For the first time in 17 years, Biosecurity Queensland is recruiting, or being forced to recruit, properly qualified people to run the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. Will two new leaders be the new brooms that can save Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant fiasco? Fire ants are out of control and the infestation is now ten times worse than when they were first detected in 2001. Biosecurity Queensland has wasted $400m of public money. Or will Biosecurity Queensland’s comfortably entrenched incompetent incumbent managers continue to run the program anyway? It might be wiser to simply give the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program to an agency that is competent to do the job. 5th November 2017
Managers way out of their depth is one of the main reasons why Biosecurity Queensland’s National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication program has failed from the very beginning. After the first season of treatment, in September 2002, an independent science review team said they couldn’t tell if Biosecurity Queensland could eradicate fire ants or not.
Reflecting on the failing program to the Continuous Improvement Review in July 2003, the first program Director blamed program managers. He said, ‘We had to grow the organisation rapidly…. without paying due attention to…. sourcing managers. We were not able to track the best and most experienced people for the job. As a result, we have a group of people who do not have the level of leadership skills to manage a multi-million-dollar organisation.’
The program Director would have had to include himself in that analysis. He had simply been seconded into that position from being a Regional Director in the then department of Primary Industries and Fisheries. Department managers were used to managing small teams of professionals. None had the skills to manage a diverse workforce and a large, complex program. The Continuous Improvement Review found the program’s biggest challenge was chaotic management, from the Director down. There was no sense of urgency and no ability to plan and implement this large complex program.
Nothing has changed since then. Management positions are filled by simply seconding people into them rather than recruit the best people for the job. When the first Director retired, he was replaced by the program’s Human Resources Officer, which brought with it a significant promotion. When he moved on, another departmental officer replaced him, also with a significant promotion, etc, etc, etc. A culture of creating jobs and promotions for mates became entrenched. By June 2015, in a program that relies heavily on having boots-on-the-ground, non-operational staff (managers, governance and policy officers, planners and reporters, admin and support staff), made up a whopping 40% of the program’s entire workforce.
The Biosecurity Capability Review team in September 2015 said the same thing. They said, ‘The roles and responsibilities of current leaders have come about through incremental changes to their previous responsibilities rather than through a workforce planning process (recruitment).’ Consequently, they said, Biosecurity Queensland leaders lack the ability to set directions, work effectively within a political system and lack the ability to plan strategically. The Biosecurity Capability Review team recommended that Biosecurity Queensland appoint senior leaders with appropriate skills and undertake a skills audit and leadership development program for the rest of the managers. Biosecurity Queensland agreed, in principle, to a whole of Department skills audit and to appoint senior staff: depending, though, on their budget and staffing limits: demonstrating yet again, Biosecurity Queensland’s inability to plan strategically or to prioritise the use of funding. Or were they just protecting their own jobs?
It would appear that the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum might have made recruiting qualified senior leaders a condition for future funding. But will it work? Or will comfortable, entrenched, incompetent incumbents become the successful applications for the positions of General Manager Biosecurity Queensland Tramp Ant Programs and Director National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program? Not an uncommon outcome.
There is some chance that new leaders might come into the program. If they do, they will have their work cut out for them. The General Manager Tramp Ant Programs is a new position. The successful applicant will be responsible for leading and managing Biosecurity Queensland’s three Tramp Ant Programs. Yellow Crazy Ants, one of the world’s worst invasive species, were detected in 2001 and now infest coastal areas of Queensland between Cairns and Brisbane. The attempt to eradicate Yellow Crazy Ant has failed and it is now a control and containment program. Electric Ants, another one of the world’s worst invasive species, were found around Cairns in 2006. The Electric Ant Program is a control and containment program. The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is the only eradication program. The new General Manager will advise and report to the Acting Chief Biosecurity Officer who has no background in biosecurity.
The position of Director of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program is currently vacant because the most recent Director, the one who did not know if he was managing an eradication program or a containment and suppression program, has been moved up and out. The new Program Director will need to have managed similar programs in the past and to have lead large, diverse workforces to be able to lead the program’s operations and to manage an effective organisational unit. The new Director will advise and report to the new General Manager.
It will be a refreshing and positive change if competent people are appointed to the positions of General Manager Tramp Ant Programs and Director of the fire ant program, but, I suggest, they will meet steep resistance to change from entrenched incumbent managers who have form in resisting change.
Three independent scientific reviews of the program between 2002 to 2006 had serious doubts about Biosecurity Queensland’s ability to eradicate fire ants. The 4th independent scientific review team in 2010 left no doubt. They said, categorically, that Biosecurity Queensland was not eradicating fire ants and probably hadn’t been since 2004/05. Keen to protect their jobs and their pet programs, it is likely that incumbent Biosecurity Queensland managers were not going to let the 5th scientific review of the program in 2016 come to the same conclusion.
Having spent nearly $400m of public money and with the fire ant infestation getting worse and worse, the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum commissioned another review in 2015 to determine if they should continue to fund an eradication program, or would it now be better to fund a program to contain and manage this well-established infestation? Incumbent program managers would have been concerned that a change of direction would affect funding, their jobs and their pet projects and perhaps, worked to protect all those things.
The 2016 science review team acknowledged ‘the generous contributions of…all staff in the (Brisbane) Biological Control Centre (Fire Ant Control Centre)’. The review panel could not address its terms of reference and compare the cost/ benefits of an eradication program with a containment and management program because Biosecurity Queensland has no performance data on it eradication effort. Nevertheless, the review panel found that the program was ‘scientifically sound’, said funding uncertainty was to blame for the poor results so far and recommended that the Ministers’ Forum continue to fund the eradication effort, with its existing programs, with the same amount of money over the next ten years, but with a lot less scrutiny.
The recommendations of the 2016 independent scientific review team contradicted all previous independent scientific reviews of the program that said:
Given that human assisted movement is the major cause of fire ants spreading: people carelessly or accidentally moving fire ants in loads of soil, mulch or pot plants: it is surprising that the 2016 review panel made no mention of any containment program to stop fire ants being carried into fire-ant free areas. Employing a significant number of biosecurity inspectors to help organisations and businesses that deal with fire ant carriers develop risk management plans to reduce their risk of spreading fire ants, to audit those plans and to conduct trace-backs to determine the sources of new infestations would be more effective use of public money than Biosecurity Queensland’s genetic analysis program. Genetic analysis is supposed to determine the parentage and source of a new infestation: except in the polygyne form of fire ants which dominates the south-east Queensland infestation.
Biosecurity Queensland’s incompetent management of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication is one of the main reasons why we have a Fire Ant Fiasco: $400m of public money has been wasted and the infestation is now ten time worse than when they were detected in 2001: extending from Moreton Bay in the east, through Brisbane, Ipswich, Gold Coast and Logan city councils and into the Moreton Bay, Sunshine Coast, Somerset, Scenic Rim and Lockyer Valley regional areas.
It will be a refreshing and positive change to the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program if new managers can be the new brooms that turn the current fire ant fiasco around. But new managers will have an impossibly up-hill battle bringing about change in the face of resistance from entrenched Biosecurity Queensland managers. It might be wiser to simply take the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program away from Biosecurity Queensland and give it to an agency that is competent to do the job.