When Aotearoa went into a four-week Level 4 lockdown to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic, a number of local government leaders were left wondering what this would mean for the essential services they provide their local communities. Questions such as, can cemeteries remain open? How can our council safely provide rubbish collection? How do we continue to deliver water and wastewater services? With just 48 hours notice of the lockdown, clarity was needed and it sure was needed fast!

Enter Kevin Lavery, former Chief Executive of Wellington City Council for seven years, who was appointed in March as Taituarā’s National Coordinator for COVID-19 Recovery. Kevin hit the ground running leading our work on the local government essential services response to COVID-19. The COVID-19 Response Unit was established to guide and support the local government sector through the pandemic and in this interview, we get a glimpse of the incredible work undertaken by the Unit during the lockdown to ensure a unified approach and continuity of essential services for the communities the sector serves.

What was Taituarā’s role in the unit?

Taituarā partnered with DIA, LGNZ and NEMA to create a COVID-19 Response Unit around local government services. I was responsible for local government essential services which included a number workstreams; co-ordinating cemeteries and crematorium, water and wastewater, waste management, highways and public transport. All are absolutely critical to a functioning community and if any of these aren’t working, then we’ve got a major problem.

Each of the workstreams were organised into a Zoom virtual group. So for example, in the water space we had Water New Zealand, Wellington Water, WaterCare and a range of small and large councils that provided water services, and we also had the four big maintenance players, Veolia, Downer, Fulton Hogan, Citycare. We would meet twice a week as we went into lockdown to decide on the priorities to protect the public and ensure continuity.

In cemeteries and crematorium, we worked with councils, funeral directors, the police, health and the Ministry of Justice. In waste management, we worked with councils, WasteMINZ and a range of private suppliers. And in the highways we worked with councils, NZTA, the Ministry of Transport and private contractors.

If essential services went down, the consequence of this had the potential to be greater than a COVID outbreak. So if for example, there was community transmission in an area and a local council lost its water treatment engineers, that could be more serious than a COVID outbreak if water services aren’t being maintained – there’s already a severe shortage of water treatment engineers, so it was critical to have plans in place to protect the essential works and maintain the service.

We prepared for the worst but we hoped for the best.

We had to plan as if there was widespread community transmission and what contingency plans would need to be in place.

Within 10 days of the Unit starting we had set up a specialist helpline, through Lutra and Water New Zealand, that was available to councils. The helpline would help in the event a council had lost, for example, a water treatment engineer, and there was an issue with their plant that they needed someone to come and look at.

We even looked at having a specialist flying squad to fly in and run facilities on an emergency basis if needed.

As we moved down the Alert levels, we brought in experts to advise on what the implications were for the sector in moving down Alert levels. From Alert level 3 to level 2, the focus was on getting construction projects that had been paused started up again which was a shift in mindset.

We commissioned work on agile procurement to promote a streamlined approach to procurement allowing visibility of what work is coming up, as a number of the council suppliers had been affected due to less demand from the private sector and the tender process simply could not be the same as it was pre-COVID.

Every day there was a COVID-19 update that would go out at 5.15pm to keep the sector up-to-date.

We provided webinars for the sector as a whole. There were weekly webinars for workers of waste management and water services – sometimes up to 400 people would attend each one. This allowed for two-way feedback – allowing us to keep our feet on the ground by ensuring we heard what worked and what didn’t work and allowed for the front-line workers to ask questions.

Why is it important that we were involved?

When you are in a crisis, it’s actually the people on the ground who are the front face of the public service, they are the ones who actually make a difference and keep things running. The Unit was set up for the people on the ground who make the difference - we wanted to support them and provide much-needed clarity.

It’s one thing for a policy to be developed in the Beehive, but what does that actually mean for the water treatment engineer or the rubbish collector? This is where our work was crucial in supporting the sector to maintain essential services during this time.

What did a typical day look like?

My day usually started at 8am with a catch up phone call to Taituarā Chief Executive, Karen Thomas and Clare Wooding of LGNZ. Then we would have a 9am Zoom call with the full Unit and agree on the key messages for the sector during that day. After this I would have two or three Zoom calls with my workstreams during the day as well as future-planning to plan out what local government services would look like at each level so that when we moved to Alert level 3 or Alert level 2, we’d be ready. We would bring in the relevant people from central government and other expertise as needed.

At 4.30pm we’d have a whole Unit team Zoom “wash up” call to discuss the day. At the height of things, we were meeting virtually seven days a week. So, there were a lot of Zooms!

What style of leadership was required?

Being able to work collaboratively across a wide-ranging team made up of central government, local government, the experts and police - being able to juggle these key relationships and ensuring we were one team with a united purpose.

What has our involvement meant for central/local government relationships?

I think the successful working relationship between local and central government throughout the Unit was most definitely noticed and there has been positive change come out of that.

The water reform process is now trying to use the same approach of central and local government working closely together. Whereas previously, local government would only have been involved in the latter stages of a project, we are now being included at the start with an opt-in process. Essentially, we are ‘designing the house we are all going to live in’.

What’s next for the Unit?

For now, the COVID-19 Response Unit has ceased meeting. We’re in Alert level 1, and with no community transmission, there is not a need for the Unit at this time.

However, it’s important we are prepared in the case we have to go into lockdown again and we are seeing globally a number of countries are having second waves such as in Victoria, Australia. We have a record of everyone who was involved and with workstreams ready to go, the Unit is able to be easily restarted at short notice again if needed – hopefully it won’t be needed!

What were the main challenges?

The challenges were hitting the ground so quickly and bringing so many people from different worlds together virtually.

At the start, it was a bit challenging deciding how we would organise the workstreams and there was a bit of confusion in that first 48 hours, but once we got going there was so much goodwill from everyone and everyone was so committed.

What were the main successes?

The way central and local government worked together was absolutely the main success and to see on the back of this, the new approach to how the water reform process is being managed is great.

Another success would be the agile procurement so the sector could contribute to getting the maintenance companies working again.

Is there anything you’d do differently?

There were some challenges where political decisions get made and there were some inconsistencies.

There were some things we could have started earlier like the webinars and communications. I think we all did an exceptional job under these unprecedented times and it was a credit to everyone involved.

Kevin is now leading our work on water reform – you can contact Kevin by email if you want to discuss anything relating to water reform: Kevin.Lavery@taituara.org.nz.