The Risk Management Committee says extreme, high and long-standing risks threaten Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Program. Extreme risk: The program has never had a functioning information system or produced timely and accurate performance data. High risks: Poor governance. The new Steering Committee approves work plans after the work has started: so did the Committee it replaced. Poor performance. The extent of the infestation exceeds the capacity of the program. United States experts said in 2001 the infestation was too entrenched to eradicate. Poor operations: The program lacks clearly defined procedures, protocols and policies: what the scientific review panel said in 2006. Poor workforce management. The program does not follow departmental workforce processes: temporary staff are not made permanent. Leaders are appointed through incremental changes to the current roles rather than through workforce planning (Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review 2015) Poor procurement processes. Not enough bait ordered in advance. Helicopter contractors not available for the whole treatment season. Poor engagement with industries who don’t understand their General Biosecurity Obligation and Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone maps do not align with the area of infestation. Poor engagement with the community. The program takes weeks to respond to public reports of suspect nests. Poor engagement with government to manage political influence. Poor engagement with national funders because program reports do not provide full information on the program’s activities. Relying on the ‘silver bullet’ of remote sensing surveillance technology to save the program. Failed spectacularly in 2015. Still requiring ‘continual improvement’ in December 2018. Time for a Royal Commission. 19th August 2019
In December 2018 the Fire Ant Program Risk Management sub-committee reported the many extreme, high and long-standing risks threatening the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.
The Committee said the Fire Ant Program’s lack of functioning information systems, digital and paper-based, which did not provide timely and accurate performance data because of poor functionality or issues with data integrity was an EXTREME risk.
This is a long-standing risk. The Fire Ant Program HAS NEVER had a functioning information system or produced timely and accurate performance data.
In 2001, one of the milestones the national over-sight committee set for the Fire Ant Program was for a functioning information. It has never had one.
In June 2002, as Senior Policy Officer producing program reports for the national funders, I wrote to the Director saying our reports were becoming increasingly vague, our figures did not add up and that I was concerned that we could be accused of misinforming our stakeholders.
The independent scientific review in September 2002 agreed. They said the program was in no position to know what areas had not been treated, what areas had been treated and what they were treated with because it did not have a functioning information system. They said if the information system was not operative by the end of 2002, consideration should be given to terminating the program. And, they said, if the ants were not eradicated by the end of 2004, the program should change its focus from eradication to containment.
The information system was not operative by 2002. In 2003, the program auditor said they could not objectively evaluate the program’s operational efficiency because of the program’s scarcity of performance measures against outcomes.
In 2003, I made a public interest disclosure to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) that the program was not reporting the many serious issues threatening the program including: there was no evidence the treatment methods worked because monitoring sites had been destroyed, the program did not report how many properties inside the treatment area had not been treated or had become re-infested and the Fire Ant Information System could not support the program. The CMC found no substance to my complaint, so the mis-reporting and the serious threats have continued.
The science review panel of 2004 repeated what the 2002 review said: the program was in no position to know what areas had not been treated, what areas had been treated and what they were treated with because it did not have a functioning information system. They added that too much information was left out of reports, including how many properties had become re-infested and how many properties had not received the prescribed number of treatments.
Program auditors in 2005 said the program still did not have a functioning information system because operational managers were running independent information systems through a series of spread-sheets because they could not trust the program’s information system.
The 2006 scientific review panel said the operations of the Fire Ant Program had not improved: fire ants has re-infested 97 previously treated properties and 60 detections had been found outside the treatment areas. The review panel said fire ants were spreading faster than they were being found because the operations of the program were ‘poor and ineffective.’
The findings of the 2009 science review team were even clearer and more damming. They were surprised by the lack of a ‘consistent and coherent information base to assess the effectiveness of surveillance and treatment protocols’ but it was clear to them that current surveillance methods were inadequate for defining the limits of the infestations or detecting new infestations and concluded the program’s current techniques methods could not eradicate fire ants and recommended reverting to a program of containment and suppression.
A review of the Fire Ant Program’s information system in 2012 said the same thing the Risk Management Committee said: that the information system was fragile, its performance was erratic and its ability to provide basic functions was questionable.
And on it goes. Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 said that Biosecurity Queensland lacked an effective performance management information system with high quality, timely and well-understood performance information.
The 2016 scientific review panel, commissioned to make recommendations for the future: to continue with an eradication effort or revert to a containment effort, acknowledged it could not assess the effectiveness of the program because of the program’s lack of performance data. Nevertheless, it recommended continuing with an eradication effort.
In 2017 the Queensland Audit Office said that Biosecurity Queensland cannot ‘always demonstrate it has successfully achieved the ultimate aims’ of its programs because Biosecurity Queensland does not capture adequate, reliable and consistent performance data, Biosecurity Queensland programs do not have specific, measurable program performance indicators, Biosecurity Queensland has no methods for evaluating its programs and Biosecurity Queensland reports inputs and activities but not progress towards eradication.
The HIGH RISKS the Risk Management Committee identified are also long-standing.
Poor governance: The Committee said the program Steering Committee did not approve the actions, targets, timeframe and KPIs of the 2018-19 Work Plan until well after the start of the working year.
This is a long-standing issue.
The new Steering Committee replaced the previous over-sight committee in 2017, because in 2013, the program auditor questioned the ability of the previous committee to provide appropriate guidance to the program and demonstrate due care in the use of public money because it did not approve program plans in a timely manner and accepted reports that did not explain the variance (up to 21%) between what the program planned and what it delivered.
The Committee said if the extent of the infestation is likely to exceed program’s capacity with current resources, there was a high-risk eradication was no longer technically unfeasible.
This is a long-standing issue because there has never been any scientific evidence it was technically feasible to eradicate fire ants from south-east Queensland. United States and local experts said in 2001, when the ants were first identified, the infestation was too well entrenched and it was too late to eradicate them.
The 2006 scientific review panel said fire ants were spreading faster than they were being found because the operations of the program were ‘poor and ineffective.’
The 2009 scientific review panel concluded the program’s current techniques methods could not eradicate fire ants and recommended reverting to a program of containment and suppression.
The results of the first year and a half of the new Ten Year Plan 2017-27 clearly show the extent of the infestation continues to exceed the program’s capacity.
Between July 2017 and June 2018, seven significant detections were found beyond the operational bounds of the program at Lowood, Beaudesert, Bridgeman Downs, three at Thornton, at Blenheim, Labrador and Townson.
By October 2018, another seven significant detections were found beyond the operational bounds of the program: two at Helensvale, the Brisbane Airport, Southport, Brendale, Boyland and Fernvale.
Between July 2017 and June 2018, high priority Area 1 had received only 2 of the 3 scheduled rounds of bait, Areas 2-3 receive only one of two scheduled rounds of suppression bait, and the program responded to 21,000 persistent infestation, some taking up to 12 weeks.
By the end of 2018, Area 1 had received the 3rd of six rounds scheduled for 2017-18, the eastern suppression area had received one of two scheduled rounds of bait, the western suppression area and western boundary area had received none. And the program had responded to 19,914 persistent infestations.
The Committee said the program’s activities were not being undertaken effectively because the program lacks clearly defined procedures, protocols and policies. Another long-standing issue.
The Committee said properties are not receiving the required amount of treatment in a given period of time because the program has no Treatment Policy, Protocol or Standard Operating Procedure. This was an issue identified by the independent scientific review of 2006.
The Committee said owners or occupiers can deny staff entry to treat, conduct surveillance or undertake compliance checks on their property because staff not adequately trained, there is no Standard Operating Procedure and the program does not give landholders sufficient warning in advance.
Poor workforce management
The Committee said the program does not comply with the department’s Workforce Strategy to convert temporary employees to permanent status when their performance warrants it.
Another long-standing issue. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 said the program’s leadership team lacked ability because the roles and responsibilities of current leaders came about through incremental changes to their previous responsibilities rather than through a workforce planning process.
Poor procurement processes
The Committee said, when the program does not order bait well in advance, insufficient bait can lead to delays or interruption of treatment.
The Committee said treatment can be delayed or interrupted because helicopter contractors may be unavailable for the full treatment period because the program does not negotiate effectively or manage for contingencies.
Poor engagement with industry
The Committee said industries and the public cannot comply with the General Biosecurity Obligation when they don’t know what it means and when the outdated the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zones Map does not align with, and is much smaller than, the extent of the infestation and the risk.
Another long-standing issue. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review in 2015 said Biosecurity Queensland’s communication with industry partners is predominantly to seek input into specific policies or legislation, not to build partnerships.
Poor engagement with the community
The Committee said there is a risk the community might become less supportive and less motivated to report suspected fire ant nests.
Another long-standing issue. The public has identified between 70-80% of new fire ant detections because Biosecurity Queensland does not conduct systematic surveillance. But Biosecurity Queensland is alienating the public by taking months to respond to public reports. And Biosecurity Queensland is asking for the public’s patience while it is experiencing a high volume of reports.
Poor engagement with government.
The Committee said the program’s planning and delivery of services can be reactive due to political influence. Another long-standing issue. The 2015 Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review said Biosecurity Queensland lacked the ability to build partnerships inside and outside of govt.
Poor engagement with national funders
The Committee said national cost share funders might not approve adjustments to the funding arrangement to align it with the program’s treatment strategy. Another long-standing issue. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 said the program suffered funding uncertainty because the program could not provide the funders with a case, based on a sound investment framework and performance data, for funding activities which are likely to produce the highest rate of return.
The Committee said national cost share funders might withdraw their funding because program reports do not provide full information on the program’s activities and progress and on issues impeding the success of the program.
Relying on a ‘silver bullet’ to save the program
The Committee said a high risk to the program was that the helicopter-mounted Remote Sensing Surveillance Technology might not work.
There is a high likelihood that this is the case. The 2010 science review said the technology was likely to have a high false positive rating when it identifies things that are not nests (rocks and cow pats) and a high false negative rating if it declared an area fire ant free when it misses small undetected nests. And because the technology can only be used during certain times of the year and over limited areas, the 2010 review panel said there was the risk the ants could spread faster than they were being found. Which is exactly what happened. By 2015, the technology identified 38 nests while the infestation tripled from around 100,000ha to 300,000ha.
In December 2017, the Robotic Centre at the University of Sydney said the technology was not sufficiently refined to work over different environments and different terrains. In December 2018, the technology was assessed as needing ‘continual refinement’.
Time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Premiers, Agriculture Ministers, Agriculture Directors-General and Program Directors since 2001, to account for this national biosecurity disaster and the waste of $500m of public money.