Six questions with Sarah Markley, Director of International Engagement

Our latest Six Questions interview is with our new Director of International Engagement, Sarah Markley.

Sarah MarkleySarah Markley will be familiar to those in the local government sector through her work as a Sector Manager in our Local Government Group. Over the last few years, she's also played an integral role in managing the Office's relationships with other audit offices in the Pacific. In December, she took up a new role as the Office's Director of International Engagement. She'll be responsible for co-ordinating all of the Office's international work, and support the Auditor-General in his role as the Secretary-General of PASAI (the Pacific Association of Supreme Audit Institutions) and as the Auditor-General of Niue and Tokelau.

Sarah has been around the public sector since birth; her father worked in local government. While studying accountancy and French at Canterbury University, she picked up holiday work with the city council, initially as a receptionist. Since then, her career in the public sector has taken her across the world, building national and international systems to improve performance, transparency, and integrity for government organisations.

What was your first job in the public sector?

During my university holidays, I got a summer job answering telephones in the water supply unit of the Christchurch City Council. They were short a draughtsperson, so I picked up some of that work, as well as answering phones. The role grew, and shortly I was out on building sites – in my receptionist clothes – climbing into trenches to measure the length between the taps and valves on water pipes in new subdivisions, then drawing up the plans from them.

How do you think the public sector has changed the most since then?

We used to audit a lot of detail; it was hard to comprehend the bigger picture, and how my work contributed to it. Whereas now just as audits take a much more risk based or strategic approach, I think the whole public sector is trying very hard to work more strategically and also to work together to achieve overall outcome goals now, as compared to a “few” years ago.

Looking at systems overseas where this is less developed and respected than here makes me appreciate how good our system is. It really makes me appreciate how much New Zealand is an exemplar – and how great it is to work within a public sector that has that level of respect internationally.

Equally, through working in the Pacific, you hear about some really simple, effective ways people are dealing with the problems we’re dealing with now. That’s one of the great things in the public sector – this drive to find ways to do things better. 

How did you come into your particular field of expertise?

After university, I got a job at Audit New Zealand in Christchurch, and a very big chunk of the work was in local government – the focus on asset management was growing significantly at the time. Being able to talk to engineers – learned during my summer holiday job working for the council – really came in handy.

As soon as I’d finished my induction, on my first real day of work, by 10 o’clock I was back at Canterbury University, where I’d just finished my studies. I was on that audit for the next two months.  

I’ve been on the same payroll since I started working. I stayed with the Office because working for the Auditor-General has offered lots and lots of different opportunities – and always looking to understand the bigger picture definitely helps.

What’s something that you’ve worked on during your time at the Office that stands out?

I joined the Local Government team in 2007 and came up to Wellington, specifically to help prepare the Office and the local government sector for the 2009 local government long-term plan (LTP) audits. I came up here to develop the Office’s methodology and training programme and to help the New Zealand Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM) prepare the sector. The first LTP audits were in 2006, after the Local Government Act came in in 2002. The Office had done a lot of work, but it was very theoretical – we had to work out how to apply that, consistently, across the country. My experience in local government at Audit New Zealand formed a great foundation for this work. A group of us came together, with a strict delivery timeline, and took the bare bones of what was there before and said, “So, we’ve got to do this again. How can we do this better?”.

Experience as a sector manager and my SOLGM training work led me into my current role, which has a big capacity development component and a best practice focus.

What’s your favourite thing about working at the Office?

Hands down, the opportunity and the variety. Despite working for the Auditor-General, I stopped being an auditor in 2007. Since then, I’ve worked on a whole bunch of stuff – from legal cases, to capacity building with our Pacific neighbours, to assessing the work our Office does, and presenting our results to Parliament and our peers internationally.

Being trained as an auditor really gives you exposure to how things work – you can take this highly developed, widely applicable skill set into any area of the business.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the public sector?

Maintaining meaningful citizen engagement. We’re seeing this in the low turnout in local body elections, and in community consultations for annual and long-term plans. When people do engage, it’s whether they understand how things work within the parameters that have to be there.

The big question facing our democratic and administrative systems right now is: How do we engage, and then how do we deal with and deliver what people want? What role should the public sector play in identifying and providing “truth” to our citizens?

We're looking for an Advisor, International Engagement, to work alongside Sarah. Visit our Careers page for more information.


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