THE revolution is dead – long live the slower burning evolution – but hopefully the change process doesn’t drag on for too much longer.
That’s the best way to describe the current status of the National Farmers’ Federation’s (NFF) big picture plans to restructure State Farming Organisations (SFO’s) and commodity groups and other members into a unified national operating model and brand that can to increase the agriculture sector’s lobbying powers and engage a more influential, political voice.
NFF President Fiona Simson said this week the peak farm group’s unification plans had altered recently and was now, “an evolution as opposed to a revolution”.
“We’ve had a recalibration and a realignment of our expectations of what’s actually achievable within a certain time-frame,” she said.
“We need to do it gradually and bring everybody along.”
Ms Simson said back in 2013, the NFF’s 30 plus member groups were offered three options on how to advance the complicated unification and restructure process.
She said that choice came about after members decided they wanted to continue with a strong and unified national voice, but felt it could be done better, in a more streamlined way, by removing administrative duplications from the current model to find operating efficiencies and generate cost savings.
“That would then make for a stronger agricultural voice,” she said.
Ms Simson said the NFF brought in external consultants and held talks with groups like the Minerals Council and the union movement which had experienced “trials and tribulations” around their own unification movements.
She said the external consultants - at a cost of about $300,000 - then put forward the three options for the NFF and its state and commodity branches, to move forward and adopt a single unified operating model.
“At that time there was a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” she said this week.
“Plan A was business as usual, Plan B would be an evolution - as in over time there would be share more resources between our members and things would then start to happen and we’d eventually end up as one unified model - and Plan C was revolution.”
Ms Simson said the consultants analysed how farm representative groups operated overseas and potential cost savings, revenue flows, operating efficiencies and other aspects of the restructure process, to help members decide.
“Based on that evidence, which was quite compelling, at that time our members said, ‘let’s shoot for the revolution - let’s do it - we’ll have a revolution and the national model will be the outcome’,” she said.
But Ms Simson said working with well over 30 individual member organisations – while agriculture alone had 87 groups that could potentially be involved, aside from horticulture which has 84 of its own – had been a “really difficult” proposition, to achieve the unified model since 2013, given each had individual, established structures, boards, members and constitutions to consider.
“It has become one of those things that’s been dragging on a bit and there’s been quite a lot of uncertainty as to whether or not we were working towards this unified model or not,” she said.
“Everybody accepts it’s very important and they want to achieve operating efficiencies and remove duplications - but everyone is also dealing with their own individual memberships, structures and priorities.”
Ms Simson said the NFF’s unification, restructure process “hasn’t broken down and hasn’t stalled - but it has changed”.
She said the members had essentially returned to the beginning and looked at the three original options that were in front of them.
“We’ve decided that Plan A - business as usual - is not what we can do,” she said.
“The Plan C, revolution - is also difficult - so we’ve had a re-evaluation of how we get to the end game and the Plan B, evolution, is more achievable.”
Ms Simson said in prompting the change of tact, the restructure issue was discussed at the last NFF members’ council meeting in Canberra last month and some SFO’s also held a recent meeting in Sydney.
However she said that meeting was only attended by NSWFarmers, the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) and WAFarmers, while AgForce was unable to appear but sent a letter outlining what they thought was the best method to “get on with it”.
As part of the NFF restructure, Ms Simson said a shared services model had been set-up to streamline and share back office services amongst members.
“The shared services company was ready to go and so Victoria and NSW have jumped straight in and other members are looking at going into the first two modules of that which is finance and data base services,” she said.
“So now we’re getting more and more of our members and companies involved in using the shared services model and they’re already saving money.
“The figures from NSW and Victoria shows they’re making savings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and as those offerings are increased, then obviously the savings mount up.
“Many of our organisations are quite small so to have their own stand-alone IT person, or finance person, or data base person, or HR person, or sponsorship partnership person is a huge expense for them so to actually be able to share those services does generate huge savings across the model and then people will then be able to put those savings to better use.”
Ms Simson said streamlining and achieving operating efficiencies and removing duplications” and other structural changes would “actually make for a bigger and more united farmers’ voice”.
“We’re all very focussed on a united farmers voice but it will be evolution rather than revolution, at this stage,” she said.
“Everybody is pretty much in the same boat at the moment - people are still keen for us to eventually become one organisation.
“But we were very optimistic to think that we could all just flick a switch and within 12-months we’d become one organisation.”
When asked if the short tenure of NFF CEO Simon Talbot - who was largely employed to drive the reform process - had stalled the restructure project, Ms Simson said there was “no blame to be had anywhere”.
“Everywhere I go out in farmer land to talk to grass roots farmers, everybody wants this rationalisation to happen and I know our member organisations feel they have to take responsibility for streamlining their services and making their operations as efficient and effective as possible,” she said.
“But in actual fact the realities of dealing with well over 30 different NFF member organisations with completely different constitutions, structures, boards and levels of bureaucracy it’s actually quite difficult to do and it’s important that they can take their members with them too.
“People are worried about losing their identities and whether they can achieve the best possible outcomes that they can, at the moment - in their commodities and at state level - and we need to ensure they’re comfortable that we can do that before we actually flick the switch to become one organisation.
“It’s not about setting up a constitution and then saying you’re open for business - it’s about bringing people along.”
Ms Simson said the bulk of the NFF’s funding for the unification project had gone into creating a “digital space” through the Australian Farmers campaign platform, to generate a voice for Australian farmers to interface with consumers and farmers and conduct associated research.
She said setting up the Australian Farmers digital platform had been used in three campaigns – the backpacker tax campaign; the Murray Darling Basin northern-flow campaign; and defence land grab in Queensland campaign.
“That experience has shown us what that digital platform can and can’t do and we look forward to continuing to use it and expand its use, now that we have some clear directions on where we need to go with it,” she said.
“We’ve always been very open with our members about that spending but we need to remember, going into the digital space is not a cheap exercise.
“We had to build new platforms and we looked at using other digital services for different commodities etc so the bulk of money has gone there.”
Ms Simson said building the Australian Farmers digital platform “has had its difficulties” and was one of the reasons it was trialled, over the three lobbying campaigns.
“We’ve been successful in winning those three campaigns and achieving some great outcomes,” she said.
“But we’ve also stepped into a new space - that has been previously occupied by green groups or animal activist people - to show the community that there is a place they can talk to consumers and farmers.
“We can also conduct community research and use a forward facing consumer tool that we haven’t previously had in agriculture.
“It may sound like a lot of money but anybody who has had anything to do with digital connectivity will know it’s expensive when you start doing research reports and designing platforms and making them work in an efficient way.”
Asked when the restructure can now be achieved by, Ms Simson said the successful uptake of the shared services model would pave the way forward.
“At this point in time we’re focussed on the shared services model and Victoria and NSW are the first two organisations to come on board with that and they’re already achieving significant savings,” she said.
“It would make sense, if those savings are to be achieved, that more members will want to come on board with that service model, over time.”
Under the new evolution process, Ms Simson said the NFF was also now “very, very keen” to have the South Australian and Tasmanian farm groups back around the table.
“At the NFF, we want to be a very strong national voice and the best we can be but it has been difficult, with uncertainty about what we’re doing and where we’re going, to talk effectively to the farm representative groups in South Australia and Tasmania and also to horticulture which hasn’t been at our table as a commodity before,” she said.
“We’re continuing those talks but for us, it’s all about a strong united voice, whatever that looks like; whether it’s one national model or a number of organisations with the same ideals and outcomes.
“We do want to talk to South Australia and Tasmania about coming back around the table, and now that we have some certainty to the restructure process, we’ll certainly progress those discussions and also horticulture who we’ve been talking to now for some time.”