Wellington, New Zealand — “In many cases, good staff were told they were bad.”
So says New Zealand’s Audit Office report, released Jan. 30, regarding the civilianization project recently initiated by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF).
The intent was to discharge 1,400 military staff members and either transfer them to civilian positions or replace them with civilians “who would cost less than the military staff they replaced.”
In the first stage of the civilianization project, the NZDF discharged slightly more than 300 staff during 2011, of whom fewer than a third were appointed to civilian positions.
Although the project was targeted to save more than 20 million New Zealand dollars ($16.7 million) per year, the Audit Office estimates savings will reach just over 14 million New Zealand dollars by 2014-2015.
While the figures are only estimates, the impact on NZDF morale as the first uniformed personnel were dismissed was stark, with attrition rates peaking at more than 20 percent last year.
As chief of the Defence Force (CDF), Lt. Gen. Rhys Jones told Defense News, “[The attrition] did hurt us and it will continue to hurt us in the future.”
Jones and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman have mentioned job opportunities in Australia as among the reasons for the drastic outflow of personnel, but the Audit Office report reveals that the NZDF also bears a share of the blame.
Citing internal NZDF documents, the Audit Office report says the Army warned that the reductions would erode its ability to sustain operations “if they reduce too much of the military out of the back end before growing the front end.”
The Army stated that “65% of officers who fill single or small group operational missions come from the back end.”
In a similar vein, the Royal New Zealand Navy argued that military staff reductions increased the risk of not being able to put ships to sea. Of course, the Navy has been chronically short of critical personnel for more than five years.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) also expressed concern, says the Audit Office report, “wanting a more detailed review of the technical trades before any decisions were made about which positions could be civilianised.”
Despite these misgivings, the process was launched with haste, and in some areas lacked tact.
The Audit Office quotes an NZDF planning document: “In some instances, we may not have sufficient time, which means we may have to cut corners … and we may have to do the bare minimum rather than the full niceties of change.”
The report describes the workload involved.
“Most of the policy and processes needed to implement the civilianisation project had to be developed from scratch. Job descriptions for more than 320 civilian positions had to be prepared. More than 3,000 applications for the civilian positions had to be processed. Personnel records for more than 2,400 military staff had to be reviewed, and decisions made as to which staff were no longer required in uniform.”
The entire NZDF uniformed force currently numbers less than 8,400.
Moreover, a concurrent project showed that, from 2015, the NZDF would require 10,054 military staff to do its job properly.
“This meant that NZDF needed more military staff overall than it had before the civilianisation project started,” the report states.
There was also criticism of how some uniformed personnel were told they were no longer required.
A working group devised a template letter to be sent to those who were to be discharged. The most controversial part of the letters, says the Audit Office, “was that describing the rating of the person’s commitment to service as low, moderate or high. Some military staff with many years of service found it hurtful to be told that they lacked commitment.”
The Audit Office notes the reaction within the fleet to the discharge letter.
“An NZDF internal document quotes Navy staff as saying that: “[We] tried to reword the letters when we got them, as we were shocked at their obviously controversial and unfeeling tone. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were not to alter the ‘template’ and only add the individual specific information. How is it that the authors could miss the fact that these letters were incredibly poorly written?” ’
This may explain why Jones, responding to the report on Jan. 30, said he regretted the way staff were told they were losing their jobs.
Since December 2011, the NZDF has relied on attrition and contracts finishing to redesignate military positions as civilian positions.