Fallout from a radical overhaul of a charity that provides support for blind and low-vision New Zealanders continues, despite an investigation largely backing the changes.
Findings from an 18-month inquiry have outlined years-long problems at Blind Low Vision NZ (BLVNZ), which prompted a “transformation programme” that ran from late-2019 to mid-2021.
BLVNZ is the trading name of the Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB), and provides services such as guide dogs and rehabilitation. It relies mostly on donations, as well as government contracts.
In May 2021 the foundation asked employment lawyer Rob Towner to conduct an inquiry into issues raised by some staff and Blind Citizens NZ, a disabled people’s organisation.
A summary report of his findings has now been released. It backs BLVNZ chief executive John Mulka as behaving appropriately to force through badly-needed reforms, which saw headcount drop from around 340 in 2019, to 250 today.
That was mostly caused by redundancies and resignations. The inquiry investigated but ultimately dismissed staff allegations including a “toxic” workplace and vindictive management.
“By mid-2019, BLVNZ was an organisation in dire need of significant transformation,” Towner concluded. “The changes to the organisation have transformed it into a much more efficient, productive and modern charity.”
Mulka told the Weekend Herald there had been great improvement. For example, in 2019 it took an average of 180 days or longer for BLVNZ to respond to a first contact from somebody, he said, and that was now around 6-7 days.
“As we sit today, with 250 employees…our response rates have never been better. And our satisfaction rating from our clients is in the 90 plus percentile.”
However, Mulka’s own board has “significant reservations” about some of the inquiry findings, and is disappointed “many of the views expressed by participants have not been given the validation we expected”.
“Some people would just look at Towner’s recommendations and say, ‘That’s all good - these people made complaints, they were found to be unsubstantiated, it’s time we moved on’. And other people are saying, ‘These people made complaints and they weren’t heard,’” board chair Clive Lansink told the Weekend Herald.
“The organisation is meeting its performance targets etcetera. But people are still worried about what it means for an organisation to have lost a significant number of senior staff…did that have to happen? Well, the buck stops with the board. The board now has to figure that out.”
Towner’s inquiry found that by mid-2019 there were unacceptable delays delivering services, with outputs “well below international standards”, and which cost three times what they should have due to overheads.
The reforms had improved efficiency, he wrote, but neither Mulka - who moved from his native Canada to take up his role in 2019 - nor the RNZFB board anticipated the detrimental impact the upheaval would have on staff morale and wellbeing.
The E tū union raised a number of allegations on behalf of staff. Those were mostly not substantiated by Towner, who rejected the toxic workplace claims, and found management had not retaliated against employees who spoke out, nor improperly tracked staff communications or used non-disclosure agreements.
He accepted workplace culture worsened during the overhaul and was “very poor” when E tu raised concerns in November 2020 and April 2021. However, the deterioration “was not surprising given the extent of the organisational transformation and the fact it took place against a background of existing poor culture.
“Mr Mulka had a direct and forthright but not aggressive or disrespectful manner…he never had an intention to intimidate.”
There needed to be an ongoing emphasis on training and the management of people at BLVNZ, Towner said. Changes including a four-day working week and a whistleblower policy were praised.
Mulka also faced criticism after BLVNZ reduced funding to Blind Citizens NZ, however Towner found he had followed a new policy implemented by his board.
The national president and chief executive of Blind Citizens and Mulka “are all to an extent responsible for their poor relationships”, Towner concluded, including because of poor communication.
Mulka told the Weekend Herald that Blind Citizens had “shown no willingness to work together, currently”.
“I became the lightning rod, or the focus, of their frustrations.
“Anytime there’s a breakdown in a relationship, it usually involves two parties not working collaboratively. So yes, I do [accept fault].”
In a statement, Blind Citizens NZ said it was working with the RNZFB board in a “most cordial manner”, and shared its view that “there is still much work to do following what we learned during the inquiry.
“The Towner report identified efforts made by Mr Mulka and his leadership team to make greater effort to retain and value their employees, actions that happened once the inquiry had been launched. We still believe the culture of the organisation is well below where it needs to be, but that the RNZFB board is committed to putting things to right,” Blind Citizens NZ said.
“Blind people rely on services being funded by donations. We are critically concerned that the donors our service provider relies upon might believe they should take their donations elsewhere.
“Blind Citizens NZ maintains that the governance of the RNZFB is fit for purpose, and the long term prospects are sound. Our community needs the support kiwis have given to the RNZFB for decades.”