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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

The Problem with MPI


Following honey industry complaints about the Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI) processes last month, experienced bureaucrat and apiculture industry advisor Ian Fletcher explores some of the workings of MPI. He explains, while the government department may have its shortcomings, it’s not alone in the world of such organisations, be they publicly or privately run.

This week I was planning to write about an aspect of beekeeping (a topic I usually shy away from, as I’m not a beekeeper, and I assume most of you are). NZ Beekeeping Inc, which I help on government stuff, has been waging a long campaign on behalf of those smaller beekeepers who only extract part-year to be able to have their RMP audits conducted annually rather than six monthly – cost saving and time saving too. It’s been largely unsuccessful so far (although everyone agrees it’s a good idea). Frustratingly, beekeepers are often told they must complete various training courses to qualify, as well as having a good RMP history. Courses are not compulsory, we are told, it’s just they’re always required.

Ian Fletcher has delved into the operations of the Ministry for Primary Industries to try and discovery why they are so bad at understanding, let alone meeting, their customers’ needs.

As part of this protracted campaign MPI recently answered an OIA request on RMPs, levels, and non-conformances. It showed that most Beekeeping RMP holders are on step 6 (ie the top level still requiring six-monthly inspections), with only two on step 7 in one year, and commendably, vanishingly low levels of non-conformances. So almost everyone gets an A minus, almost no-one gets an A plus, and very few get a B. Curious.

So, I looked at the MPI annual report. I’m sure you’ve all read it (I was waiting for the movie). It shows that MPI is hugely dependent on cost recovery income to balance its budget. So, anything that cuts beekeeper compliance costs risks also cutting MPI’s budget. For a regulator, that’s what economists call a moral hazard. That might explain the everyone-gets-an-A-minus but no-one gets a saving outcome on RMP audits. I suspect AsureQuality (who conducts audits), is in the same place. The report also showed MPI performing astonishingly well against a plethora of largely pointless process targets. It was such a positive self-report that it looked like a Stalinist five-year plan – really, just self-congratulation.

Ian Fletcher calls on a career working inside government and trade departments to help scrutinise the workings of MPI.

Which led me to the question why government organisations (and actually large private ones too, often) are so bad at understanding, let alone meeting, their customers’ needs. MPI has problems, but so do the health, education, justice and national security systems. Why? What can be done?

Complex, ‘Chaotic’ and Self-Organising

The research shows that these organisations can best be understood as complex systems – a term that means they have multiple feedback loops, and may offer their bosses the illusion of control, while they actually self-organise at lower levels. In 2001 the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published a thoughtful analysis showing that the UK’s National Health Service could be described mathematically as a complex adaptive system at the edge of chaos – chaos in the mathematical, not political sense.

The result was the inevitable political storm, as the opposition seized on the word “chaos” and left the mathematical insights out (politicians and complex maths rarely intersect meaningfully). So, the valuable insight was lost. Big systems are not managed from the top – they self-organise. The CEO reigns, but does not rule. And – crucially – they are deeply and effectively resistant to change (look at how ‘restructuring’ in New Zealand organisations is used to get rid of the awkward squad, and provides a perennial excuse for the rest).

Jack Welch, of GE (General Electric) fame, once allegedly said: “it’s not that public servants don’t care about their customers, it’s just that they find themselves so much more fascinating”. Those insights apply to MPI, to the health system, and more. It’s a pity those running these systems don’t bother to stop and learn. The other point is that the cult of the CEO, with its bizarre belief that one person can be both omniscient and omnipotent in and over an organisation is actually disempowering – the CEO ends up like the customer, kept in the dark and fed nonsense, until ritually sacrificed when the media Gods need to be placated. A classic scapegoat role.

The Individual’s Thinking

Turning the telescope round, what about individuals in big organisations? Here the work of sociologists and psychologists can be helpful, shedding light on behaviour. I am re-reading the thoughtful work of Francois Dupuy on this (full disclosure: he taught me at business school INSEAD). Dupuy describes a world where individuals read the organisation well, and adjust their behaviour to get the boss off their back, do what they want, and often side with the customer against the organisation.

What does this mean for MPI? The department’s management should stop, look, listen and learn. Primary industry supply chains are complex, finely balanced, face major challenges on the production side (climate) and on the export side (think geopolitics). MPI ought to be able to describe those complexities, interact with and influence the processes, so as to magnify New Zealand’s advantages and minimising adverse pressures and so help us all. Sadly, no sign of that. I think it was Douglas Adams who commented that people talk to avoid thinking. MPI’s annual report is proof enough.

Ian Fletcher is a former head of New Zealand’s security agency, the GCSB, chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission and biosecurity expert for the Queensland government. These days he is a commercial flower grower in the Wairarapa and consultant to the apiculture industry with NZ Beekeeping Inc.



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