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WSNZ CEO Summit Address

Jonty Mills Keynote Address – Drowning Prevention Summit 31 Oct 2019

Kia ora,

Hopefully the theme of change and the need to evolve has come through today as everything around us changes. As a Water Safety sector we’re at a pivotal point as we look beyond 2020. We’ve heard from some changemakers and had some fascinating insights into what may lie ahead.

Collectively we do so many things well and I genuinely believe we punch above our weight against a really challenging backdrop, limited and constrained resources and additional pressures. We need to celebrate our successes. In relative terms, the drowning toll is coming down against a growing population, higher participation and immigration backdrop. Throw in increased demand and expectation for services and we’re making an impact.

There’s a saying that I picked up from a previous Melissa Grant Reynolds presentation at Sport NZ Connections Conference;

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (Buckminster-Fuller)

The status quo won’t get us there – we need to be disruptive (which I’m fully aware can be uncomfortable). I think we are being more and more challenged to think differently – our business as usual is successful but what is it that we’re going to change and do differently, and where should we allocate our limited resources to where we’ll get the most impact.

Most of our desired outcomes are long term, particularly when we’re talking about culture, attitude and behaviour change – a more forward looking and long term view is needed. Our outcomes are a combination of short-term milestones but more importantly long term step change. It’s a tough challenge and one that takes collective effort.

I will soon lead a process of developing the next Water Safety Sector strategy beyond 2020. I plan to kick this discussion off at the upcoming CSRG in November. One of the first things we’ll do is a recap of the learnings from the 2015 – 2020 Strategy.

There’s one thing I’m sure of already. A key success from that strategy is that is has brought the sector together in a more collaborative and united way to tackle the complex problem of drowning prevention – and it is complex! The inaugural Water Safety Month launched last week by Minister Phil Twyford and a collaboration of all main sector partners is a great example of this.

The Capability Review as a key action from that Strategy also highlighted the significant pressures facing the sector which has led to the Govt policy process we’re currently engaged in.

The implementation plan out of that review contained 12 key actions, the short-term ones of which we have been working through. I provided a video link update on progress against those actions last month which hopefully many of you have seen – it’s available on our website if not.

There are a couple of initiatives out of this plan that are worth a mention;

Regional Water Safety Plans – they’re about local ownership of a localised problem, leveraging local resources in a joined up way. They’re simply based around targeting demonstrated needs that are unique to that region (in addition to national base case activity) and backed up by evidence.

We’ve piloted three in the highest need regions (Auckland, Bay of Plenty and Waikato) – each have unique needs and are at difference stages of implementation. Auckland is the most advanced, where we’ve got three initiatives that are underway:

  • Aspire2 – Surf, DPA, WSNZ and Aspire2 International (NZ’s leading provider of international education with an intake of around 3,500 international students, most of who end up playing in our waterways)
  • WaiWise – collective agencies again (DPA, WSNZ, Surf, CBE, Vector Wero). A real gap in our delivery model. In my view, if kids get to secondary school without any form of basic water safety education, they’ve fallen through the cracks.
  • Hunua Falls – Council, DOC, Akld Reference Group, partners with Water Safety advice, signage and data gathering

I’m also pleased to announce a new partnership with ACC with a comprehensive focus on Kaupapa Māori drowning prevention outcomes – by Māori for Māori and all people. Underpinned by our close partnership with our Māori Advisory Group Tangaroa Ara Rau and our revitalised marketing arm, Kia Maanu Kia Ora (Stay afloat, stay alive).

We have embraced Dr Chanel Philips evaluative framework Wai Puna - an approach to water safety that is grounded in a Māori worldview and at that heart of this approach, is the importance of strengthening connection to wai (water).

There are exciting times ahead in this space and we, at WSNZ are making a genuine effort to improve our internal cultural capability with our Kaihautū, Hone Tibble guiding us. It’s probably the first time in our history that you’ve seen our entire staff up here performing a waiata and I commend our team for embracing these values.

Between now and June next year, I’ll map out the next iteration of the Water Safety Strategy beyond 2020 with key partners. I’m working on that process right now.

We will agree what the value is in what we do collectively. We will re-evaluate our joined up purpose and vision. There will be consultation and there will be opportunities to participate to ensure we collate all the inputs to frame our thinking.

Again, we need to assess what’s coming at us via an environmental scan – populations, participation, demographics and big ticket items such as climate change. What lies ahead that will impact our sector.

More and more important is the evidence base – the data, insights, evidence and evaluation.

We will draw on some best practice approaches and I’ve already been consulting with a number of my comrades both here and across the ditch to share some of their approaches.

The Australians are undertaking a similar process and assessing things like;

  • Life stages – children, young people, males, older people
  • Locations – coastal, inland, aquatic industry
  • Activities – swimming, boating and watercraft
  • Populations – Multicultural, Indigenous
  • Risk factors – alcohol, drugs, flooding

Some of the inputs that shaped thinking of Sport NZ’s newly launched strategic direction;

  • Govt outcomes
  • Learnings from previous strategy
  • Sector feedback/consultation
  • Data and insights – the evidence base
  • Measuring impact
  • Benchmarking other models (international) – engaged with friends at RLS Australia
  • Environmental scan
  • Cultural responsibility

I’m also aware that we run the risk of going down too many rabbit holes and at times, and on occasion we’re guilty of that. My Board sometimes reminds me of this. A scatter gun approach won’t work.

My Board has challenged me to develop a longer term forward focussed approach – and map that with what good looks like over the term of our strategic cycle, and tracking success along the way. Target the things considered most important. As a result, what are we going to do differently.

I’ve learned through the insights of international organisations, the likes of WHO, UN, ILS (and Sport NZ) that they are all recommending more emphasis on the evidence base – the data, insights and evaluation. We need model our strategy with this in mind. And importantly, what role we play in Applied Research, which remains in my opinion unresolved.

As Minister Williams and Geoff Barry articulated, the Government is supportive of what we do and the critical role we play in keeping people safe in, on and around the water. We are working closely with Govt officials to ensure the long term sustainability of the sector. We have a compelling case but we are one of many. We do however have a significant impact on social, economic and wellbeing costs and benefits. We are strongly telling that story. We need to be as efficient as we can be, collectively and as joined up as possible in our approach to water safety.

As I noted in my annual report summary – it’s clear we need to secure long-term support to ensure sustainability of our sector. It’s also clear, in order to achieve step change, we need to be prepared to adapt as well.

We’ve been asked to deliver step change in drowning prevention. No one organisation can deliver this alone.

WSNZ’s current purpose is to lead a step change in New Zealand so people don't drown. It’s a high level and long-term aspiration. But I think the essence is in the words “step change” and that’s the journey we’re on now and need to embrace going forward. That means doing things differently.

I need to align this purpose with bringing the sector together in the next planning cycle as we look beyond 2020. At the same time recognising and acknowledging that drowning prevention is only a part of what many of our partners do. Therefore Water Safety New Zealand needs to lead the cause and leverage the expertise in this space.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge and thank my board – they keep me challenged and scrutinised and are facilitating a more forward looking approach.

Our funders, sponsors - we need you and you know we value you.

And to you, our members, partners, interested parties, educators, officials – thank you for your support today and your genuine devotion and commitment to the water safety cause. We purposely cast the net wider for today because we wanted to engage beyond our circle.

To Recreation Aotearoa – thank you for your expertise and support in pulling this summit together with us.

Finally, to our team in Wellington. We work for Water Safety New Zealand because we care and want to make an impact. Know that you do and thank you for that. I refer to one of our values (which staff had a hand in developing)


We’re in the caring business. We care about people and their prospects. So a generous and curious disposition is vital. We won’t judge. It’s also crucial to our team dynamic, we work under pressure and need to be supportive of each other.

Kia ora and thank you

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