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Failing to learn the flyover lessons

flyover different [1]

The Transport Agency has commissioned a report to tell it what went wrong with its failed application to build a 300-metre concrete flyover alongside the Basin Reserve. The “Lessons Learned” report tells the Agency some truths that it should have known. But it doesn’t tell the whole truth.

The draft report, released as the result of an Official Information Act request, says the Agency didn’t work hard enough on its relationship with the Wellington City Council and the Regional Council. It says there should have been a better “partnership.”

But it has nothing to say about the fact that the Agency chose to threaten the city council, first through the media [2], and a year later in a letter signed by the chief executive [3].

The threats were widely reported, but the “Lessons Learned” report is written as if they never happened.

 Insufficient emphasis was given to establishing and maintaining a partnership approach with WCC and GWRC, especially given the political complexity of the project.
 More effort could have been invested in understanding the contribution which could have been made by each of the key strategic partners: NZTA; GWRC and WCC, and allocating resources accordingly.
 Although co-ordination between the key partners was good at times, it was not consistently so, and was lacking in the build up to the BoI Hearing.

The report indirectly acknowledges opposition to the flyover, but seems to believe that this could somehow have been overcome if the Transport Agency had done more communicating:

…Ideally a project will have full support and alignment with the key strategic partners throughout its life. In reality this can be the exception for a number of reasons ranging from differences over organisations’ mandate and focus, matters of technical detail, or having to advocate or represent particular views within the community. Effort is required to maintain relationships and project alignment consistently over a project’s life cycle… A tailored approach is therefore needed for individual projects. This needs to span people dynamics from governance to technical officer level, processes enabling and promoting dialogue and resolution of issues, and giving clarity as to timeframes and resourcing for parties to appropriately provide inputs and make decisions.

… a greater focus on achieving strong alignment between the key strategic partners would likely have strengthened the EPA application and improved the project’s chances of success through its future project stages. There were many reasons why achieving a good partnership approach would have been more difficult on this project than on many others. These reasons include:

 Not all levels of authority within WCC and GWRC supporting the project and this varying throughout the project life.
 Local Body elections changing the Mayor in 2010 and Councillors in 2010 and 2013.

… given these difficulties, the project team should have placed even greater emphasis than would normally be the case on the partnership approach… Greater priority could have been given to maintaining person to person relationships and engagement with multiple levels of staff and politicians than to relying on a written MoU (which proved ineffective).

While the report fails to mention the warped policy of making threats, it faults the Agency’s other communications. Two of the six ‘key lessons’ indirectly reflect the Wellington community’s experience that ‘consultation’ by the Agency was unsatisfactory:

More significance could have been given to demonstrating to the community and other stakeholders why an at-grade solution would not be workable and why a bridge would be preferable to a tunnel….More effective methods of communication and engagement could have been adopted rather than a standard NZTA approach

But this is an unconvincing and one-way attitude. The report tells the Agency it should have been doing even more talking, but fails to say that it should have been listening to other points of view instead of insisting on its blinkered and one-sided stance. And the report’s comments on the two “no choice” options fail to acknowledge the reality of community opposition.

…it is clear that proposing a bridge in this area of Wellington would be likely to draw strong opposition. Given the confidence the project team had in the options identification and evaluation work, it is surprising that the project team didn’t do more to demonstrate to the community and wider stakeholders why an at-grade solution would not be workable and why a bridge would be preferable to a tunnel.

It is understood that NZTA decided not to consult on options it did not intend to consider further. The driver of honesty behind this is to be applauded. However, the interpretation of this decision which resulted in consultation material saying very little about the options which were explored and only presenting two options, one of which was considered by some of those interviewed by the LLR team as unworkable, needs to be learned from. In the view of the LLR team, when consulting on bridge options, being clear that at-grade or tunnel options would not be taken forward, it would have been advisable to explain why in a way which demonstrated transparency and highlighted the confidence the project team had in the options evaluation work it had done. It should be noted that such an exercise would have required an approach to messaging that went beyond making the information available … The LLR team also question whether more engagement of the community at an early stage, before tunnelling options were ruled out, might have helped some stakeholders to understand why a bridge would be required and might have demonstrated transparency and that NZTA welcomed stakeholder input. The LLR team is aware that there was some early stage engagement but questions whether it was sufficient.

The report parallels the Agency’s flawed behaviour and seems to accept that the Agency’s plan was the only possible choice. An unconvincing stance, given that the plan was rejected not only by the Board of Inquiry but also by the High Court.

And a worrying stance as the next stage of decision-making begins. The six-person “governance group” is now making the first contacts with community groups and is inviting them to share their perspectives and ideas, in a way that is “open, inclusive and effective… to establish transport and urban design principles to guide future planning.” But this time: will the decision-makers be able to respond to what they are being told?

In full: Lessons Learned Report [4]