The Long-Term Plan cycle sure comes around quickly! It feels like we just finished the last one, but now it’s time to think how councils can improve on their 2018 infrastructure strategies for the 2021 Long-Term Plan (LTP).

I was involved in writing three infrastructure strategies last time around and I have to say, this was some of the hardest work I did in 2017. You need to crunch down a lot of technical information into something concise and easy to understand.

Now that we’ve prepared two versions of these documents (in 2015 and 2018) it’s worth considering what you’re pretty happy with (and just needs a bit of updating) and where there is room for more significant improvement. Chapter 5 (infrastructure strategies) of the Audit NZ report ‘Matters Arising from our audits of the 2018-28 long-term plans’ is a useful place to start when deciding where to focus your efforts.

Consider the structure of the strategy

The structure of the strategy is something to consider early on. Here’s what Audit NZ said on this topic: “… the level of detail, usefulness, and presentation of asset information varied. This information was often scattered throughout strategies or located in asset management plan-type material towards the back of strategies.” (p35, infrastructure strategies)

One way to avoid duplicating information in Infrastructure Strategies and Asset/Activity Management Plans is to keep in mind a clear distinction of what both document types need to achieve:

  • a strategy needs to cover the direction of travel — where we are going with our assets in order to address significant challenges
  • a plan needs to discuss how the council will implement the strategy, including targets (levels of service), timeframes and the resources required.

How useful has your 2018 strategy been in guiding asset management planning, business cases and reports? When writing these types of documents I have found the ‘go to’ sections of the infrastructure strategy are the statements on how a council proposes to respond to a specific significant challenge in relation to a specific asset type, for example what changes will be made to the stormwater network in response to increased rainfall intensity and sea level rise.

In other words, the strategic context section needs to be there, but the back end is likely to be more useful for management purposes. I suggest quickly updating the front end (unless significant new challenges have emerged since 2018), and spending more time improving the section that outlines what changes are proposed as a result of the challenges.

Another reason not to spend too much time on the front end is that Audit NZ is generally happy with how councils described the status quo, the descriptions of change, challenges and risks. This supports the idea that your strategic context section probably doesn’t need too much more work.

Tell a story rich in tension and difficult decisions

Audit NZ has acknowledged that writing an infrastructure strategy isn’t easy. “Telling a clear and credible story of how a council plans to manage its current and future infrastructure over the next 30 years or more is difficult to do well. This is because the story will often involve tensions, trade-offs, risks, certainties (not enough money), uncertainties (unplanned expenses), and making difficult decisions.” (p34, infrastructure strategies)

A good basic structure to use when showing how you have arrived at these kinds of decisions is ABT (this AND this is the current situation, BUT this upcoming issue means changes are required, THEREFORE we propose to …)

In addition, showing the options you have considered in relation to each significant decision in a consistent table format is a good option — please see Auckland council’s approach on pages 19-20 of this document. Choosing a different colour for the decision tables of each asset type works really well.

Identify content to improve in the 2021 strategies

In 2021 Audit NZ will be reviewing how councils are:

  • putting in place programmes to collect better asset information, where this is lacking
  • reinvesting in critical infrastructure such as water supply and flood protection assets
  • improving how they clearly define levels of service, and the reasons for any changes to these
  • describing the future state of infrastructure provision at the end of the 30 years was often unclear.

Therefore, it’s well worth reviewing how well these matters are addressed in your 2018 infrastructure strategy, and making improvements where necessary.

Consider the design of your strategy

Can you use maps and diagrams well to illustrate your strategy? Audit NZ liked those in the Auckland Council, Hamilton City Council and Palmerston North City Council — so it’s worth checking these ones out for inspiration for your own strategy. Here are links to these strategies, and my notes on what stood out for me (as a reader rather than someone with graphic design expertise).

Auckland Council, page 3-56 of this document
The options are clearly and consistently outlined in the ‘Decision required’ boxes (the first example is on pages 19-20). The tables listing the major programmes and projects, with budgets grouped in decades, also present a lot of information in a legible way (see example on page 31).

Hamilton City Council
Hamilton’s strategy includes a consistent format for each ‘significant capital expenditure decision’ which looks good and does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the information provided in each of these boxes. The colour coding throughout the document (for each challenge) also works well, and is introduced right at the start in the triangle diagram on page 9.

Palmerston North City Council– pages 167-200 of this document
This strategy doesn’t have a huge number of graphics, but two that stood out were the spatial plan which summarises the City Development Strategy (page 170) and the graph showing replacement costs for each asset area (page 172).

Integrate the financial strategy

Audit NZ said most councils’ 2018 strategies were not well integrated with their financial strategies so did not demonstrate how they were considering the continued affordability of their infrastructure services.

Not many people speak both ‘infrastructure’ and ‘finance’ so it can be difficult to discuss both on the same page, in a way that makes sense to everyone. If you are not multi-lingual in infrastructure and finance speak, is there someone in your organisation who speaks both ‘languages’ who can clearly explain how the two strategies relate to each other?

Consider expanding the scope of your strategy

Audit NZ is pleased that 27 councils put additional assets in their 2018 strategy, including public transport, community facilities, parks and open space, solid waste facilities, and other assets. Audit NZ mentioned that Wellington City Council included public transport, parks, environmental science and harbour assets in its financial and infrastructure strategy.

Therefore, expanding the scope of your strategy is something to consider for 2021, if it’s going to be useful to your council.

How long should the strategy be?

Audit NZ commented that the length of the 2018 strategies ranged from 11 pages to 167 pages. Audit NZ says in order to be a practical decision-making document they should be not too long, but also not too short … so aim for somewhere in between!

The size of your council, and the range of assets included in your strategy, will influence the length of your strategy.

Consider national level changes

Changes at a national level to reflect in your strategy include any implications of:

  • The Three Waters Review
  • The Zero Carbon Act
  • The Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Bill which will reinstate the four well-beings into the purpose of the Local Government Act.

Summary – eight ways to improve your strategy

1. Unless Audit NZ has been particularly scathing of your strategic context section, or significant new challenges have emerged since 2018, update this front section quickly and move on.

2. Focus on telling the story of the specific plans your councils has to address the significant issues (and what this means for levels of service now, and in 30 years’ time) — so that this direction can be consistently reflected in your asset/activity management plans, business cases and reports.

3. Outline your programme for improving your asset information, where there are gaps in your data.

4. Consider how you can use graphic design to jazz up the look of your strategy and make the key content easier to grasp.

5. Seek help from someone who understands the key concepts in the financial and the infrastructure strategy, and can express how they relate to each other in simple language. Include this summary in both documents.

6. Consider including more asset types in your strategy, if that will be useful to your council.

7. Aim for middle ground in terms of length — longer than 11 pages and shorter than 167 pages!

8. Consider the implications of the Three Waters Review, the Zero Carbon Act and the amendments to section 10 of the Local Government Act (LGA). The LGA change means you need to consider any significant negative effects that the activities included in your infrastructure strategy may have on the social, economic, environmental, or cultural well-being of the local community.

Thanks for reading this article. Please contact me if you would like help with the review of your infrastructure strategy.