technically-savvy council. We should have been able to connect anywhere in our district, in our country or the world. But we’d got clunky.”

So out went the prevailing thinking about why technology stopped things being done and in came a more solution-focused approach.

And while there are some downsides in being a small-to-medium sized council, there are also a whole lot of positives, she says.

“We’re tug boat-ish,” says Lorraine. “We can nudge and elbow and turn quite quickly. We have some strength but we had forgotten about that agility… We’d almost forgotten that the reason we exist is to serve our community.”

When the dust settled from all the necessary interviewing for new roles in the organisation, about a third of staff recruited came from outside the local government sector.

Lorraine was delighted with the blend of new and existing personnel.

“The ‘outside of local government’ skills and thinking that we were able to attract brings a freshness to the organisation and challenges those of us who have been here for some time around why we do certain things and even if we should do them at all. That’s the stuff that sometimes moves us into the fuddy-duddy zone.”

Changing attitudes

By introducing practical changes such as standing desks and setting aside rooms for standing meetings, council also signalled a physical manifestation of the structural rethink.

Yet even now, with all those measures in place, Lorraine reckons the most challenging part of the reorganisation is still in progress.

“The bulk of it is done. But in a weird sort of way we’re into the harder part of the reorganisation now which is a change of behaviour and attitude. We put a change philosophy together, which we call our future blueprint. But you’ve got to constantly refer back to what were the drivers that made us want to change.”

Otherwise, you just slip back to what has always been.

“It’s interesting,” says Lorraine. “I had a councillor ask me the other day when the reorganisation will be finished. And I said, ‘it’s never finished’.”


BEING LORRAINE VINCENT

Community and Environment Group Manager

Manawatu District Council

2007 – 2009

Community Services Group Manager

Manawatu District Council

1996 – 2007

Chief Executive

Sport Manawatu

1991 – 1996

Self-employed (established 
communication business “ByLine”)

1990 – 1991

Sports Editor

Manawatu Standard

1985 – 1990

Sports Reporter

Manawatu Standard

1980 – 1985

Other local government interests:

  • President of Central Branch Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM)
  • Member SOLGM (since 1996)
  • Chair of Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Chief Executives’ Forum
  • Director of Manawatu-Wanganui Local Authority Shared Service (MW-LASS) company
  • Member of Steering Group to develop strategic framework for New Zealand public libraries (2005).

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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