New Zealand Department of Conservation: Putting down roots

New Zealand Department of Conservation: Putting down roots
The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) is chief custodian of the country‘s natural, marine and historic heritage, a mission that Director-General Lou Sanson describes as being “at the heart of the nation‘s identity” and in which “conservation is as much spiritual as scientific”. It is this powerful sense of mission that has helped to make DOC New Zealand‘s most attractive employer – nearly half of the NZ participants in the 2017 Randstad Employer Brand Research said they would like to work there. Yet, like so many public service organizations worldwide, DOC has to meet ever-higher demands while working within tight budgetary constraints. We asked Lou Sanson to explain how DOC squares the difficult circle of serving communities, protecting the heritage they cherish, and sustaining inspiration and motivation within its 2,000-strong workforce, while still living within the tough realities of public service funding.

Writing at the end of the 19th Century, the English poet, Rudyard Kipling, described New Zealand as the “Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart”. The line evokes a unique and what was then still largely untouched environment. The country‘s geographic isolation has allowed a beautiful and unusual array of plant and bird life to flourish. They include the iconic kiwi, the flightless bird that has become the national symbol and affectionate nickname for New Zealanders. This was also a land that had no natural predators and in which human settlement was less than a thousand years old. For the indigenous Maori people, who were among the earliest settlers, the land is literally sacred. They see it as the essence of life, a physical New Zealand‘s increasingly multicultural population have come to share this deep connection with nature and recognize its importance as a unifying force within the culture of the country – for example new citizens can plant a native tree to symbolize their readiness to put down roots in the country. 

From the tropical forests of the North Island, to the rugged mountain landscapes in the southern South Island, (and backdrop for the Lord of the Rings movies), New Zealand is an exquisitely beautiful country. Yet, mass settlement has inevitably taken its toll. The damage includes the introduction of alien pests and predators, especially rats, stoats and possums, which constantly threaten the country‘s native plant and bird life. being part of something big DOC is responsible for safeguarding this fragile environment. 

Its wide-ranging remit includes more than a dozen national parks, some of them World Heritage Sites, which cover a third of the country‘s land mass. DOC also looks after marine reserves and some 12,000 archaeological and historical sites dating from the earliest Maori settlement through to the arrival of Europeans in the 19th Century. It‘s thus a uniquely integrated model of conservation. It‘s also a highly ambitious one, as DOC doesn‘t just want to preserve what‘s there, but get on the front foot by restoring as much of the native ecosystem as possible and eliminating the threats to endangered native species. ”Our long-term goals include being predator-free by 2050, and we want to be a least half way there by 2025. And this has really captured the imagination of the public, our employees, our volunteers and potential recruits,” says Mr Sanson. 

rooted in the community

DOC‘s emphasis on community partnership reflects the ‘whanaungatanga’ or kinship that‘s so important within Maori and wider New Zealand culture. “There‘s no us and them – we rely on our community partners for their physical support as volunteers, working in areas such as tree planting and pest eradication. We also rely on their local knowledge and priorities to guide what we do,” says Mr Sanson. “And working closely with the Maori people is central to this community partnership. We recognize the huge responsibility that comes with protecting ancestral heritage sites and ecosystems that are at the heart of spiritual as well as physical lives. We co-manage the conservation, making decisions together and working together. One of our key aims is to convey the stories surrounding each of these sites and what they mean, which can help to inspire visitors and our people within DOC, as well as helping to keep these stories alive for future generations.”

projecting the brand

Pay is moderate by both public service and private sector standards. Yet, the opportunity to work in such beautiful surroundings, work closely with communities and make a difference in so many important areas means that DOC has no shortage of willing recruits – “for many years we've been getting more than enough applicants for every post,” says Mr Sanson. The rangers working in the national parks make up the bulk of the workforce. Their uniforms, along with the Maori-inspired shield emblems prominently displayed, are visible symbols of the organization‘s culture and brand. “The rangers are the public face of our organization. They do a great job in projecting our brand to both visitors and potential recruits. As well as engaging directly with the public, we also encourage our rangers to share on social media, the photos they take while at work,” says Mr Sanson.

DOC also employs a variety of highly qualified specialists in areas such as mapping, engineering and marine biology. “We still require a lot of people with scientific and technical capabilities, but the importance of partnership means that we‘re also looking for people with excellent engagement, advocacy and digital skills,” says Mr Sanson. “As our rangers work with so many volunteers, they‘re the eyes and ears of our recruitment program, picking out people who would make good full-time employees, and encouraging them to apply. At the same time, we recognize that we can‘t just rely on personal recommendations. In particular, we‘re determined to reach out to the sections of the population that are less well represented in our workforce, and aren‘t as well acquainted with our work as others. Auckland is one of the most diverse cities in the world, for example, but our local workforce doesn't yet reflect this. We‘re going into schools, talking to community leaders and engaging on social media to ensure that we‘re getting more applications and recruiting more people from these underrepresented communities,” says Mr Sanson.

DOC also works closely with leading corporations such as Air New Zealand and dairy giant, Fonterra. “Our commercial partners can not only increase investment in conservation, but also communicate the conservation story to new and broader audiences. We also recognize that we can learn from each other, and provide mutual support. Fonterra works closely with us on water management projects, for example. And as part of our partnership with Air New Zealand, the DOC ‘story’ is projected on every flight, helping us to engage with potential visitors from around the world. In turn, we have a program that enables Air New Zealand staff to experience staying on a Maori marae (meeting grounds), which helps them to learn more about the Maori culture and way of life,” says Mr Sanson. “The association with brands such as Air New Zealand and Fonterra has done a lot to change perceptions of our respective brands – they demonstrate their support for sustainability, while our association with them helps to enhance our reputation within government and the business community.” 

empowering leaders and staff

All these ambitious plans have to be delivered within what is a tight government budget. DOC has faced a freeze on numbers in recent years, though it can hire people to make up for those who have left to take up opportunities elsewhere. While fully accepting the financial realities under which DOC operates, Mr Sanson believes many of the approaches to savings and restructuring within public service organizations are ultimately unsustainable. “When I came into the post, DOC was coming through a difficult period of restructuring. As is so often the case in the public sector worldwide, the response to financial difficulties had been a ‘big bang’ structural overhaul. But while we lost a lot of good people, and morale within the organization was dipping as a result of this restructuring, the savings were actually quite short-lived,” he said. “A better approach is to look for cultural rather than structural solutions.

In our case, this includes maximizing community feedback to make sure that the resources at our disposal are directed where they can make the most impact. And our commercial partners have provided invaluable advice and support in areas ranging from process efficiency to staff relations. Ultimately, sustainable long-term change comes from empowering leaders and staff on the ground, and respecting their knowledge – the more we listen to staff, the more efficiency improves. We also encourage leaders to develop the compelling ‘stories’ that are needed to bring our people behind change, and help win support from our community and business partners.” 

Mr Sanson sees DOC‘s strong showing in the Randstad Employer Brand Research as a testament to the turnaround of morale within the organization, and the work it is doing to engage with stakeholders outside it. “The Randstad Award was a boost,” he says. 

hearts and hands 

So what can other environmental agencies, public service organizations more broadly, and those in business learn from DOC? DOC has an employer brand that millions of New Zealanders can relate to personally as visitors and volunteers. And, it projects this brand well. Clearly this is an organization that does wonderful work in beautiful surroundings – a dream job in many ways, though wading through mud on countless cold wet days requires a lot of grit and motivation. But this is also an organization that‘s pragmatic in pursuing its mission. It knows that it has to make every cent count, as without this it wouldn't be able to make a difference. It also knows it needs to empower its employees and maximize support from business and the community to deliver on its goals. In the words of Mr Sanson, “DOC is an organization that engages hearts as well as hands, and that‘s a hugely powerful combination.”
Posted: Tuesday, 11 July 2017 - 5:00 PM