Established while the state was burning in January, social distancing has forced the community-focused Bushfire Recovery Victoria to rethink how it works, says CEO Lee Miezis, who still hasn’t met some of his staff in person.
The 2019-20 bushfires are regarded by many as the worst in Australia’s history, killing 34 people and destroying vast swathes of private property and natural assets.
In the middle of the crisis — January 6 — the state government created Bushfire Recovery Victoria as a permanent, dedicated agency.
On top of the initial rush to find staff, computers, and office space, within seven days the agency had set up a 1800 number affected residents could ring for assistance. A couple of days later it awarded contracts for the clean up process. Teams were quickly set up in northeast Victoria and east Gippsland to start working in local communities.
“It’s what I would call a crowdsourced model, where we reached out to all the other departments and built ourselves through secondments,” says CEO Lee Miezis, who moved across from his role as deputy secretary for forest, fire and regions at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
The agency’s fundamental role is working in partnership with local communities to ensure the specific needs of each are met through the recovery, he tells The Mandarin — communities contending not only with fire damage and loss of life, but the evaporation of tourism dollars and the effects of years of drought leading up to the fires.
“The mantra of the organisation is really: the local community know best what the local challenges are, what the local opportunities are, and can tell us how we can best support them in their long-term recovery,” says Miezis.
Bushfire Recovery Victoria’s mission is built on five pillars. The first four are standard elements of a disaster recovery plan: buildings and infrastructure, economic recovery, people and wellbeing, and biodiversity and environment.
The last, Aboriginal culture and healing, is a newer area of focus for this kind of effort. There’s an Aboriginal reference group, and the agency recently appointed Charles O’Leary program director for Aboriginal culture and healing. The aim is to build in principles of self-determination, giving Indigenous communities “a direct voice in program design and program delivery”.
“That was really to make sure there is an appropriate and culturally sensitive focus on Aboriginal people, given the large population of Aboriginal people in the fire-affected areas, and the particular impact these fires had on country.”
Bushfire Recovery Victoria will also be a permanent agency, unlike the earlier Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, which spent two years leading rebuilding after Black Saturday.
This is to reflect “the long-term nature of recovery”, says Miezis — as well as the increasing frequency of catastrophic fires.
He also hopes it will help preserve knowledge and experience in one place.
“Knowing we have a library and a guidebook we can pull off the shelf and tailor to a particular event, I think we’ll be able to respond quicker. In the absence of that sort of dedicated agency, we find we’re almost building the plane and flying it as the same time.”
The exact work to be done will depend on where in the recovery process those communities are. Initially there was a focus on emergency accommodation and relief; at the moment it’s cleaning up. Community recovery committees have been formed and hubs created, which will allow locals to inform the priorities in future.
Even the establishment of the committees has reflected the individual circumstances of different towns: whereas Mallacoota “went through a very formal electoral commission-supported nomination voting process”, Sarsfield built its committee “through an existing community committee”.
Adapting to community needs, rather than taking a top-down approach, inevitably brings challenges.
“In some cases we’ve had requests that we just haven’t been able to meet,” he says.
“But the key thing for us has been to not create expectations or make commitments we can’t live up to. Being honest and transparent with those communities, but being as responsive as we can, and really taking an approach that’s about problem solving. If the community wanted A, but we couldn’t deliver A, we work with them on what the alternative looks like to get to that outcome.”
Working in a pandemic
Working closely with local communities has of course been made difficult by the pandemic.
Key strategies around improving resilience and cohesion by “bringing communities together through events”, including town hall-style engagement efforts, have had to be rethought.
Plans for community recovery hubs offering face-to-face meetings for financial or planning support have had to be tweaked to turn them into “digital kiosks”.
This has required tech support, as many people living in bush communities have poor technology skills and internet connectivity. But there’s also been an unexpected upside to helping people overcome these barriers, too.
“If they were finishing talking to a legal adviser or insurance company, they had the capacity to then, as an example, Skype the grandkids in Sydney, when they might not have been able to connect with them before,” says Miezis.
It’s also been “fascinating” setting up a new agency in a pandemic, he adds.
“Some people who are working for the organisation we haven’t actually met in person, so the challenge of building an organisation, of forming a culture, of making sure we’re able to support our staff through quite traumatic subject matter, it’s been a real challenge.”
Measures such as daily check-ins and all-staff conferences have helped ensure staff stay connected.
Miezis has even had to recruit an entire senior team over video conferencing.
“I tend to be a person who goes with a bit of gut instinct and likes to be able to sit in a room with someone and was unable to do that,” he says.
“So we had to pivot and had to rely a lot more on psychometric testing than I probably have in the past, and that proved invaluable to get good insights into people, and particularly the mix of people we were bringing in.”
Has the experience made him rethink recruitment?
“I don’t think it’s necessarily changed what I look for and how I recruit, in particular thinking about the collective and how the team work together and complement one another, complement my skills, complement what I’m not as strong at. But I was reliant on different tools and systems to get those insights, instead of gut and instinct and reacting to someone when you’re sitting in a room with them.”
It’s a rare opportunity to build a new team from scratch, so Miezis has tried to make the best of the situation despite the challenges.
“It’s been interesting. I don’t think I’ll ever have another opportunity — hopefully I don’t — to build an organisation that has continued to work remotely for 75% of its existence.”
From the bush to the corner office
Although he doesn’t get much chance to go into the bush these days, it was what started Miezis on his career path.
“I went into forestry because I loved the bush and being outside,” he says.
“I never thought I’d end up working out of a major city, to be honest, let alone as CEO of Bushfire Recovery Victoria.”
Nevertheless, the new job fits perfectly.
“I’ve been driven by three things in my career. One is that strong sense of public purpose. Second is the need to be challenged in the work I do. Third is feeling I can contribute and add value to what I’m being asked to focus on.”
One of his formative roles was as “a very young forester, not long graduated” in Narrandera, NSW.
He worked closely with Aboriginal communities on training and developing the skills of young people, “of really understanding the contribution they can make and the knowledge Aboriginal people bring to land management practices”, he explains.
Narrandera is a long way from Sydney.
“You really get to see how those decisions play out locally, and that’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my career.
“It probably mirrors the approach to recovery here … I think local decisions are often the best decisions. Staff at DELWP would often hear me say, as I do here, that no-one understands those local communities and the local environment than our people who live and work in those communities on a day to day basis. I think that early role really grounded me in that.”
Forestry and fire management also have their fair share of polarisation, with stakeholders and staff bringing their own views to the subject.
How does he manage that as a leader?
“The key for me is firstly not to pretend there aren’t different views out there and that you’re always going to be able to please everyone in the advice or decisions you need to make as a public servant,” Miezis says.
“For me it’s been a process of listening to understand those different perspectives, to draw on the best information I can get, whether that’s science or people who’ve been there before and worked through similar challenges. Then being clear on the decisions you make and why.”
The change in planned burning regimes while he was at DELWP was one such example, with Victoria’s shift from a hectare target recommended by the royal commission to a more risk-based approach.
“We listened to all the different perspectives, we took on the best science, and what we put in place is the best system, and a good approach to planned burning.”
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