Auditor-General: NZDF still has much work to do on Operation Respect

30 March 2023: The Auditor-General’s report has found NZDF needs to act with urgency to create a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment for all its personnel.

The Auditor-General’s report on progress by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) on implementing Operation Respect has found NZDF needs to act with urgency to create a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment for all its personnel.

Introduced in 2016, Operation Respect aimed to prevent inappropriate and harmful behaviour from occurring in NZDF and ensure that, when it did happen, there were systems and processes to deal with it properly. A review commissioned by the Ministry of Defence in 2020 recommended the Auditor-General independently monitor Operation Respect’s progress over the next 20 years, and NZDF invited the Auditor-General to do so.

Although there have been positive changes since Operation Respect was launched, NZDF’s approach since 2020 has not been driven by clearly stated and shared goals or underpinned by a clear and well-considered strategy. 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.

“Without clear goals and a well-considered strategy, there is a risk that Operation Respect will have limited and only temporary impact,” says Auditor-General John Ryan.

“No one should experience harmful behaviour at work. NZDF must change the conditions that allow harmful behaviour to occur.”

The audit, which involved interviewing more than 250 people, reviewing a significant number of documents, and a comprehensive survey of NZDF staff, shows the scale of the challenge ahead.

Just over half of NZDF’s roughly 12,500 regular force and civilian personnel completed the survey about their experiences in the previous 12 months.

Most NZDF personnel said they did not experience harmful behaviour and felt safe and respected in their workplace.

However, 78 personnel (1.3% of respondents) had experienced unwanted sexual activity in the previous 12 months. Women, particularly junior uniformed women, experienced high rates of inappropriate and harmful behaviour.

For junior uniformed women, 7.2% had experienced unwanted sexual activity in the previous 12 months. Nearly one-quarter (24.6%) had experienced some form of inappropriate sexual behaviour, and 19% experienced bullying, harassment, or discrimination.

Although leaders throughout NZDF had shown good intent and commitment to Operation Respect, senior leaders have not provided enough direction or oversight.

“It is essential that senior leaders play a strong and visible role in setting the vision and direction for Operation Respect, including setting clear expectations of appropriate behaviour, and that more robust ways to hold all leaders accountable are established,” says Mr Ryan.

The report includes 11 recommendations. Mr Ryan encourages NZDF to continue to prioritise work to improve its complaints and disciplinary systems.

“Reporting systems that people trust are essential to ensure that those affected by harmful behaviour feel able to use them, that they are well supported, and that future harm is prevented.”

Changing attitudes and behaviours in an organisation is difficult. This is especially so in organisations such as NZDF, which has a long history built on command and control and strong team cohesion norms.

However, Mr Ryan notes, Operation Respect’s success is essential to creating a defence force that can meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“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.

“I am satisfied that NZDF recognises the importance and 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,” says Mr Ryan.

The Office will continue to independently monitor, assess, and report on the impact of the actions NZDF is taking and, over time, whether it is achieving Operation Respect’s outcomes. The Office has also published a baseline monitoring report, which it will assess future progress against.


A media kit, video, and two-page summary are also available for this report.