Spearheading a collaborative approach

19 December 2012

Spearheading a collaborative approach to cleaning up the Manawatu River

Agreeing there is a problem

Getting everyone in one room and agreeing there is a problem is half the solution. This approach worked for Horizons Regional Council (Horizons) when it was faced with growing public concern about the Manawatu River. It is an approach that Chief Executive, Michael McCartney, believes would work for any organisation facing issues that involve a wide constituency with often conflicting views.

The state of the Manawatu River had been contentious for several years, but, by 2009, media headlines were proclaiming it to be the “dirtiest river in the world”. There was general outrage across the country and internationally, and everyone was blaming each other, Mr McCartney recalls. The problem was that the Manawatu River flows through a number of farming properties, territorial authority boundaries, and national parklands. It starts on the Hawke’s Bay side of the Ruahine Ranges and ends at the sea near Foxton Beach. There were also a number of reasons why it had become so polluted, including waste pipes and farming effluent going straight into the river.

Community concerns were directed at Horizons. “We were expected to do something,” recalls Mr McCartney. “But, as a regional council, we did not own cows or have pipes in the river, so we couldn’t effect any change directly.” What Horizons did have was a regulatory lever in the form of its regional plan and experience in community consultation.

Efficiency is about delivering solutions in a way that is cost-effective and meaningful. It is a fiscal term. Effective is about "are those solutions delivering the outcomes you want?"

In 2010, Horizons invited some 30 people, including mayors, farmers, environmentalists, iwi, and regional and central government representatives, to meet with an independent facilitator. The first step was to agree that the state of the river was an issue. It then took some six months to come up with the Manawatu Leaders’ River Accord, setting out what they wanted to achieve. Almost nine months later, the group had an agreed action plan, incorporating some 140 streams of work, which shared the burden between all parties. “But once we had all agreed there was a problem and that we needed to do something, the hard work was over,” says Mr McCartney.

Running in parallel to this process was the development of the Government’s Fresh Water Policy, which also made $15 million of funding available over two years to organisations wanting to clean up waterways. “We were poised and ready to apply, and have since received $5.2 million for the Manawatu,” says Mr McCartney. By joining forces, the group has since leveraged $28 million over 10 years in local investment for cleaning up the river. The Ministry for the Environment has helped fund eight projects, and district councils are, at the time of writing, ordering pipes and other materials to transfer their waste discharge from the river to land-based filtering units.

Horizons holds the purse strings for all funding received to clean up the river. It has contracts with individual project owners that funds are released only if they meet the outcomes identified in the joint action plan. If an organisation doesn’t do what it has agreed to, Horizons can use its regulation “stick”, demanding change by setting tougher rules, but Mr McCartney says this is a last resort. “Our intention has always been to give ownership of the challenges, and the solutions, to the community.”

“It’s now all go,” says Mr McCartney. “By getting together and recognising we all had a part to play, we are not spending resources and energy on fighting issues but are working together as a community.” The group meets twice a year to review results and look at the next year.

In addition to initiating the collaboration process, Horizons has also provided support and “de facto leadership” to the collective. “We did all the donkey work as everyone else was participating voluntarily and didn’t have time, effectively meaning we lead from behind,” says Mr McCartney.

Data has yet to come in on whether the initiative has improved water quality, but Mr McCartney considers the change in mood and the absence of media headlines as clear indicators that they’re on track to clean up the river. Horowhenua District Council has approached Horizons to see whether it could make a similar arrangement to clean up its lakes.

Should Horizons do this all again, Mr McCartney says he would do two things differently. He would dedicate resource to supporting the collective rather than ask staff to add it to their business as usual work. He would also engage more closely with mayors and councillors at the outset. “You need to manage the politics,” he says. Otherwise, “the concept is great”. “The role of local government is to enable this kind of thing to happen but you have to be willing to relinquish a bit of control every now and then.”

Based on an interview with Michael McCartney, Chief Executive, on 27 June 2012. Originally published on http://www.oag.govt.nz/2012/efficiency-stories/horizons-regional-council