Thursday, December 7, 2023

‘System prevents constructive decision-making’

Neal Wallace
More heat than light on complex issues.
Professor Hamish Gow had first-hand experience of consensus building on seemingly intractable issues when he was part of a process involving dairy farms and New York City’s water supply.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

New Zealand does not have a leadership crisis, but a policymaking system that prevents constructive decision-making on complex issues, says a leading academic.

Hamish Gow, the Sir Graeme Harrison Professorial Chair in Global Value Chains and Trade at Lincoln University, says given that adversarial system, the agricultural sector is being well served by its leaders.

He believes a new process is needed to address complex and far-reaching challenges such as climate change.

“What NZ is missing is an unbiased forum that can bring everybody together,” he says.

Such systems exist in the United States, through the Land-Grant University, and in the Netherlands with the Wageningen University.

Their role is to bring society, agriculture, specialists, industry and government together with the relevant knowledge and research and facilitate the free discussion of issues and potential solutions.

“It puts someone in the middle who translates in an unbiased way and facilitates frank and open discussion,” Gow says.

This system also ensures discussion centres on impartial facts so that agreement attracts greater buy-in from the various parties.

Currently, science is often delivered within its silo of expertise, but Gow says it needs an entity to provide details on its application and economic context.

That facilitator role was fulfilled up to the 1980s by the former Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, but was left vacant when that structure was dismantled.

Given the economic importance of NZ’s primary sector, Gow says an unbiased decision-making process for complex issues is important but requires intellectual and cultural horsepower.

The current consultation process allows a rehash of opinions that have already been considered.

“It’s all based on someone testing the tide of opinion. We don’t go and get evidence to do modelling and undertake intellectual debate.”

Gow experienced this facilitating process when working at Cornell University in the 1990s on an accord for the drinking water catchment for New York City.

It involved the Cornell Co-operative Extension department working with dairy farmers in the catchment to change their systems to mitigate the risk of water contamination.

“There was plenty of conflict but we brought everyone together, worked out a process and rolled it out to every farm. It was all done through a facilitated process.”

Gow can see a facilitator’s role for NZ’s two land-based universities, Lincoln and Massey, and has next year invited the dean and president of Land-Grant University in the US to visit and discuss the merits of the process. 

A University of Otago leadership expert says leadership struggles to retain unity when trying to address multiple issues, as the primary sector is trying to do at present.

Dr Lynnaire Sheridan, a senior lecturer in management, says ideally leaders identify and focus on one goal and encourage their followers to focus on that issue – “it’s that ability to make a decision about what to tackle first, regardless of what the consequences are and explain that to their followers”.

Change is always frightening and Sheridan says leadership in a crisis creates order rather than control.

If there is a leadership vacuum, Sheridan says, followers can find another leader and cause to rally behind.

Fractured membership risks creating the public perception that the sector does not care about the issues – and that is the time leaders need to promote what is positive about the sector.