Have you ever gone to a training session, made lots of notes, then done nothing with them when you returned to work? That's what happened after I completed an online business case writing course back in August last year.
When I finally got around to reviewing my notes on a rainy Sunday morning I realised a lot of the disciplines of business case writing can also serve us well when writing reports. These include:
Here's a link to the short version, if you prefer to digest information as infographics or would like a printable reminder of the key points.
Digging deep — finding the root of the problem
Defining the cause of a problem can be the hardest part of the whole process, but it’s important to do this early on because it will guide everything else.
The New Zealand Transport Agency has prepared a practice note on Root cause analysis in business case development. One way to get beyond problems and consequences to the underlying cause is to start with the initial problem statement and ask ‘why’ up to five times. This often involves moving beyond a problem with a physical asset to identifying a process or system that needs to change, which will lead to a different solution.
It’s better to have more than one potential solution to the problem to choose from, but not too many. These options should be markedly different from each other, and shouldn’t include options that are not realistic due to time or money constraints.
If, after completing your options assessment, there is more than one viable option, you can consider including a second best option. This gives your decision makers another choice, if the preferred option does not appeal for some reason.
Testing the viability of an idea
A business case (and a report) is a vital test to decide if a project is viable. It can save an organisation a lot of money if it leads to a realisation that an option is doomed to failure. It is therefore important to remain open to this conclusion, and avoid being overly focused on persuading councillors and other stakeholders that your initial idea is the best solution.
Showing strategic alignment
A strong theme of the online business case training is the need for alignment — which means there is a clear line of sight from the top (vision and mission) through to the objectives of the current proposal, the strategy to achieve it, and the action plan.
It is therefore worth examining these different elements in detail, even if they aren’t explicitly discussed in your report, rather than just plopping the most relevant community outcome into the required section your report. (Although, if it’s a council report, you’ll probably have to do that as well.)
The vision is about connecting what’s happening now, with the future — where the organisation wants to be in 5–10 years’ time. It may be that the vision of the whole organisation is too high level to specifically guide your project (and you need to establish a more specific one) but you will still need to ensure your project doesn’t contradict the organisation-wide vision.
The mission is about why the organisation exists, and where it is now, the range of services it offers to who, and how it does it. The mission helps to keep an organisation focused.
In the case of councils, strategic objectives are likely to relate to at least one of the four well-beings (social, economic, environmental or cultural well-being of communities). Objectives need to have at least one performance indicator, that is precise, unambiguous, available at reasonable cost, and quantifiable. You need to be clear on who is responsible for collection of this information. Access to baseline information related to the performance is also important, in order to be able to measure progress.
A strategy outlines the timeline and allocation of resources to make the vision a reality.
The action plan is a list of who is doing what, when. You need to be able to trace the vision and mission in the action plan. Importantly, if there’s no alignment, it can lead to lack of executive support and cooperation by others in the organisation.
Communicating with stakeholders
The RACI model is an interesting variation on the ideas I discussed in last month’s article on community engagement planning.
R = responsible (the person or people who perform the work)
A = accountable (the person who is accountable for the work being completed)
C = consulted (subject matter experts)
I = informed (those stakeholders affected by the project, who need to be kept informed).
The online business case training recommends using this RACI framework to determine who to communicate with during the writing process. It makes sense to collaborate with those responsible or accountable for the work, and to consult with subject experts (particularly on the options assessment criteria and their relative weighting). Providing stakeholders with a copy of your draft report is an easy way to share your thinking (and to seek feedback if you choose to consult rather than just inform them).
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Are community engagement plans magically whipped up by the communications advisers at your council, or do you have to come up with them yourself? Even if they are mainly done for you, subject matter experts can definitely add value to them.
While there is no one structure that’s ideal for every situation, here are the matters to be considered when developing or contributing to an engagement plan. (If you prefer to listen rather than read, please click on the video above.)
Goals for engagement
It’s worth finding out if your council already has some generic engagement goals which you can adapt to your specific topic. A good place to look for these will be your council's significance and engagement policy.
Summary of the project
I find it really valuable to summarise the key elements of the project, as this provides the context for the engagement, and leads naturally to thinking about who is likely to be most affected by the issues, or to have more than a general interest in the outcomes.
Create a list of people who are affected by, or have an interest in, your project, and note the specific impacts and interests for each stakeholder type.
The NZTA stakeholder engagement plan template provides a comprehensive option to consider adapting (or simplifying) at this stage in your process (see pages 3–4 of the NZTA document).
Consider whether you are seeking to inform, consult, involve or collaborate with other people in order to complete your project. The appropriate level of engagement may be different for each stakeholder group.
Page 11 of the Queensland Government’s Community Engagement Toolkit for Planning outlines the full IAP2 spectrum of public participation, and includes useful definitions of what it means to inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower, as developed by the International Association of Public Participation.
Pages 3–7 of the Shire of Northam Community Engagement Plan provides valuable examples of community engagement strategies for the three participation levels of inform, consult and involve. Guidance on choosing an appropriate level of engagement is provided on page 8 of the Shire Plan.
At this stage, I find it useful to populate the following sentence for each stakeholder type:
Depending on the complexity of your project and the number of stakeholders involved, it may be too cumbersome to include this level of detail for each stakeholder in your final community engagement plan. Grouping common elements is a good way to reduce repetition in your engagement plan.
Methods of engagement
This Global CCS Institute document Establishing a Communication and Engagement Plan provides a useful list of methods to consider when developing your plan.
The notes on engaging with specific groups including older people and young people (on pages 53–57 of the Queensland document) are also worth reviewing when selecting your methods of engagement.
Glyn Walters (Marlborough District Council's Communications Manager) notes it is well worth considering what opportunities there will be for face to face engagement, which is often overlooked by councils. He also advises that if one of your engagement methods is social media, you will need to consider how you are going to manage feedback received this way.
Review your engagement plan
The Queensland document has a useful checklist for identifying any gaps in your engagement plan (see pages 13–14).
Once you have come up with your ideal engagement plan, it’s time to consider your budget and the staff time available to implement your plan.
Glyn Walters says it's important to have a project team in place to share the load of delivering the plan. This can include subject experts as well as people to facilitate workshops, prepare written communications, provide graphic design elements, and manage the digital aspects of the process.
If money and time are in short supply, consider what actions could be modified or removed from the plan while still achieving your engagement goals.
If you will be primarily responsible for implementing the plan, consider if there is anything on the list that you will dread doing. Is there someone else you can involve in the project who would be better at that particular engagement activity? If not, is there a way to modify the activity to be more achievable for you while still achieving your engagement goals?
How are you going to record feedback and then integrate feedback from all engagement methods? And, at the end of the process, how are you going to communicate the project outcomes to the people who participated in your engagement process?
What questions can you include in your plan to help you to reflect on whether you achieved your engagement goals? One way to do this is to copy over the original engagement goals and turn them into practical questions to reflect and report on at the end of the process.
Do a job badly enough and you won’t be asked to do it again. That’s a commonly held belief, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I took TERRIBLE photos during vox pop Wednesdays in my first year as a journalist at the Hamilton Press. No matter what settings I tried, I couldn’t get the hang of the flash manual camera.
Yet, back I was sent each week. I guess no one else fancied accosting strangers in the street to ask them a random question, and then ask to take their photo to include the paper, along with their name.
Surprisingly, most people said yes to taking part — and that’s also what happened late last year when I had a number of assignments which entailed launching forth and asking strangers for their views on some council issues. To be honest, it did feel a bit odd and I had to force myself to turn up that first morning. However, once I got into the swing of it, it was a nice change from my more usual, solitary occupations of writing and editing.
The benefits of an on-site survey
If your job is mostly a behind the scenes one, but you could benefit from feedback on a proposal or an issue you’re working on, it’s worth considering doing an on-site survey. That’s because you will hear from a proportional range of people about an issue. (Excluding the ones who skulk past you, desperate not to be approached!)
This contrasts with other forms of engagement which are also valuable (such as asking for written feedback, or for people to come along to a meeting). These options take more personal effort to respond, so you are only going to hear from people who are directly impacted or committed to seeking changes.
What to ask
If you do decide to undertake a survey, plan your questions. Aim to keep the first question as open as possible so you’re not trying to steer the responses in a predetermined direction, and limit yourself to just two or three key questions. (You can note obvious things such as age group yourself, if that’s useful data, without the need to ask.)
Get straight to the point with the first question. This is different from a pre-arranged face to face interview, where you have time to ask a few easy, introductory questions to warm up and build rapport, before launching in to the main issue.
Here’s a suggestion. “I’m so and so from x council, and we’re keen to hear what people think of xxx.” You will be very aware of repeating yourself — but don’t mix up your language too much, because that will affect the consistency of the responses. And remember that each person you talk to is only hearing that question for the first time.
In most cases you won’t need people’s names, or their work roles, but if you do ask for this information, also ask them if you can use their name and/or organisation in your reporting back to council.
What to wear
While it will be valuable to have your council badge on (if you are a staff member), aim to dress in a way that looks similar to the people you will be talking to — which may mean more or less casually than normal, depending on who you need to hear from.
When emails and letters are more useful
If you know who is directly affected by an issue or a council proposal, letters and/or emails are a very efficient way to gain more in-depth, qualitative feedback, while taking into account it will be mostly those people who are seeking changes who will feel motivated enough to reply. Here’s a basic structure for your email and/or letter.
Phone calls are a really good option when you would like to hear from people who are not directly affected by the issue or proposal (and therefore have no strong personal motivation to write to the council, or to turn up at a meeting) but have valuable information or opinions to share. This includes people working in a relevant field with expert or local knowledge, but who are short on time. Contacting you is likely to be a ‘nice to do’ and therefore low on their ‘to-do’ list.
In these situations it’s good to prepare questions ahead of time which quickly get to main point, but phone calls do give you the opportunity to diverge to other questions, as needed, giving you more in-depth, qualitative information.
When to make the time to meet face to face
Face to face interviews take more time, but can be extremely valuable, particularly where there have been ongoing concerns, or it is a significant issue for someone. It gives you the best opportunity to fully understand the impact of an issue or proposal on someone, and to show them that you genuinely care about their point of view. It can mean that something which has been an interesting topic, or just an issue to get sorted and off your desk, becomes much more important to you when you grasp its emotional impact on someone else.
The complexity of climate change, as well as the unpredictable rate of change, can be overwhelming when considering how to respond to these challenges at a district or a regional level. Fortunately, the next infrastructure strategies and asset management plans developed by councils (in 2021) will benefit from new, publicly funded climate change research. The Deep South National Science Challenge is valuable to councils because it covers five key climate impacts.
In summary, this national science challenge will supply local government with critical data to support investment decisions, including assistance with decision making on whether infrastructure services will remain viable in the future.
The research will also be useful to council staff engaging with communities on climate change issues. Lessons from local adaptation to climate change engagement initiatives will be documented and shared.
Advice to the Climate Commission
Another key end-user for the Deep South National Science Challenge is the Climate Commission, which is expected to have a major influence on both central and local government policy for climate adaptation. Providing the best available information about climate change impacts will inform the development of a national framework for assessing climate change risks and vulnerabilities.
Deep South National Science Challenge and the Future Strategy for the Deep South National Science Challenge
At the risk of causing information overload, there are several other national science challenges with particular relevance to local government (website links listed below). Most of them have a newsletter you can sign up for, to receive updates on the emerging research and engagement opportunities.
Please share this article with anyone who may benefit from knowing about these science challenges.
It's nearly that time of year again, when councils will be seeking feedback from the public on a wide range of plans, policies and bylaws.
I've read thousands of submissions. In my experience, the most effective submissions:
I love reading a book in one big gulp during the summer holidays. My favourite this year was ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver.
The present-day story is about a family dealing with the fall out of a number of shocks related to their family, their careers, financial situation and living in a house that is falling down around them.
It is interwoven with a story set at the time Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection (in 1859). Here, a science teacher is living at the same address as the present-day family, and is also struggling with financial and housing woes while facing stiff opposition from his principal to teaching anything about Darwin’s theory. Speaking up for what he considers to be true puts his livelihood and marriage at risk.
Apart from recommending this book as a great read, I’m writing about this because it has so much resonance with our work in the local government sector. It’s a book about adaptation on multiple levels.
Some of the challenges ahead of all of us include transitioning to a low-emissions economy, finding new ways to fit into the economy as technology changes the types of work we can do, as well as adapting to climate change impacts.
In ‘Unsheltered’ Barbara Kingsolver gives readers insight into how it feels to suddenly become a whole lot less secure even when you’ve played by all of society’s rules and feel like you shouldn’t be in an insecure situation. Everyone responds differently. For example, within Willa’s family she is the worrier and her husband is more naturally optimistic that it will all work out. Her son gets involved in the new economy of carbon credit trading while her daughter focuses on doing more with less resources. And Willa’s father-in-law just turns pro-Trump talkback radio up louder, doggedly refusing to consider the reality of how the world is changing.
It’s a really valuable reminder of how people are likely to feel and to react as the local government sector takes actions which affect people’s homes, such as writing rules related to coastal and flood risk hazards, or considering a reduction in infrastructure where this is becoming unsustainable.
Just as in Darwin’s day, when a paradigm shift occurs we can’t ignore the facts, or avoid taking action — we just have to be prepared for a big range of responses and be open to finding new ways to adapt to changing conditions.
P.S. Here's a summary of Darwin's four principles of natural selection, as outlined by Thatcher (the science teacher in 'Unsheltered').
1. Individuals within a population have variable traits.
2. Traits are inherited.
3. More plants and animals are born than live to old age.
4. Survival is not haphazard. Creatures differ in their ability to survive, not by chance but owing to traits they inherit.
For example: "Among speckled rabbits in snow country, fortune falls to those whose coats are white, like the Arctic hare, which hides well from its enemies. The hare did not decide to become white. It benefited from generations in which lighter colour won out. This is called adaptation. It can be a structure, like the rabbit's coat. Or a behaviour."
P.P.S. If you enjoy 'Unsheltered' I also recommend:
What role will local government have in New Zealand’s progress towards a low-emissions economy? In this article I reflect on some of the points raised in the Productivity Commission’s Low-emissions economy report and suggest some ways councils may contribute to this fantastic goal.
As Murray Sherwin (the Chair of the Productivity Commission) says in his foreword to the report: “Being asked to advise on how New Zealand can best make the transition to a low emissions economy, while at the same time continuing to grow incomes and wellbeing, is perhaps the most profound and far-reaching mandate the Commission could be tasked with.”
From the Low-emissions economy report
The overall levels of additional forest by 2050 ranges from 1.5 to 2.2 million hectares.
Local government implications
From the Low-emissions economy report
The area of land used for horticulture may remain stable at 0.5 million, double to 1 million hectares or triple to 1.5 million hectares by 2050. However, there are significant barriers to changing over to horticulture including:
Local government implications
From the Low-emissions economy report
Medium-sized electric vehicles (EVs) are likely to cost about the same as a fossil fuel vehicle by the mid-2020s.
Since EVs are also much cheaper to run — the equivalent to paying 30 cents a litre for petrol in today’s prices — and have lower maintenance costs, EVs would significantly undercut fossil-fuel vehicles on total cost of mobility. However, even with rapid growth in EV sales, the transition will take decades as many of us buy second hand cars.
Local government implications
Councils have the following options to consider:
Need for new renewable electricity generation
From the Low-emissions economy report
Electricity generation will need to increase by between 45% and 63% by 2050. This growth in demand is likely to be met through geothermal, wind and solar energy sources.
Local government implications
If large scale wind or solar renewable energy generation is occurring in a district or region, there are likely to be consenting issues to consider and potential impacts for neighbours to be mitigated.
There may also be potential for renewable energy generation activities to occur on council-owned land.
Rising fossil fuel prices
From the Low-emissions economy report
Fossil fuel prices are likely to increase. Rising emissions prices will play a role, but changes in oil price and exchange rates could have much larger effects.
Local government implications
Issues to consider include:
Active and public transport
From the Low-emissions economy report
An increase in public transport trips by 30%, cycling trips by 30% and walking trips by 100% over the next 20 years would only achieve a 1% reduction in light passenger emissions.
Local government implications
Based on the statistics above, emissions reductions are not a strong reason for investing in mode shifts. Councils are better to focus on the other benefits of public and active transport, including improving road safety and accessibility, relieving congestion, and achieving gains in productivity.
From the Low-emissions economy report
Ride- and car-sharing services and other technologies that enable ‘mobility-as-a-service’ have the potential to reduce vehicle ownership, travel demand and emissions.
The Government has given funding to two car-sharing projects through the Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund,: $500 000 to Yoogo — a fleet in Christchurch with 100 battery EVs; and $500 000 to Mevo — a fleet in Wellington with 50 battery EVs.
In addition, in 2017 NZTA (jointly with public and private partners) launched two pilot mobile applications for Queenstown and Auckland to connect individuals with different modes of mobility.
Local government implications
Councils may have a role in promoting ‘mobility-as-a-service’ options such as Yoogo and Mevo. If these types of services become mainstream, they will also have implications for parking requirements and inner city land use in the long term.
Supporting the transition to a low-emissions economy
From the Low-emissions economy report
The ability of individuals to acquire new skills over their lifetimes is likely to take on greater importance, not just because of the economic changes resulting from climate change but wider technological advancements, such as automation. However, the current education and training system is not well set up to meet the needs of people seeking mid-career retraining.
Local government implications
Councils may choose to be involved in partnerships with local training organisations (either directly or through arm’s length economic development agencies) to ensure relevant retraining options are available in their communities.
You can access a more detailed summary of the Productivity Commission’s report here.
During a recent spring clean I came across chapters seven and eight of a novel my husband and I were writing five years ago (but abandoned when life got too busy). It’s about the upheaval and outrage that occurs when a community is forced to go without fuel … which seems all the more relevant at the moment with New Zealand’s rising fuel prices and the pain this is causing at a personal and political level. The underlying idea was to explore what withdrawing from our addiction to fuel will look like, and its many similarities to other addictions.
In my fiction writing days people often asked me how I could bear to write a novel with someone else. The key was to have distinct roles. I was generally better suited to the pioneering business of writing the early drafts (and perfecting the proofreading) but Dean was better at adding colour during the structural editing process.
While it wasn’t always easy to hear something needed to be cut or rewritten, it was fantastic to see the more distinctive dialogue, characterisation and descriptions which resulted from this process.
Something similar happened when I came to write Three Steps to Successful Council Documents. My graphic designer (Denise Tombs at DDesign) took the raw material and ran with it. It’s really exciting to see something come together that neither of us could achieve alone.
I get the same buzz from working with council staff with different skills than mine to create documents which benefit from the collaboration. Sometimes I’m responsible for coming up with a first draft for my clients to revise and enhance. At other times they send me their rough draft and it’s my role to look at the structure, and to identify what should be cut and any critical information which needs to be included. In other situations, the content is all in place and it’s just a matter of proofreading what’s there.
I have come to see that even though I love working in my home office, and generally do my best writing and editing work when alone, my work is far from a solo effort. It is just as collaborative now as the work I did while sharing an office with 20 other people — and the three stage writing process helps me to understand what my role needs to be on any particular project.
I hope anyone who downloads my free guide will also benefit from seeing the distinct stages of their writing process — from initial idea to refinement of that message and then polishing it through proofreading. It makes each step in that creative process more enjoyable — regardless of whether you are doing all the stages yourself or sharing the load.
As an example, as I write this article I’m going through all the stages of the process outlined in the guide. I held my nose while typing up the ghastly first draft, and now (several days later) I have scribbled over five different versions of the document as I clarify and then polish that initial idea. Knowing what stage I’m up to helps me to avoid becoming discouraged by the glaring flaws in an early draft.
Three Steps to Writing Successful Council Documents includes:
You can access the guide here.
Creativity might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of the local government sector, but it is becoming increasingly important. As noted in NZTA's practice note ‘Innovation and Creativity in Business Case Development’, yesterday’s solutions won’t solve today’s problems, let alone the ones we’ll face tomorrow. While the NZTA is focused on transport, this is equally true for most of the big issues local government will be tackling in future.
The practice note identifies five steps of creativity: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and elaboration. The first two are divergent (seeking as many ideas as possible), the second two are convergent (making choices in order to finalise an idea) and elaboration is about explaining the idea so that it can become a reality.
While thinking about this topic I have been reflecting on personality types and how this influences my (and other people’s) approaches to ideas generation and selection. As an ISTJ (in the Meyers-Briggs system) my focus tends to be on arriving at a practical solution … but I can see the benefit in staying longer in the divergence phase and taking more time to gather a wider range of ideas. On the other hand, people who prefer the ideas generation phase are likely to benefit from greater focus on narrowing down to a preferred solution and its implementation.
My personality type also explains why vision-related workshops make me want to gnaw my hand! I understand the importance of this process in the hierarchy of council planning documents but I do feel the tension of wanting to know what’s actually going to happen at the end of all the talk about themes and values. (Any other ISTJs out there with bite marks on their hands?)
However, in the spirit of open-mindedness to the divergence stage, I recently discovered a way to generate more ideas than you might think of on your own. I took part in a mini workshop offered by Jennifer Lund in which we practised having creative conversations. First, we worked independently to ‘brain dump’ all our current issues on to the page, categorised them, then chose the one question we most wanted to work on. Then we paired up with strangers to explain our question and listen with an open mind to their responses. Then we listened to the question the other person wanted to work on and gave them suggestions. I found this to be a fantastic way to have a really interesting conversation, to see my question from new angles and gain new ideas, with the added bonus of enjoying coming up with ideas related to other people’s questions.
I can imagine this working really well in a council environment where people of different life experience and job titles could provide genuine insight to colleagues in other departments, and learn about projects and issues they might not otherwise hear about.
This is the stage in which critical thinking comes to the fore, as an essential part of the creative process. The following checklist from NZTA's practice note Critical Thinking and the Importance of Asking Questions provides this guidance on what to consider at this stage.
The NZTA creativity practice note says elaboration is about clearly explaining the new idea in terms of concepts that are already known and understood. An article on the Creativate website takes this further, discussing the elaboration stage as moving from idea into reality. “Within an organisation, this is the stage where the creative idea must become an innovative presentation that is 'bought into' by other members, to help make it a reality.”
Here are some suggestions for expanding on your current process for writing a business case, report or any other council document.
A couple of months ago I published a blog about how my friend Melanie approaches giving a workshop. She mulls on the topic, does some research but writes nothing down. She then launches herself into the live event without even a few bullet points to help her, and trusts that the right words will come. Anything more formalised feels too static for her.
Around that time I received an email asking if I’d like to co-present a workshop on my favourite topic — writing and editing. I said yes and set about coming up with lots of ideas on what to include. I was in my happy place writing up the handouts and the powerpoint slides. As I had a nice lead-in time for these workshops I gave myself two weeks to ignore the fact that I would have to actually stand up and deliver this workshop. I settled back into my usual work life of writing and editing.
Then began two weeks of being pretty terrified. I realised my biggest fear was becoming frozen and not being able to extrapolate from bare bullet points. During this time I received some great advice from others (including Summer Turner), and through trial and error I also figured out a series of small steps that enabled me to move towards getting up in front of an audience.
So, for all of you who just get up and do it, read no further! You don’t need this advice. This is for nervous presenters only, for those of us who have reason to fear the words won’t just magically arrive when we stand up to give a workshop or a presentation.
1. Write it all out
The first thing I had to do was accept that the approach of the natural speakers (the mullers and the bullet pointers) was not going to work for me. In order to know what I wanted to say I had to write out the whole thing. This is the biggest lesson I learnt through this process.
The good news is that even if you are not a natural speaker, there are other ways to achieve the goal of getting up in front of an audience. It takes longer, but it can be done.
I wrote my notes by looking at each slide and then imagining what I would like to say when talking to it. However, it doesn’t pay to get hung up on perfecting these written words, as the content changes as you practise it.
2. Read it out loud
As you read out your full notes associated with each slide, you will hear what jars, or is too cumbersome when spoken out loud. Slash those bits and add the other things you find yourself saying off the cuff.
3. Record yourself speaking to each powerpoint slide
Record yourself speaking to each slide. To do this open your powerpoint presentation on your computer, select ‘Slideshow’ in the menu, then ‘record slide show’. (I just worked on one slide at a time at this stage.)
Look at the slide while speaking, with the aim of reducing the amount of time you are looking at your notes. Listen to that recording, then do it again as an improved version while still having your notes at hand to glance at.
I found this really useful. In all cases the second version was much better.
4. Record yourself speaking to all of the workshop slides
Download the app ‘Easy Voice Recorder’ (or similar) on your Tablet or Smartphone, and speak to all the slides in one go. Again, you can have your notes in front of you, but mostly look at the slides so you are practising saying your message rather than reading it. It will come out slightly differently each time, and that’s fine.
5. Listen to the recording
Listen to the whole recording several times, with your eyes closed. When I did this I was surprised to find I liked what I was saying. (Also that I say ‘um’ a lot!)
6. Listen to the recording again
Listen to the recording an hour or two before your workshop or presentation. This takes less energy than rehearsing it live, but still reminds you of your content.
7. Start small
Start with a small and friendly audience if possible. I was fortunate enough to be able to do a run through with an audience of four people who already cared about the topic.
It has been a pleasure to highlight innovations and collaborations occurring in the local government sector through a series of LinkedIn posts. As I have been sharing them I have been wondering how these ideas came about. Was it one person having a flash of intuition on a better way to do something, and successfully socialising that idea in their organisation? Or was the idea born in a brainstorming session, a one to one discussion or through the positive reception of a public submission?
Were these ideas arrived at using critical thinking (such as asking ‘why’ five times, to really get to grips with the true source of a problem) or was it a flash of insight? Both pathways to innovation are viable — and can be complementary as outlined in the NZ Transport Agency’s excellent practice note on Innovation and Creativity in Business Case Development.
The practice note discusses the value of beginning with divergent thinking where the aim is to think as widely and imaginatively about the problem as possible, followed by convergent thinking, where the aim is to think much more analytically, using critical thinking skills to evaluate ideas and focus on the best option.
Innovation can occur in a number of different ways. I know my best ideas arrive as a consequence of doing three pages of writing every morning. New ideas can also spark into life when people with different perspectives and talents come together in a workshop setting.
The NZ Transport Agency’s practice note says “there is strong evidence to suggest that genuinely new creative insights are associated with situations where people are more relaxed and can give thoughts a chance to incubate”.
Here are my questions for the local government sector.
I booked a flight to Wellington and a Masterton motel. Next minute my smart phone was wishing me a great visit to the Wairarapa … it’s a little unnerving, but companies are not the only ones making increasingly smart use of technology.
Wellington City Council initiatives
Wellington City Council is also embracing technical innovation for the benefit of its citizens. Projects include:
Innovation Officer Sean Audain says these initiatives change the Council’s relationship with citizens and businesses. Good data allows Council to engage more continuously with communities and be more proactive, rather than responding to issues. There are also much greater opportunities for the public to access information collected by the Council, promoting more informed and equal dialogue between members of the community and the Council.
The Council is already collaborating with a number of other agencies. Sean says there are opportunities for the councils in the Wellington region to work together on any really good problem. Examples of collaborations occurring with other agencies include:
The future of council work
What does this emphasis on automation mean for the future of work in a council? It’s highly likely there will be fewer jobs involving manual collection and management of data, as data is handled increasingly efficiently by machines rather than people.
Future council jobs are likely to have a much greater focus on responding to the data. Here are some examples.
Resilience to natural hazards
Wellington’s Smart City approach was a significant advantage when responding to natural hazards such as the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on 14 November 2016. As Sean Audain wrote in his 17 May 2017 article, “the following days involved the assessment of over 1600 multilevel commercial and residential buildings, the cordoning of streets, the evacuation of residents from affected properties and the demolition of the more severely damaged buildings”.
The use of 3D technology enabled staff to show decision makers that the cordoning and closure of the entire central business district wasn’t necessary, saving disruption to lives and loss of economic activity. It also enabled high quality information to be provided to the public across council boundaries. Over the longer term, this technology has enabled the recovery team to understand the patterns of earthquake damage.
Thanks to Wellington City Council Innovation Officer Sean Audain for discussing these initiatives with me. For more information about Wellington’s smart city work please contact Sean at email@example.com
Giving presentations and running workshops are essential elements of many local government roles. Here’s some advice from Melanie Stanton (www.redribbon.nz) who designs and implement workshops and training programmes for businesses and organisations.
What’s the difference between a presentation and a workshop? Do you have a preference?
A presentation involves conveying information, with a question and answer time.
A workshop is interactive. People do stuff, have experiences and talk to their neighbours. I like workshops most because they challenge me. I am interacting on the spot, live, and I don’t know what’s coming. People could be arguing my points. If they do, I give them a high five for courage.
People are their own experts, so it’s good for them to express what they know.
How do you know when a presentation or workshop is going well?
I can sense the level of participation in the room — I can sense when I’ve lost people so I change tack.
Yawning is normally the biggest giveaway, especially when talking about legislation on a Friday afternoon!
What are some of the things people can do to give their presentation or workshop a good chance of being successful?
Know who their audience is and cater for that specific audience.
The best thing to do at the start of a workshop is to have an icebreaker, for example, ask the participants to tell you what they do, and follow up on the response.
In a presentation you need to create a relationship. In a bigger group talk about yourself a bit, and why you are speaking to this group in particular. Show you know who they are – research them so it’s sincere. And talk about the things that really light you up, genuinely.
Do you have any suggestions for someone who is inexperienced with making presentations or running workshops?
Start small, and be generous to yourself by considering how to manage the focus being on you.
Powerpoint can be a good option because people will look at the screen. In a workshop, get the participants to do stuff. This also takes the spotlight off you, so you can have a breather. You can relax and interact with the group.
I do these tricks myself — I like being up there but it is uncomfortable, you are being seen. You can’t pause — it’s happening.
Two key things to remember:
I do lots of preparation. I think about the topic and I read books.
I occasionally go online, but I don’t do this first. There is too much information, it’s overwhelming, and you can feel like everyone’s already said everything about the topic. It is useful for filling gaps.
I think about how I want to present the topic and what I’m passionate about, while taking the audience into account.
It’s about finding your message, what you want to say and how do you want to say it —then the rest just falls into place.
Do you get nervous before a presentation? If so, how do you manage that?
I get nervous, but not anxious. The very first one I did, I put a vase on my presentation desk, with fragrant jasmine. I gave myself a whole lot of treats, to be kind to myself.
I also got there really early, to give myself time to set up, and to feel in control.
What sort of notes do you take with you?
I write a list of bullet points beforehand. But I don’t take it with me.
Notes are not helpful to me, and because it’s what I want to say, I don’t forget it. Some people do take bullet points into a presentation.
In a workshop situation, I provide workbooks, with the powerpoint slides printed out and space to write notes alongside.
Any comments about ‘death by powerpoint’? Is powerpoint a bad option or a valuable aid?
A bad powerpoint presentation is when you write everything up on that and read off it.
It’s even worse if you read it, and then put the same words up for the audience to read.
Only put topics on the powerpoint, not details. For example, in my legislation presentation, I put up snippets of the legislation in a powerpoint to highlight key points, but I didn’t read them out.
Powerpoint should not be the presentation, it is an aid for you.
Any suggestions on using visuals or other techniques to make a presentation interesting?
YouTube clips are great — you can push play and walk away. They are popular.
Microbreaks are a good idea. Give people two minutes to talk to the person next to them or to write down any notes. This also provides a breather for the presenter.
Groups of three where people can talk about their experience work well. People love that because they have lots to say. Give times for these break out discussions. You can adjust it later if everyone is fully engaged.
You can ask other people to contribute but that’s slightly unpredictable.
Physical visuals are also useful. For example, I have used a jug of water and cups to talk about balancing what you are giving out and what you are getting back.
Do you have any other suggestions of ways to build up confidence with presenting?
Talk about your real experiences. People aren’t so much wanting to hear what books say – they want to hear from you.
This type of presentation has a different quality. It’s about bringing stuff to life, and relating it specifically to them. When I’m speaking in this way I’m loving it, because it’s what I want to say.
In a spa pool overlooking Kaiteriteri beach my sister and I pondered the question … where do we want to be in five years’ time? She immediately came up with all sorts of ideas, but I was at a bit of a loss.
The five year horizon is quite blurry to me as I have more of a ‘here and now’ mindset. I find weekly goals easier to arrive at than five year ones. Over the past year I have found it incredibly valuable to ask myself these four questions on a weekly basis.
During the weekly Mastermind conference calls we each responded to the four questions listed above. I found that accountability process really powerful and since then have used the questions as the basis for my own weekly review of progress.
In a council situation they could also be valuable questions to ask in weekly meetings between a manager and a staff member. However, one of the benefits of writing down these responses is the trace it leaves.
Last week I read over my review notes for the past year. I really enjoyed reading the ‘wins’ because it’s human nature to remember the problems and to quickly integrate (and pay far less attention to) the things that work out surprisingly well. (Here’s a podcast on the value of noticing your wins.)
The problems faced and potential solutions section was also an interesting read — to see what I agonised over during the year, and also how clearly stating a problem can prompt the arrival of innovative solutions I would not otherwise have thought of.
Setting goals for the week ahead, knowing that in a week you will be checking which ones were actually completed, provides awesome accountability. It also helps me to set realistic goals, and to appreciate the fact of their completion. (Sometimes my goals include giving myself a break, like not making any progress on a new project until something more urgent is finished.)
If, like me, your year can pass by in a blur, you may also find this a useful way to appreciate all that you do get done, and the breakthroughs you make along the way.
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."
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.