Auditor-General’s overview

New Zealand Defence Force: Resetting efforts to reduce harmful behaviour.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

In 2016, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) launched a programme of work called Operation Respect. This was in response to three separate reviews that had identified harmful behaviour in the armed forces.1 Operation Respect aimed to prevent inappropriate and harmful behaviour from occurring and ensure that, when it did happen, there were systems and processes to deal with it properly.

The Ministry of Defence commissioned an independent review of Operation Respect,2 which was completed in 2020. The review found that while progress had been made in better preventing and responding to inappropriate and harmful behaviour, Operation Respect had lost momentum and needed renewed focus. The review also found that there was a "code of silence" where many personnel felt unable to raise concerns about harmful behaviour because of a fear of repercussions and because they did not trust NZDF's systems and processes.

The review recommended that my Office monitor Operation Respect's progress over the next 20 years. I have agreed to carry out that independent monitoring role.

This monitoring work has two components. My team will perform regular performance audits to determine how well NZDF is progressing towards its aim of eliminating inappropriate and harmful behaviour and creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment for all NZDF personnel. The focus of this first audit report is on how well NZDF has reset Operation Respect and whether it has been designed and set up effectively to achieve its aims.

We will also regularly collect data to monitor the effect of the actions NZDF is taking and, over time, whether it is achieving Operation Respect's outcomes. Our first monitoring report establishes a baseline for measuring NZDF's progress over time.3

What we found

Changing attitudes and behaviours in an organisation is difficult. This is especially so in organisations such as NZDF. NZDF has a long history built on command and control, strong team cohesion norms, and a masculine culture. There are fluid boundaries between people's work and personal lives. NZDF is also a complex organisation; it has three different services with distinct identities and a large civilian workforce.

It is important to acknowledge that NZDF has faced a challenging environment in recent years. As part of the Government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 6200 personnel worked in the Managed Isolation and Quarantine Facilities between August 2020 and May 2022. This put significant pressure on the organisation and its resources.

After the review in 2020, NZDF moved quickly to address the recommendations. Although NZDF's approach was well intended, it was not driven by clearly stated and shared goals or underpinned by a clear and well-considered strategy.

My staff saw good intent and commitment from leaders throughout NZDF to ensure the success of Operation Respect. Leaders want their people to live and work in environments that are safe and respectful. My staff also saw genuine willingness to make changes.

Despite good intent, the absence of a clear and well-considered strategy has meant NZDF's actions have not always been co-ordinated or targeted at the right issues. In my view, if this is not addressed there is a risk that Operation Respect will have limited and only temporary impact.

It has not been clear who is responsible for leading and driving Operation Respect. In my view, there has not been enough direction or oversight from senior leaders. Without this, the ability of the programme to bring about change has been significantly constrained. Unless all senior leaders devote time and attention to providing proper oversight, issues will likely persist.

NZDF has been making progress since Operation Respect was initiated in 2016. My staff often heard that NZDF is a different organisation from what it was 10 years ago, and that behaviours considered normal back then are not seen in the same way today.

However, we also saw the scale of the problem NZDF is addressing. In our survey of NZDF personnel,4 1.3% of respondents or 78 personnel told us they had experienced unwanted sexual activity in the previous 12 months. Women, in particular, continue to experience high rates of inappropriate and harmful behaviour. Women in uniform, early in their careers, are the most affected. In the last year, 7.2% of junior uniformed women who responded to our survey had experienced unwanted sexual activity.5 Nearly one-quarter (24.6%) of junior uniformed women who responded to our survey had experienced some form of inappropriate sexual behaviour6 and nearly one-fifth (19%) experienced bullying, harassment, or discrimination.

No one should experience harmful behaviour at work and NZDF needs to address the conditions that allow this behaviour to occur. NZDF is not unique. There is harmful behaviour in other workplaces in New Zealand, and in militaries throughout the world. However, they are serious matters and NZDF needs to act with some urgency. There are no easy fixes and change will take both time and sustained effort. It requires a shared understanding of the problem and a clearly defined and shared view of the future that Operation Respect is trying to bring about.

The success of Operation Respect is fundamental to the military's operational effectiveness. NZDF operates in a wide range of environments, from combat operations to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. NZDF personnel must be ready to work in difficult and dangerous conditions. This requires strong and trusted leadership, and effective teams where all personnel trust each other. This will not occur if personnel are harming each other.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, NZDF needs to attract and retain personnel with a wide range of skills and perspectives, and it needs to respect and value what this diversity brings to the organisation. This is fundamental to NZDF being a modern military and creating the effective leaders and teams that will be the foundation of the organisation's operational success. Operation Respect is critical to meeting the challenges that NZDF faces – but NZDF has not yet set out a clear and compelling narrative that explains this to its personnel.

What I recommend

NZDF is aware that its initial response to the 2020 review has not been sufficient. Work is under way to create a new Operation Respect organisational strategy and plan. NZDF intends to strengthen governance and management structures to better enable the Operation Respect work to be driven and co-ordinated.

I strongly support these efforts. I am satisfied that NZDF now recognises the scale of the task ahead. This, combined with the commitment my staff observed and the openness with which NZDF personnel have participated in our audit, suggests that NZDF is starting to build the momentum needed to create sustained change.

There is a long way to go. It will require a significant shift in approach that will affect many aspects of the organisation's work. There are fundamental elements that need to be in place for Operation Respect to make a lasting difference.

In creating the strategy and plan, senior leaders need to be clear and specific about what they want to achieve, why it matters to NZDF, and what success looks like. The process of developing the strategy and plan also needs to be informed by expertise in both sexual harm and organisational change. It will be effective only if:

  • it is informed by robust data to understand where inappropriate and harmful behaviour is occurring;
  • there are strong mechanisms to monitor and measure progress; and
  • implementation of the strategy and plan is properly resourced.

Changes are also required to training and education, career development pathways, and physical infrastructure. These cannot all be addressed at once.

Along with the work to develop a strategy and refreshed plan, I have recommended that NZDF continue to prioritise work to improve the complaints and disciplinary systems. The low level of trust and fear of repercussions that we identified in the research for our monitoring report is a significant concern. Reporting systems that people trust are essential to ensure that those affected by inappropriate and harmful behaviour feel able to use them, that they are well supported, and that future harm is prevented.

It is essential that senior leaders play a strong and visible role in setting the vision and direction for Operation Respect and that more robust ways to hold all leaders accountable are established.

Operation Respect presents a significant opportunity for NZDF. Staff turnover has been high following NZDF's involvement in the Covid-19 response and the organisation is rebuilding. Operation Respect needs to be a foundation for that rebuilding. Visible efforts to create a more safe, respectful, and inclusive environment will enable NZDF to recruit and retain the right people to take the organisation forward.

We will report periodically to Parliament and the public about how well NZDF is progressing towards its goal of eliminating inappropriate and harmful behaviour and creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment for its personnel.

I thank all NZDF personnel who have participated in this work, as well as the expert advisors who have provided valuable input and assistance to my audit team.

Naku noa, nā

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General | Tumuaki o te Mana Arotake

24 March 2023

1: The three reviews were Ministry of Defence (2014), Maximising opportunities for military women in the New Zealand Defence Force; McGregor, K and Smith, R (2015), Airforce Culture Review, Tiaki Consultants; and Joychild QC, F (2017), Report to Chief of Air Force: Inquiry into Historic Sexual Abuse, Workplace Sexual Harassment and Bullying related to Robert Roper and Contemporary New Zealand Defence Force Systems and Processes for Handling Such Complaints.

2: Teale, D and Macdonald, Dr C (2020), Independent Review of the New Zealand Defence Force's progress on the Action Plan for Operation Respect.

3: Office of the Auditor-General (2023), A safe and respectful New Zealand Defence Force: First monitoring report, at

4: The survey was run from 15 February 2022 to 20 March 2022. All NZDF personnel were invited to participate and NZDF promoted the survey through several different channels. Personnel were not compelled to complete it. There were 6673 responses (a 53.4% response rate).

5: We use the term unwanted sexual activity to cover the behaviours that fall within the category of sexual assault. This included having anyone at a military workplace in the last 12 months forcing or attempting to force someone into any unwanted sexual activity by threatening, holding them down, or hurting them in some way; subjecting them to a sexual activity that they had not consented to, including through being drugged, intoxicated, or forced in ways other than physical; or touching them in a sexual way against their will, including unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling.

6: We use the term inappropriate sexual behaviour to cover a range of behaviours that sit outside the category of sexual assault. This included anyone experiencing one of several behaviours within the last 12 months at a military workplace, including sexually suggestive jokes or comments or inappropriate discussion of their personal life; unwanted sexual advances; displaying or sharing sexually explicit messages, photos, or videos; and being insulted or mistreated based on their gender or sexual orientation.