Two top scientists are lifting the lid on the Department of Conservation’s “toxic” culture. David Williams reports.

A culture war is being waged within the Department of Conservation, says a former DOC ecologist who claims he’s been hounded out of the job.

Nick Head, the 2013 winner of the prestigious Loder Cup for conservation, quit the department last month and is taking a personal grievance claim. He says there’s a corporate culture in DOC being driven by management, that seems unable to face the inconvenient truth that its core function is to advocate for conservation. Some bosses seem unwilling to fight to protect special, rare and threatened places in case it upsets “relationships”, he says. That’s causing friction with some scientific, technical and frontline staff.

“There’s a culture war and there’s a lot of discontent.”

Head’s view, which he believes is widely shared within the department, is that DOC became highly politicised because it was seen as an impediment to the previous Government’s economic growth agenda. Some DOC staff became afraid to speak out or take a strong line.

Committed conservation workers, even if they’re highly regarded, are being pushed out, Head says, because they don’t fit the mould of the department’s new corporate ideals. “They make life so difficult for them, they either leave or they find reasons to force them out.”

Another Loder Cup winner, botanist Peter de Lange, left the department, disillusioned, in August last year, after being diagnosed with chronic stress. He thinks the department has lost its way, and that the country’s rare flora and fauna are on the brink of a raft of extinctions, much of it down to DOC’s ineptitude. He should know – De Lange was instrumental in developing the country’s threat classification system used since 2001.

“The desire to listen to in-house expertise is gone. It’s much more important that we write plans and waste thousands and thousands of dollars on consultants developing so-called interface plans and task assignments than actually doing the job.”

As DOC considers the best way to save threatened species, De Lange says the department is haemorhagging the very experts who can help. Scientists and technical staff are leaving through attrition, retirement or because of the way they’ve been treated. “How on earth is it that we’re going to turn the tide of all of this biodiversity loss? Are we going to use consultants?”

Meanwhile, De Lange is worried for his former colleagues, so many of whom, he says, show symptoms of stress, such as “sleepless nights, anger, not being able to eat properly, bowel problems, heart palpitations”. He describes the management of Head, meanwhile, as a “travesty”, that has left his colleagues angry. “DOC at the moment has a mentality of protecting management. It’s all on you: if you do badly, it’s your fault; if your manager does badly, it’s your fault. There is now a widespread culture of fear amongst many of the staff.”

A view of a disgruntlement and disillusionment within DOC has been aired publicly before, what’s unusual is for it to come from its staff, especially scientists.

Suspended over photos

In a move that shocked and angered colleagues, Head, who’s based in Christchurch, was suspended in April after photos that he sent to Forest & Bird and Environmental Defence Society, of irrigation pipeline work on public conservation land in the Mackenzie Basin, were sent to the media by someone within those conservation groups. (DOC had no qualms sending similar pictures to Newsroom for a story we published in June.) After two-and-a-half months of being suspended, and with an external human resources consultant still investigating, Head quit last month and is now taking action for constructive dismissal.

Head says he was just doing his job by sending photos of pipeline work – that was public knowledge anyway – to parties he’d been working with on cases regarding the loss of rare plants in the Mackenzie.

The culture within DOC is “toxic”, Head says, because of a few key individuals. “We’re there to implement policy without fear or favour. That means, most often, in these situations, we’ll be taking a stand against rich people wanting to destroy values. They’re uncomfortable with that.”

DOC insiders Newsroom has talked to back Head’s view. They paint a picture of a top-heavy department, awash with new managers with little conservation experience, weakened by nine years of National Government pressure, budget cuts and restructurings. They say the organisation is capitulating to business interests, allowing environmental destruction, instead of doing its job. Some of the department’s top talent, like Head and De Lange, have left, in their opinion, because they were unwilling to keep swallowing the dead rats – the conservation compromises – decision-makers were serving up.

But there’s little concern at the top. Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage expresses her full confidence in director-general Lou Sanson. Neither of them would discuss Head’s case. But Sanson tells Newsroom DOC is in the best shape it’s been in a long time and he has “total trust” in his senior leadership team.

PSA, the union that represents public servants, says it can’t comment on our story.

Botanist Peter de Lange searching for lichens up a tarahinau tree on the Chatham Islands in 2007. Photo: Peter Heenan

De Lange, who lives in Auckland, was the department’s most prolific scientist for published papers. When he won the Loder Cup, he’d published 160 scientific papers and 16 books, including being lead author of Threatened Plants of New Zealand in 2010.

When De Lange started at DOC in 1990, its science and research directorate had 75 research scientists and technicians. But, through staff attrition and continual restructurings – the worst in 2011 – that number has dwindled. He estimates that, last year, there were only seven DOC staffers, including himself, who were required to undertake research about terrestrial threatened species science management as part of their job.

“Over my time in DOC, what I saw was an increasingly flagrant disregard for the importance of science. It was almost a cult of persecution of the expert; expert sort of became the latest scare-word.”

University of Auckland professor of physics Shaun Hendy, author of the book Silencing Science, says DOC wasn’t on the radar when writing his book because it had a better reputation for science capability than other Government departments.

However, he’s alarmed at a sharp drop-off of scientific research being produced. Back in 2008 it was putting out seven-to-eight scientific publications a year, but that dropped to between zero and two a year after 2011, Hendy says. Looking from the outside, he says it’s hard to tell the reason for that.

“If we see an agency that appears to have stopped publishing science then I think that should raise some concerns.”

(Sanson says with new money from the Budget, he’ll be recruiting three principal science policy advisers “to make sure the department has science at the core of everything we do”.)

Lingering questions

Questions have lingered for years about DOC’s culture and the dissatisfaction of its staff.

In 2015, a staff survey leaked to Radio NZ said DOC workers felt underpaid, had little confidence in senior managers and more than half of them were thinking about looking for a new job. That followed a report from Australian consultants Taribon which said most staff believed a 2013 restructure, which divided workers into partnership and services arms, made the organisation less efficient.

A 2012 report by the Auditor-General said DOC was only slowing the decline of biodiversity in New Zealand, and suggested a series of improvements. Staff were vital to its success, the report said. The Auditor-General’s follow-up report, published in 2016, said limited progress had been made.

Today, two DOC insiders, who don’t want to be named for fear of reprisals, paint a mixed picture of the department. They say there are still good people within the department and it’s still doing good work.

In many ways it’s a good employer, one insider says, by allowing them some flexibility and freedom over their time. But it’s also a poor employer, this person says, because of its ill-fitting structure.

A tougher, top-down management style’s been adopted, and staffers who were seen to have “pet projects” had them taken away. Some managers are good people and are rightly distressed. But others are more concerned with running the organisation, and not so much the business that DOC is there to do, the insider says.

“How could it be that a Department of Conservation could employ some of the world leaders in conservation and yet ignore their advice? But it does.”

(Sanson rejects this assertion.)

“I think it’s getting worse. Personally I’m finding it harder to go to work each day.” – DOC insider

People on the DOC frontline are having corporate values forced on them that don’t fit with the nature of their work, this person says. “From that point of view, it’s an uncomfortable place to work.”

Some of that discomfort is being blamed on the last National government, with an onslaught of changes designed to make it fall into line. There’s plenty of evidence that it did.

DOC agreed to swap conservation land in the Ruahine Forest Park to enable the controversial Ruataniwha Dam – a move eventually overruled by the Supreme Court. The department also made a neutral submission, jointly with the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, on the Te Kuha mine proposal near Westport. (Earlier this year, after a change of Government, DOC subsequently appealed the consent approval and ministers declined an application to mine conservation land.) And back in 2013, DOC endorsed a Fiordland monorail proposal – only to have the plan rejected later by then Conservation Minister Nick Smith.

(Sanson dismisses the idea that DOC made decisions against the best interests of nature. “We work for the government of the day, within our legislation of the day, and we do an entirely professional job.”)

The DOC insider says National’s time in power was “hostile” to conservation, but a change of Government hasn’t brought about swift change. “I think it’s getting worse. Personally I’m finding it harder to go to work each day.”

Newsroom asked former Conservation Minister Maggie Barry for comment about National’s legacy, but received a reply from the National Party’s conservation spokeswoman Sarah Dowie. Dowie says while it was in government, National worked hard to ensure quality public services were delivered through an effective use of taxpayer dollars. DOC delivered “great results”, she says. Staff and cultural issues within departments “are an issue for those departments”.

The DOC staffer says Head was probably in the gun for challenging managerial authority; calling out his managers once too often for “piss-poor” decisions that led to compromises for conservation. “He was just doing his job,” the person says, adding: “I’m bloody angry about what these bastards have done to Nick.”

The other staffer, who doesn’t work in Christchurch, says Head’s treatment was weird and frightening. “Apparently that’s had a real chilling effect on a lot of people.”

‘A huge loss’

The shock and grief at Head’s departure extends to the wider scientific community.

Renowned botanist Sir Alan Mark, an emeritus professor at University of Otago, says, like the loss of De Lange, Head’s exit is a huge loss to the scientific, ecological knowledge within DOC. “There’s no one around, I don’t think, who could replace him,” Mark says. “His knowledge of the Mackenzie Basin is almost unexcelled.”

Mark reckons the only other scientist who might rank alongside Head for Mackenzie knowledge is Landcare Research’s Susan Walker. But the Dunedin researcher herself calls Head the premier expert, who she’s relied on an enormous amount, especially for his field experience. “He’s been my closest colleague for 20 years – he’s outstanding,” Walker says. “It’s, from my perspective, one of the most serious losses that the department has sustained in its expertise that I can remember, and that’s saying a lot.”

The Loder Cup is the country’s oldest conservation award, which isn’t necessarily awarded to a DOC staffer. Mark quotes Head’s 2013 citation: “He’s been a tireless advocate for Canterbury’s unique plant life, both through his professional work with the DOC and as a volunteer and advocate for numerous trusts and organisations. His contributions have included extensive work in plant identification, guided field trips, public talks, advocacy for conservation before councils and in the Environment Court. A particular benefactor of his work has been the unique plant life of the limestone areas in South Canterbury and the spectacular Mackenzie Basin.”

Mark worries for the future protection of the Mackenzie without Head being able to guide DOC. As to the manner of Head’s departure, Mark says public servants are constrained by what they can say publicly, but supplying photos to conservation groups seems a minor infraction. “It’s an indictment on [DOC] management, a component of them, that saw this was justifying a reprimand.”

Perhaps in an attempt to explain why DOC released photos to Newsroom but suspended Head for sending similar pictures to conservation organisations, Sanson says DOC is no different to any other Government agency in the way it handles public information, but it honours the Official Information Act.

Forest & Bird declined to comment for this story. Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor says it’s sad DOC lost such an able ecologist in such circumstances. His interaction with DOC is limited to Sanson and senior managers who, he says, are well-motivated, committed and competent.

Pipeline work on The Wolds pastoral lease, in an area that is set to become public conservation land. Photo: DOC

Opinion is split on if DOC’s ship can be righted. One current staffer is confident Sage can bring the department back into line again.

Sage is demanding DOC again advocates for conservation, something enshrined in the Conservation Act. That means speaking its mind, taking people on, and risking being unpopular. A DOC staffer wonders if the current crop of senior leaders have the stomach for such a fight. Sage has to turn the DOC battleship around, the still-hopeful staffer says, but asks: “Does she have the right people on the bridge?”

Deputy director-general of biodiversity Martin Kessick is a lawyer and deputy director-general of policy Bruce Parkes, who came to DOC from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, has a degree in English literature.

(Sanson says: “All those people have remarkable experience to do those jobs. They went through an independent process to get those roles and I believe they’re highly competent to do the roles they’re doing.”)

De Lange, now an associate professor at Unitec Institute of Technology, says Sage’s job will be harder because it’s staffed by managers appointed under a different regime and with a different focus. He believes the department needs to be split in two – the tourism branch that deals with tracks, toilets and huts, and a biodiversity protection branch.  

A Christchurch-based DOC insider says they respect Sanson for his ability to convert people to the conservation cause, but the director-general’s job was made harder by the “shit-awful mess” he inherited from his predecessor, Al Morrison. The insider says while Sanson seems genuinely distressed about its dysfunction – “and the organisation is dysfunctional” – they worry that he lacks the toughness to take a hard look at the quality of his managers or the value of its organisational structure.

“I’m very proud of the department. We’ve made huge changes over the last four years.” – Lou Sanson

Sanson, a former chief executive of Antarctica New Zealand, mounts a staunch and unflinching defence of DOC’s culture.

He says DOC’s culture has come a long way since he was appointed in 2013. When he took over, the organisation had just been through two big restructurings and shed 250 staff. Now it’s got new resources and a clear direction. “I’m very positive of where the department is at the moment.”

Confronted with comments from some of his staff are disillusioned with DOC’s ill-fitting structure and its corporatisation under managers inexperienced in conservation or science, Sanson says: “In 2500 people there will be small pockets of people that may not respect their leader. But overall, I think the organisation has a very healthy and positive culture towards science.”

Sanson declares his “total trust” in senior management and says he disagrees that DOC has lost its way and is dysfunctional. He points to a survey last month, by recruitment firm Randstad, that named his department as the country’s second-most attractive employer, behind Air New Zealand.

(De Lange saw the same survey and says people from the outside might be attracted to DOC but it has a high attrition rate. “People generally don’t last very long in the department anymore.”)

Sanson says: “I think the department’s in the best shape it’s been in a long time, with a total respect for the minister, which we always have had, and we want to deliver for the government of the day.”

Internal staff surveys show “constantly rising engagement”, he says. “Not all staff are happy, but the engagement surveys are consistently improving.”

Initially, Sanson says he’s not seeing a clash between pro-corporate factions within DOC against pro-conservation people, but then he gives some ground. “It may be at one location in the country, yes, but not over the department.”

As for the idea that DOC had to shake off the label it’s the “green Taliban” – a phrase, he says, he’d “never use” – Sanson says that’s a very low way to look at the department. “I’m very proud of the department. We’ve made huge changes over the last four years.”

Sunk, as the tide turns

The timing of Nick Head’s departure is not lost on anyone.

It comes as a Green Party minister of conservation has promised more money to reinvigorate the department and rebuild its capacity. Some of that money, $2.6 million announced in May’s Budget, was earmarked for DOC to consider greater protection in the Mackenzie.

But just as the tide turns, as a new Government tries to slow the loss of precious land in the Mackenzie, its foremost expert – the one who knows the most about rare and threatened plants, who can easily describe its glacial landscapes and why they’re so important – has left. DOC will have to mull the possibility of establishing a drylands park there without the input of the expert, Head, who originally suggested it.

Just as the department needs strident advice from its ecological experts, its super-sensitive managers are getting rid of people who are prepared to do just that, a DOC insider says.

Head says he’s got mixed emotions after spending more than 20 years of hard graft in the Mackenzie – it’s difficult work, he says, because it’s naturally adversarial. There have been huge achievements. The Environment Court has methodically decided on stricter environmental rules for development in the Mackenzie and, as a consequence, council-appointed commissioners earlier this year refused a Mackenzie farm’s bid to use two pivot irrigators that were already in place.

Head’s got a new job, but he’s sad the department denied him the opportunity to leave on his own terms. The ecologist says he’ll miss being part of the Mackenzie’s protection, when it happens, considering much of that will be based on work he started, with a few others. “But I’m not sad to be leaving DOC; the toxic culture.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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