The Department of Conservation is putting a brave face on ructions within its corporate services arm.

Rose Anne MacLeod, the head of corporate services and a deputy director-general, has taken extended leave, and an acting manager has been appointed on secondment from the State Services Commission. Consultancy Pwc is auditing the department’s information, communication and technology (ICT) function. And chief information officer Mike Edginton, the head of DoC’s information systems and services (ISS) business unit, has had his geospatial information (GIS) team re-assigned.

It’s unclear if these moves are linked.

DoC’s Karen Jones, the deputy director-general of people and engagement, says in an emailed statement a recent review examined where GIS bests fits within corporate services “to provide the best returns to DOC”. “It was determined that the work of the geospatial services team is a better and more logical fit with the outcomes management team.”

But one former DoC worker, speaking anonymously, says the GIS team requested to be moved, to free itself from ISS’s inflexible management.  “ISS is now breaking up. Clearly they didn’t want to be part of that management because they couldn’t get things done.”

Another former DoC staffer, who worked within the Wellington-based ISS unit, says there is bullying and a poor culture. They say these issues, overlaid by a culture of fear, have led to the departure of some workers, others have been forced out, and there have been payouts for personal grievances. “It’s been going on for years. The culture’s appalling.”

The other ex-staffer says some teams in ISS work well but there are problems within the architecture team, which is run in a “hard-line, dictatorial” way. “People don’t speak up anymore,” they say. “There’s an underlying compliance and possibly fear … people just don’t want to create waves.”

DoC director-general Lou Sanson, the boss of more than 1800 staff, wouldn’t be interviewed for this story. Jones says: “There is no bullying culture at ICT.”

The Government’s champion for nature has a good public reputation, coming second to Air New Zealand this year in a survey of the country’s most attractive employers. But last year, two top scientists called out DoC for its “toxic culture”, while others lambasted its embrace of corporate management tools.

There’s been a huge focus on bullying in the past 12 months, including an investigation at Parliament, Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell was investigated – and cleared – while there were allegations of bullying and a dysfunctional culture at the Office of Ethnic Communities.

There were also complaints about bullying and erratic behaviour against MP Jami-Lee Ross, who left the National Party in a blaze of allegations of his own.

“Like all large organisations, there are occasions where employment disputes occur.” – Karen Jones

Asked about corporate services head MacLeod’s extended leave, Jones, DoC’s deputy director-general of people and engagement, says it doesn’t comment on individual employees. “All staff are entitled to leave for a variety of reasons. They are also entitled to their privacy.

The replacement, who, it’s understood, has been appointed for six months, is a “tier two” manager, Jones says, who was seconded “as a development opportunity”.

As for the Pwc audit, she says that’s “business as usual”, with independent audits of ICT occurring approximately every three years. As to the ICT arm’s spending, Jones says: “I’m satisfied the ICT department is managing its function and budget appropriately.

She’s adamant there’s not a bullying culture within the department.

“Like all large organisations there are occasions where employment disputes occur. In all cases, there are employment investigations and where action is determined to be necessary, that action is taken. We do not comment on individual cases. However, anyone who feels their employment situation has been unfair has a range of options open to them, including the Employment Court.

Since 2015, DoC has been working with the Public Services Association (PSA) to improve DoC’s performance and staff job satisfaction. The union’s assistant secretary Basil Prestidge says in an emailed statement: “We take every allegation of bullying seriously, and will offer all available support to any union member facing problems at work.

“A culture of accountability and transparency is essential in all government departments. DoC have been actively trying to foster this for some time through their ‘speak up’ programme, which the PSA strongly supports. When workers are encouraged to disclose serious issues that concern them, it creates an environment where these issues can be resolved effectively and promptly without causing ongoing harm.”

DoC’s latest annual report, for the 2017-18 financial year, says it has continued to move its aging IT infrastructure to an “as-a-service” model. In 2017 its data centre migrated to Amazon Web Services. In June last year, its Great Walks booking system shifted to a private cloud-based system.

The department’s four-year plan, released in June 2017, says improving its network capability gives staff the ability to work anywhere, anytime. The aim is to be “mobile by default”. A key reason for the upgrades is DoC’s slow IT systems and service in remote areas, which hurt staff productivity, the report says.

The four-year plan lists many ICT positions as “difficult to fill”, with some salaries below market rates, making staff retention difficult.

Chief information officer Edginton told in 2015: “There will be inevitable increases in service costs as hardware goes out of service, but the change to how ICT is delivered to our internal and external customers will provide a better service and more ability to iterate and innovate on cloud platforms.”

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

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