Wellington Scoop

Is this the end for WREDA?

by Ian Apperley
Dark days indeed for Wellington’s Regional Economic Development Agency. The trouble started a few months back with the Wellington City Council calling into question the results from the agency, and has escalated in the past two weeks with business asking questions of the organisation.

Is this the end of WREDA? It was created in 2014, the brainchild of both the city council and the regional council, which own 80% and 20% respectively. It’s a private company, which at the time raised allegations of secrecy by the Councils. This is, in fact, a fallacy. Despite being private, because the agency is a Council Controlled Organisation it is still subject to the official information act.

In the past few weeks, the rumour that WREDA’s CEO Chris Whelan is on his way out has been floating around the traps. However, no one in the know is yet prepared to go on record about this.

Since 2014 Wellington has invested tens of millions in the agency, and the perception is that we’ve not seen much return for that. WREDA appears on the face of it to be coat-tailing on initiatives rather than leading them.

Part of the problem is that looking under the covers of what the agency does is impossible. WREDA has no published strategy in the truer sense of the word and has no hard measures published by which it can be held to account.

The one initiative that WREDA has set into motion this year is the LookSee campaign. It promised free travel for technology workers to Wellington for job interviews to bring new talent into the city. This has come under a great deal of criticism, and the behaviour of the agency is perceived to be somewhat isolated.

Wellington has several thousand technology workers already and reaching out to that community of individuals and businesses would, arguably, have been a better option. It would have demonstrated that WREDA had a commitment to local business and talent. Instead, it chose to go global.

In effect, this makes WREDA a recruitment agency, which potentially takes away work from local recruiters’ businesses that pay a rates premium.

Worse, a potential privacy breach saw the shutdown of the LookSee campaign. In my opinion, an amateur mistake that has damaged the brand.

In a print piece last week, the National Business Review ran an article titled “Economic agency officials bury their heads in the sand.”

Officials at the head of Wellington’s economic development agency are burying their heads in the sand after public criticism of how the organisation is being run. The Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency has copped flak for producing few results, despite getting millions a year from ratepayers through its Council owners.

John Bishop, who set up the Five Cities of Wellington Economic Development Group in 1995, is scathing in his assessment of WREDA.

Mr Bishop questioned WREDA early last month on how many jobs it has attracted to Wellington, how many businesses have started up and invested in the capital since WREDA began and what tangible economic returns WREDA has brought regional ratepayers. He is unhappy his questions remain unanswered.
“The people who designed WREDA put three things together to give it some bulk and make it look as if it has scale. But that is just wrong. Fundamentally, no economic development agency should manage so many line functions, such as venues. There’s no logical connection between developing the economy and managing town hall bookings.”

The WCC itself has questioned WREDA on its performance. Back in March, they asked WREDA, publicly, to account for progress it had made and asked for plans on where to from here.

One of the general criticisms of WREDA is that it is not easy to engage with. Certainly, the business interests I have spoken to, mostly in the technology industry, have found it very, very difficult to get any time with the agency.

WREDA continues to make arbitrary decisions it seems, with the New Zealand Promoters Association slamming them this week. The promoters say they

… are dismayed that WREDA have chosen Ticketmaster as exclusive ticketer to Venues Wellington, and without any consultation with the promoters as owners of the events held in their venues.

The promoters say this is likely to increase costs for event goers, enables a “reseller market” for tickets, takes away power from the promoters of events, and makes for an all-round bad deal.

With the recent disaster of the Sevens, the last thing that we need is anything that is going to negatively impact events. Annoying the promoters in the city is madness.

As I wrote recently, it may be that WREDA is a failed experiment that should be shut down instead of something new. Having consumed millions of ratepayers’ dollars and not, in my opinion, demonstrated value for money, it seems its time may have come. Now is time for the WCC and GWRC to demonstrate the leadership and transparency they espouse.


  1. Michael Gibson, 17. May 2017, 6:58

    WCC obviously needs people like John Bishop to keep an eye on them – congratulations to him!
    Are Councillors doing enough to control some of the other ventures which have been started under previous regimes? Are they keeping an eye on lawyers who might not be acting in the best interests of all Wellingtonians?

  2. CC, 17. May 2017, 8:13

    Yes – get rid of WREDA, and also City Shaper.

  3. TrevorH, 17. May 2017, 9:06

    This turkey should be shut down immediately. What a waste of ratepayers’ money. Public officials trying to “pick winners” has been shown time and again to be an expensive farce. The Council needs to concentrate on its core business, in particular making Wellington’s infrastructure much more resilient so that government and businesses will remain here.

  4. Pohe, 17. May 2017, 10:22

    This piece drips with conspiracy, but when the facts don’t fit I suppose conspiracy is all that’s left.

  5. Hel, 17. May 2017, 22:29

    Seriously what John Bishop had to say about WREDA applied equally to ATEED if you read his whole article. “Economic development agencies shouldn’t be involved in tourism promotion” what a ridiculous statement. I’m only hearing good things about the Looksee programme from those in the Tech sector. Not sure who you’re talking to Ian.

  6. Mark Tanner, 17. May 2017, 23:29

    Whilst WREDA is far from perfect, Wellington needs to focus more on marketing itself outside of Wellington. I’m based in Shanghai but return to Wellington regularly. When I am back the city is abuzz with a genuine positive vibe. But outside of the city, even in other NZ cities, there is a predominantly negative view of Wellington commercially. I don’t think we have a bad product, I see the biggest reason behind this as poor marketing and PR, which an agency such as WREDA is best placed to fix.

    We can sit in Wellington with our parochial heads in the sand knowing that our city is great but in this competitive world, it would be a distinct advantage if Wellington, inc told its story better to an audience beyond the Wairarapa and Kapiti.

    There are few silver bullets, but the Looksee campaign was a clever initiative that may draw some great talent to Wellington and, as importantly, it raised our profile in a very well targeted manner, attracting the type of exposure that wannabe creative and innovative cities crave. Using local networks and local recruiters could not have achieved anything like this, but there is nothing stopping locals from reaching out to their networks regardless.

    We need more Looksee-type campaigns. In many cases their fruits may take time to harvest, but it is those types of clever initiatives that will give Wellington the reputation and perceived x-factor it needs to grow and attract good people.

    Or we could whinge and criticize every slightly risky initiative and just focus on ensuring we have good pipes and rubbish collection in Wellington…

  7. Elaine Hampton, 18. May 2017, 12:07

    Criticize risky initiatives? No, risk is a part of business. But a reasonable return on money invested is also a necessary business objective, especially when it is public money that is ‘at risk’. Results should be published.

  8. Sekhmet Bast Ra, 18. May 2017, 12:59

    This report includes allegations of anti-competitiveness and an informal call for the Commerce Commission to investigate from concert promotor Phil Sprey following WREDA’s choice to engage Ticketmaster as sole ticketing agency for major venues in Wellington. Phil Sprey has now suspended an undisclosed $2.5million performance in the capital and threatens to cancel it unless there are changes. Graham Bloxham also cites anti-competitiveness in the report.

    Maybe WREDA thought through the matter with care and decided partnering with Ticketmaster was genuinely the right call. On the other hand there could well be undisclosed informal incentives. Without a real whistle blower spilling the beans we will probably never know. Either way, when promoters threaten to cancel major events, we should all question the reasoning behind WREDA choosing to go with a single ticketing agency.

    The ‘do it our way or don’t do it at all’ approach is more akin to how things are done in North Korea than how things are done in the West. It flies in the face of open commerce and free market economy. When the actions of the organisation entasked to develop the regional economy throw the proverbial spanner in the works and make the natives restless, something has to change.

  9. Ian Apperley, 18. May 2017, 14:08

    Thank you all for taking the time to comment.

    Michael, I agree. I suspect that the “please explain” noises coming from the WCC in relation to WREDA are part of that process. It’s interesting that the GWRC is not making the same comments.

    Hi Pohe, I’m not sure how you see this as a conspiracy. I can assure you there is no secret plan being undertaken by Scoop to do something unlawful; which would be the definition of conspiracy.

    Hi Hel, agreed. ATEED is under similar scrutiny. The question is what are they actually achieving and is it good use of our money?

    Re the LookSee campaign, if you do a search you’ll find some counter-point commentary from tech companies on the initiative. Generally the feedback I am getting is:
    a) why is WREDA acting as a recruiting agent when we have dozens locally they could have worked with,
    b) would it have been better to tender that work to those companies and would that have lowered the cost,
    c) it’s been mentioned by several people that this looks like a plan crafted for Xero (which is fine really, given they struggle to find people),
    d) why aren’t we tapping our resource pool of talent that’s already residing in Wellington, and
    e) that potential privacy breach made us all look like amateurs.

    To be fair, some of those commenting are losing business against WREDA in this process, so that will colour their response. I’ve also written that we’ve done this before, in the late 80s (or 90s) when Telecom imported dozens from Canada. Interestingly, those engineers changed the face of NZ telecommunications for the better.

    Hi Mark, great comments and excellent to get a view from the outside. I agree that from a marketing perspective the LookSee campaign worked, it went viral after all. One of the other questions you raise is something else I am writing about, what do we want from the Council? Is it just pipes and good rubbish collection, or do we want more? I’m suggesting that WREDA is not delivering, putting aside LookSee, so if we have $20million a year to spend, then how should we do that to put Wellington on the map?

    Elaine, I agree, WREDA would do well to publish where they have spent, how much, and the return on that investment that we have received. Then we can have a more informed debate about whether we should continue with that model, or not.

    Hey Sekhmet, yes, that article came to light after I had written this one. The move by WREDA on ticketing has been perceived as a major failure and as you note, will impact on events in the city, for which WREDA is responsible. “The ‘do it our way or don’t do it at all’ approach is more akin to how things are done in North Korea than how things are done in the West. It flies in the face of open commerce and free market economy.” Completely agree. That approach is endemic across theCouncil and CCOs. It is one of the biggest reasons that the Council fails to connect with the residents. It’s a culture that needs to be changed.