Wayne Brown: Power, port, vaccine rollout. Why are all these stuff-ups happening?

OPINION

So, recently we have had our electricity system fail to deliver power to customers when they needed it most it; on the coldest night of the year.

Our New Zealand Transport Agency has come up with an unrealistic $785m cycling bridge solution that was laughed out of court, accompanied by squandering millions on light rail that was never clearly explained to us. Thankfully, it has been killed off by the last words of Sir Michael Cullen, but it might have been a good idea in the right hands.

This, at a time when the Auckland Council-owned port, in spite of occupying New Zealand’s most valuable land, failed to pay any rates or any dividend or even deliver containers on time. On top of that, our Health Ministry has overseen the slowest vaccine rollout among supposedly developed countries.

So, why is all this happening?

Basically, the wrong people are on the boards, committees and government advisory boards making the decisions. Some folk are quick to blame politicians, who are busy blaming each other, but they are just peripheral observers wondering themselves what went wrong.

Electricity, transport, ports and health systems are infrastructure and that means they are technical engineering and information technology (IT) dominated activities. Yet in New Zealand, unlike most successful countries, our decision-making boards are loaded with accountants and lawyers with hardly any engineers or IT experts present at all. You can’t fix power supply issues by using accounting and legal advice any more than by being kind. In fact, it was accountants and lawyers focusing on profit rather than system reliability that was most to blame for the last power outage.

How did we get to this?

While I have sympathy for the call for more diversity on our boards, it is simplistic and unproductive to interpret this call just to mean gender and ethnic diversity. It should be diversity of skills first and, where possible, take account of gender and ethnicity.

There should be at least two directors with information technology (IT), and two with engineering, backgrounds involved in these decisions. IT leaders are mostly young and reflect diversity, so select these people. The most experienced infrastructure engineers tend to be older who actually made things, rather than the risk-averse, over-safety conscious box-tickers that now prevail. A diverse range of ages would result, along with the right mix of skills to get innovative performance from these failing sectors.

Just look at the lame, bewildered responses from electricity leaders or the poor district health board manager whose IT had been hacked. No wonder politicians are unable to get to the bottom of the latest power failure or the IT hacks, or motorway cost blowouts or why Ports of Auckland has failed so badly.

POAL embarked on a $400m+ automation project apparently justified by a reduction of around 40 staff who they have subsequently had to re-employ from overseas, hence rendering the whole automation project a waste of money. Luckily for them, the mayor – who, in theory, owns the port – still thinks having a port that pays no rates or dividends is good use of $6 billion of land, thereby committing every Auckland ratepayer to a $400 subsidy of the port. Madness.

NZTA needs to come up with innovative solutions aimed at reducing congestion, sensibly priced cycleways and moving freight from trucks to rail, but most of all not wasting money with cost explosions like at Transmission Gulley. This isn’t happening in this accountant-led sector at either NZTA, AT or the Transport Ministry.

For health systems to work and enable our doctors and nurses to work efficiently, there need to be decision-makers who understand the myriad systems that need to operate, such as supply and backup systems for electricity, fibre, data, IT, telco, gases, laundry, hot and cold water, air-conditioning, supply chain, PPE, transport, speciality equipment, medicines and their safe storage, etc. These are all very technical and absolutely essential.

The elected boards and health bureaucrats just aren’t up to the task, so we all suffer.

It’s time for a change. Find the right people. They won’t be reading adverts in the situations vacant section, nor should we be electing failed politicians to lead our councils.

Get people with a track record in the things these sectors do, transport, water, sewer, power, roading, building, IT and comms. Good problem-solvers don’t waste their time on meetings, workshops, talkfests and social gatherings.

• Mangonui-based developer Wayne Brown is a former Far North mayor and was leader of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group.

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