DOC takes lessons from mining firm

The Department of Conservation is taking safety tips from one of the world’s biggest mining companies, while spending millions on Australian consultants with strong links to the industry. David Williams reports.

Greenpeace says it’s “odd” the Department of Conservation is taking lessons from the mining industry.

Taxpayers spent $3900 sending DOC director-general Lou Sanson and two other DOC bigwigs, Mike Slater and Harry Maher, to Western Australia in June to visit global mining giant Rio Tinto’s head office and operations base. The trio also visited the Western Australia Government’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions.

And Newsroom can reveal the department has spent $3.73 million over four years on Australian consultants Taribon, which has strong links to the mining industry, to restructure the department and train staff.

Greenpeace NZ executive director Russel Norman says DOC can, of course, learn from consultancies that provide advice to mining companies and the Australian industry has a good reputation for health and safety practices.

“But it is odd that the Department of Conservation should have gone there when they have any number of alternatives.”

Sanson says DOC’s 2500 staff are spread throughout the country and can be involved in inherently risky work. He describes Rio Tinto as a “world-class agency” on health, safety and wellbeing. “I am absolutely ruthless in staff safety and if I have to go to the mining industry to learn world-best practice that’s what I’ll do.”

After talking to Rio Tinto’s senior managers, Sanson says several approaches were identified which would work well for DOC, to improve safety, wellbeing and a better way to report health and safety data.

“They’ve helped me roll out a leadership model and a training programme to 2000 staff.” – Lou Sanson

Several DOC insiders and ex-staffers have contacted Newsroom about Taribon. Some were embarrassed by the company’s strong links to the mining industry, while others were critical of its corporate training. All five Taribon directors have either worked for or consulted to mining companies, and the industry accounts for some of its biggest clients.

In 2014, Taribon reviewed DOC following a brutal restructure, in which almost 100 staff were cut, under previous director-general Al Morrison. The review found the department was badly structured, unnecessarily bureaucratic, and had hazy goals. Also, it wasn’t supporting overworked staff well enough and had a lax attitude to safety. (Rio Tinto was used as an example in the report of a firm with a strong safety culture.)

That year’s work cost taxpayers $470,000. Since then, DOC has paid Taribon $2.9 million to restructure the department, train staff and fix its culture.

DOC’s deputy director-general of strategy and people Mervyn English, the brother of former Prime Minister Sir Bill English, says Taribon was a “key supplier” for a DOC restructure that is acknowledged as one of the public sector’s biggest overhauls. The firm was “uniquely qualified”, English says, because of its “substantial practical experience in health and safety”.

Most of the Australian company’s work for DOC was to do with “systems” – a redesign of the organisation, including a need to “pilot the new way of working, to identify and strengthen key interfaces” – and “staff development”, training all staff to “rebuild social processes and provide a framework for interactions”.

English says Taribon’s work in both areas is reducing. But last year’s bill was still over $1 million, $726,000 of which was for “systems”. Three years earlier, the same work had cost DOC $251,000.

Sanson reckons Taribon’s efforts have been value for money. Over that four-year period the department spent $1.4 billion, he notes.

“If you talked to staff in 2013, the morale was rock-bottom, the structure didn’t work – I had to start from scratch again,” he says. “They’ve helped me completely redesign accountability within the department. They’ve helped me roll out a leadership model and a training programme to 2000 staff.”

A response from a generic Taribon email address this morning says: “Our directors are not willing to comment at this time.”

Travel, external consultant costs rise

But training that many staff costs big money. The department’s travel and accommodation costs, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, rose from $5.2 million in 2010 to $7.5 million in 2014.

Last year’s figures, which are as yet unaudited, were $8.2 million. DOC points out that’s 2.1 percent of its $385 million core budget.

Finance director Geoff Tilbrook says travel costs increased in 2013 and 2014 because of the “significant restructure”. Managing the myrtle rust outbreak in 2017 also pushed up costs.

“Another factor is the significant investment in staff and organisational capability over the past three years, to ensure the department operates more effectively,” Tilbrook writes. “In the two years to 30 June 2018, 942 staff were trained in working more effectively in a team environment. Now that the majority of staff have undertaken this training, the numbers being trained in future will substantially reduce.”

DOC’s senior leadership team is managing travel budgets closely, he emphasises.

While Taribon has been working for DOC, an increasing amount has been spent on external consultants and professional services, some of which isn’t related to core conservation work. Within three financial years the costs more than doubled, from $10 million in the 2014 financial year to $23 million in 2017. Last year it was $19.5 million.

While the big total in 2017 was put down to pest management, DOC says the last financial year’s cost spike was down to “information technology, legal services, weed control and management consultants”.

Unease within DOC

Sanson says there’s always room for improvement but he’s happy with the department’s progress, pointing to rising “engagement” scores from staff surveys.

There are still rumblings within the department, however. One insider wonders why Taribon is still there, concluding: “The [DOC] leadership is terrible.”

An ex-staffer says Sanson is well-intentioned, and he inherited a “train wreck” from Morrison. But Taribon’s training was “blindingly obvious” and the firm would have been “laughing all the way to the bank”.

“The idea was that we’d bring in these consultants and these consultants would jolly well tell us through ‘team process’ how we could all work together as a happy family.”

His assessment? “It’s absolute bullshit.” The new way of working, he says, has added another layer of bureaucracy that costs more money and wastes time. “It doesn’t take the brains of a rocket scientist to realise that if you want people to work together you get them to talk to each other.”

After Newsroom’s story in July about DOC’s “toxic” culture, Sanson pulled Christchurch managers together for an “open and facilitated” discussion. The following week, he sent an email to all staff saying he was “deeply saddened” by the coverage and he wanted DOC to have a “speak-up” culture.

That’ll be difficult, however, after the resignation of Christchurch ecologist Nick Head, who is now pursuing a personal grievance claim. Head was suspended after photos he sent to conservation groups made their way to the media. His treatment by managers has left many fearful.

A DOC scientist tells Newsroom: “Because of what happened to Nick I don’t feel very safe talking to you.”

* This story has been changed to add comment from Taribon.

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