Manawatū District Council Chief Executive, Dr Richard Templer, will shortly step down from his role to take up the role of Chief Executive of Engineering New Zealand.

Reflecting on the past four and a half years, Richard says it’s hard to pinpoint one or two highlights, but can’t go past the people and culture, and the satisfaction that comes from implementing a major project.

“I work with an absolutely fantastic group of people who are passionate about making the Manawatū area a great place to live and work.”

The successful development of the new wastewater treatment plant is also one of Richard’s highlights.

“The new plant means that we are no longer discharging wastewater into the Manawatū River for six months of the year, and that’s a first since the founding of Feilding, so that’s very exciting. Instead the wastewater is now discharging to a farm which grows grass.  In partnership with a contractor the grass is then sold to the beef industry – so it’s a very sustainable solution.

Another highlight is the lift in culture at the Council.

“It has been great to see an increase in engagement and the creation of a ‘Team MDC’ culture where the whole organisation is working together to improve our local community – councillors, staff and contractors.  

“As a management team we asked the question, how do we create a workplace where people really enjoy their jobs? Happy staff are more engaged and therefore more productive. So early on, we asked staff what they wanted more of and what they wanted less of.  We then did more of what staff wanted and removed the things that frustrated them.

“Staff told us they wanted more internal communication and so during the lockdown we emailed staff daily, we have a regular newsletter and held briefings after council meeting to keep everyone involved in what’s going on. We also invited elected members to our all staff meetings and all staff day (now Team MDC day) which helped cement the ‘Team MDC’ culture.

And then there’s the challenges. Richard cites the three-year electoral term and its limitation of delivery.

“Much of the first year of the electoral cycle is spent engaging with new councillors, educating them on local government and how it works. Then you have a year to 18 months of solid delivery for the community, then you are back into election mode again.

“I think the sector would really benefit from a four-year term. We’d get more productive delivery time which would result in being able to deliver more for our local community.

Another challenge for Richard has been reporting and auditing.

“In my view we are over audited and over measured. In central government plans are not audited and having to do so diverts a lot of time and energy away from making a difference in our communities.”

Richard sees the sector’s future as both exciting and complex.

“Water reform will significantly change local government and there is opportunity for us to find ways to better connect with their communities around key issues while at the same time leveraging economies of scale through regional connections.

“Other challenges include how we engage with young people, how do we increase the diversity of representation and how do we encourage people to participate in local government decision-making.

“It’s hard work to keep voting numbers up and to keep people engaged. We need to find ways to engage through new methods and technologies while at the same time keeping our older residents connected.

To those aspiring for the role of a local government chief executive, Richards says to succeed, you need to understand what he likes to call the three axes of local government – an economic axis, political axis and iwi axis. We need to find solutions that meet the needs of each of these areas by screening each project through these three lens’, not in isolation.

“For example, the next stage of our wastewater treatment plant project initially looked like an unsolvable problem, but by working together with Iwi alongside council we have been able to find a solution that works in all three of these axes.

“The key to succeeding is changing your own perspective –I try to look at things from a politicial and Iwi point of view. The ability to find a solution that meets the needs of each of these three areas is what both makes being a local government Chief Executive challenging, but also fun.”

Richard’s new role as Chief Executive of Engineering New Zealand will see him at the helm of the engineers professional body which has over 22,000 members. Engineering New Zealand has responsibility for the professional registration of engineers, offers training opportunities and support to its members and is also responsible for disciplining engineers in New Zealand.

With a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and his local government experience, Richard sees plenty of crossover.

“Hopefully with my background in local government I can expand the relationship between engineering and local government.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to work together – local government is a major client of engineering firms and a lot of engineers work in the sector.”

Richard believes that by creating a positive work environment which embraces all engineering firms and engineers that this will deliver effective engineering projects for local government.

We wish him all the best on that endeavour!