Building trusting relationships

25 Mar 2022

Building trusting relationships

This article first appeared in the March/April edition of Water 

As the Government’s Three Waters Reform programme gathers pace, the Three Waters National Transition Unit’s interim director Marlon Bridge writes that his team is focussed on active engagement with the sector and building the relationships and trust that will underpin success.

This year is significant year for all of us working in the water sector, with the Government committed to passing legislation required for reform of our Three Waters sector and the considerable work that flows from that.

Work has begun in earnest. It’s my privilege and great responsibility to lead the work to transition the water services operated by councils and CCOs across the motu into four regional water services entities. I’m in this role

These interactions have been generally well received, with some key themes emerging.

Through the establishment of working groups, the Government is refining the final policy questions in areas such as governance and accountability, rural supplies, and the planning interface.

Legislation will be introduced this year and work its way through the Parliamentary process, where the public – including thoseon secondment from my job as deputy chief executive of Auckland Watercare working n the sector and your professional

My experience in the water industry began with the establishment of a new water entity – Manukau Water – a council- controlled organisation set up in 2006. From there I had a lead role in the integration of six council water services operations into what we now know as Watercare.

Working with councils to stand up four large new water entities across the country in the next 28 months is a sizeable but logical and positive stride forward for the water sector and the communities we serve.

I’m passionate about what we’re working to do here and committed to making it a success.

I’m pleased with the progress we made last year to establish the National Transition Unit (NTU) and further develop detailed delivery plans for the work ahead of us. The first three months of this year have seen important first steps in the implementation of those plans.

We are now opening up the flow of information between us here in the NTU and our colleagues currently working for councils and in the wider sector.

For the NTU, it’s about active engagement.

A key focus of that is building relationships. I have a favourite quote from one of my colleagues on the team, that trust equals speed. That’s the premise that we’re building this upon.

Those relationships are across the sector, from councils through to iwi/Mana Whenua and suppliers.

On the council engagement side, we’ve started with the chief executives and senior water personnel. As of mid-February, the transition team has conducted more than 30 of these discussions.

These interactions have been generally well received, with some key themes emerging.

Through the establishment of working groups, the Government is refining the final policy questions in areas such as governance and accountability, rural supplies, and the planning interface

Legislation will be introduced this year and work its way through the Parliamentary process, where the public – including those working in the sector and your professional organisations and employers – will be able to have their say, and I encourage you to do so.

We’ve heard concerns from council chief executives about how they and their staff can balance the demands of business as usual while supporting and engaging with the transition.

To address these concerns, we will continue to be open and engage with councils, sharing the most up-to-date work plans and coordinating our requests for involvement with other central government agencies where possible. We also expect to make funding available to support councils who allow their staff to contribute substantially (such as through secondments) to the work of the NTU.

So that the people who will staff the new water services entities can start work on 1 July 2024 already used to working with each other, we’re actively encouraging councils to work together, particularly at the water manager or officer level. Our local transition teams and transition working groups will help to enable this.

Our objective is to get the four new water services entities stood up with the best possible chance of success from day one.

To do this, we’re setting up a range of reference and working groups across the different areas of work the transition covers. We encourage you to talk to your employers about how you can get involved and share your expertise.

We’re also using the opportunity of reform to develop shared national design standards, to simplify construction and make infrastructure more affordable.

For example, Watercare has 87 different pump station designs, processing the same volumes of water. We believe reform can simplify that to the point where we’re using standard designs across the country.

Other working groups will support the creation of capital expenditure prioritisation frameworks, look at how we consider climate change, and create zero-harm frameworks so that we can build assets without hurting people.

Different working and reference groups will provide for different levels of involvement – whether you can give one hour a week, or be seconded fulltime.

Of course, this just one strand of the range of co-operative work we’re progressing with the sector.

We’re also meeting with other key stakeholders. We have now had initial discussions with the major water sector unions. My sense is that they are very positive about Three Waters reform and see great opportunities for their members.

Water New Zealand has been supportive, and we appreciate the opportunities they have provided for us to brief suppliers, present at their conference, and reach their members through their existing platforms. We look forward to continuing to engage with Water NZ members throughout the transition and to work alongside Water NZ to keep you all informed.

Outside of the sector itself, one of our key partners right now is Treasury. One of the key projects we’re progressing with them is the development of a sound, realistic business case for the ICT systems we’ll need, specifically the systems of record which are effectively the core systems from day one.

For example, Entity B will combine the water operations of 23 councils. You don’t want to be using 23 different billing systems, or different asset management systems, to try and figure out the most optimal way to operate on day one. The status quo just isn’t an option.

We are mindful of the importance of this project and the need to get started as soon as possible. We have just 28 months until day one, and any IT system that needs to be delivered for four entities is a significant undertaking.

Turning once again to the most important assets of all, we recently approached councils in our first request for information, and it’s about people.

Our priority is to get an understanding of capacity and expertise in the water industry. Whether that’s in part or full time, and across all functions - finance, IT, technical planning, engineers, and capex delivery.

This information will inform the work we need to do to provide comfort to those that will ultimately end up in these new entities. We need to be aware of who they are, understand the pathway to get them to their new role and be able to provide whatever training or skills capability assessments are required to ensure they’re successful from day one in their new roles.

I would point out that this piece of discovery is the first in a series of waves. We’ve chosen this staged approach after hearing council feedback on the Request for Information project run by the Department of Internal Affairs in late 2020 and early 2021.

We heard that the scale and range of information requested all at once was challenging for councils and their staff to manage. While we are determined to progress Three Waters transition swiftly, we know that has to be balanced with realism and recognition of the additional workload this imposes on the sector. We will continue to seek your feedback on our approach.

We have begun a long journey not a sprint, and we’re trying to create a culture where everything’s well planned and executed. Providing visibility of our plans to councils and other key stakeholders means they’ll be able to better work with us when we need information. Very soon we’ll be following our first wave focused on people, with the second wave focused on asset management.

We intend creating greater transparency with this process. We’re not expecting to solve every problem, but we are genuinely trying to seek information from all stakeholders to inform us collectively on the best way forward in what we’re trying to achieve.

While my NTU colleagues and I know many of you working in the Three Waters sector already, we’re looking forward to building on those relationships and forging many more during the discussions to come over the next 28 months.

We have a great deal of trust in those working in the water industry and their commitment to ensuring New Zealanders have the best, safest, most efficient and sustainable water services possible for generations to come.

Underpinning the success of our project is the extent to which that trust is reciprocated and strengthened in the weeks, months and years to come.

You can be assured that building this trust as a platform for our success, is an overriding priority for me and the entire National Transition Unit team.