Te Waka ‘another step in the journey’

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A couple of weeks into his role as chief executive of newly formed Waikato regional development agency Te Waka, Michael Bassett-Foss talked to Waikato Business News about the job, the future and his background. The following is a condensed version of the interview.

What have you been doing since you started?
A lot of talking to people. meeting people, understanding their aspirations.

There was talk in the early stages about aquaculture. Is that still part of the agenda?
Yes, totally. Waikato is made up of lots of different independent local areas with their own aspirations and their unique set of features. For Thames-Coromandel, absolutely aquaculture is one of their priorities. And it aligns with the priorities that came out of the summit the other day. Where there’s regional priorities that align with local we’ll definitely get into giving support.

Can you step me through what the regional priorities are?
They’ll become clearer over the coming weeks and months. We have some urgency to get something out but we don’t want to miss anything, so that’s the balance we’ve got. What we’ve got is 19 aggregated priorities building on the region’s strengths. Below the 19 priorities there are many others that didn’t feature in the aggregated list and there will be some gems in there, so we need to go back and look at that. Also we need to lay over that what is already going on in the region that we just can’t drop or is going to add momentum to some of those priorities. We’re not about writing strategies, we’re about doing some stuff. Over the next weeks and months, we want to go back to some of the key stakeholders and bounce some of those new priorities off them and then broaden the circles and engage with more and more as we present the prioritised list.

What part does the Provincial Growth Fund play?
The PGF has definitely influenced the thinking. You don’t do economic development in a silo, you do it in collaboration with other parties and in partnerships. And some of those partnerships are central government, regional government, local government. At the moment central government has a focus on regional development, so we’ve got to embrace that and align where we can.

Is there a deadline coming up?
Minister Shane Jones invited us to go back and he had an open door before the end of the year. so we’ll be looking at October-November to go back with some of those. But there are already PGF applications in play where we have been involved and supported, so this isn’t starting from nothing.

What’s your role in that case? What can you add?
We can add a reasonable amount. Firstly, where a local area proposal or regional area proposals aligns with priorities we can come in and give quite a bit of support, letters of support in particular. And we might be able to leverage other support in to evaluate business cases, critique certain areas, especially when the idea or the project influences other areas of regional development, like setting up a key piece of infrastructure.

You’ll be working with stakeholders across the region. What difference will Te Waka make?
Standing back before I answer that, because it’s not all about PGF proposals, Waikato has been slow in coming to the table with a regional economic development agency. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, often these things are better done at the right time rather than rushed at the wrong time. Despite that, Waikato is doing very well. Part of that is because of its natural makeup, its geographical location in New Zealand, the regions it borders with in the golden triangle, its very rich natural environment, and the people it has. So it’s got a lot of good things going on. But in the reports that were done in the years leading up to the formation of Te Waka it was cited that the economic development frameworks within the region weren’t joined or linked up, they were very different across the region. Much of that is appropriate because each local identity has its own makeup and its own aspirations, so that will continue, but where you can get alignment and more joined-up focus on priorities you’ve got a much better chance of getting them done. Again, we won’t be doing it all. Some of the priorities that come through this conference we will absolutely lead where it’s appropriate. Others we will partner, collaborate, even “coerce” other organisations that are already in the space. And others are just not appropriate for us to be involved in. There’s a blurred line between economic development and social development and Te Waka at the moment is focused on economic development.

If you were to look ahead two years, what would you want to be able to show?
What I’d like to be able to do is celebrate with others some of the good things that we’ve done. And I say “we” because it’s not just Te Waka. In order to do that you need to build trust and respect and that takes time, it might well take two years or longer. Part of that will be around partnerships and collaboration, part of it is about supporting others. I think in the economic development space there is always many more opportunities than there are things you can actually deliver. So to be true to what we are here for, we do need to focus on some priority areas.

Are you recruiting?
Te Waka is in a startup phase. Aside from the already established Business Growth Team, I’m the first to come on board and chief operating officer Harvey Brookes is a very important part of the team. Over the next few years we’ll beef up. It all depends on funding and support – possibly three to five additional staff.

Where does your funding come from?
Central government, local and regional government, and business. It’s not actually the agencies that do economic development, it’s the businesses that employ staff and take the risk and invest and make things happen. Agencies can provide the collaboration and the framework to allow that to happen more easily, so we need to improve our linkages with business. In coming together, the current staff of six predominantly comes from the Business Growth Team, funded by central government. They have three things they do, one is they coordinate a business mentor service, the second is a NZ Trade and Enterprise programme, a capability voucher system. The third area is with Callaghan Innovation which offers R&D grant funding to businesses in a matched way. With those three areas the team engages with more than 600 businesses, it disperses half a million dollars, talking round figures, in capability vouchers and millions in R&D grants. so that’s a huge injection of targeted investment to assist businesses.

Is that going to continue?
That will absolutely continue, and where appropriate they might align some of their activity or focus towards the priorities of the region. Alongside the Business Growth Team, the second strand coming into Te Waka is the Waikato Means Business work streams, funded by local and regional government, and there’s been a number of initiatives in that. As an example there’s a South Waikato economic action plan which involved the districts in South Waikato and is focused on their area and their aspirations. The third area of work coming into Te Waka is this prioritised list that comes out of the summit.

Is the Waikato model different from other development agency models?
They’re all different. Informing Te Waka, we’ve certainly tried to take the best parts of the learning to date out of the good things that have been done.

You come from that yourself as a former manager of economic development in Hawke’s Bay?
Yes, and I was chair of Economic Development Associations of NZ for a number of years, so I’ve been involved in the national agenda and seen how a lot of these organisations have performed, and in some cases struggled. This is a challenging environment so hopefully we’ve learned and will continue to learn and share.

What are some of the learning points that you’ve taken from your previous roles?
I think collaboration and partnership, that is a good thing that we want to continue with. These things often go in cycles, and the cycle in Waikato at the moment is around formation and coming together as one voice, as they say in the Waikato Plan. This isn’t an exact science.

I do acknowledge the journey that the region has been on in getting here and the good work that’s been involved in doing that – Dallas leading Waikato Means Business and the transition into Te Waka, but the local councils and the businesses have all played a part. So Te Waka’s another step in the journey and it’s a true partnership between central government, regional and local government and business.

What is your background? Tell me a bit about yourself.
I spent my teens and a decent part of my 20s actively involved in sport in a national and international stage, with top 10 world rankings – kayaking, and surf lifesaving is still my passion, with that swimming, running, triathlons. I spent a lot of time at Massey University through that period as well, studying physics – electronics initially. I did a BSc, then a Master’s. And I ran some of my own sport businesses, building kayaks, and selling them nationally and internationally. Towards the end of my 20s I thought I’d better get a real job and the ICT industry was looking pretty exciting at the time. I got stuck in as a software engineer, project manager, went on to sales and marketing. I was based in Australia for a while, and also Latin America, and did a lot of work in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, in executive roles for big organisations like Ericsson. And then I came back and did an MBA through Massey towards the end of my 30s, and got involved in running some of my own businesses, including technology businesses and health and fitness centres that won international awards. That was the first part of my 40s, and I spent the latter part of my 40s getting involved in economic development and with that leading large scale water infrastructure, building dams and distribution networks for urban water and agricultural purposes with Water Wairarapa, employed by the Wellington Regional Council.

You’ve come back to your hometown Hamilton with family?
Our son is in his 20s and at Waikato University. We’ve got a daughter in her first year at Canterbury, and our youngest is finishing year 12 at Napier Girls’ High School. I commute weekly for the next month or so while we just work through the transition with my wife and daughter.

What’s it like being back?
I love it. I love the vibrancy here, I have fond memories. My schools included Hukanui Primary and Fairfield College. I remember us skidding across the concrete slabs that is now Chartwell Square in the ice on my way to school in bare feet, as you did back in those days. A lot of memories. But there’s been a lot of change here too. I love the river, love the opportunity with both coasts here. And getting out and about in the region, it has so much to offer in its natural
environment.

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