Opinion: The excitement of Fieldays shouldn't obscure a warning from KPMG's Agribusiness Agenda - there is real stress in the agri-sector, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
National Fieldays at Mystery Creek last week was an event not to be missed - and almost 140,000 knew that - they were there.
The buzz was terrific and the meeting and greeting unparalleled. From children through to government leaders, everybody was talking and enjoying. Tills were ringing and bags of purchases featured in the lines, as people staggered home at the end of the day.
Yes the traffic needs sorting – but the teams of volunteers worked tirelessly to assist, and next year there will undoubtedly be dedicated lanes for the airport and for buses.
Beyond the traffic, in the overall excitement it would be easy to overlook a change in some of the thinking from local and national governance.
Epitomised by the presence of the Environmental Protection Authority, government bodies were there to listen, engage and discuss. Ministers were around for more than one day and real meetings covered critical ground.
The most pressing issue was raised by Ian Proudfoot, lead author of the KPMG Agribusiness Agenda for 2021.
By 7.30 on the opening morning, he had laid it on the table – there is real stress in the agri-sector.
Covid-induced problems in supply-chains and labour, plus the need for constant reassessment has sapped energy. Add uncertainty around regulatory constraints and the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) has quadrupled its effect. The pressure this is creating on executives is significant.
It is also being felt on-farm, where there are material impacts on systems, operations, ownership rights and the economics of businesses.
The Agribusiness Agenda reported that "the pace of regulatory change is greater than it has been in recent years and is expected to accelerate".
Part of the difficulty in coping is simply the breadth of change.
In biological systems a change in one part will have implications in another, and the unintended consequences have not yet been thought through.
This leads to the nub of the problem.
Regulations, whether local or national, are being created in cities by policy developers at a distance from where the impact is being felt.
It is now 22 years since the State Services Commission's Essential Ingredients report on Improving the Quality of Policy Advice was published.
The report identified the difficulty in recruiting specialists, such as staff with the capacity to bridge the science/policy divide.
Further, "cross-cutting policy advice requires cross-cutting information and research…. A lack of coordination between departments can result in information gaps…".
In 2010, Treasury published "Review of Expenditure on Policy Advice".
The review analysed the qualifications of policy advice staff and found that over half had a background in political studies or economics.
Fourteen per cent had a background in public policy. The remainder had studied law or humanities.
There were no policy analysts with qualifications in science or engineering in the responses. Agriculture was nowhere.
The Review suggested that the policy advisory system could benefit from broadening the range of academic disciplines held by policy advice staff.
It is not clear that things have changed.
The difficulty is then for people, however well-meaning, to really understand the issues around which they are setting policy.
Considerable research around leadership and management, and what it takes to create a great university, hospital, or basketball team, for instance, indicates that if a leader or manager understands, through their own experience, what is needed to complete a job to the highest standard, then they are more likely to create the right work environment and set appropriate goals.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Whatever the industry, goals are context-dependent.
Without understanding the context and having discipline knowledge, the chances of creating a policy that will enable the required change, are slim. The default position is requesting reports – paperwork.
"Governing for growth" was the Agenda's final point. It made the point that "Much executive time is consumed within an organisation preparing reports about what has happened for their board. Preparing and considering these reports leaves little time for the leadership team or the board to consider growth within their normal operating cycle…"
Governing for growth is vital for a successful future.
The same issue applies on farm – so much paperwork and so little time.
The Agribusiness Agenda included a request to government from leaders interviewed: "Please ensure that work is co-ordinated across agencies so that consultation occurs and regulations are drafted in a way that reduces the burden places on executive time".
Farmers have been making the same plea. The disconnect reported 22 years ago still exists.
National Fieldays provided the opportunity for a crash exposure to agriculture, and the development of connections.
From farmers and growers through levy bodies, rural professionals and agri-businesses, local and national government were able to hear the concerns and ponder possibilities.
And the possibilities for a bright future for New Zealand are clear if we can get the settings right.
A reset is timely and it started at National Fieldays. Highlights can be seen until the end of June on Fieldays online.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is an adjunct professor with Lincoln University and a farmer-elected director on the Boards of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org