Anything but Con-de-senting for SMEs

When the manager of resource consents at Auckland Council called last week to ask if she could buy me a coffee, my mind immediately jumped to tree houses.  

My daughter had told me she wanted one ''so badly''. And that's exactly what I was doing - building one badly - in a protected Pohutukawa tree on Auckland's waterfront - without a consent.  

Did I need resource consent to build a tree house?

So I hung up. This is Auckland after all, where the only thing harder than getting a waterfront consent is maintaining cell phone reception during a call.  

About an hour later my phone rang again; another blocked number. Typical, five bars when all I wanted right then was a black spot.  

This time it was the customer services and engagement manager of the resource consents division.  

She was ringing to apologise that her boss' call to me had dropped out as she drove through a black spot.  Her boss was now in a meeting. So, how about that coffee?

And then came the reason: to discuss what Auckland Council can do to help small business.

Long pause, on my part, followed by, "Sorry, I must be in area with poor cell coverage. What did you say?"

"Oh, so you're in central Auckland", came the reply. We both laughed.

The meeting I subsequently walked into, after sheepishly and unfairly bemoaning telcos, was held at Auckland Council's humble, yet functional, resource consents office on the city fringe.  

I was greeted by the ebullient Monique Oomen, who had arranged the meeting, and ushered in to meet the boss, Heather Harris. Another round of jokes about cell coverage.  

I walked out an hour later with a clear impression: both women want to make a positive difference for small business.  

They had been following the discussion threads on the New Zealand SME Business Network on LinkedIn, and through the wider media, and were keen to learn more about the needs of Auckland's small business owners.  
How can they help by reducing, or at least streamlining, some of the issues raised about the stifling effects of red tape on SMEs?    

Now this needs to be put into context. The Auckland Council amalgamation has been the largest corporate organisational transformation in New Zealand's history. It has bought together 10,500 people, eight organisations, 3500 IT systems (yes, the two zero's should be there), 4,000 parks, 72 locations and $30 billion on the balance sheet. It's the largest council in Australasia.

As for the resource consents division, Harris has a big job. She is boss to 275 planners, 110 compliance and monitoring staff, 82 development engineers and another 80 administrators. Around 550 staff spread across eight locations.  

And she still fit in time for a coffee with me.

Why? Small business owners are a major part of the council's constituency. Harris and Oomen recognise this and want to deliver value to their customers - SME owners and managers.  

Their goal over the next year is simply to become more customer focused. Imagine the increase in performance if all business owners throughout New Zealand achieved just this one goal?

While I don't know the aspirations of other council divisions, this one, Consents, seems to be readying itself for Auckland's future growth.   

And the plan, a seemingly simple one on the surface, is to make sure their customers - Auckland's small business owners - receive better and more timely communications, together with consenting process certainty.

That should mean a reduction in working days to get consent approval.  

It's easy to throw stones at Councils; most of us have done it and often it's justified. But sitting inside the glasshouse of the Consents division, as I did last week, listening to senior managers'  genuinely talk about their concerns for small business owners, I couldn't help but see a better future for small Kiwi business battlers.
And as for my daughter's tree house, I'm left with the distinct feeling that while it might get through the consent stage, it will fail abysmally during any building inspection.    

Tenby Powell is an entrepreneur, builder of organisations, and the driving force behind the New Zealand SME Business Network. Follow him on Twitter at tenbypowell.