Four Anzac Days ago I climbed Mount Arthur. I had hoped we were just going some of the way, or that maybe I could read a book at the Flora Hut while the rest of the walking party went to the top and back. As it turned out, we were all in it for the long haul to the summit.
I was a lot slower and way less fit than anyone else on the trip. And towards the top, where there are some uneven rocks to navigate, my legs refused to cooperate. I remember looking at where I needed to put my next foot, but nothing happened. It was a really frightening paralysis, and I wouldn’t have been able to continue if my friend hadn’t talked me through every single move.
The benefits of chocolate
Surprisingly, my brain kicked back into gear really quickly after eating chocolate at the summit. Coming down that mountain was even nicer — it’s a magical tussocky environment. I also know I will never do it again (I promised myself that while lying prone on the couch the next day).
That paralysis can also happen in a work situation. Last week I was asked to write a document on something important which I knew almost zero about. I could feel my brain going into a really uncomfortable overload mode. If there hadn’t been such a tight deadline I would have been tempted to jump away from it and get on with something easier (or go and eat chocolate).
In the midst of that project I did feel a bit like a mountaineer clinging to a rock face, stabbing my pick axe into one crevice at a time, figuring out what to do. The thing that really helped was printing off my own step by step process for ‘writing a document using multiple sources of information’.
I found where I was up to in that list of steps, and carried on, only looking one step ahead at a time, and as the great Sir Edmund Hillary would say, “we knocked the bastard off”.
When new topics come your way
If you work at a council, it’s likely you’ll end up writing about something you know very little about at some stage in the not too distant future. Climate change, new legislation and a multitude of other challenges are likely to be coming your way, let alone the changes in topics you’ll face if you take on a new role.
When asked to write a report or a plan you may initially feel like me on that mountain, with paralysis coming on and unable to take the next step forward. This is where knowing what your process has been in the past can really help you.
Promapp won’t help
This kind of creative process doesn’t turn up in Promapp or any other business mapping tool, from my experience. The information about actually writing the documents tends to be thin on the ground. And maybe that’s how it has to be, because everyone will have their own way of creating something new.
How others do it
However, once you hit on a process that works for you, it’s likely that you can apply a very similar process across multiple topic areas. David Usher talks about this in his book ‘Let the Elephants Run’ in terms of the process he follows to create songs and develop new business ideas.
Independent Hearing Commissioner David McMahon also has a process he follows when resolving complex planning issues, which he generously describes here.
The reason I’m writing about this now is that hundreds if not thousands of people around the country have recently completed large complex documents as part of the Long Term Plan process — which may have been a development contributions policy, an asset management plan, infrastructure strategy, financial policy, or a series of reports to assist a long term plan committee with its decision making process.
First of all, congratulations on getting your document over the finish line! Before it fades from memory, I highly recommend that you think back over the process you followed to go from nothing to something. Writing down the steps you took to make that document a reality will give you insights into the process that works for you — and it will give you a structure for making progress on the next gnarly writing project that comes your way.
Speed up your writing process
Here’s a link to access the document which outlines my steps for writing a document using multiple sources of information. I hope you find this useful as a starting point for defining your own writing process.
In my early twenties I belonged to two different writing groups. One was organised by an elderly South African man called Ernst who was a published short story writer. These Hamilton meetings were genteel occasions, where copies of novel chapters, short stories and poetry were pre-circulated and seriously critiqued while sipping from tiny glasses of sherry.
The other was a more casual group at Waihi Beach, with meetings held in a bach with no electricity, where the flatmates lived on mussels and flat bread cooked over a chippie stove. Half an hour before the writing group was due to start one of the flatmates would head into the sand dunes to come up with song lyrics to share that night. A friend’s mother joined our group and memorably recited a poem about poisoning her husband with her scones.
I took the same short stories and poems along to each of these groups. In those days I didn’t think as much about what different readers might be interested in.
These days this is my first consideration when writing documents for councils. For most of this year I have been focused on asset management plans but recently helped to write a long term plan (LTP) consultation document.
The LTP consultation document encourages feedback from a broad range of people, most of whom are not being paid to read that document, and will be squeezing in time to read it. While I don’t want to make too many assumptions, most of the target audience probably don’t have a pressing need to know how long the pipes are or the age of the pump station down the road, just as long as it’s still working.
That means every word that’s not paying its way needs to be cut, as in a poem or short story. In contrast, an asset management plan is more like a novel. There’s time to set the scene and get to know the challenges facing our protagonists, even if they are pumps and pipes!
The people reading your asset management plans are likely to be more interested in the subject (and to be paid for their reading time). You will be forgiven for a few boring bits, and can afford to include more background information without losing the interest of your audience.
One of the main challenges I have been grappling with while working on asset management plans is the huge amount of detail that could be included, and what can be taken out to enhance the narrative flow without affecting the overall integrity of the plan.
When structuring and writing an asset management plan, it’s worth considering the different subsets of asset management plan readers (including executive team members, councillors, staff involved in service delivery and Audit NZ).
The International Infrastructure Management Manual (IMMM) 2015 provides this advice:
The example structure in the IMMM is very helpful, but the manual clearly states this is an example rather than a structure which needs to be followed slavishly. It’s worth looking at how different councils structure their asset management plans. For example, Tasman District Council’s 2015 asset management plans place a significant amount of information in appendices rather than in the body of the document.
It’s a fact there will be fewer people lining up to read an asset management plan than a LTP consultation document. However, as noted in the IMMM 2015, the developing or revising of an asset management plan is “a process involving strategic and tactical thinking and decision making, not just a technical writing process.”
In other words, while making improvements to the style and structure of your document will help your readers, the decisions you make through the process of developing or revising an asset management plan will continue to be the most important contributor to the success of your document.
Councils have a lot on their plates right now.
They have to respond to the increasing intensity of weather events, organising civil defence responses then fixing damaged infrastructure. At the same time, they need to make a plan to help their communities adapt to the effects of rising sea levels and increasing coastal hazards.
That’s why I have prepared a summary (10 pages) of the 'Coastal Hazards and Climate Change' guidance for local government, which was published by the Ministry for the Environment in December 2017.
I hope this summary helps you to quickly get to grips with the core advice being provided by the Ministry for the Environment, and to consider how you can apply this framework to your area of responsibility.
The MfE guidance will be welcomed at a regional level, to support the development of overarching plans by regional and unitary council as it will encourage nationally consistent approaches to climate change adaptation.
However, the guidance also notes “some plans which focus on a particular issue may be a subset to the overall strategy or plan, contributing to asset and reserves management plans”.
That means individual staff members in district and unitary councils who need to plan for climate change adaptation related to stormwater, flood risk, land drainage and other issues can also use this framework. This will ensure more localised and issue-specific plans will integrate well with the larger scale regional plans, when these are completed.
The MfE guidance offers a range of options for creating a plan — so people working on smaller scale plans could choose to adopt the lower cost approaches to coastal hazard assessments (such as reviews of existing reports and problems, and discussions with experienced staff), and less resource-intensive options for community engagement (such as interviews with key people).
The guidance differs from previous versions, and from current coastal hazard management practice, with regard to the treatment of uncertainty (building in flexibility) and the central role of community engagement in the decision-making process.
Here are some of the highlights from the guidance (which are included in the summary):
Our vulnerability to higher sea levels and coastal storm events has never been clearer. It’s timely that guidance for local government on ‘Preparing for Coastal Change’ was released in December 2017 which outlines 10 steps for councils to follow in establishing a plan for adapting to coastal hazards and climate change.
The following summary is based on the more detailed information provided in ‘Preparing for Coastal Change’ and ‘Coastal Hazards and Climate Change — Guidance for Local Government’.
Step 1 — Preparation and context
Set up a multi-disciplinary team, recognising a wide set of expertise, skills and knowledge is needed; make connections with potentially affected communities; and establish (and resource) a work programme.
Step 2 — Hazard and sea-level rise assessments
Identify the extent and magnitude of the hazards, including the effects of rising sea levels on coastal inundation and coastal erosion.
Step 3 — Values and objectives
Identify what and where private property, businesses, local infrastructure and community spaces will potentially be affected by coastal hazards and sea-level rise, and the people who will be affected by these changes.
Use this information to develop objectives to guide the Council’s decision making processes.
Step 4 – Vulnerability and risk
Undertake two different assessments:
Engage with the community to consider the options for adapting to the coastal hazards and sea level rise, including:
Evaluate the options against criteria such as: flexibility, feasibility, ability to meet community values and provide co-benefits, value for money, and environmental impacts.
Step 7 — Adaptive planning strategy (with triggers)
Agree on triggers to be monitored, which will provide early signals that a change in approach is required. Examples of coastal signals that can be useful early alerts include:
Step 8 — Implementation plan
Prepare a plan which sets out the agreed approach, and the trigger points at which new decisions will be required.
Reflect this in all relevant council plans and strategies, including resource management plans, asset management plans and the long term plan (which will need to identify how implementation of the plan will be financed).
Step 9 — Monitoring
Develop new monitoring systems (at a regional rather than a district level) which focus on the impacts on coastal areas. Monitoring of the effectiveness of the climate change adaptation plan will also be required.
Step 10 — Review and adjust
Regularly review the plan to reflect both changing risk levels and any new tools for managing hazard risk.
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.
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."