A high trust relationship

A high trust relationship

The Department of Conservation has been praised for having one of the best industrial relationships in the public service.

Outgoing DOC Director General Lou Sanson and PSA assistant secretary Basil Prestidge talked with Te Mahinga Ora about the development of that relationship. 

When Lou Sanson arrived at DOC in 2013, there had just been a $27m restructure and 250 people had been made redundant. 

He was also finding the months long pay rounds and negotiations challenging.

After hearing about the High Performance High Engagement (HPHE) model, he realised he needed the support of the PSA to put the structure in place.

“Traditionally at DOC you would take an academic approach to fixing a broken system, rather than talk to the person that’s used it the most. HPHE turned the old model on its head,” Lou says.

“With HPHE, you engage with the workers at the shopface where you want to make the change, to get the most productive change.”

Using that approach, DOC worked with the PSA and our delegates on the ground in each region to change their operating models. “We showed it could make a difference.”

PSA online journal30

Lou Sanson and Basil Prestidge (kneeling) with DOC leaders and delegates in 2015.


Lou says the high trust relationship that was built using this approach flowed into industrial negotiations.

“So when we went into a pay round I felt we’d built trust, so we weren’t spending weeks in bargaining and we avoided the threat of industrial action.

“We also used that HPHE model to redesign remuneration and our wellbeing framework.”

There has been a big increase in PSA membership at DOC since then, as people saw the benefits of the relationship between their union and employer.

PSA assistant secretary Basil Prestidge agrees there was a significant culture shift.

“It created high trust, which enabled open and honest conversations. HPHE helps achieve real outcomes quickly for members.”

“From our perspective, the PSA wants to be actively making a difference, helping to make better services, and a higher level involvement in decision making supports that.”


That relationship also supported work to improve the safety culture at DOC.

Lou erected a memorial to 32 staff who had lost their lives on the job and took a hands-on approach to improving health and safety.

“From where I sit it was really my ability to be at all of those meetings, that sends a message to the PSA about the importance of the relationship.

“And the PSA signed up for it. They saw we have a Director General who hears about health and safety, we’re going to back this work to the hilt.”

One example of this is the Safe to Start/Safe to Stop system which was co-designed by DOC and the PSA. It enables staff to call a stop to any work they feel is unsafe until the danger is dealt with and it is safe to restart.


Lou says team processes have also been fundamental towards improving health and safety.

“The key is the leader not disclosing what their solution is, but generating the solution through the team.  This will engage and excite people, they will give their thoughts, and it won’t be seen as Lou’s idea.”

Basil agrees it’s important for managers to move away from perfunctory leader-led consultation.

“It’s about how do we build up the level of participation and a greater sense of consensus in decision making?”


Basil says the high trust model has also led to improvements in the relationship between DOC and its Māori staff.

“We’ve worked with our DOC Rūnanga and the Department to strengthen care and inductions for Māori staff, help address any underlying racism, and ensure Māori have respect and standing in the organisation.”

Lou believes there has been good progress in boosting Māori representation, but more effort must be made to recruit Māori staff.

When he received $181 million in additional funding for DOC, he set a target that 15% of the new staff to be employed would be Māori. Instead just 4% were Māori.

“Using the traditional HR system, we were told no Māori are applying for the jobs so we’ll just employ Pākēhā,” Lou recalls.

“If I was seeking Māori, I’d be up at Victoria, wanting to know the top Māori talent, so we could recruit them to intern places. My advice is we need to be a lot harder on our HR systems, to say we do want Māori in these roles.”

The PSA is helping to develop a strategy to attract more Māori into DOC and provide career pathways for them.


Lou says it’s important to listen to unions and their members.

“These members care about the organisation, don’t just disregard it as another union request.”

The PSA is proud of the relationship we have developed with DOC so we can help make it a wonderful place to work.


In November Te Kawa Mataaho, public service chief executives, and the PSA agreed to a high engagement framework and to develop standards and guidance for agencies to apply in their workplaces.

A high performance high engagement mindset challenges the traditional management view of decision making, instead providing a consensus-based approach where power is more evenly distributed.

It enables workers, through their unions, to work in partnership with employers on strategic or operational matters in a way that is good for both. It also improves the quality of services for those who use them.

HPHE requires both parties to agree on common goals to be delivered through agreed methods.

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