Thoughts on the latest agri-food strategy

02/08/2012 § Leave a comment

The latest strategy document for the New Zealand agri-food sector is A Call to Arms, from the Riddet Institute. Oddly for such a high-profile release (here, too), it isn’t on their home page, but buried under ‘News and Events’.

I don’t particularly agree with the report or strategy, and there are three main aspects that give me pause:

The report uses a rhetorical device called inoculation, in which it recognises potential criticisms but then ignores them. By simply naming them in the text, the report cannot be accused of excluding criticisms. But, because it doesn’t engage with or explore the criticisms, they have no effect. It treats two main criticisms this way. One is the idea that this is just another strategy and doesn’t tell us anything new. The report actually states that the ideas aren’t new and have been raised in prior reports. The difference, though, is that this time we really mean it. The second inoculation is against criticism of the main recommendation, that a peak body (a committee) be established to oversee the transformation of the sector. The Executive Summary says:

The concept of a peak body engendered polarised and ambivalent views and there was no consensus around the peak body’s role, authority, accountability, resourcing, action, etc. Past or proposed peak bodies traditionally had no teeth and yet a peak body was still seen as a means of providing the necessary leadership to drive the required changes and to provide a longterm focus that would survive the political changes that follow the short electoral cycle.

Then, despite the lack of agreement and the pointed criticisms, the report goes ahead and recommends creating the committee. What it doesn’t do is indicate how the problems with role, authority, accountability, resourcing, action, etc. will be overcome.

The second main aspect that concerned me was a failure to learn from the past. Several times, the report notes that prior reports have been written, prior strategies launched, prior boards established, without the tripling of ag exports envisioned in the plan. The obvious question is, why not? Why haven’t the prior actions been effective? What can we learn from them and do differently? Without that key ingredient, the report seems more ritualistic than practical.

The final weakness is that the report misunderstands the metaphor of ‘NZ Inc.’ I hadn’t realised how bad the misunderstanding was until yesterday, when I read Jon Morgan’s column. Apparently, somebody (it’s not clear who) is going to take a group of leaders (again, not clear who) off to Stanford, California for a planning retreat. Really? How do I get annointed for that gig?  Given that this is an ag leaders retreat, shouldn’t they go to Ames, Iowa, or Champaign, Illinois, or College Station, Texas?

This ‘boot camp’ misunderstands the sector. The country isn’t a corporation. The ag sector isn’t a corporation. Individual industries, even the centrally organised ones (dairy, kiwifruit) are not corporations. They cannot be run as if they are. You cannot take the leaders off-site, develop a strategy, and then tell the staff to implement it. The sector is filled with a bunch of firms of different sizes with different capabilities and different goals, all trying to do the best they can.

‘NZ Inc.’ is just a metaphor to highlight the idea that we have a common interest in the country’s prosperity. It isn’t an organisational plan. The sector needs to be understood as a market, not a firm, and a strategy developed accordingly.

What has become clear to me in the last ten years of researching the ag sector is New Zealand is, there are no easy answers. We certainly won’t find any in Stanford.

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