WELLINGTON — Helen Quilter, appointed secretary and chief executive of New Zealand’s Defence Ministry in December, has more than three decades of experience in public service.
Previously, she was responsible for managing the performance of chief executives in the justice, defense, intelligence and foreign affairs agencies on behalf of the state services commissioner, and was part of the central agency team responsible for overseeing the implementation of the defense white paper published in 2010.
Q. What were the immediate challenges?
A. I would use “priorities” instead of “challenges,” and my first priority was to get to know the people working in the ministry.
My next priority was to get to know the work of the NZ Defence Force [NZDF] and … how [it uses] the capabilities that the ministry provides them. So in January, I saw the nearly completed [upgraded] C-130H Hercules [transport plane], and in April, I flew to Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, on that very Hercules.
One of the big lessons for me is that there really is no substitute for getting out and talking to people, and getting a sense of what it is they do and [how] the ministry supports their work.
Q. What are your prime objectives?
A. In 2012, the MoD underwent a Performance Improvement Framework Review. [T]hat review identified a number of areas for improvement, particularly around critical person risk and the breadth of work [the ministry] is engaged with — and issues of resilience and sustainability. So I would like us to be more deliberate in what we do, for greater impact, and more collaborative in the way we work with other organizations.
I’d also like us to be very adept and agile in taking lessons learned from what we do and applying them to future activities. Once we know what makes a difference, we have to be able to deliver it quickly or support others to do that.
I would like the ministry to be considered as vibrant, as the thought leader in the policy space on military, defense and security issues, with at times a contestable point of view, but as committed as the Defence Force is to being able to meet the challenges associated with the security challenges of the future.
Q. So proactive rather than reactive?
A. Yes, I’d very much like us to be considered proactive. I’d like the ministry to be thought of as a go-to place where people can have a very interesting career working on subject matter that I think is of primary importance to New Zealanders.
Q. What contact do you have with your Australian counterpart?
A. One of my top priorities, given that Australia is our closest and most important security and defense partner, was to go to Canberra and meet Dennis Richardson, the Australian secretary of defense. We’ll be meeting again at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore at the end of May, and we’ll be hosting the bilateral chief executives meeting in July here in Wellington, so the contact, both formal and informal, is high and that relationship is a real priority for me.
Of course, there are differences in size and scale and orientation, but we do share history and we do have commonalities, a similar perspective and similar interests in some areas.
Q. Can the ministries learn from each other?
A. The defense relationship was reviewed in 2011, and both [defense ministers] were concerned that the engagement between our two countries results in practical outcomes, that it isn’t just a series of meetings. It is geared around learning as much as we can from each others’ experiences.
For us, that will range from the defense white paper process to designing and implementing reform to developing complementary military capabilities as well as … exercises and training.
As well, we are committed to working together really closely on our interests in the Pacific, so I would say we have a lot more in common than we do separately.
Q. Did you play a role in the most recent defense white paper?
A. As deputy commissioner in the State Services Commission, I was part of the central agency team that was set up to support the ministry and the NZDF during the development of the defense assessment and the passage of the Value for Money review.
As a policy process, it was very well conceived, very well executed and very well run. I think everyone associated with production of that white paper can feel a sense of pride in it. It was a very good piece of policy.
[O]ne of the things that is working well is [our] strategic scanning of our geopolitical situation, and looking at how our interests are changing.
Q. Is software still the major obstacle in defense projects?
A. Software integration is the No. 1 risk in every project. With the P-3K2 [Orion maritime surveillance aircraft] upgrade project, the lessons were, externally, the ability of contractors to deliver on what is a very, very complex task and, internally, our ability to assess that.
Knowing what we know now, we would do them slightly differently; we probably didn’t have a choice but to upgrade our P-3Ks. There was nothing available that would do the job.
Regarding the upgrade of the C-130H fleet, the cost of replacement [with the C-130J] at the time was out of the question.
Q. What’s happening with the pilot training aircraft project?
A. We are looking at as close to off-the-shelf as we can possibly make it. Certifiable, not messing around with the software unless it is absolutely unavoidable … and we will be taking an approach in cooperation with the NZDF that should make this whole process easier.
Q. To what extent does the original (circa 1998) Seasprite helicopter contract facilitate the new one?
A. We’ve had a long relationship with Kaman Aerospace, and the negotiations would have been aided by the continuity of some personnel. But those negotiations were very tough, and I think that both sides were equally committed to getting the best deal that they could.
We had to assure ourselves that the [SH-2G(I) helicopter] was going to meet our requirements and meet them safely and certifiably. We’ve learned quite a few lessons in the process of doing our own integration, which we’ve brought to bear on the Seasprite project, and that’s one of the reasons it’s taken us more than two years to get from someone offering us the SH-2G(I)s to actually coming very close now to signing a contract, so that’s a matter of derisking the contract.
Q. How are the legacy projects? Are they coming gently to a satisfying conclusion?
A. I wouldn’t use the word “gentle,” [but] one way or another, they are coming to a conclusion.
We’ve just accepted the fourth P-3K2; the last two C-130s are being modified down in Blenheim at the moment. The helicopter projects are coming to conclusion so far as we are concerned, and the Protector ships are out there doing what they need to do, and the [amphibious support ship] Canterbury will be sailing very soon, after completing its remediation program.