Throwing bureaucracy at a problem will fix it . . . yeah right!
Throwing bureaucracy at a problem will fix it . . . yeah right!
In this, my second blog on the proposed Wellington City Council takeover of the governance and operation of Zealandia, I draw heavily on the presentation to council by members of the Karori Sanctuary Board of Trustees. My thanks to them for allowing me to share these notes.
So, quick background for those of you who missed the previous blog.
Zealandia is an internationally acclaimed wildlife sanctuary in the heart of Wellington city. It is currently run by a charitable trust. It’s staff are passionate, loyal and run the place on the smell of an oily rag. And yet they, and the thousands of members and hundreds of volunteers, have produced a remarkable conservation success. Tuatara are breeding in the wild on the mainland for the first time in 200 years! Wellington is the only city in the world where kaka are flying above the city and feeding on flowering and fruiting trees in domestic gardens. Rare birds such as tieke and hihi, which people have to go to offshore islands to see in most parts of New Zealand, are breeding freely and filling the valley with their song.
The newly completed visitor centre, with its extraordinary visitor education display, has helped increase visitor numbers to the valley by a remarkable 44%!
Unfortunately, while a huge achievement, the visitor increases have not met the initial predictions upon which the sanctuary’s budget was based. It is accepted these were wildly optimistic but they were from a reputable source and the best available information at the time.
The result is that the sanctuary has not reached self-supporting status as quickly as originally hoped and has gone back to Wellington City Council to ask for a continuation of council support (originally scheduled to end this year) for at least another three years to give revised plans and budgets a chance to work.
The extraordinary response of the council has been to spit the dummy and demand that in return for funding, it take over Zealandia and make it either part of council or turn it into a council controlled operation (CCO). The council will consult on these options, while promoting its preferred option as a CCO combining Wellington Zoo, the Wellington Botanic Gardens and Otari Wilton’s Bush. None of these three parties were adequately consulted on the drafting of the council’s proposal.
Worse, the council has, to date, refused to include in the public consultation process the option of retaining the current management and governance structure of Zealandia, along with continued funding as requested, to keep this unique and successful city attraction going and give it a chance to get on its feet. This, in spite of the extremely well presented evidence of success of the current system presented to council this week.
The following contains excerpts from that presentation (in italics), along with additional comments of my own.
Lack of consultation and inclusion
The council could have easily and quickly resolved to approve funding for Zealandia for just one more year while it considered this issue carefully and took the time to do a proper investigation.
Instead, it spat the dummy and decided that Zealandia needed ‘fixing’, and placed itself on an extraordinary timetable by trying to come up with a comprehensive strategy in only a few weeks, in order to get it into the draft long term plan. The result was a rushed job with inadequate consultation. And, in spite of criticising Zealandia for basing its plan on speculative visitor figures, the council has made its recommendation on its own hastily pulled together financial figures that amount to little more than a few educated guesses!
“We regret the lack of consultation with us by the working group, and that the facts and arguments underlying our preferred options are not included or reflected in the report.
So, as I’ve mentioned, the process did not include the Kaori Sanctuary Trust’s preferred option for funding the status quo. Surely it beholds any council, when it goes out to consult with the public, to include the status quo as one option (a control option if you like) against which to measure the options for radical change?
Further, the preferred option of creating a CCO with the zoo, botanic gardens and Otari Wilton’s bush, seems to have been drawn up without any real consultation with any of those other organisations!
“The comments and views of the board and management of the Zoo are not included nor were they fed back to us. This is a concern, because when we met with the CEO and chair of the Zoo early last year to explore potential synergies or efficiencies, they said they could think of none, other than possibly offering cross benefits to members. We invited the CEO to critique our visitor experience for us, but she declined, and the Zoo board declined to meet with us.So we ask: what are the benefits the Zoo expects from the option?
I have commented before on the perception created by media, council and some other commentators that the Zealandia business model is a failure. I’ve offered evidence that shows that, aside from the over optimistic visitor figures (figures, incidentally provided to Zealandia by a council operation) the sanctuary has been an extraordinary success, meeting and exceeding most of its goals. Here’s what the KST says about their business model.
“There is much in the report about Zealandia’s failed business model. But the model is very simple and is the same as that of other attractions. We generate revenue from visitor activities, fundraising, donations and sponsorships, in order to fund our conservation and education objectives.
The Zoo does the same. Like us it has high fixed costs and insufficient revenue to cover them. They wouldn’t be sustainable without the Council’s $2.8m annual subsidy, which represents $14 per visitor (excluding depreciation and interest).
The Museum Trust gets from Council around $12 per visitor and Carter and City to Sea around $6 per visit. Our subsidy from Council this year is 43 cents per visitor. These figures all exclude capital grants and loans made by Council.
I mention this, because if ours is a failed model, all the other attractions are surely also failing.
The media and the council has also done much to perpetuate the myth that it was Zealandia’s investment in its new visitor centre that created the problem. That is simply not true, yet media keeps repeating it. The fact is, the visitor centre has increased revenue into the valley. Without it, the trust would still have to seek continued funding from council, and probably more than it is asking now.
“The report effectively states that the investment in the visitor centre has created the problem. This is not correct. The Trust required funding before the centre was built. The centre’s aim was to reduce reliance on Council funding and be self-sustaining long term. The Visitor Centre is actually making a cash contribution and without it we would still be seeking Council assistance.
We recognise that and have worked hard to counteract it, with a number of enhancements to our product offering. These include Sirocco’s visit last year, the release of the takahe, the shuttle we’re now running successfully between the city and the sanctuary, the baby tuatara enclosure, free ranger talks and guided tours coinciding with feeding of kaka, parakeets and eels, extended opening hours, among other things.
As a result of all this we are doing better than expected and our funding requirement has accordingly reduced. More benefits can be expected over time. There are further initiatives, such as an adventure playground, that we’d like to consider but clearly can’t in this funding environment. We’ve also to the best of our ability explored potential partnerships and synergies with other organisations, including the Zoo.
To my mind the council has also completely underestimated the impact of its proposed takeover on one of the strongest contributing elements to the success of this conservation initiative so far, its members and volunteers. Several thousand members and hundreds of volunteers give pro-bono time, money and labour to the valley which has been estimated to be worth more than a million a year. Councils, generally, have poor records for maintaining volunteer support over the medium to long term. Work done by volunteers tends to drift into council staff positions instead. Wages go up! Free labour comes down, expenses go up!
“We feel the report reflects a lack of understanding of our operations. Zealandia has a strong volunteerism ethos and is a very lean hands-on operation. There are no secretaries, and no CFO. (staff) do the work of two or three people. (managers) for example, (are) literally hands-on in transferring and monitoring birds, frogs, reptiles, invertebrates, in planting, pest control and so on.
We have 450 wonderful, generous volunteers – but that is a very sizeable, complex group to run, as (volunteer coordinator) could tell you. (marketing manager) spends much of his time on hands-on tasks, partly because of budget constraints but also because of the many constraints involved in relying on volunteers to do most of the work.
“While none of this is ideal, we see a serious risk in putting another layer of management over all this and no obvious savings. Our back office operations are already being merged with other council entities, so there are no further savings to be made there.
Another aspect of the council’s report that worries me, and is evidence of its hasty preparation, it it contains errors that have not been corrected and are being presented as facts that influence the recommendation and council action. For example, the report claims that Zealandia has not done much fund-raising. It also, incidentally, barely mentions the potential loss of philanthropic giving and sponsorship if Zealandia becomes a CCO in spite of the fact that councils tend to attract less philanthropic support than charitable organisations. Potentially, this means more expense as the council is forced to make up for the loss of giving and volunteer time.
“The report states that we haven’t raised much money lately and have been relying on Council funding. This is not correct. Over the last 17 years we’ve raised $16m (not including the council or pro bono or volunteer time).
Many people including trustees have given generously over the years. But we are now raising money for operational expenditure which is very different from fund-raising for capital expenditure, made even more difficult by the economic climate and uncertainty around the project’s future.
Nevertheless we’ve raised $400k in grants and donations over the past year. We have an estimated $900k worth of volunteers hours every year. Pro bono services have totalled around $600k.
Get the picture? The argument that the council takeover is required to produce savings is getting weaker and weaker as more information becomes known!