Another sign of how the Department of Conservation has lost its way, some insiders and ex-staffers say, is its embrace of corporate management methods. David Williams reports.

Faced with staff discontent, the Department of Conservation called in consultants and rolled out a suite of management tools. First there was the so-called interface project, to improve relations between scientific and operational staff. After that, there was “team process” and “reflection logs”, and, for managers, “single-point accountability”.

DOC director-general Lou Sanson, a proponent of the changes, says when he was appointed in 2013 the department was “siloed”, after two big restructures that shed 250 jobs. The new wave of staff interactions have led to huge advances, he says.

But critics say the new set of behavioural rules are another sign DOC has lost its way – showing how disconnected the leadership of the organisation’s become from the work it’s there to do. One former DOC worker says the department’s been captured by fads, which has ushered in a period of “empty change”. They paint a picture of excruciatingly awkward, hours-long meetings of unnecessary navel-gazing.

Another former DOC staffer says: “A tremendous amount of money, time and effort was being spent on what I would regard as wasted projects trying to make communication internally within the department better.”

‘Just doing his job’

A current DOC insider says the changes accentuated the decision-making authority of managers, who were encouraged to manage workers more assertively. That’s made them more sensitive to people who – like departed ecologist Nick Head – challenge authority about poor decisions.

Head was controversially suspended for sending photos to conservation organisations, after being asked to do so, of irrigation pipeline work on public conservation land. But some of his ex-colleagues say he was just doing his job and was effectively punished for speaking up about “piss-poor” decisions.

(Sanson has responded to our story by calling a crisis meeting of managers and directors of teams in Christchurch, despite Newsroom talking to disillusioned workers from several other offices.)

Staff disquiet puts extra pressure on DOC, which is already battling to save thousands of at-risk species and is being asked by Minister Eugenie Sage to return to its conservation advocacy role. Despite a change of Government, and a Green Party minister who says she wants the department to “thrive again”, questions still hang over its decision-making.

At Queenstown’s The Remarkables skifield, the department reportedly gave consent for operator NZSki to extend its learners slope and destroy a regionally significant wetland. In South Westland’s UNESCO world heritage area, DOC stands accused of aiding and abetting cattle grazing in a river valley.

Meanwhile, DOC has notified an application from Path New Zealand – run by Abbe Hutchins, the granddaughter of the founder of Queenstown-based tourism company Real Journeys – to build tourist accommodation facilities for up to 40 guests in the Fiordland National Park.

“Out of it came behavioural rules to correct poor behaviour. It was never, ever going to succeed.” – DOC insider

DOC’s interface project was imposed because the department had become so fragmented that parts of the organisation didn’t talk to each other. On the advice of consultants, staff underwent compulsory training on how to interact with each other.

At taxpayer’s expense, DOC workers spent time on “team-building crap”, an ex-staffer says – like games involving pretending the floor was lava.

A current DOC insider says the senior leadership leapt to the conclusion that the department’s dysfunction was down to all staff apparently deciding, simultaneously, to act in a feral way. Yes, there was some bad behaviour, they say, but the project’s mistake was to treat the symptom as the problem. “Out of it came behavioural rules to correct poor behaviour. It was never, ever going to succeed.”

Director-general Sanson says it’s early days yet, but, “in areas”, the interface between science and operations has moved forward significantly. Team process, meanwhile, “is about using all the experts you’ve got at your disposal to make good decisions for New Zealanders”, he says.

According to a former staffer, if your job was to, say, stop a threatened native bird from becoming extinct, under team process you wrote down what you needed to do, and the resources and people you required, and sent that around to your team. But the ideas just kept bouncing backwards and forwards and “nothing happened”. “I’m just really happy I’m out of it because it wasn’t working, from what I could see.”

Another ex-DOC worker says bluntly that rather than acting as human beings when making decisions, “we’ve got to submit to a process and the process will find a solution”.

Fearful atmosphere

Single-point accountablility, the DOC insider says, was an attempt to fix the department’s dysfunction by making managers manage more assertively. The idea was if they made a bad decision they’d be held to account – “but of course they’re not”, the staffer says.

Given the pressure from on-high to comply with the new regime, managers have become sensitive to being called out for making compromises in conservation decisions, they say. “I think that’s really unhealthy.”

Reflection logs are a lesson in post-discussion meditation. After talking with a colleague, staffers are supposed to sit down with a template on a piece of paper and write down how it went, how it could have gone better, and how they felt about it.

“Can you believe this shit?” the DOC insider exclaims. While the discomfort in workshops was palpable, no one dared challenge it, they say. “That’s the nature of the working environment. We’re all fearful of challenging these things because it’s dangerous. Look at what happened to Nick.”

Low morale, stressed staff in 2014

The State Services Commission, Treasury and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet reviewed DOC’s performance in 2014. The report said the department had begun one of the biggest and most challenging transformations to be undertaken in the public sector. A lot of effort had gone into developing the strategy and structure, the report said, but there was still much work to do.

A “mini review” of staff gave a variable picture of staff morale, with some areas having low morale and highly stressed staff, while other areas were more optimistic. “Support was expressed for the direction DOC had taken but significant problems were noted with a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities, poor communication, inconsistency in and a lack of leadership and management, inadequate systems and a perceived unwillingness to stop some existing activities when new responsibilities were taken on.”

Four years on, the DOC staffer says after the “Nick disaster”, they can’t see how DOC can reach its potential by the route it’s taking. “It’s just a bloody tragedy. It’s tragic what’s happening to DOC.”

One former DOC worker reckons it’s going to be hard for Minister Sage to change the department’s culture, given its focus on “corporate management processes and outcomes and reports and organisational change”.

Sanson, meanwhile, remains upbeat. As reported last Friday, Sanson said the department’s in the best shape it’s been in a long time and internal staff surveys showed “constantly rising engagement”.

Asked about team process and reflection logs, Sanson hails the fact the department’s now got a “common language of decision-making”. “I’m very proud of the department. We’ve made huge changes over the last four years. We’re here to serve the people of New Zealand, restore biodiversity, and get New Zealand ready for another million visitors.”

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

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