Editorial: Defence Force plan unravels

The Defence Force is part of the fabric of this region.

During the past two years, those crucial threads in Manawatu's identity have been strained and frayed under the immense pressure of a civilianisation programme that was yesterday slammed by the auditor-general in a damning report on how it was carried out.

Auditor-General Lyn Provost said the Defence Force's plan to convert 1400 military positions into civilian roles, at a cost saving of more than $20 million a year, had fallen far short of expectations.

Ms Provost found that only 600 military positions - fewer than half - will actually be converted, saving $14.2m a year.

The most troubling finding in the report, though, related to the impact of the civilianisation programme on staff.

Not surprisingly, it found the cost- cutting exercise lowered morale and increased staff attrition rates to such a degree that it "reduced NZDF capability".

While it's understandable that a significant restructuring of any large organisation will have an impact on staff morale, the auditor-general's report makes it clear that much of the anguish and anxiety personnel suffered was avoidable.

Ms Provost found that the Defence Force told the Government it would convert 1400 military positions into civilian jobs without actually knowing how many military positions it would need from 2015.

As it turned out, the Defence Force discovered that although it had too many people in some areas, it needed more military staff overall.

This key finding in the report effectively tells us that the whole programme was botched from the outset.

To the Defence Force's credit, Ms Provost said it has readily accepted it made mistakes and has learned valuable lessons from the process.

The question that must be asked now, though, is who is accountable?

The mishandling of this programme has had a massive impact on staff morale, personnel have left in droves, and the country has been left with a defence force with "reduced capability".

Defence Force chief Rhys Jones was appointed in 2010 to implement the cost-saving measures demanded by the Government.

Prime Minister John Key said Jones was appointed for three years instead of the usual five because the overhaul of the NZDF was "a big piece of work for the new chief of the Defence Force and we want to be in a position to monitor that progress".

With Jones' term as defence chief due to end later this year, the prime minister must be seriously questioning whether it should be extended.

Manawatu Standard