16/10/2020 - 08:00

The hardest job in WA

16/10/2020 - 08:00

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Michelle Reynolds has quietly lay the groundwork for a more accountable city ahead of this Saturday's lord mayoral and council election.

The hardest job in WA
Michelle Reynolds has built a reputation as a steadying presence amid tumult and upheaval. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

For much of her tenure as the City of Perth’s chief executive, Michelle Reynolds has been listening.

Since July, she’s heard about the management lessons arising from the city’s 2,000-page inquiry report, which detailed dysfunction across a factionalised council and demoralised administration.

She’s also heard six lord mayoral candidates propose policies as bold as smart cities and cable cars; policies she will likely be required to execute if the new council endorses them.

One thing she’s not heard much of, however, is envy, at least for the challenges she faces.

“Few people have said [the job of chief executive is the] best job ever,” Ms Reynolds told Business News.

“Most people say … this would have to be one of the most challenging jobs in this state at the moment.”

It makes sense that few people would want to be in Ms Reynolds’ shoes right now.

While responsible for managing an organisation that takes in revenue of more than $200 million annually and employs about 750 people, Ms Reynolds also will focus on bringing stability following a period of uncertainty and upheaval.

Much of the leadership tension began after Gary Stevenson was ousted as chief executive in 2016.

Mr Stevenson earned remuneration increases every year from 2012, at the council’s recommendation.

However, Mr Stevenson was sacked in 2016 as the administration undertook a broader restructure, while the inquiry’s report also found some councillors were unhappy with his propensity to refer matters to the Corruption and Crime Commission.

His successor as chief executive, Martin Mileham, was charged with overseeing much of the restructure.

Mr Mileham did not enjoy the confidence of the entire council, however, with some councillors alleging he was too close to (then) lord mayor Lisa Scaffidi.

According to the report, Mr Mileham struggled in the role, in part because the suddenness of Mr Stevenson’s departure forced a hurried transition.

Mr Mileham also came to the role with limited local government experience, having served in the private sector for more than 25 years before joining the city’s administration in 2012.

The City of Perth inquiry determined Mr Mileham had assumed the role of chief executive with “no relevant experience”, despite having spent three years with the Department of Planning.

Mr Mileham took leave in February 2018 citing an “unsafe workplace”, amid declining employee morale and growing dysfunction.

Replacing him in an acting capacity, Robert Mianich served in the role for just one week before he too decided to take leave, referring to the workplace as “not safe”.

During this time, the city’s council had reportedly planned to oust Mr Mianich, which in part led to the city’s directors activating a crisis management plan to assume control of the administration.

Mr Mileham briefly returned as chief executive following the suspension of the council and appointment of a commission, before eventually being sacked in October 2018.

And although Murray Jorgensen’s tenure (late 2018-2020) returned stability to the organisation in recent years, Ms Reynolds is contending with the prospect of a new lord mayor and eight new councillors after the October 17 poll, many of whom have little to no relevant experience for the job. 

Though a daunting prospect, Ms Reynolds told Business News that was at least part of the reason she took the job.

“Historically, my career has been to do some jobs that are hard and need a fairly significant reform,” Ms Reynolds said.

“I’m personally driven to see change and things improve; the challenge of that is part of my DNA.”

Michelle Reynolds served three different premiers during her 14-year tenure as assistant director general to the public sector management division. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Challenging would be one way of describing Ms Reynolds’ career.

She started out in Western Australia’s civil service during what is now considered one of the state’s most notorious political eras: the WA Inc years of the 1980s, when politicians and state government departments engaged in questionable dealings with the state’s business community.

They were heady days for the public sector, a time when public servants could enjoy a cigarette indoors and take long lunches without consequence or reprimand.

Not that Ms Reynolds was in a position to indulge that kind of behaviour, given her junior status.

Although she admits to a degree of political naivety at the outset of her career, Ms Reynolds appreciates the context in which she entered the public service, including the passing of the Equal Opportunity Act in 1985, which for the first time provided WA with remediation for discrimination on the basis of sex.

That, in part, laid the groundwork for what Ms Reynolds saw as a major structural reform of the state’s public sector, during which the public expected greater transparency from their civil servants.

It’s a reckoning she likens as similar to the one currently facing the City of Perth.

“The community’s tolerance for some of those benefits and entitlements has shifted, and so organisations have to shift with that,” Ms Reynolds said.

“You can’t hold onto arrangements that no longer sit within the … landscape of what’s acceptable.”

For her part, Ms Reynolds remained inoculated from the politics of the day, bouncing between state government departments before eventually settling with the Department of Premier and Cabinet in 1994.

She served three different premiers during her 14-year tenure as assistant director general to the public sector management division, before eventually taking on the role of chief executive of WorkCover WA in 2009.

By that time, she had earned a reputation as a steadying presence amid tumult and upheaval, which served her well in 2017 when she assumed the role of executive director at the Rottnest Island Authority

Then, as now, Ms Reynolds had taken over an organisation in dire straits.

In the years prior to her Rottnest appointment, visitation to the island had declined, employee morale had plummeted, and there was a backlog of approvals for accommodation stock.

That led to the island receiving regular and harsh appraisals from numerous media outlets, with former chair John Driscoll writing to Business News in 2016 decrying reports that progress on the island was stalled amid political indecision. 

Many of the changes Ms Reynolds oversaw in her initial few months on the job were about setting the tone of the organisation, she explained, and telegraphing an attention to basic issues such as waste management and common services.

Understanding the need to fix publicity issues concerning bureaucratic waste, she made a handful of high-profile reforms upon her arrival on the island, including returning the chief executive’s cottage to accommodation stock.

That followed reports it had been used sporadically while visitors had been denied a place to stay.

A key part of her approach was empathising with the island’s users and figuring out how the bureaucracy directly affected visitors and businesses.

“What does it feel like when I have to book a ferry, and then get to an island and try to navigate that island? Not only what does it feel like as a Western Australian visitor, but as an international visitor or an east coast visitor?” she asked.

Few could argue with her approach.

During her three-year tenure, Rottnest Island attracted an additional 135,000 visitor arrivals annually, as well as a $40 million investment by Discovery Parks and Prendiville Group in Hotel Rottnest.

That was alongside the ‘take a selfie with a quokka’ campaign, in which the likes of Roger Federer and Margot Robbie promoted the island by posting photos to social media with the iconic marsupial.

Ms Reynolds said a central aspect of her work on Rottnest was promoting tourism while ensuring basic amenities and waste management functioned as intended.

And while her role with the City of Perth will focus on broader issues concerning enhancement of the city’s location and function as the state’s capital, she insists many of the lessons learned while on the island will apply to her current role.

“From a City of Perth perspective, what does it feel like to have a business in the city? What does it feel like to be a visitor to the city? What does it feel like to get a development approval?” she said.

“That [perspective is] what I hope I can bring to the city.”

Of course, the major difference for Ms Reynolds is, as chief executive of a local government, she will have strategy dictated to her by eight new councillors and a new lord mayor, all of whom will be fresh to the job.

In the short term, she’s made addressing some of those issues a priority, including instituting a new induction process for candidates that draws on the direct experience of those who have either worked in local government or have first-hand legal experience with the City of Perth inquiry.

“An induction can be boring,” Ms Reynolds said.

“You can sit there, and I can tell you about the Local Government Act, clause 2.8.4.b, and you can be inspired by that, or I can talk to you about values and what sort of a council you want to be.

“We’ve got the opportunity to do an induction that’s a little bit different and share that experience of learning.”

Those working relationships will be crucial to the city’s success in the coming years.

The public will set the overarching strategy, she explained, and it will be articulated through the council. Ms Reynolds’ job will be to ensure the processes are there to ensure that happens effectively.

“My role and the city’s role are to translate [the city’s vision] into action,” she said.

“How do we give life to that vision?”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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