Samantha Gain, the newly elected president of IPWEA, is also the manager, legal and procurement at the Greater Wellington Regional Council. She talks with Ruth Le Pla about her priorities for her new role, how IPWEA NZ is evolving, and the significance of being the first female president in the group’s 108-year history.
What’s IPWEA NZ’s role and purpose?
First and foremost, we’re a membership organisation. Our vision and mission relate to improving the quality of life for communities through public works. Traditionally our membership has been people from local government involved in infrastructure. The words “public works engineering” are part of the IPWEA name. Traditionally, members have been engineers but increasingly we’re diversifying to include asset managers and planners. We see that as really positive. It’s about taking a much longer-term view about infrastructure to include planning for infrastructure and the various ways of investing in it.
The organisation has always had a focus on asset management which is where the NAMS group came from. Increasingly, over the years that whole-of-life asset management approach has become more common and people have realised that it’s not just the engineers that need to be involved – it’s the planners and the finance people as well.
One of the traditional issues we’ve had is how to get the asset management message to CEs and councillors. How do we articulate that when they seem to be interested in any possible impact on rates increase but not necessarily the whole picture around that?
So we’re often talking about how we communicate that big picture message. It’s happening more and more. We’ve had some good forums recently combined with SOLGM – particularly the infrastructure strategies forum we had, which was really great.
Infrastructure strategies – which councils have to do as part of their long-term planning – are really a melding of infrastructure asset management and finance work. You’ve got to be together developing that.
How many members do you have?
We’ve just done an audit of our membership. We have about 750 members in New Zealand. But when we join IPWEA [Australasia] as a special division we’re by far the biggest division. Across all of Australasia there are 4000 members and we’ve got 750 of them.
Members are divided between people who work in councils, contractors, consultants and some people in central government.
What are your priorities as president?
I’ve got four main themes. The obvious one is that as I’m the first woman president there’s a theme around diversity. Not just gender diversity – although gender is an easy way into diversity – but it’s more about diversity of thought and approach.
I’m really pleased that five of our 12 board members this time are women. I’m also really keen that we have diversity on our committees. I’m not an engineer, either, which is quite good from a diversity point of view.
There are other groups of people from other professions and backgrounds which it would be good for us to bring in. In the past we’ve had people with business development backgrounds on our board, which has been really good to have that different focus.
My second theme is about relevance to our members. Our members are the lifeblood of our organisation – the reason we exist. Most of our engagement with our members is through our five branches which are geographically based. We want to do a lot more with our branch meetings. They’re great opportunities for people to network, share stories and get help with projects.
Also in relation to having relevant offerings: we do a lot of training – are we doing the right things? We probably need to be a lot more agile when new topics and issues come up. We need to think about whether we can do something to assist or are we just doing what we’ve always done?
A lot of people are already working in that space so we need to make sure we are working with other groups, not against them. SOLGM is an obvious example of that and LGNZ too.
My third theme is to maintain the financial stability of the organisation. We’ve been through a bit of a rough time in the past 12 to 18 months. We’ve turned it around. Peter [Higgs, the previous president] has done a fantastic job but we still need to make sure our core business is funded in a sustainable manner. We’ve got some embedding of that to do.
Will your background be significance to your role as president?
I’m the first lawyer to be president of IPWEA. I first joined the board five years ago and it was interesting for me to be around a board table with a whole load of engineers. It was so apparent to me that my thought process was always so different.
I was working in a law firm at the time and it also made me think about how I was surrounded by lawyers and we all thought in the same way. It was a very interesting reflection.
Sometimes I’ve struggled with not being as across the detailed subject matter that we have discussed. But that’s been beneficial in conversations because it means I try to bring it up above the details and into the strategic level. That’s all I can do. I can’t do the other. I think that’s been quite beneficial. It’s useful to have the kind of more objective view, in a way.
One of the other things that we have in our constitution is that the president or vice president must hold a senior position in a local authority. And from time to time when we’ve been talking about succession planning some people have commented ‘well, what about a consultant in the role? Would it matter?’
And when I first joined the Australasian board – our [ie the NZ] president and vice president sit on the Australasian board – there was a consultant in the president’s role in Australasia – and there was quite some discomfort around that at the time. That’s just another thing that’s different and was brought to the table.
It’s quite a significant thing for IPWEA NZ to have its first female president. I hadn’t really thought about it much myself but certainly 20 years ago it never would have happened.
I think about the conversations I have with my children who are primary school age. If I say something about needing to protect the position of women they look at me like ‘why would I even be saying that?’ It’s very interesting how times have changed.