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Monday, 28 March 2011

Clayton Cosgrove on bureaucrats and Christchurch


MP Clayton Cosgrove has expressed his fear that hundreds of clipboard carrying Wellington bureaucrats will descend on Christchurch, stifling initiative, and hindering fast implementation. Citing the example of how quickly the council and community in Waimakariri responded, he feels it should be a template for what will happen in Christchurch. A bit like Deborah Coddington in her little piece of whimsey regarding the "Sumner Solution" (NZ herald, 27 March, see it here).  Hopefully his expression of fear is just a tired and unthinking remark arising from an unceasing workload, and not a firmly held belief to be fought for.

The differences between Christchurch and Kaiapoi/Waimakariri are enormous. Influencing what happens in Christchurch is far more important for special interest groups than whatever might happen in Kaiapoi. Whoever controls the planning and development of Christchurch determines not only what goes where, but who will benefit from the decisions, and who will lose out. Such an environment would soon destabilise the nice inclusiveness found in Waimakariri, and turn into a mire of controversy and conflict.

Recently John Key was accused of scare mongering with his "10,000 homes" announcement because he raised the spectre without providing anything of substance. Clayton Cosgrove seems to be in a similar boat by raising a fearful prospect without offering a suitable alternative. True, he has suggested the Waimakariri approach, however that way seems totally devoid of a big picture understanding of all the power plays that will occur.

So, who is going to organise the rebuild of Christchurch? Would we have the New Zealand Business Roundtable (NZBR) run the show? NZBR and its associates would certainly love to, and would happily cut out all red tape, unnecessary planning permissions, onerous safety requirements, community consultation, and anything else that stood between them and the accrual of the quick profits they euphemistically call progress. No, not for me. The structure proposed, and the interim CEO, are the proper way to go.


Rebuilding Christchurch is one of the biggest events in the history of New Zealand, to get it wrong will be unforgivable. With inappropriate controls the outcome is likely to be in the range from undesirable to disasterous. There are two possibilities: public sector or private sector. Either way there must be an overseeing structure to ensure appropriate planning and implementation. The private sector, driven by market forces, is incapable of handling a task as big as this. Market forces, in New Zealand at least, are the chaotic jostling of various small and middle size businesses endeavouring to reduce competition, minimise costs and maximise profits in tiny little markets. It is questionable whether any of the businesses or individuals involved have the mindset, let alone the experience, to organise anything outside of their areas of commercial interest.

A government department brings with it more transparency and accountability than any other structure. Overlooked by the writers of articles I have read, is the issue of managing the monies poured into Christchurch on behalf of the New Zealand taxpayer. This is going to amount to billions of dollars and one agency overseeing it is essential for accountability. Subject to the Public Finance Act, and Parliamentary Select Committee oversight and investigation, the stewardship of these monies will be as good as it can be. Yes, Select Committee hearings can be a circus, but that invariably has something to do with the churlish and party political behaviour of the members of parliament sitting on them.

A government department also has accountability of a different type through the operation of the Official Information Act, a transparency denied with private sector organisations. Through the OIA anyone from a private citizen to a member of parliament can have the opportunity to ensure that whatever was done, or not done, was appropriate and proper, and that nothing is hidden. Invariably private sector organisations spend much of their life hiding financial and operational information from the light of day. With the private sector able to hide all that they do from external view, how can there be any public confidence or accountability?

Ultimately a government department will be more accountable for the decisions made both in the present and the future. Private sector organisations will be encased in structures that deflect responsibility and accountability, and so create an environment where they have opportunities to behave in ways that are not in the public interest.

It will be said that all this bureaucracy can only add layers of processes, each layer of which will slow progress. Examples will be supplied, or hypothesized, of the miseries which will befall whoever it is whose progress is being impeded. Some of this may even be true. What is invariably not mentioned is the not so little matter of New Zealand being a democracy. We have denied our leaders dictatorial powers, with whatever efficiency benefits that may go with that, for the more cumbersome and highly desirable state of affairs called democracy. Democracy may sometimes be a slow path to achieving big things, however it is what we have chosen, and that choice must be respected and obeyed.


The success of any organisation is governed by the competence of its personnel. The performance of personnel is led by the quality and nature of the person at the top. This applies whether it is a public or private sector organisation.

Leadership, in the minds of some, seems to be about being in charge, communicating the goals and objectives, and making things happen. That practice falls short of leadership. Leadership certainly includes command, control and communication, but adds the elements of a global perspective and understanding fundamentals. Looking at recent decades of corporate progress in New Zealand there are likely to be few, if any, chief executives who can demonstrate a long successful career with these attributes.

A former military commander, irrespective of the force served in, brings years of experience of operating in a range of environments, looking at both global issues and the people on the ground, and knowing the value of a life. Such individuals understand discipline, and above all, loyalty to a country and a common cause - concepts beyond the practical application of business people for whom loyalty must always go to the bottom line and the shareholder.

With a suitable leader in place whatever personnel are chosen will perform as best they are allowed to. Clipboards and red tape are the creation of politicians - those same politicians can change the rules to allow whatever degree of autonomy they feel is necessary, appropriate and controllable.


The bottom line is that the clipboard and red tape horror scenario is scare mongering, hopefully unintentional. What is really scary is the alternative.

The private sector does not go around with clip boards because process, unless imposed by law, is subordinate to profit. The public sector is governed by process, to ensure that accountability and transparency prevails. Is this inefficient and ineffective? Depends on how you care to look at it. Since the mid 1980s the private sector has lost more money, vapourised more wealth, and damaged more lives than all the bureaucratic blunders in our country's history.

A government department is the best available form for managing the rebuild Christchurch. Other forms are bad choices leading to disasterous ends.