Inside the break-up of DoC’s IT unit

The Department of Conservation’s IT section was torn apart by a culture so poor that some staffers felt unsafe to speak up.

The geospatial information (GIS) team was shifted out of the information systems and services (ISS) business unit in September, in a move DoC has painted as finding “a better and more logical fit”.

However, reports released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the 32-person GIS team felt overwhelmed, under-resourced, and frustrated at not getting approval to complete important work. The reports, prepared for managers considering whether to re-assign the team, described ISS as a “roadblock” several times. GIS analysts also complained to their bosses they “might not feel safe” raising issues, leading to the question “should [the union] PSA be involved?”.

Confirmation of such fundamental problems adds weight to insiders’ claims – previously denied by the department – of an appalling culture within ISS.

Asked if DoC still maintains there’s no culture of bullying and harassment within ISS, DoC’s deputy director-general of corporate services Rachel Bruce says that like all large organisations, employment grievances occur, and action is taken where necessary. While it has paid out at least $157,447 in the settlement of four personal grievance claims, Bruce says that’s an average of one a year in a unit of 100 staff.

“The department is currently refreshing its information systems strategic plan and I’m satisfied that the ISS unit is operating well and in a good position to continue to deliver IT improvements and support for DoC.”

Its budget has skyrocketed since the 2013/14 financial year, when it was $15.7 million, to $27.4 million in 2018/19. This year’s budget reduces to $25.8 million, as its headcount reduces to 69 with the departure of the GIS team.

(In Parliament’s annual review for 2015/16, the department said its move to IT “as a service” would lead to long-term savings but “there will be cost pressure in the first few years that need to be managed”.)

Bruce says DoC has previously under-invested in technology and its IT budget is relatively modest compared to similar size organisations. “IT has enormous potential to improve our conservation efforts.”

Fraudster appointed to investigation

DoC also reveals that, in 2015, it appointed Joanne Harrison – jailed two years ago for ripping off the Ministry of Transport to the tune of $726,000 – to help investigate bullying and harassment claims within ISS. The other member of the investigation panel was Kensington Swan partner Greg Cain.

But Harrison – appointed to the inquiry by former deputy director-general of strategy and innovation Mervyn English, the brother of former Prime Minister Sir Bill English – didn’t complete the eight-month-long investigation. She apparently withdrew because of illness. In fact, she’d been stood down by the transport ministry in 2016 while fraud allegations were being investigated.

(Multiple written questions to Conservation Minister Maggie Barry by Kris Faafoi in 2016 show the Labour Party was chasing information about the bullying inquiry. Barry denied the complaint covered more than one complainant, which is untrue.)

DoC’s director of outcomes management Neal Gordon – whose unit is now in charge of the GIS team – says bullying and harassment allegations against ISS managers weren’t substantiated by the Cain/Harrison investigation. However, Newsroom has been told there were admissions in the report, including from chief information officer Mike Edginton, of a toxic culture, with poor management and inadequate communication.

(The ISS management team sent an email to staff in October saying that our last story didn’t fairly or accurately represent its culture, but “we acknowledge that we aren’t perfect” and have been “less visible than we would like this year”. The team has since reinstated weekly meetings and said it wanted to strengthen DoC’s “speak-up” culture – “so please reach out when you think something is not right”.)

“If GIS in DoC is not strongly supported and cherished, it will wither and die.” – Unnamed DoC operations manager

The Official Information Act response material, reviewing the options for a potential GIS shift, shows how highly-regarded the team is within different parts of DoC – and how widely-recognised its frustrations were.

The team was feted in review reports as the “golden eyes” for DoC’s predator control programme, particularly aerial 1080 drops, with highly-skilled, but under-resourced, staff.

Minutes taken at a three-hour meeting in Wellington in June said there were more drivers for a proposed shift of GIS than was first outlined. “It’s not only about where the geospatial team are positioned within the organisation but also about role clarity, data management/QA, lack of direction/strategy to name a few.”

Attendees at a Christchurch meeting described GIS as “overwhelmed” and “reactive”, with poor communication – “is anyone listening?” – and “no strategy”. A frustrating example of its inability to act, and influence decision-makers, was “not being allowed resources to update the pesticide and weeds apps”.

An interviewee from the operations team, whose name is redacted, says: “If GIS in DoC is not strongly supported and cherished, it will wither and die. This will place the organisation at serious risk to legal, operational, environmental, financial, iwi, and social threats.”

Several options considered

Several options for moving the GIS team were dismissed, including moving outside corporate services (the operations unit’s focus is “delivery, not strategic”), and joining the business shared services unit, with which it had “little alignment”.

Staying within ISS was a known quantity, the Wellington meeting’s minutes said. The negatives included that GIS was shut out of critical conversations, not authorised to develop strategy, and appeared to lack influence.

Two recommended options were put forward – to appoint its own director, to increase its visibility, and ensure the “right level” of executive support. However, this would lead to higher running costs, the minutes said.

The other recommendation, eventually adopted, was to move to the outcomes management office. Positives listed for this move included “significant alignment”, and that “geospatial would be seen as part of the business and therefore a customer of ISS”.

DoC director-general Lou Sanson endorsed the move in August, saying in an email: “Good to go unless budget implications.” Outcomes management boss Gordon, then the acting deputy director-general of corporate services, confirmed the “budget-neutral” shift on September 6. He added there would be a corresponding reduction in the ISS unit budget.

The GIS team’s move came amidst ructions within the corporate services wing, including the extended leave of deputy director-general Rose Anne MacLeod, replaced by Bruce who was seconded from the State Services Commission. We reported in September there was also an audit of ISS by PWC – but DoC now says this is an update of its information systems strategic plan.

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