Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

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International Peer Review

Background

With the appointment of a new Executive Director in 2011 and the end of a corporate planning period in 2010, the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust considered it timely to commission an international peer review (IPR) of the operation of the organisation in December 2011. The IPR team received clear Terms of Reference and an IPR Brief which was put together by the IPR Committee in consultation with all staff across the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust and were asked to review the following areas of operation:

Between 4 and 10 December 2011, the IPR team had the opportunity to visit all three Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust properties, meet staff and review any documents that they requested. At the end of this process the team prepared and agreed to this report and presented conclusions to the Trust Board.

Overview

The Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust, Sydney, is internationally respected as a key player in the field of plant diversity in Australia and the Pacific region. It has particular strengths in:

  1. scientifically and historically significant collections particularly in the Herbarium and SeedBank,
  2. expertise in assessment of plant and fungal diversity and analysis of factors that do and will shape it,
  3. providing a scientific base for conservation and sustainable use of plant diversity,
  4. disseminating information about plants to stakeholders and the general public, and
  5. managing three complementary sites that have significant core botanic gardens within a wider estate offering a range of opportunities for conservation and cultural projects.

The IPR recognises that there is evidence of success across all three sites. The IPR appreciates the highlights for each site. Nevertheless, a key weakness in the current operation of the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust is the absence of a realistic, achievable and focussed corporate plan. This must be strategic in focus with specific, realistic objectives that can be delivered through a clear set of actions with distinct deliverables. Wherever possible there should also be targets and related performance indicators. The plan needs to address what the Gardens are for and what the organisation wants to achieve locally, at the state and federal levels and globally. It should be clear what role each site plays in delivering the whole and landscape masterplans and action plans for each site should refer back to the overall strategic plan. As part of this process the planned activity must be costed and a realistic plan to raise the funds needed to deliver the plan should be agreed.

Currently the planned projects for the 2016 Bicentennial do not offer a coherent plan for the organisation, and there is some question as to the likely ability of the organisation to raise the funds required to deliver this program given recent past performance. A rationalisation of this program, with a clear fit to the overall mission and purpose of the organisation is needed urgently.

As the organisation goes forward there is a clear need to determine which functions should operate across all three sites and which need to remain locally focussed.

Strategic Planning

The Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust Sydney is in a unique position in that all factors are in place to begin a comprehensive and inclusive planning process that will lead the development of the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust through the next phase of its development and beyond.

The Trustees recognise the need for planning and have embraced the IPR as a catalyst for beginning the process.

The Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust is about to celebrate its 200th birthday and there is no better time to look forward and engage stakeholders in developing an exciting vision for the future.

The Government of NSW has aggressive goals for increased tourism over the next decade and the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust can be a major player in driving tourism. These aggressive tourism goals will potentially present a unique opportunity for collaboration with other institutions in the district and possibly the formation of a cultural district around the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust.

The selection of David Mabberley, an internationally celebrated scientist, as the Trust’s Director brings an exciting new voice, gravitas and a global perspective to the position.

The term strategic plan has many different meanings from a short-term action plan to a comprehensive plan that charts the course for an institution over an extended period of time. In this report, the latter describes the initiative that we are recommending.

The overriding issue is the need to create a cohesive organisation from a series of disparate parts. This requires developing a shared purpose (mission), vision and brand.

Assets

The Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust Sydney has the most magnificent group of sites of any botanical garden in the world. In addition, the Sydney site has a unique historical significance as the first cultivated land on the continent and the oldest botanical garden in Australia.

Internationally, Royal Botanic Garden has a reputation as one of the great gardens of the world, due to its extensive living and herbarium collections, dramatic sites and extensive science programs.

The three Gardens also present an extraordinary opportunity to represent a vast array of plants from a variety of ecosystems, creating both an engaging visitor experience and a vast living laboratory.

The extensive scientific programs present the opportunity to inform many aspects of the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust's planning from education to marketing to garden design and visitor experience.

At 3.5 million visitors the Sydney site likely has the largest number of visitors of any garden in the world. This creates tremendous opportunities for communication of a botanical garden message, sponsorships, growth in retail, special services and food service income.

Challenges

  1. There is no history of comprehensive planning at the Trust and as a result each department seems to function in isolation;
  2. The individual Gardens have filled the void with ad hoc plans, gardens and facilities to respond to issues, opportunities and the interests of staff. As a result there is a real lack of clarity about mission, purpose and a residue of ill-considered development, mission creep and lack of alignment with the parent organisation; and
  3. There are a great many stakeholders both internal and external who need to be engaged in the planning process. This will be a lengthy and probably somewhat contentious process.

International Peer Review team

  • Professor Dr Thomas Borsch, Director, Berlin Botanic Garden and Museum (Botanischer Garten and Botanisches Museum Berlin-Dahlem)
  • Paul Redman, Director Longwood Gardens, USA
  • Brian Holley, Executive Director, Naples Botanical Garden,  USA
  • Professor Angela McFarlane, Director of Public Engagement and Learning, The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew
  • Guy Cooper PSM, former Chief Executive of Taronga Park and Western Plains Zoo
  • Bob Conroy, Executive Director, Park Management, Office of Environment and Heritage

  

IPR-1
In 'the Jungle', 33 ha of native rainforest at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah.

IPR-2
On the Roof of the World Heritage Exhibition Centre at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Blue Mountains, with Rob Smith, Director of the Garden.

IPR-3
Horticultural Manager of the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan, Dan Bishop leads a Garden tour for members of the International Peer Review and Trust staff.

IPR-4
Members of the International Peer Review and Trust staff on Sundial Hill at the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan.

IPR-5
The International Peer Review and Trust staff pass the flowering natives flora of the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan.

IPR-6
Horticultural research facilities - scientist Cathy Offord with Professor Thomas Borsch, Brian Holley, Prof. David Mabberley, Paul Redman and Guy Cooper.

IPR-7
In the Sydney Domain with Prof. David Mabberley, Executive Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust.

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