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May 2013 Issue
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Voices from the cold

Community groups already do a lot of work on the conservation estate, like building and maintaining huts for public use. Photo: File

When the Department of Conservation announced it was planning to bin 140 positions, two affected staffers decided to speak out about the damage the cuts will do to DOC and its people

In a small New Zealand town a husband and wife had been saving for a family holiday overseas.

It was part of their five year plan and the kids were looking forward to a special time together.

For mum and dad, it was going to be a well deserved break from the hard work that fills their daily lives.

But it wasn’t to be.

Their holiday has been cancelled because they weren’t sure whether the husband – we’ll call him Jones – would have a job by the time the trip came around. Keeping their holiday savings for that very real possibility seemed like the cautious thing to do.

So one recent evening they explained to their kids the trip was off.

Wilderness can’t tell you their real names or where they’re from because Jones is a programme manager for the Department of Conservation and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Public servants are prohibited from talking to journalists about their personal views on the agencies they work for or the government’s policies.

Communicating with the news media is restricted to politicians, authorised officials and their communications people who specialise at getting across their preferred way of looking at a particular issue.

Jones ordinarily follows this rule, but that changed one night in April while he was watching the news.

Prime Minister John Key was on the screen, discussing the announcement that DOC would axe 140 jobs as part of a large departmental restructuring. The cuts, Key said, wouldn’t reduce the amount of conservation work the department does.

He said the department is overstaffed with middle management and bureaucracy and it is these positions that would be axed, not rangers on the front line doing important work like pest control and protecting native species.

When Jones heard Key call staff like himself “back-office bureaucrats” it felt like a slap in the face.

“I was in disbelief. We were being described as back-office bureaucrats and could be happily dispensed with,” Jones says. “It was an incredible insult and it’s not just an insult to all the years I’ve spent coming up through [DOC’s] ranks, it’s actually an insult to what we do because without us, the field staff can’t operate or they’re at least a hell of lot more inefficient because they would have to do stuff in the office we do for them.

“We take care of all the planning and organising so they can do the work and if we’re gone, who’s going to do that?

“That’s what [John Key] can’t seem to see, he thinks we’re just pushing paper.”

Jones has been with DOC since it was formed in 1987 and has progressed from a basic ranger up through the ranks to where he is now. Decades of field experience means he now directs a handful of rangers to get the best results for the conservation estate and the tax payer.

While he’s not in the field as much as he once was, Jones gets out when and where needed and says this is true for most programme managers in the department.

Wilson*, another programme manager who spoke to Wilderness on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal, is also far more than a ‘paper-pusher’. He has walked every track in the region he works and like many DOC employees on the frontline has put in countless overtime helping with species conservation. Like Jones, he has also lost his position.

Wilson has been with the department since its formation and prior to that was a ranger with the Lands and Survey Department.

This is the third restructuring he’s seen the department go through and says it is by far the most significant.

Aside from the worry about what he’s going to do next, his biggest concern is who is going to continue his work.

Volunteers help cut wilding pines from the conservation estate – but even the best intentioned volunteer needs experienced DOC personnel supervising them. Photo: James Hoban

Volunteers help cut wilding pines from the conservation estate – but even the best intentioned volunteer needs experienced DOC personnel supervising them. Photo: James Hoban

“Most programme managers feel the same [about the job cuts]: it’s gut wrenching because we’ve all worked pretty hard,” Wilson says. “I work a lot more than 40 hours a week even though I’m not paid overtime.

“I’m a passionate conservationist, it’s my religion really, and I’m working my dream job from that point of view.

“But now I’m worrying about all the things I’m doing currently and how they will be sustained.

“There will definitely be a loss [of conservation work] because of these cuts. I don’t think there are any programme managers in the country who just sit at a desk.

“Programme and area managers are the heart of the organisation when it comes to stuff happening on the ground so to lose a lot of those people, who have great skills and a wealth of knowledge, will be a real tragedy.

“It’s a real risk to the whole department.”

Not only are programme managers facing the axe, but area managers also.

One source close to an area manager says the combined experience of the area managers in the South Island equals 500 years.

The feeling among DOC staff where Jones works is the government is throwing away this wealth of experience to dumb down the organisation.

Area managers, he says, are local decision-makers and losing them will also take away a crucial channel for the public to engage with the department.

He says farmers are particularly well-known for wanting to talk face to face with decision makers who know the area. Without a go-to person, they will have to talk to strangers in DOC’s new regional offices. Jones says they just won’t bother.

In her report on the Department of Conservation released in December last year, the auditor-general, Lyn Provost, said DOC’s main strength is its people, especially specialist staff in the field out in the regions.

“Stakeholders expressed concern about the loss of regional specialist advice and support arising from DOC’s restructure and

centralising of significant positions,” the report stated. “They felt that this would affect the ability of DOC’s staff to be effective and responsive.

“Feedback about staff in the national office or in management positions was not as favourable,” the report went on. “Stakeholders who interact with regional conservancy offices and the national office said that they found DOC’s staff at national office to be less ‘amenable’, not as accessible, nor as respectful of local knowledge and relationships.

“In several instances, they said that this lack of respect for local knowledge and established relationships had had a negative effect on relationships with local iwi.

“This feedback was echoed by central government stakeholders working with DOC on biodiversity.”

Minister of Conservation Nick Smith says he understands conservationists are disappointed with any loss of staff within DOC. He says it’s important to remember the axing of 140 full time jobs doesn’t mean 140 permanent employees are going to walk out the door, never to return.

DOC anticipated this restructure more than a year ago and, he says, filled 166 vacant positions with temporary rather than permanent staff. Smith expects the majority of these 166 positions to be filled by existing DOC staff.

“There will be many staff, particularly in fourth tier management roles within the department, who will be offered a range or one of those other positions,” Smith says. “Until people make those individual choices we won’t know what the final number of redundancies is.”

The latest restructure is said to target ‘paper-pushers’ and ‘bureaucrats’, but no-one within DOC Wilderness spoke to said that is an adequate description of programme managers. Photo: John Bown

The latest restructure is said to target ‘paper-pushers’ and ‘bureaucrats’, but no-one within DOC Wilderness spoke to said that is an adequate description of programme managers. Photo: John Bown

Smith says like all public agencies, DOC must do its fair share toward helping the government balance its books. He also points out the department has grown since he was last Minister of Conservation in 2000. Back then, Smith says DOC had a budget of $149m and 1522 staff. Next year it will be $350m and 1731 staff.

Smith defends the Prime Minister’s depiction of staff losing their positions being back-office bureaucrats.

“There is always some degree of blur between who is a manager, who is a paper pusher and who is a doer,” he says. “If you take it to the extreme, as Minister I’ve pulled the odd weed, killed the odd pest, even battered the odd bit of iron on a DOC hut, but you can hardly say I’m anything other than a paper pusher.

“There is no question in my mind that DOC is too bureaucratic and that change was necessary.

“Effectively, the restructuring is about removing a tier of management and in my formal discussions with lots of DOC staff in my own community and around the country there is frustration over DOC being excessively bureaucratic.

“This is not just a view the public shares, but actually one many of the rangers and field staff in the department have,” he said.

Wilson, however, doubts many staff will be able to take up one of the 166 vacant positions.

Many of the positions up for the chop are based in small towns and many of the staff working in them have partners and families making it difficult to up sticks and move. Besides, he says, DOC won’t want all the programme managers to apply for these roles.

Wilson also has staff under him who have also lost their jobs and who he feels loyal to. “I wouldn’t want to apply for any of the jobs they’re potentially going to go for,” he says. “I’m too loyal to them and don’t want to push them out.”

For both Jones and Wilson, the last two years have been full of uncertainty and stress.

When DOC began its organisational review and restructuring process in the 2010/2011 financial year they, along with other programme and area managers, saw the writing on the wall. From then on they no longer had any job security.

Both men say morale among staff they work with is at an all time low and few are confident the department is going in the right direction.

DOC director general Alastair Morrison’s view that DOC will get more conservation done by working with business and volunteers is unproven, they say, and viewed with suspicion by them and their colleagues. A recently-announced three-year $20m deal with Fonterra is a case in point. “That’s just a drop in the bucket,” says Wilson. “If they’re the biggest company in New Zealand and that’s the best they can do, we’ve got a long way to go. Some of these deals with business feel a little unclean.”

More volunteers, while important, are not the answer, either. They still need to be organised, provided gear and follow strict health and safety guidelines. And what they consider worthwhile, is not necessarily what DOC needs done. “We have volunteer groups around here who are really passionate about our local area, but they often want to get involved in something they see as a priority for them, but that we don’t see as a priority,” says Wilson. “It’s not big enough or comprehensive enough to make a difference, but it takes a whole lot of time to manage it. They think they’re doing a good job, but in reality, in terms of the bigger picture, it’s a waste of time.
“In biodiversity work, I think they have a very limited role.”

Jones worries all that cozying up to business will achieve is spreading the department’s resources more thinly.

He says the current structure was set up as a response to the Cave Creek disaster in which 14 people died when the viewing platform they were standing on collapsed into a gorge. It gave accountability to the local level so that the tragedy was never repeated.

“Now risk and accountability is being pushed up the line which is when problems happen,” Jones says. “That, and the underfunding, is what caused Cave Creek.”