Name changing nuttiness

Can we get any nuttier in our capital city, with the proposal, to change the name of the internationally well-known cricket ground, the “Basin Reserve”, to, “Support Women’s Sport Basin Reserve?”

The promoters of this cultural and sporting vandalism are seeking $100,000 to change the name for just two years, as part of a naming rights deal.   The Mayor Justin Lester supports it as does Councilor Fleur Fitzsimons, both of who are on the Basin Reserve Trust.

Fortunately there are some people with a sense of humour who are also raising money to change the name to, “Crickety McCricketface”.  However Councilor Fitzsimons says “Crickety McCricketface” is unlikely to be approved.  As trustees both Justin and Fleur should absent themselves from any decision about naming rights, because there may well be other bids, possibly from a yet to be formed “Basin Reserve” group, and they would be seen as prejudiced assessors.

How on earth would comedian John Oliver handle this?

Name changing lunacy is actually rather too prevalent in the capital.   We had a Vice Chancellor, from Auckland, who tried to change the name of Victoria University of Wellington, but was blocked by Education Minister Chris Hipkins.

It would be great if the same Minister wearing his State Service hat, stopped the Government from changing the names of government departments.   In my working life time we have had the Department of Agriculture become: the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Still MAF) , the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, become the Ministry of Primary Industries, as ministries were created, merged and demerged.

There was the Department of Industries and Commerce become Trade and Industry, then the Ministry of Commerce, then the Ministry of Economic Development and finally this mouthful, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)

Then there was the “Child, Youth and Family (CYF), (New Zealand) agency, which became the Ministry for Vulnerable Children and then renamed “Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children,” all within a matter of months.  Aside from the massive costs of these politically driven name changes, there is also the massive confusion they create in the public mind.

In sharp contract in the USA they basically keep names such as the USDA, their department of agriculture, which was founded in 1862, and their foreign affairs State Department, established in 1789.

Our Parliament recently changed the Education Act so any university wanting to change its name must first get a Parliamentary vote, a tough test.

I suggest an Act should be passed that prohibited state agencies names being changed unless there is a super majority in Parliament – say 60%.  That would cut down on endless mergers and demergers and name changes as well.  A big win for taxpayers!!


Master class in mismanagement

Is it a branding refresh or name change by stealth?  The VUW Vice Chancellor Grant Guildford should not be surprised many are deeply suspicious of his so called branding refresh.  In respect of the name issue there is widespread lack of confidence in his judgment both inside and outside the university.

What we are witnessing is a master class in mismanagement.  The VC has converted a small problem into a monumental one.  The small problem is that for prospective Asian students, the full name – Victoria University of Wellington – is necessary for them to associate VUW with Wellington, New Zealand.   Adding the words New Zealand on the end solves any remaining doubt.  VUW should not have wasted tens of thousands of dollars on Colmar Brunton dollars on proving the obvious.

What is truly amazing to me that VUW is so disconnected from central government, just a few weeks ago it triggered a unanimous fast tracked change to the Education Act, requiring any university that wanted to change its name to get a Parliamentary vote. That would not have happened but for the outrage caused by VUW’s attempt at a name change.  In my many years dealing with the Government as a consultant I cannot recall anything like this.

When the VUW Council decided a few days before that to abandon the name change it said there would instead be a brand refresh and we now have some details on what’s proposed.

The VC appears to have an obsession with “Queen Victoria”, who along with another nineteenth century Brit, the “Duke of Wellington”, has strong links to our capital city.  Having failed with a “big bang” approach it seems the VC wants to achieve his objective with many small steps to make “Victoria” simply fade away, leaving us with Mount Victoria, a CBD street and one statue of her on Cambridge Terrace, while still keeping the Duke’s name.

All the damaging angst and major costs of the past 18 months could have been avoided by making sure the full name is always used when promoting itself overseas, as well as the country name, because Wellington is not nearly well enough known internationally as the capital of this country.  Whatever logic they may have, the other costly and confusing sub-brand and URL changes etc are unnecessary and most should be abandoned.

Ironically twenty years ago VUW minimised the word Wellington in its branding so it could claim national status.   All other universities have added “New Zealand” to their names because independent research shows it is important.

Let’s see whether the VUW Council reins in this VC who chooses, I am told, keeps his primary residence in Auckland.

Conservatives, climate change and zealots

One of the mysteries of life for me is how so many “conservatives” blithely dismiss the scientists who believe human created climate change is a real problem that must be addressed on several fronts.

As a non-scientist I retained a healthy scepticism for some years until the evidence piled up about greenhouse gasses and their likely impact on the climate and sea levels etc.   I think a true conservative would be seriously interested in conservation and thus alert to environmental threats.  I expect a conservative would be prepared to take precautionary action, even when the risk is not proven beyond all doubt.

Fortunately in New Zealand the climate debate has not gone off on the extreme tangents seen elsewhere.  The difference here between National and Labour is not great.   But in Australia and the USA and elsewhere this is not the case, which is a tragedy for the environment and bad for democracy also.

In New Zealand we do have climate zealots who are another mystery for me.  Our contribution to greenhouse gasses is I think about 0.17% of global emissions.  This means if all mammals, including humans disappeared from this country, the global impact would be very close to zip.  People should stop pretending if only we take drastic action the climate would be stabilised.  It won’t and adults should not lead children to believe otherwise.

I think New Zealand should be an internationally responsible citizen and do its bit.   We don’t need to be world leaders but can and should be somewhat better than average.  But at a practical level given the indifferent performance of most countries, we should place more emphasis on mitigating the effects of climate change, particularly rising sea levels.




The upside of contradictory polls

Hopefully the absurdly contradictory opinion polls featured on TV 1 and TV 3 Sunday night, will result in the public switching off both the pollsters and those few political journalists obsessed with them.  The recent Australian experience where the polls failed to predict the Morrison Government victory, should cause everyone to discount this meaningless poll driven journalistic frenzy.

A few years ago I heard a World Bank Economist William Easterley, at a Wellington venue, saying life is about incentives, the rest is commentary.   For some political journalists, clearly their well being will be enhanced by as much political instability as possible, because that’s what creates their news opportunities and job security.   Leadership challenges whether real or imaginary are wonderful fodder for creative minds.

One TV journalist seems to think its her role to topple the National leader Simon Bridges. As everyone knows being leader of the opposition is seriously tough – I worked as press secretary for the late Bill Rowling.  During that time there was significant, but less fevered speculation, about his tenure on the office, which he held until David Lange took over several years later.

I am interested in public policy which requires hard work.   I read we are to spend $1.9 billion on mental health services over four years.   Where is the report saying how much more that it is compared with the last four years, exactly how will the money be spent, and how will we know whether it achieves the sought goal?

There are a few journalists who do credible public policy work.   They include Hamish Rutherford, Pattrick Smellie, Fran O’Sullivan, Brian Fallow, Liam Dann and Simon Collins.   However most of what comes out Parliament is about the “Game of Politics”, not news and analysis of real public policy issues.

I accept the Game of Politics is legitimate territory but the balance between that, the serious business of Government is hopelessly out of balance.   I would like to see a halving of coverage of the Game and a quadrupling of national affairs and public policy writing.   The future of our democracy depends on an informed electorate.   The mass media, which I well know is struggling financially, is presently falling well short.



Kiwibuild – a simple fix

The underlying problem Kiwibuild is trying to fix, is that houses simply cost too much because the land is too expensive, and we don’t have enough scale builders to build affordable housing.

The land cost issue is essentially regulatory and requires the Government to confront this reality and amend the relevant statutes including the RMA.   I don’t believe we need a Housing Urban Development Agency (HUDA), if a quality job is done the regulatory environment, and maybe better policies to handle the associated cost of providing the infrastructure.

If the Government wishes to continue with Kiwibuild, a simple fix would be to simply commission the houses in line with current policies, and then sell them at market prices to anyone who wants to live in them.   Many first time buyers don’t want a new house, they want one at a reasonable prices in an area that suits.

This approach would help develop the scale building industry and level off house prices.  However it ought to be phased out after say about seven years, leaving the market to take over.  It took 40 years of poor housing policies to create the current over priced sector.   A few years of quality Government action is required fix it.   But let’s not make it too complicated.



Hipkins radical plan for ITPs and ITOs

Education Minister Chris Hipkins proposes all 16 institutes of technology or polytechnic (ITPs) be merged into one NZ Institute of Skills and Technology, and that some key roles for industry training organisations (ITOs), be stripped from them and relocated inside the Tertiary Education Commission.

Unlike the proposed capital gains tax, the complexities of proposed vocational education and training arrangements, will likely escape the attention of most kiwis.

Having done public policy work with six large ITPs from 2008-2013, I can understand why the Minister concluded radical change is necessary.   Too many ITPs are failing because they cannot adapt to changing circumstances, including changes in government policies.  There is also a lack of accountability.

Many will wonder why, despite all the expenditure, do we have such a shortage of building industry tradies?   And while twilight golf may have gone, are we really confident that all courses being funded add real value to the economy and society?

Whether intentional or not, conflict has been built into the current model between ITPs and ITOs.  The whole system is absurdly complex and clunky.  With limited taxpayer resources we should not be paying for this.

The accountability issue could have been dealt with by making the ITPs into companies – the directors risks for trading while insolvent would have sharpened the minds of Councillors.  However that option would have been unacceptable for many.

For many, a monolithic single ITP will be a scary prospect, particularly in those regions with successful ITPs doing their own thing.   While it might achieve some administrative economies, it could also stifle creativity.  The fears of ITPs could be diminished if the new structure embedded a high level of decentralised decision making in existing ITPs.  However if that was done too rigidly then nothing else much might change.

An alternative approach considered by Hipkins, would be to merge existing ITPs into a much smaller number.   That would be my preference.  I favour just three or four with one for the south Island.  But his single over arching ITP deserves serious consideration.

While pondering how to sort out this sector, Hipkins could usefully also rationalise his own agencies by shifting the tertiary role of the NZQA into the Tertiary Education Commission.   I have worked with both agencies and don’t believe at that time they worked seamlessly together.

More generally I think we have created too many state agencies, partially on the basis that operations and policy are two separate worlds.   One informs the other.  Given the small population size and shortage of CEO candidates, its more cost efficient to have fewer state agencies, not more.

A cost efficient vocation and training sector (VET) is essential, and I hope enough involved can put aside their narrow personal interests to achieve that result.  Germany does VET very well – we can learn from its experience.

Town Hall seismic upgrade – fiscal warning

All Wellingtonians should take a close interest in the proposal to upgrade the old Town Hall to 100% NBS, because this is going to be seriously expensive, and will increase rates.  At present the Council does not know what it will cost and most likely won’t until the project nears completion, assuming it goes ahead.

The comprehensive report is on the WCC website.   It makes for scary reading.  There are so many unknowns, which are identified but cannot be quantified.   The experience of Fletcher Building and others in recent times has made contractors very cautious about pricing.

The Wellington Town Hall could well be the riskiest major project in New Zealand.

If all goes well we will end up with a Town Hall that is safe and good for the Mayor and staff and the proposed Music hub.  It will cost the estimated $112 million plus no more than the secret “contingency”.   Having being involved in two rebuilds in recent years I seriously doubt “all will go well” – it would be nothing short of a miracle if it did.

The Council should not take too much comfort from the consultants views  – they will be paid for their advice and have nothing more at risk.

Apart from essentially writing a blank cheque for the seismic upgrade, the Council has two other options.   One is upgrade to a lower standard which means the building would be used by different parties.   The other is demolition, which has been rejected on the grounds it is a heritage building.  A pity that wasn’t thought of when the Michael Fowler centre was built hard up against the Town Hall, and the plan was then to demolish it.

The Town Hall upgrade is not the only civic building needing seismic work and all should be assessed at the same time.  It may well be the best long run solution is demolition of the Town Hall and possibly other adjacent buildings.

I support retaining heritage buildings wherever practicable, but not at any cost.   On the basis of the WCC paper I could easily envisage how the current price might escalate further on a massive scale.  By then many on the Council will have changed and those remaining will say we have no choice but to go on.

Before making an irrevocable decision the Council should consider a new building(s) using modern building techniques.   Far better to consider the new option before the point of no return.