24 Feb 2021

Engineers issue 18-page complaint against Waka Kotahi

9:48 am on 24 February 2021

Engineers who keep the country's truck fleet safe are crying foul over a government agency they say is broken, biased and rife with bullying.

Trucks on highway.

File photo. Photo: 123RF

The accusations contained in an 18-page letter to the government come 18 months after millions of dollars were put in to fix the Transport Agency.

In the letter the certifiers say they have raised these problems countless times with the agency since reviews in 2019 exposed its regulatory system as toothless, but that Waka Kotahi punished certifiers who criticised it openly.

The current policies "will yield more risks to public safety through the diversion of resources into conflicts, bias" and inconsequential matters.

They sent the complaint to the transport minister, the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman, and Waka Kotahi itself.

The group will not identify itself to RNZ but has emerged from within the 180-or-so engineers approved by NZTA to design or approve brake systems, towing connections and all sorts of critical structural modifications, year-round, to the country's 150,000 big trucks.

These certifiers also work on the light vehicle fleet of around 600,000 vehicles.

Seven other certifiers contacted by RNZ said they did not contribute to the complaint but wholeheartedly endorsed the criticisms.

"The system doesn't produce any innovation or safety - I have to think 80 percent of the time about how to cover my arse," one of the seven certifiers said.

Speaking up - but 'scared'

Prior to 2018, the agency's oversight regime was so under-resourced that it employed just one auditor to check on the engineers nationwide; only five truck certifications were revoked in all of 2017.

In 2019, 3000 were revoked, after the government was stepped in. NZTA was forced to play catch-up, where before it had been much too slack.

However, the certifiers' complaint now suggests the cure for the disease is itself proving crippling.

"Waka Kotahi has used the very public failures of a few underperforming certifiers, who should have been corrected years ago, as a pretext to target those certifiers it sees as disruptive, critical or with certain views," the authors wrote.

"Several persistent issues have worsened. Most notable of these are: Lack of transparency, bias, targeting of certifiers without due cause, favouritism to few other certifiers, inconsistency, predetermination, and discrimination."

The accusers used an anonymous email to communicate with RNZ, but as of Tuesday their document was being widely circulated in the industry and beyond.

The overhaul had made it "almost impossible to prove compliance" to technical rules as they were overseen by NZTA staff without sufficient technical nous, who then defaulted to an inner circle of favoured certifiers without peer review of their checks, "leaving them open to bias", they claimed.

Their accusations were echoed by seven other certifiers RNZ approached.

All spoke of being "scared" or too concerned for their business to speak up, saying if they did they would suffer harsher audits - but all were voluble in their criticisms.

"The system makes it difficult to recruit, stifles innovation and focuses on nitpicking, not big-picture safety," one said.

"I tried to recruit [new certifiers] from shop floor," another said. "They said, 'Why would we, when we hear what goes on'."

All seven told RNZ their firsthand experience was that NZTA targeted them unfairly and that this was the industry's common experience.

The government has tried to fix Waka Kotahi since 2019 by pouring in $45m, and adopting the recommendations to create a statutory director of land transport, create a new regulatory strategy and hire 100 more regulatory staff.

But the accusing certifiers said there was "no evidence that there is any public safety mitigation or improvement planned or due to take place any time soon".

The pendulum had overswung, with certifiers blamed for the agency's failings, they said.

"Waka Kotahi is applying disproportionate and unfair measures against some certifiers regardless of consistency of the approach.

"Experience shows that the responses and actions against some certifiers are inconsistent, biased, and unfair.

"Some vehicle inspectors and certifiers were suspended based on predetermined intentions."

Other certifiers had not been reviewed for five years, they claimed.

Costs were driven up for truck operators because NZTA's punitive system had made vehicle inspectors "nervous" too, so they were sending trucks to certifying engineers for unnecessary checks, "just in case", several of the seven certifiers told RNZ.

NZTA's regulatory failings prior to 2018 came to light only after dangerous cracks were found in some truck towbars and at least one snapped.

Transport minster, NZTA respond

Transport Minister Michael Wood said the agency had been upping its game, and he was now asking it and the Ministry of Transport for advice about the certifiers' complaint.

The Transport Agency was was looking into the allegations it received on Monday, it said in a statement.

"Waka Kotahi is confident in the professionalism of our regulatory compliance team, and our regulatory capability has been significantly increased in response to the 2018 regulatory compliance review," general manager of regulatory services Kane Patena said.

Since 2018 it had reviewed 25 certifiers, with eight losing their authority, and another 21 such cases are in the works. Ninety-nine heavy vehicles had been ordered off the road.

"We have a robust process in place to inform these decisions," Patena said.

"The process includes a regulatory assurance panel comprising compliance officers, managers, senior management and internal legal counsel reviewing evidence and recommendations, to ensure that we are making sound, consistent and evidence-based regulatory decisions in the public interest."

Its new regulatory strategy approved last year had safety and fairness at the heart of it, and part of this was employing the right people in the right jobs, he said.

It had yet to employ all the extra 110 staff it was trying to add, including 31 in its safer vehicles team. Its top watchdog job, a new Director of Land Transport, has been established by Parliament and the role begins in April.

The Office of the Auditor-General is considering the certifiers' complaints under its usual systems.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs