4 Nov 2019

NZTA's chair confident in the troubled agency's direction

1:19 pm on 4 November 2019

The Transport Agency's new board chair has defended his agency against a mountain of criticism about its road safety regulation arm, while at the same time pledging to tackle the rising road toll.

NZTA Chairman Sir Brian Roche

Sir Brian Roche. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Sir Brian became chair of the NZTA board in mid-June, and also previously held the same role from August 2008 to March 2010. He has spoken out about his faith in the people who make up the agency, and in their drive to face and fix the major issues uncovered at the agency.

The agency has been one of the most crisis-racked in the public sector for two years, at the same time as its capability to do the analysis required to make roads safer was deprived of resources, [https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/400576/review-finds-nzta-road-safety-regulation-failings according to comprehensive reviews.

This has coincided with the government desperately trying to find road safety strategies that work.

NZTA has at the same time been spending millions of dollars on high-tech projects such as rideshare apps and software licences, through a unit that had poor financial controls and work practices.

Chair Sir Brian Roche said any suggestion the agency had wasted public resources in the last few years was "unfair and disrespectful" of the staff, who he was very impressed with.

On the road toll

"The trend is going the wrong way," Sir Brian said. "That trend is unacceptable across the agency, across government and across New Zealand's police force.

"There's a strong commitment to bring it down... We haven't got a hard target that I'm aware of, but I think there is targets from the Ministry of Transport."

A priority would be improving speed cameras, have been letting most speeding truckers slip through.

"There is no vehicle that should be immune from the use of safety cameras," Sir Brian says.

"That's just not sustainable and that would have to be changed. It would be quite a big priority because it sort of sounds slightly privileged to be excused from a speed camera."

On whistleblowing

RNZ relied on tip-offs from within and outside NZTA to report on the vehicle inspection safety problems over the last 20 months.

Sir Brian said he supported staff speaking up - so long as they kept it in-house.

"We have got a very active speak-up campaign. I don't want people to be suppressed and hide things that they feel we should be able to talk about... There is no evidence that that has happened here, and it won't happen while I'm here.

"If people have got reservations, they should raise them here. I can't see why they would go outside... The mode of operation should be that people should feel confident and safe, raising their questions and doubts."

Staff would still have to sign non-disclosure agreements when they left, he said. In the police force, there is evidence similar agreements have prevented ex-staff speaking up about bullying, as RNZ reporter Ben Strang has reported.

"People are bound by their employment," Sir Brian said. "And one of the employment policies here is that you don't get to speak outside to third parties without approval.

"And that continues in a post-employment environment. That is not meant to be punitive. If there are things that people genuinely believe are important then I would have expected them to have raised them with [senior management]. There should be no need for them to scurry off."

Ministry of Transport CEO Peter Mersi, Transport minister Phil Twyford, and Transport Agency Board chairman Sir Brian Roche announcing the NZTA review recommendations 9 October 2019

Sir Brian Roche, right, at the NZTA review recommendations announcement in October, with Ministry of Transport CEO Peter Mersi, left, and Transport Minister Phil Twyford. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

On fixing faults

"There are no material issues that haven't been surfaced that I'm aware of," Sir Brian said.

"I have not found anything that I feel should give any lack of confidence of our ability to reposition the agency.

"Yeah, we've had a few challenges in the last 12 to 18 months. That's not a sustainable model. I have been in fact, hugely surprised by the quality of the people, which I think is fundamentally important. I've been hugely surprised by the absolute commitment, you know, to get back to where we need to be."

On contractors

NZTA has spent a lot of money on contractors who are meant to provide short-term services, but often stay much longer, on rates as high as $320,000 a year.

At its high-tech unit Connected Journeys, 90 out of 100 staff were contractors, and $4 million a year was spent on 20 of the highest paid of these.

"That's not a model I would find attractive, that is not a model that I think is sustainable," Sir Brian said.

"That is something we are actively addressing, is how do we get the balance right between fulltime employees and contractors, because both are necessary.

"The general principle is contractors should be used where we have specific needs and-or there's a skill shortage. But if people are here for extended periods of time, I would ask the question why they shouldn't be an employee."

On accountability

"I would reject the assertion of waste [of public money] - I think that is an emotive word that is unfair and disrespectful of the people.

"I think you are drawing a very long bow in saying this organisation is wasteful and incompetent. I just reject that."

RNZ had asked about "waste" but not used the word incompetent to Sir Brian. "No, I did," he said. "But that's the inference."

"Could this organisation have done better? Yes, I've not been involved in any organisation in my entire career which could not have done better."

Other organisations had not been subject to major reviews by the Government due to their regulatory failings because "they got lucky", he said.

"We're a portfolio business - one bit of our portfolio [road safety regulation] has not performed as well as others.

"Our road building, our education program, our code-funding programme, those have all worked really well."

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