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.
One of my closest friends in life, Dr Chris Ward, worked for DoC in the East Cape conservancy in a senior science role for many decades. He passed away a few years ago so I feel free to speak on his behalf and in honour of his memory. In rough terms this is how I remember what he said to me along these lines:
This 'culture war' within DoC probably has its roots right back to the days of it's muddled formation in the 80's. There has always been some tension between what could be roughly termed the political bureaucracy, those focussed on facilities for the public and those motivated primarily by the science of biodiversity. It's probably unfair to characterise these as sharp silos, there would be likely a lot of overlap ... but nonetheless it's fair to argue these divisions, especially over funding allocation, have never been resolved.
To complicate matters, many dedicated science people tend to become somewhat obsessive around their specialty; it really is just the nature of the beast. But it often puts them offside with the politicos who have to manage the wider interests of the whole dept. But it does mean that the very people who are key to the whole idea of Conservation, tend to become marginalised within the very organisation they supposed to was serving that purpose.
Under different govts funding gets worse or better. Probably the Clark govt was the best, Key's govt the worst. It either ameliorates or exacerbates these tensions.
Nonetheless highly skilled, mature and experiences science people do not grow on trees. The dept MUST find a way to nuture and protect these people through their careers and life long dedication to their work ... regardless what shade of govt is in power. And that means a senior leadership willing to put the science of conservancy at the heart of the organisation's purpose.
As trampers we tend to have a natural interest in the facilities side of DoC, the huts and tracks, but we should recognise this is really a secondary purpose. In reality there is a huge backlog of biodiversity projects that have been neglected this past decade and these must come first.
The way I read it, its the 'toxic culture' that's the issue
theres always been tension between biodiversity and recreation/tourism priorities
Many biodiversity rangers and scientists feel DOC isn't dealing with some of the important issues.(for whatever reason - political, budget, whatever)
But seems that the response by some managers to being challenged, is not going down too well. This is one example of what looks like an employee being forced to resign
I know of others, attempted, and successful
That's getting into Employment court, and even employee Health and safety territory.
DOC would come out very poorly, if allegations of bullying, forcing employees out etc were proven. and in the current climate of "Metoo" it may end up as more headlines in the media.
Stuff published a piece on this issue last evening. Charlie Mitchell has been following the topic but didn't mention about other staff getting the heave-ho which of course is part of the bigger picture. But this article is worth reading.
problem is, if you're employee is passing on information to third parties without management approval, then you don't know if you can trust that employee. they are communicating potentially unapproved information and if they have a habit of mouthing off too much it makes the employers either very nervous or pissed off or both..
companies i work for i've been banned from making any public statements to the media, i have to refer any media requests for information to the publicity staff...
problem is youi may be well meaning but if you dont word a statement correctly, it can cause legal issues for the employer and or more embarassment than necessary
its not a quick fix to change the culture in an organisation that size and it doesnt help when people complain about whats been going on when you're trying to address it,
senior management cant come out and say their organisation is in crisis.. they might as well resign, you can't admit publicly things are out of control. you have to try and get them back in control and hope too much negative information doesnt come out.
i've gotten into wrangles with senior bosses at a couple of jobs i was in, even if you're in the right and you have them over a barrel they will seldom officially admit they are wrong. they treat all comms on sensitive issues like its admissable in a court of law, doing everything to avoid admitting liability to wrong doing.
the best you can hope for is that the organisation will try and change for the beter but dont expect them to admit how bad things are or were.
This post has been edited by the author on 15 July 2018 at 07:59.
"companies i work for i've been banned from making any public statements to the media, i have to refer any media requests for information to the publicity staff…"
Thats pretty much standard fare across the board. There are some organizations in NZ which go even further and just admitting you work for them will cost your job or more but thats unrelated.
The reality these days is that any media request has to be met with a measured calculated response that takes fully into account legal moral and financial liabilities. Nothing the powers that be (think worksafe for instance) love more than some lowly employee in his second week on the job saying "we did this and this and opps"
big organisations will often warn employees that if they have any social media that posts information that they work for a company then they will be deemed to be representing that organisation.
so they wont want anything anti social or negative posted on your social media... and it doesnt just have to pertain to comments about your employer, it can pertain to you prepresenting yourself a decent citizen and if you represent yourself as anything less you may have been deemed as liable to breaching your employment agreement and end up in a disciplinary process....
there have been cases of companies demanding access to even private social media accounts of their employees to scrutinise. sometimes asking for passwords.
This post has been edited by the author on 15 July 2018 at 09:55.
I worked there the same time as the botanist who this story is about.
The biggest changes I saw in the culture came when they did that incredibly stupid restructure that split DOC into operations & partnerships.
this really created some massive contradictions within DOC as on one hand they were being told "BAU" and on the other, "create more partnerships", "do more with less."
DOC had senior people in this partnership area do things like, approach major helicopter companies and promise them X more landings a year in protected areas. National parks plans and CMS' be damned!
Another major area where DOC was severely compromised was statutory advocacy including on RMA matters. There was pressure exerted from above to basically discourage advocacy work.
The current (from southland) DG also had a habit of surrounding himself with buddies from southland - he formerly worked down there. You only have to look now at how many very senior roles are held by (a) older males, and (b) guys from Southland or Antarctica NZ (where he used to work). I was there when he recruited his "chief scientist" and we all wondered what this guy actually ever did. It seemed to us to be a way for him to appear to be closely consulted on scientific issues - but in reality it appeared he would be getting his scientific advice from someone too close to him (and too removed from the field, being at a desk in wellington) to be truly objective.
its all very well having the current lot blame Al Morrison for the mess that Sanson inherited, but I always felt that Sanson simply does not understand conservation. Morrison I believe tried his best and was forced to restructure DOC at all costs due to pressure from above to make it "work better with business."
This post has been edited by the author on 16 July 2018 at 19:59.
i was on the Kepler getting buzzed by helicopters flying along the ridgeline every half hour or so... it was within the legal 500ft above people
i complained to the minister of conservation, got a response from the operations manager basically told me tough, if i wanted somewhere quiet to tramp it was my obligation to go to a wilderness area, otherwise tough