New city boss fit and ready to go

Last updated 12:00 31/05/2014
Dr Karleen Edwards

IN THE HOTSEAT: Dr Karleen Edwards.

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The Christchurch City Council has finally hired a new chief executive after nearly a year being without. So does Dr Karleen Edwards have the right stuff to sort out the city's woes? JOHN McCRONE reports.

You think: Why would you? Closely followed by: Who could even do it? Surely being the new chief executive of a cash- strapped and brow- beaten Christchurch City Council is about as daunting a prospect as it gets.

The previous incumbent, Tony Marryatt, left with his reputation in tatters. And the new council table, led by Mayor Lianne Dalziel, has been elected on the promise of achieving radical transformation despite finding a half-billion-dollar gap in its budget and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee reluctant to release his grip on the city.

So has Dr Karleen Edwards, a psychiatrist turned health administrator, got secret superhuman powers that won her the job? Maybe all we need to know is five days a week she likes to get up and hit the gym by 5.30am.

"I feel virtuous all day. I get grumpy if I miss," says Edwards. Well, that ticks the superwoman box for me.

The revelation makes it less surprising that our interview has been arranged for the ungodly hour of 8am on a Monday. At the council office cafe, Edwards is perched in her seat, perfectly manicured, sipping a watery cup of tea. Fastidious and serious are the words that spring to mind.

And at first the conversation is conducted in stilted management speak it has to be said. Her sentences are peppered with terms like citizen-centric, values-led, aligned for purpose, operational excellence. Spelling out a vision for Christchurch, it is: "vibrant, prosperous, healthy and engaging."

It takes a while for Edwards to loosen up. Presentation-wise she is certainly different from the gruff and blokey Marryatt who would have been more at home with a beer and banter at the other end of a working day.

Mentioning Marryatt, it is a shock to remember it has been almost a whole year since he was stood down, placed on gardening leave, after the council was stripped of its building consenting accreditation. A final straw that also let to ex-mayor Bob Parker deciding not even to contest last year's council election.

So the announcement of the replacement chief executive might not seem to matter that much if the council can run for so long without one?

Speaking separately to Dalziel about the appointment, the mayor was quick to explain why Edward's arrival is in fact crucial - the final piece of a puzzle.

Dalziel says that, while there has been some "steady-the-ship" restructuring of the council under the acting chief executive, chief operating officer Jane Parfitt, Edwards is coming in with a free hand to change faces and roles as she sees fit. The proper overhaul of the council is still to happen.

Edwards also has the mission of helping the city take back power, finding a way that it speaks again with one voice.

Dalziel says the earthquake recovery has been muddled and stuttering because the old council failed to respond. The Government stepped in to fill the vacuum, but that only led to a defensive circling of the wagons, a seige mentality, which bogged the recovery even further.

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Now June 16 marks the fresh start. Dalziel says that, after an exhaustive interview process, where the council even took the unusual step of consulting community leaders on the sort of qualities the new chief executive must have, 43 names were whittled down to the one that she believes shone out.

It still seems a large job for slim shoulders. Time to get to know Edwards better.

***

In management parlance, Edwards is what you would call proactive. As soon as she read the post had become vacant, a head- hunter firm named, she was on the phone from Melbourne, not waiting for any advertisement.

"I rang up the recruiter who probably thought it was a bit odd, really, but anyway we had a nice chat. So I was always determined that this was what I wanted to do."

Edwards' story is that she is a Christchurch girl, a high-flier in health management, who, after rising to deputy chief executive of the Canterbury District Health Board, jumped the ditch in 2007.

Moving to South Australia, she took on the assignment of reorganising seven Adelaide hospitals into a pooled arrangement, the Central Northern Adelaide Health Services.

Edwards admits there were hard changes to sell to staff even though the benefits of the restructuring were huge. "It was imposed by government so people weren't prepared for it."

Accomplishing this, she moved to become first Victoria's chief of mental health, then the founding chief executive of Victoria's Commission for Hospital Improvement - the best job in the entire health sector, she says.

"It's a very positive role because it's all about innovation. We don't have to say no to people, in fact we have to say yes and figure out how to do it. So I was asked to establish the commission and it's ticking over really well."

But all the time she was looking back at Christchurch and watching how it was faring after the earthquakes.

Edwards was raised near Hornby and went to Hillmorton High. She has a mother, two sisters and their families still living in Christchurch. Her husband, John Moody, grew up in Papanui and was a student at St Bede's.

Moody is an industrial chemist who co-founded a manufacturing business in Christchurch and sold it before they left for Australia. They also sold their large Mt Pleasant home.

But Moody has continued to manage a Christchurch investment property portfolio which includes industrial units, Edwards' mother's Cashmere townhouse, and a section in Scarborough where they eventually hope to build.

So they were not just vicariously worried about what life was like for their families, they have been caught up in many of the same insurance and consenting battles, says Edwards. A first-hand taste of the post-quake bureaucracy.

Edwards says her husband is the easy-going sort, happy to fit in with her career moves, for instance. However, being a recent customer of the council's consent department has been "challenging", she agrees with a quick laugh.

The likelihood is that they would always have returned. But the chief executive position has brought her back perhaps 10 years early. At 52, this is now her life's big move.

"It is a unique opportunity to build a city of the future. I mean, how many people get to do that? But then there is also the underlying thing that I've seen people doing it really hard. I have a strong sense of public service and I really want to assist in some way.

"It sounds trite but I would come over to give my family what help I could, then fly back to Melbourne to a nice luxurious place to live and everything. So I always felt I could be doing more."

What then are her qualities and how will she approach the task?

Again, Edwards begins talking in organisational jargon. As well as qualifying as a psychiatrist in Dunedin, Edwards has a masters degree in business (with distinction) from Canterbury University and last year topped that up with a Harvard high- performance leadership course. A certain earnestness shows.

Also, she says, it is hard to be specific about any reforms she has planned before she even has her feet under the desk. Edwards is in Christchurch a few days largely to house-hunt and catch up with her family.

However, in terms of personal qualities, it is clearly an advantage - if not essential - that she is a Christchurch local and yet comes with an outsider's perspective. She is neither entangled in the existing internal politics of the council, nor aligned to any of the power groups within the city.

Then more important was that the council table was seeking someone who could reform a council culture which had become inward-looking, corporate and bureaucratic. Edwards says that, with her background in health management, a more modern people-focused organisational style is exactly what she knows.

Edwards doesn't use the words herself, but she acknowledges the criticism of the city council that, over the past decade, it has developed a fortress mentality.

Under mayor Garry Moore and his chief executive Lesley McTurk, and then continuing more strongly under the "Bob and Tony show" of Parker and Marryatt, the council grew into a "we know best" technocracy.

A lot of that was simply a reflection of general changes in local government - the adoption of corporate efficiency models and a service-delivery mindset. Consultation with the public became largely superficial because council officers believed they already knew the right answers. More important became centralisation and control, and along with that, silos and secrecy.

Before the earthquakes, ratepayers grumbled a bit about this but were mostly happy to have a city run on their behalf. Only the business community got particularly uppity, feeling its own say was being stifled. But, after the quakes, the insularity and inflexibility of the corporate model really showed.

Edwards says that, like local government, the health sector has also been through a corporatisation phase, with its emphasis on market disciplines and internal controls, but since has moved on to the kind of thinking that Dalziel wants to implement.

"In health, there're lots of similarities with where Lianne wants to take things. Such as transparency - being really open about performance and decisions. And involving patients in the design of the services."

Edwards says hospitals publish surgeons' complication rates, for example. Patients have rights to their medical records. It has become normal for patients to expect to have a say in how their own care is managed. The health sector has learned to begin with the patient's point of view.

"Initially, managers were worried that if you asked, patients would want everything. But they don't. They're really sensible. What they want is to know that they will be treated with dignity and respect, that they can access services in an emergency, and largely that they can manage their own health needs."

Local government can be revolutionised by taking the same "citizen-centric" approach, Edwards says.

But as a chief executive, what will she actually do? Edwards says it will start by spelling out the council's general values. Staff have to understand there needs to be a shift from an inward to an outward focus. And then it becomes about examining every process to redesign it from a ratepayer's standpoint.

Edwards says she took the chance for a first informal tour of the council offices last Friday and began with a visit to the call centre on the principle that the frontline is where you get the clearest picture of how an organisation is performing.

"What they said was they want the information to respond to people. They don't want to fob them off. But also when they have to refer people on, they need to know they're going to be dealt with.

"So that means staff don't think that calls to the council are only the responsibility of the call centre. Where the expertise lies elsewhere, those people have to be just as responsive."

Going around the building, she had another such conversation with the infrastructure team. There a complaint was how it required three parties to connect a sewerline for a new subdivision. The council, the developer and the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (Scirt) all had to turn up for a site meeting.

A small bugbear. But Edwards says this is how bureaucracy mounts up. Uncovering and fixing these kinds of tiny inefficiencies one by one will eventually lead to significant change in an organisation.

Surprisingly, Edwards then offers a precise timeline on what the public should expect from her. That efficient business training again.

"I've set myself some goals. I would say in six months' time, people will see a lot more transparency around the council - understanding how decisions are made, where they're made, what those decisions are.

"In six to 12 months, perhaps they'll feel more engaged, as will the staff. And they will see there is a vast improvement in some of the processes they interact with.

"Then in 24 months, we'll see a much more financially sustainable organisation. So those worries about budgets - a lot of that will have settled down."

***

In interviewing a strong field of candidates, Dalziel says what stood out about Edwards was her track record of doing, coupled to a belief that the job is about people.

One of the reasons, Edwards says, she became a psychiatrist is that she is interested in people's stories. And her favourite reading is biographies. But Dalziel adds that the background checks from Australia summed her up as firm and fair. "The feedback was she would not back off the hard decisions."

Talking more about the council's challenges ahead, Dalziel says she means it when she says the current council wants to remake local democracy. The opportunity created by the earthquakes will not be wasted.

Dalziel says this is why she is suggesting changing committee structures again.

The other goal is getting the Government started with the transition of power back towards the council.

And Edwards is important to that, says Dalziel. As part of her informal networking during last week's visit, Edwards had a cup of tea with Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief executive Roger Sutton.

"Her and I will stand side by side and I hope the city will feel, yeah, they're getting themselves ready to play whatever role they have to play."

So clearly Dalziel believes Christchurch is lucky to find a chief executive of Edwards' calibre. Others around the council table, like strategy and planning subcommittee chair Jamie Gough, seem equally impressed.

"It was important we employed someone who was strong in a financial capacity, but also that change agent who could embed cultural change," says Gough.

"Then there was the human element, too - it had to be someone who got it, who got the pain the community has been going through. It is a bit of a Mission Impossible task, so we wanted to find that person who was the superman or superwoman."

Publicly, Edwards is unlikely to make great waves. She seems too controlled for any loose or inflammatory talk. She is not going to dominate the stage.

However, if it is true that she hits the gym daily at 5.30am, already planning the day ahead as she pumps her weights, there will be someone who is going to drive the council in whichever direction the council table wants it pointed.

So memo to her new Hereford St colleagues: Prepare to be bang on time, bright-eyed, shoes polished, hair straight, come D-Day, June 16.

- The Press

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