On April 28th the Minister announced further Government decisions on the reform of New Zealand’s fire services. These decisions, together with those the Minister announced at the UFBA Conference last November, set the “direction of travel” for the newly appointed NZFSC Board. Some of the decisions relate to funding changes, some to the wider mandate and some to the way volunteers will be engaged and organized in the new unified national organisation, Fire and Emergency New Zealand. They are high level decisions that set out general principles and approaches – it is for the new NZFSC Board to fill in the details. As always, the devil is in the detail.
Since the time we filed our submissions in response to the Minister’s discussion document, we have worked tirelessly with officials in workshops, forums and senior official liaison meetings. We can say with hand on heart we enjoy the confidence of DIA officials and that we are regarded as a trusted advisor who will deliver on our undertakings. However, we are but one of many stakeholders whose views have to be taken into account by officials and by Ministers – we have no exclusive rights to policy advice.
That said we have had some significant wins. Overall there is a huge increase in funding for volunteer support. There will be ongoing funding for independent advocacy for volunteers. There will be provisions for the new Board to enter into relationships with independent agencies like the UFBA. Our high level advice on the leadership capabilities we would expect to see in a reformed environment met with good support.
However, not all of our submissions were accepted. Government has indicated that urban volunteers will no longer be engaged by way of membership of their local volunteer brigade. Instead they, along with rural volunteers, will be directly engaged by the new organisation. That immediately raises the question “what are the terms and conditions of direct engagement?” A host of other questions follow. Who will volunteers report to under this model? Who will recruit volunteers and maintain their service records? Who will discipline them? What happens to brigade camaraderie and social activities under this model? It also raises the question of the future status of your independently constituted volunteer brigades. No one can answer these questions at the moment. The new Board has met only once for a few hours and it has only just started to put its collective mind to the process it will follow to formulate a coherent framework for volunteers in the new organisation.
Some of you may have seen a recent Facebook forum in which the Chief Executive of the NZFS responded to a series of questions posed by volunteers and career staff. This was a wide ranging discussion but we were, however concerned at an inference that the UFBA was “comfortable” with the direct engagement model. We note that the Chief Executive went on to suggest a key reason for the change to direct engagement was to make it easier for NZ fire service management to mediate in volunteer disputes.
To be absolutely clear, The UFBA is not comfortable with the direct engagement model given the current level of detail around it. We heard the views of volunteers on this subject when we surveyed members on the discussion document. We submitted against it. We wrote a strongly worded letter to the DIA transition team setting out our objections when the decision was announced. We have reserved our position on the matter until such time as the details have been filled in.
Our forebears had similar concerns around direct engagement at the time the creation of a new national urban fire service was under consideration in 1975. Amongst other things brigades lacked confidence that an appropriate leadership model would be established to manage the organisation. That is why UFBA officials of the day brokered a deal with Minister Henry May to preserve the relative autonomy and empowerment of community brigades and their leadership in return for supporting the unification of the old metro and district fire boards. Retention of the volunteer system was intended to be a central feature of those reforms. The government has left no doubt that this philosophy remains at the core of the current reform programme.
We think these reforms offer the possibility of a true reformation of our fire services. It is for this reason that the UFBA continues to support the reform process. If we simply transition to a new entity but with the same leadership model and the same cultures intact in the new organization the reforms will have failed. It has to be about a completely new way of doing things. That may require us to make some concessions but the end game will be worth it for volunteers and the communities they serve.
We feel confident we will be involved in determining the details of the changes. The Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the UFBA have already met with Paul Swain, the incoming Chair of the Commission. The incoming Board of the Commission is ultimately accountable for putting the new organisation together and making it work on “go-live” day. Reform programmes only succeed if everyone works together to get the changes across the line. To that end the reforms must ultimately be underpinned by “whole-of-sector” support. All organisations within the sector must take their lead from the Board in order to preserve the whole-of-sector approach. That is the responsible approach the UFBA intends to take.
Yes we have some bottom lines. Yes, there are ditches we are prepared to die in. No, we are not even close to that stage.
We will let you know when we are.
9 May 2016
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