Ever tried to explain a diagram in a council plan showing the relationship between the Resource Management Act and Local Government Act? If so, you will know the relationship between these Acts is more like distant cousins scratching around for things in common than that of close siblings.
It’s not surprising that staff writing either resource or asset management plans within a unitary council (or asset management plans in a district council and resource management plans in a regional council) have the power to trip each other up.
Having begun my career in local government on the resource management side of the ledger, I have been caught out by the weight of opposition to draft freshwater rules by asset managers.
However, over the past year I’ve been sitting on the other side of the fence, writing infrastructure strategies for several different councils. There’s plenty of potential for tension about plan rules with major implications for the cost-effective delivery of infrastructure services.
This tension has the potential to be worked through in infrastructure strategies. A good thing about these strategies is they provide an opportunity to take a systematic look at the provisions in resource management plans.
This involves serious consideration of the potential implications for the delivery of transport, stormwater, flood protection, water supply and wastewater services — and identifying the practical options for achieving the required outcomes, as well as the costs of the different options.
Upcoming discussions with communities increasingly affected by climate change are another area where a combined approach by resource and asset management planners will be beneficial, to enable us to consider the full range of options available to local government.
Can you just write an executive summary?
If you’ve just finished your asset management plan or infrastructure strategy this request may not exactly be music to your ears!
That’s because executive summaries for asset management plans and any other large council document are not necessarily something we have ever been formally taught how to do. Despite this, it’s a satisfying document to write because it’s about cutting through the details to what really matters — the guts of the larger document. And at least you know the executive summary will be reasonably widely read, which may not always the case for your larger documents.
The purpose of a summary
It’s fair to assume that a reasonable proportion of your readers won’t read your whole asset management plan or infrastructure strategy or other long council document. Councillors have more than enough reading material provided with every agenda, and interested members of the community need to fit writing their submission (or informal feedback) into a short amount of time around work and/or family obligations.
Writing a high quality executive summary can give the gift of time to people who need to know the key points about your plan or strategy.
So what do decision makers and members of the public really need to know? I asked several people who read a lot of these types of documents for feedback on what makes a good executive summary.
One asset manager said too often large portions of text are copied and pasted into the executive summary. Instead, the executive summary has to distil the content without repeating the detail.
How long should an executive summary be?
Chris Pearce (Senior Advisor, Project and Portfolio Management at Kāpiti Coast District Council) says if an executive summary is any more than four pages it can seem like you’re reading the whole document, not the summary.
Similarly Wikihow’s advice on executive summaries is to aim for a document 5% the size of the source document, and it shouldn’t be more than 10%. So for a 60 page infrastructure strategy, that gives you a target of three pages and a maximum of six pages. Given the size of the canvas you’ve got to work with, what must be included?
David Hammond, who is Nelson City Council’s Acting Chief Executive, provided me with this succinct, useful list for writing the executive summaries of asset management plans:
In terms of the structure, one of the recommendations was that the executive summary should mirror the sections in the main body of the document so the reader can easily reference the details if they want to know more about something mentioned in the summary.
One way to compose an executive summary is to start with the conclusion of each section and include only as much information as is needed to explain the conclusion.
This is where the ABT structure I have mentioned in previous articles can come in handy. For each section, it's worthwhile trying to apply the story structure of … and …, but …, therefore ...
This approach will also help you to break out of copying paragraphs directly from the body of the document. More on using story structure when writing infrastructure strategies is available here.
This structure isn't always a good fit — it worked really well for a waste assessment executive summary I wrote earlier this year, but I haven't been able to use it in the two executive summaries I wrote over the past month.
Chris Pearce says the summary needs to accurately reflect the tone and conclusions in the plan or strategy, which is not always the case in summaries he has read. This is why it’s important to write the executive summary after writing the full document, rather than beforehand, once you fully understand what the full document is saying. It's also why writing an executive summary is more difficult than most people think.
The asset manager who provided feedback for this article also said a good executive summary is extremely difficult to compile and is consequently quite a rare item.
Step by step process
I have found the fact that it's difficult to do an executive summary well can lead to dancing around it, rather than jumping in and getting a draft on the page. That's why I developed an eight step process to help me overcome this resistance.
You are welcome to access my step by step process for writing an executive summary here.
Please share this article with anyone who needs to write an executive summary for a plan or strategy.
I’ve been writing about the ageing population a lot lately, in terms of:
While all of these factors are valid points to include in infrastructure strategies, it paints a rather drab picture of what it will be like when we inevitably become part of that group of ‘65 years and older’ … even though we probably won’t feel much different on the inside than we did in our thirties, forties and fifties. (I’m speculating, and hoping, here!)
I recently went along to a presentation on longevity, presented by Geoff Pearman of Partners in Change and hosted by Nelson City Council. Geoff made some really interesting points of particular relevance to councils and economic development agencies.
Reimagining the shape of our lives
Now that we are living longer, we have the opportunity to reimagine what a life course might look like. When three score years and 10 was the normal life span, it made sense to spend 20 years learning, 40 years working hard and 10 years putting our feet up.
Now that we are likely to live 20 years longer, the structure of a life could look quite different. It might involve a gap year in our thirties, or a stint at university in our forties to prepare for a new career that we continue to enjoy into our seventies.
A chance to rebalance the role of paid work in your life
New Zealand doesn’t have a retirement age. That means there’s no requirement to leave work at 65. But (at least at this stage) that’s the point at which you get a weekly cash injection, perhaps freeing you to work less hours, or choose a job you like more but pays less, or a job which allows you to take time off for an extended period of travel … in summary, being 65 and over could be an opportunity to rebalance the role of paid work in your life.
At this stage, 25% of people over 65 are still engaged in paid work in New Zealand.
Self-employment becomes less risky
Moving into self-employment also becomes an increasingly viable option. It will feel a lot safer to take this sort of risk when you know there’ll be no week with absolutely no money coming your way! Earnings through self-employment for people 65 years and older are predicted to increase significantly in New Zealand, generating $1.7 billion in 2031 and rising to $2.6 billion by 2051.
A challenge for councils — losing experienced engineers, planners and project managers
People with regular super coming into their bank account have more choices than others about whether to work or not. This is a challenge for councils who have a large number of older staff with specialist knowledge, including engineers, planners and project managers.
They are more likely to stay, and to pass on their specialist knowledge to younger staff, if they feel valued. Several negative stereotypes need to be addressed in order for older people to feel good about their work and their workplace, and therefore continue to contribute their knowledge, skills and judgment (which get better with age).
Negative stereotypes about older people
Myth 1: People become less productive as they become older. This isn’t true. Productivity is directly related to levels of engagement, not age.
Myth 2: Older people will cost more in sick leave. The laggards in this regard are actually people aged between 30 and 45 — they are the greatest beneficiaries of paid sick leave.
Myth 3: Older people will struggle to adapt to new technology because they’re not digital natives. Geoff pointed out that we have been adapting to new technology throughout our lives. However, employers may need to think about how new technology is ‘unpacked’ for older people who may prefer 1:1 learning, rather than a group situation.
Councils are competing for young people
Councils and economic development agencies throughout New Zealand are competing with each other to attract more young people. It may be smarter for councils and other employers to spend a larger proportion of time and energy engaging and retaining older workers.
The Long Game
Thanks to Nelson City Council for hosting a series of events designed to inspire a community conversation about what an ageing demographic means for the region and for each of us individually. Interviews and speakers' presentations are available here.
In this article Rob and Jan Fryer, of FuturEcology, provide practical advice on choosing the best plants for riparian margins and on establishing a weed control regime.
This is part two of a two part series of articles to be published on this website. Part one discusses the reasons why landowners resist riparian planting and how councils can help to resolve these issues. Click here to access the first article.
What types of plants do you recommend being used for riparian planting?
Each site is different so a range of factors need to be considered, such as the questions listed here.
We have found people want to plant a "forest". You don’t get that in a five metre wide riparian margin. Diverse plantings are a nice idea but they are not successful in this context. For example, in Murchison, we planted a riparian margin with 5000 plants, of which 3000 were Carex secta. These are short but wide plants. They provide one metre of shade over a small waterway and will fold down in a flood. We included some taller species amongst them to provide aesthetic appeal. It’s very much "horses for courses".
In another Murchison project we talked with the Department of Conservation about opportunities to add biodiversity value. The native plant Malecitis flexova is scrubby looking so farmers tend to get rid of it, but it provides great habitat for lizards and fern birds.
The benefits need to be highlighted to the landowner, who can then demonstrate to their community what they’re doing to contribute to New Zealand’s environment.
A riparian planting can be a great opportunity to increase local biodiversity, for example by including threatened species, and by including plants that are naturally occurring in an area. In Nelson, we refer to the Living Heritage planting guide, and are currently involved in a project to return two vanished plant species in the Maitai catchment — it’s simple to grow them and get them back in there as part of riparian planting.
We also plant species which are good for birds where appropriate.
Farmers and other landowners can benefit from a conversation about:
Flood flows also need to be factored in, and this includes keeping flax out and having plants that fold down flat. Hoheria augustifolia is a great riparian species.
What weed control regime do you recommend for landowners?
A rock solid plan and budget for maintenance in the year following planting is vital to the successful establishment of riparian planting. Plant less and look after it better is our motto. There is absolutely no point in committing to planting hundreds or thousands of plants, investing time and money, only to have them swamped by pasture grass in the first spring.
Generally on farms, grass is king. Grass is what makes money, so landowners invest in strong grass species and fertilisers to optimise their growth. These vigorous grass species can easily smother riparian plantings.
That’s why having a clear methodology for the planting is so important. Here’s what we recommend.
At the very least we recommend allowing for follow up maintenance in the spring and summer of no less than three visits from a competent contractor, timed to prevent domination of grass.
The timing of the first visit is critical. This must be done before the first flush of grass in the spring.
In many places we find that our native plants appear to grow strongly at two times of the year — spring and autumn — with little growth over summer and winter. This means we need to time our maintenance regime to ensure plants are unchecked by grass and weeds at these growing times.
With good maintenance in that first year, follow up maintenance is reduced. However, if there is an existing perennial weed problem (with weeds such as blackberry, old man’s beard, gorse or broom) then the site will require ongoing maintenance.
We also note that the farming industry and even councils tend to under-estimate the skills, knowledge and experience needed to complete successful riparian plantings. Although landowners have a close connection with their land and experience in planting various trees and crops, this may not necessarily be helpful with riparian planting.
We recommend that landowners:
Politicians are focusing on water quality issues ahead of this year’s election, recognising this is a major concern for New Zealanders. There has been a lot of talk about planting more riparian margins, but very little discussion about the time and cost involved in the ongoing weed control and maintenance of these margins. I asked Rob and Jan Fryer, of FuturEcology, about the reasons why landowners resist riparian planting and how councils can help to resolve these issues.
This is part one of a two part series of articles to be published on this website. The second article provides practical advice on choosing the best plants for your site and establishing a weed control regime. Click here to access the second article.
Stock exclusion is now becoming a legislative requirement, with staged dates for when it takes effect for different stock types. What are the implications for land owners, both in terms of time and money?
Farmers and other landowners benefit from seeing riparian management (including fencing, planting and weed control) as a business expense that can be outsourced if they lack the time to do it themselves.
Particularly in the dairy industry, time to do the work is a big factor. Often it’s not a problem to carry out planting in winter, but maintenance is needed in the spring and autumn. This job is likely to drop well down the priority list when calving and milking are underway.
It’s really important not to underestimate the work required because fencing off land without maintaining riparian margins is a bad idea — leading to creeks overgrown with blackberry and old man’s beard.
Of the landowners you work with, what are their concerns about planted riparian margins?
There is resistance. Landowners ask why would I fence off this area and have to do all this weed control, especially when they can point to local examples of weed infestation. It’s a hard sell!
One of the biggest issues with stock exclusion or regeneration of riparian margins is the transition of “clean” country to weed corridors. No landowner likes to be a party to this, especially if they have worked hard to keep their property clean of damaging weeds. There could be some shading from exotic weeds along the margins. However, a margin dominated by a small number of exotic weeds will actually reduce biodiversity and do little in terms of filtration of sediments compared to a well-constructed and well maintained riparian planting.
Other concerns are around fencing and flooding issues, for rivers and streams that flood frequently. These are quite valid concerns, although they are not insurmountable if the right approach is taken.
Forestry and subdivision in headwaters are causing silt build up. In a more natural environment you wouldn’t get that level of silt. This means downstream river beds are getting shallower, and therefore flooding more.
To manage this issue, people need advice on the right shrubs to plant and the right fence to use (eg a two wire electric fence).
How can councils help to address these concerns?
In some districts, councils have assisted through the provision of plants or contributions towards plant costs for riparian plantings. More focus on the numbers of plants that have survived after three years (rather than the number initially planted) would be helpful. This could involve assistance with maintenance in the first year because this is the critical time.
How big a threat are weeds for New Zealand’s biodiversity?
Not enough public money is being put into managing weed threats to our biodiversity. New Zealand’s Predator Free 2050 goal really needs to include weeds.
It’s a massive problem that decision makers have to think hard about. For example, QEII covenants are great, but slow destruction can occur over the long term, as no weed control leads to exotic weeds infestation.
We believe that councils in particular are either unaware or ignoring the issues of riparian maintenance that are becoming more of a problem year by year. A handful of weeds get the headlines such as wilding conifers in our iconic high country yet all around us is the ticking time bomb of exotic species (including Sycamore) that have the potential to totally dominate our ecosystems.
I recently took part in a nine week mastermind programme to enhance my business. One of the outcomes was a one page business plan.
The first vision statement I wrote for my business was ‘helping councils to share their stories’. But then I wimped out and changed it to ‘helping councils to share their information in ways that people can understand and use’. I knew the change was a bit lame but the word ‘stories’ felt too fanciful.
I went to the Aspire conference last week (run by the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce) which had a theme of resilience. I was expecting a worthy but not necessarily entertaining day. So it was quite a surprise when the first speaker, Kyle Mulinder of Bare Kiwi, talked about the value of story in the videos he creates, and the importance of conveying emotion in his work.
The second speaker was John Palmer, who is the Chair of the Nelson Regional Development Agency. He talked about the work the agency is doing to build a clever, distinctive and high value regional identity that attracts visitors, investment and new residents so that Nelson doesn’t become “a large retirement village”.
Creating a vision, and stating what really makes us different from similar businesses, councils or regions is hard, as anyone who has been involved in crafting vision statements for their council will know! It’s something we all struggle with, but John talked about the practical value of doing this.
The third speaker was Jimmy Walsh, who is the International Growth Director at Beca. He talked about natural hazards and risk, and he made this topic into a memorable story by simplifying his message to three key risk factors (hazards, exposure and vulnerability) and asking questions that directly related this issue to the business audience.
I’ve come home and changed my vision back to ‘helping councils to share their stories’.
It might be hard to give yourself permission to think about your infrastructure strategies, financial strategies, long term plans and other documents as stories … but there’s real value in taking this risk so that people in our communities can relate to what we’re talking about.
As the scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson says in Houston We Have a Narrative, "people can listen to a few facts but not many. After a while their narrative need kicks in. You can give a lecture that is pure information with no narrative structure, and a non-technical audience might be able to endure a half-hour or so before walking out, but that same audience will listen to hours and hours of good stories."
I’ve had to break through a fair bit of resistance lately, to create a video and write a magazine article. Both of these are good things to do to communicate with my current and potential clients, but I felt a HUGE amount of resistance to doing both of them.
The thing that helped me break through and get these jobs ticked off my list was a really simple structure outlined in ‘Houston We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story’, by Randy Olson.
I wanted to record a video about my work with asset managers … I had a script that worked in written form but when I tried recording it I realised it was way too detailed. I reduced it to its core using the ‘and, but, therefore’ (ABT) story structure recommended by Randy Olson and suddenly I could say what I needed to say, and even ad lib from the base content. You can see the difference between the written and verbal forms of the same message here.
AND the magazine article
Co-authoring a conference paper led to an opportunity to write an article for a magazine. It was a great opportunity so of course I said yes, but then it weighed heavily on my mind. I wanted to do it well, but I had no idea how.
I knew I was at high risk of getting lost in the details, and of boring anyone who wasn’t deeply interested in the potential conflicts between a number of New Zealand’s national policy statements in relation to stormwater management. Hmm!
Reducing screeds of information into a core message ended up being much easier than I expected, using the ABT structure.
This isn’t something just for writers, or just for people trying to promote their business.
Randy Olson wrote the book for scientists who need to share their complex information with lay audiences, and who are often frustrated by their audiences’ lack of comprehension and even boredom with the important findings they need to share.
Have you ever needed to introduce a report to your councillors, and struggled to give that summary in a concise, compelling way? I sure have. Sometimes it’s really hard to get inside the content and wrestle it into the shape of a story that people both relate to and remember.
Next time you need to engage with an audience about some aspect of your council work, try to create a simple message using the ABT structure.
Another great advantage of this structure is it seems to speed up the writing process, allowing you to tick that presentation or written document off your list far more quickly than you might imagine.
Let’s face it … infrastructure is a topic where people’s eyes tend to glaze over. And yet these can be really expensive things like a new water treatment plant or upgrades to the wastewater network, that they will have to pay for.
And around the council table, have you noticed that sometimes a tiny decision that is easy to understand gets more attention than a big one? I think this happens because it can be harder to understand the more technical information you deal with — and it can lead to big decisions being made without much informed debate.
Sharing complex information is difficult
Two of the reasons why plans can be difficult to communicate are:
How I can help you
I write documents in collaboration with my clients, combining your technical knowledge with my writing skills and environmental policy background. (You’ll still have to provide all the graphs and the financial info, because that’s definitely not my strength.)
An example of the service I provide is writing support for the completion of infrastructure strategies. This involves:
Free up your time
I can free up your time and enable you to deliver quality documents that your councillors and community understand.
If you would like to work together to deliver any of your plans or strategies, please feel welcome to phone or email me. My contact details are available here.
Alternatively, if it’s not something you need right now, but would like to keep this in mind for future reference, you may like to receive my email newsletter called 'Wading In'. You can either send me an email or sign up right here (see side bar).
One thing I miss about working in a council is being able to call the helpdesk whenever anything goes wrong with my computer. So when my Internet failed recently it took me a while to move from frustration to calm consideration of how I could apply resilience concepts to the situation.
I had been talking with a friend abut resilience just a few days beforehand. She gives presentations on this topic and one of her recommendations is to change your perspective.
“Learn to try the ‘180 game’. If you catch yourself labelling something as a ‘problem’, try to swing 180 degrees in the other direction and instead call it a ‘solution’, then really live from that solution perspective for a couple of days.”
Another friend talks about resilience as seeing the opportunities in constraints.
So, the Internet was down, and it was uncomfortable because this is an essential part of how I connect with my clients and the outside world generally. It felt quite isolating, even apart from worrying how I was going to email work to a client the next day.
The opportunity in this constraint turned out to be having absolutely no distractions from the work at hand. By the time I had a new modem, my urgent work was finished.
The Government’s NPS on Resilience (for managing significant risks from natural hazards) is due out at the end of next year. Here’s a link to the initial scoping report prepared by Tonkin + Taylor.
In the meantime, infrastructure strategies are being developed around the country and resilience to climate change and natural hazards is sure to be a key theme in almost all of them.
There’s a lot at stake when considering the future resilience of infrastructure assets, including public health, economic functioning of communities, environmental impacts, and the financial investment in existing assets. This makes it much harder to identify realistic opportunities to respond to future constraints associated with climate change and natural hazards.
However, infrastructure strategies are a great opportunity to play the ‘180 game’ and to seriously explore potential alternatives to the status quo.
Every Easter my mother sends us woolly socks for the South Island winter. In the past we have used them once or twice and then they somehow disappeared into the ecosystem of our house. I knew we had a lot of socks somewhere, but could never find any (especially pairs). So I would just keep buying more, and they would mysteriously go missing too.
Finally I bought a hamper just for socks, with a strict rule that only pairs can go in there. One week into the new regime it’s still full of paired socks that are easy to find. Long may this last!
Infrastructure strategies also need a good internal structure which clearly identifies the most important challenges facing a region over the next 30 years, paired with the proposed solutions (or options) for responding to them.
These strategies need to be easy to find by all council departments, as well as everyone else who has a role in commenting on, aligning with or implementing the proposed approaches. Otherwise there is a risk that a council’s infrastructure strategy will founder like an odd sock at the back of some dusty cupboard, only to be rediscovered every three years when a review is required.
From my personal experience of working on a couple of infrastructure strategies, I know that a huge amount of work goes into creating a coherent, forward thinking, strategy. It seems a real shame to waste that investment in long term thinking by forgetting about it in between reviews.
The Office of the Auditor-General said: “We continue to support the requirement for infrastructure strategies. As a means to focus on the areas where local authorities spend the most, we see infrastructure strategies as an integral part of LTPs. Strong infrastructure strategies give a credible and believable long term view of the issues and opportunities the local authority faces.”
Both the Office of the Auditor-General and the Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM) place a lot of emphasis on telling a story within the strategy.
“An infrastructure strategy (and financial strategy) are more than collections of information. It is the overall synthesis of the information into an overall story that provides the value for the reader.”
As a writer who helps councils to share their information, I wholeheartedly agree with this approach. But for all the people who are expressing their best ideas on how to tackle challenges such as increasing flood risk, ageing populations and networks, affordability, earthquakes, and investment in new infrastructure, I think it would help them to know their infrastructure strategy is going to be central to consequent work by the council and their consultants – whether that is in resource management plans, economic development strategies or asset management plans.
Unfortunately, the 2015 versions of these big picture infrastructure strategies tend to be buried at the back of Long Term Plans which can run to hundreds of pages, or published in the back alleys of websites, only findable if someone knows what they’re looking for.
If we are going to spend time thinking about these big challenges in an integrated way (which we have to do under the LGA 2002), why not make more of an effort to share what we come up with in a more upfront manner by actively promoting the complete infrastructure strategies — and not just the biggest issues that carry through to the LTP consultation document?
 Office of the Auditor-General, Matters Arising from the 2015-25 Local Authority Long Term Plans, page 47
 SOLGM, Dollars and Sense 2018, page 33.