How do you fix a problem you're at the root of?
That is one of the key questions facing the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) following a comprehensive assessment of its flailing Operation Respect project. Now four years old, the project was set up to eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour in its 12,000-strong workforce. At the time of its launch, it was hoped real improvement would come within two years.
Last week's independent report on the project, commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, shows how ambitious that goal really was. Essentially, it failed to acknowledge the magnitude of bullying, harassment, and harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviours in the NZDF, and the role of its organisational structure and culture in that. Notably, the report summarises fundamental challenges to Operation Respect's progress in three main points:
• A lack of transparency and accountability of progress by the NZDF in addressing and preventing harm from sexual violence, discrimination, bullying and harassment.
• A "code of silence" based on fear of repercussions and lack of trust in internal NZDF processes which prevents reporting of serious issues like sexual violence.
• The real difficulty of speaking out against decisions and behaviours made by superiors in the hierarchical culture of military discipline and command in the NZDF.
Chief of Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Clark - the services' champion for the project - spoke to media about the report's findings. His comments regarding the flaws and limited progress of Operation Respect indicate those at the top of the NZDF are starting to understand the immensity of the task upon them.
"I guess it's naive to think you'll give somebody a training course and now they'll go off and behave differently," Clark told Stuff.
"It's that piece around: 'How do you reinforce it? How do you keep checking up? How do you keep having the conversation and embed different behaviours over time?' I think that's the messy, hard bit."
The messy, hard bit indeed. Particularly when there is an acknowledgement within the NZDF that reporting harmful behaviour effectively risks the best parts of its organisational setup - that is the camaraderie and team spirit of its members. In the report, this potential conflict of interest is discussed as a perceived betrayal of one's team or unit.
"It was highlighted that military personnel live and work together for extended periods of time, often under difficult conditions in order to deliver combat capability and operational outcomes," the report says.
"Their traditions, training and lifestyle builds strong allegiances within tight teams, and while NZDF acknowledge that this in no way excuses harmful behaviours, they believe that its strength is also its weakness, and this may contribute to why people may be unwilling to risk team allegiance by reporting harmful behaviours."
As Clark pointed out, one training course is unlikely to undo or shift that tenet. Trust and camaraderie among colleagues are essential to life in the Defence Force, so breaking, and even denting, the code of silence that feeds off that requires a wholesale change in attitudes.
Fortunately, the report and its 44 recommendations effectively provide a road map for doing so. It offers a way forward on a range of issues, like leadership of Operation Respect, resourcing of its initiatives and even healthier alcohol, drug, and socialising practices. Clark has also said the Defence Force is committed to the recommendations.
The difficult part, as with other large, government organisations pledging to address aspects of problematic and harmful workplace culture, is seeing it through. Notably, last week's report references other reports and reviews which have also highlighted bullying, harassment, and harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour within the Defence Force previously.
However, what sets it apart is its sincere acknowledgement that on problems of harmful behaviour and sexual violence, the Defence Force cannot go it alone. It finds that it is simply not equipped and mature enough to self-police problems so closely intertwined with its current culture and organisational structure. It then goes on to recommend a prolonged external auditing process for Operation Respect - one which would involve monitoring by the auditor general over a 20-year period. Anything less would not achieve change and fail to "keep momentum in the long-term" in eliminating harmful behaviour and sexual violence, the report says.
Accepting this is an important first step for the Defence Force in addressing harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour within its ranks. It offers some hope to those who continue to struggle within a culture that does not prioritise everyone's dignity and respect, and, importantly, a viable alternative to a problem it is failing to meaningfully address.