A Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, took over governance responsibilities for the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in July 2017 to ensure the proper use of public money and an effective eradication program. In the first year of the Ten Year Plan 2017-27, the infestation blew out by nearly 80,000ha, eleven significant detections have been found outside the program’s operations, and the program treated significantly less areas than planned for. The infestation now covers 600,000ha – fifteen time worse than when they were detected in 2001. The reviewer said the Steering Committee needed to separate itself from program management and start acting like a Board of Management and respond to long standing issues by: • Managing a budget shortfall of $36.5m. • Developing a set of out-come focussed performance indictors to inform funders and the public of the program’s progress in eradicating fire ants. • Imposing costs on the movement of fire ant carriers outside the operational area and the creation of fire ant habitat. • Considering the cost implications if remote sensing technology does not reduce the treatment area, reduced treatments do not kill fire ants and the risks of allowing the public to treat fire ant nests. • Considering the program’s strategy as it moves eastward into peri-urban and urban landscapes. • Ensuring the program has information technology to support management decision making. • Improving operations on the ground by having Standard Operating Procedures that support effective treatment and surveillance, timely plans, contract staff remuneration linked to performance, procurement protocols adhered to, a contract register and contract conditions adhered to. • And, most significantly, improve its own performance by: o approving plans in a timely manner. o meeting frequently enough to address significant issues. o having the expertise balance to address significant issues. o reporting to the funders and the public in a timely manner, and o Initiating a review of the future of the program if the risks become sufficiently problematic that the program can no longer achieve its objectives. The Steering Committee’s response to the reviewer’s recommendations are less than inspiring. They intend to approve, implement, review, determine, consider, investigate, engage, re-work, report, revise and assess those recommendations. Perhaps anticipating this response from the Steering Committee, the reviewer specifically recommended (30) that his recommendations are implemented within the next 12-18 months and (29) a follow-up audit, perhaps conducted by the program’s Risk Management Group, is scheduled for April 2020 to report progress. The Steering Committee’s response to those recommendations are even less inspiring. Steering Committee said it will establish a sub-committee to oversee the recommendations and delay the follow-up audit to July 2020. It’s time for a Royal Commission to hold the Steering Committee of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program to account for the waste of $500m of public money and a worsening fire ant infestation. 25th June 2020
The Efficiency and Effectiveness Review of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, finalised by Mr Bernard Wonder in December 2019, delivered a scathing assessment of the ability of the program’s Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, to ensure the proper use of public money to eradicate fire ants.
The last Efficiency and Effectiveness Review of the program was conducted by Deloitte in 2013. That review was scathing of the ability of the previous oversight committee, the Commonwealth Agriculture Department’s Tramp Ant Consultative Committee, to ensure the proper use of public money to eradicate fire ants. The fact that was the last biannual Efficiency and Effectiveness audit of the program until 2019 adds weight to that assessment. And nothing has changed.
In July 2017, the Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, took over the governance responsibilities of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication to ensure the program was based on the best scientific advice and on a partnership between government, industries and the community.
The Steering Committee commissioned Mr Bernard Wonder, Deputy Secretary of the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry between 1998 and 2005, to conduct a review of the efficiency and effectiveness of the program. The Steering Committee excluded a review of its own governance practices from the review’s terms of reference. Mr Wonder referenced internal reviews that did.
He made thirty-seven recommendations, repeating many made by previous reviews since 2002: in sum, a scathing assessment of the Craik led Steering Committee’s ability to ensure the proper use of public money to eradicate fire ants.
The reviewer questioned the scientific basis of the program and the nature of the program’s shared public-private responsibility.
The program is not based on sound science.
The reviewer noted that the program’s west to east rolling treatment strategy did not emerge from any scientific analysis but was a policy decision to prioritise the expanding infestation into the farm land of the Lockyer Valley over the persistent and intensifying infestation in the cities to the east: Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and the Gold Coast.
He noted that in the very first year, 2017-18, the program’s operational boundary blew out to include another 78,000ha – a 21% increase. This completely negates the finding of the 2016 Magee review, upon which the current Ten Year Program is based, that the extent of the infestation had been defined – a critical determinant of whether eradication is technically feasible.
The reviewer also questioned the likelihood that new generation remote-sensing surveillance technology would enable the program to reduce treatment costs by only treating targeted areas – the basis upon which the Magee review determined that it was still cost effective to eradicate fire ants.
A feasibility study of remote-sensing surveillance technology commissioned by the program in 2018 said the technology failed because its basic premise – that thermal imaging could detect fire ant nests in winter because they are warmer than their surrounds was flawed, because cow pats, rocks and soil emitted the same thermal image and the technology missed actual fire ant nests. The study said any new system would need to synchronise four, complex cameras, have massive data storage capacity, have CASA approval to mount it on a helicopter and assure the US State Department that any components imported from the USA did not pose a national security risk. The program has not conducted any remote-sensing surveillance since 2014.
The reviewer noted that the infestation now covers 600,000ha, fifteen times what it was in 2002, that eleven significant infestations had been found outside the program’s 2017 operational boundary and they were no always acted on swiftly.
The reviewer noted that areas targeted for treatment in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 received significantly less than the three rounds of treatment scheduled for each year, and the science team is now considering reducing treatments to just two rounds per year because no live ants had been found at sentinel sites in the treatment area. The reviewer noted there had been no independent assessment of the siting of the program’s sentinel sites or of the data collection method. And although the program was told in 2004 to develop a ‘proof of freedom’ protocol to support any claims of eradication, one is yet to be developed.
Previous reviews have criticised the program’s fragmented science program and its lack of data on the efficacy of the program’s treatment, surveillance and containment regimes. Echoing those reviews, the 2019 reviewer recommends (36) that the Scientific Advisory Group develop a work plan responding to science related issues facing the Steering Committee and the Program and adjust its working arrangement to address the need of the program.
The program is not based on shared public-private responsibilities.
The Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014 requires all Queenslanders to share the responsibility and costs of managing biosecurity risks under their control. The reviewer noted the program’s intention to introduce self-management/self-treating fire ant nests as a way to share responsibility with the public. The program noted this does not save costs, just transfer them. The Queensland Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 said with shared responsibility and cost-sharing comes shared decision making but Biosecurity Queensland only communicates with stakeholders when it wants something from them – input into policy and legislation – or to do something – report fire ants, manage their risks of spreading fire ants – and now to kill fire ants.
Self-treatment was proposed and quickly dropped in 2012 because of the risk inexperienced operators could cause a nest to split and spread, or the operator could get stung, or they could resort to all manner of unsafe and ineffective treatment methods – eg petrol.
The reviewer recommends (6) clarifying the nature of shared public-private responsibilities.
Most of the 2019 review’s criticism relate to the Steering Committee’s poor governance.
In 2017, the Steering Committee approved the strategy of the $411.4m Ten Year Plan 2017-27. There have been major changes to the program since then, but no change to the long term strategy. In 2019, the reviewer recommended (26) the Steering Committee calls for a Three Year Strategic Plan to address the issues raised in his review.
In 2019 the reviewer’s first priority (3) was for the program to develop a new set of ‘outcome focused’ performance indicators. The reviewer noted the program had 105 indicators – none capable of informing the Steering Committee, the funding partners or the community of the program’s progress in eradicating fire ants from south-east Queensland.
3 The reviewer acknowledges this will be difficult to achieve because the Fire Ant Management System, the program’s information system, does not provide data that can support program decision making.
A make-or-break performance indicator set for the program by the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum in 2001 was for a functioning information system that could collect reliable and consistent performance data.
The 2013 Deloitte review said the program did not have one. At least ten independent reviews of the program since 2002 to 2018 had said the same. One was still under development in 2017. In 2018, the program’s Risk Management Committee said the program’s lack of a functioning information system and the lack of timely and accurate performance data posed an extreme risk to the program.
The 2019 review recommends (25) the Steering Committee monitors the adequacy of the Fire Ant Management System and (27) the Program’s proposal for collecting management information to support decision making.
In 2018 the program’s Risk Management Group said the Steering Committee, not approving the programs Work Plan actions, targets, timeframe and performance indicators in a timely manner posed a high risk to the program’s progress.
The 2019 review recommended (33) the Steering Committee schedule additional and/or longer meetings and as a priority (28) request out of session monthly updates on progress with actions in the business plan, as well a quarterly report in order to attend to a wide range of significant issues over the next 12-18 months.
The 2019 reviewer noted the same thing and questioned the expertise balance of the committee, noting it lacked expertise in governance, finance, communication, information technology and technical skills. The reviewer’s priority recommendation (31) was that the Steering Committee review the expertise it needs to progress the issues at hand and seek nominations to address the gaps.
For a program that has been operating for nineteen years, the deficiencies are astounding and the performance of the oversight committees appalling.
The reviewer, perhaps concerned that his recommendations would get the same treatment all previous reviews – ‘implemented where appropriate’ which means not at all, made a priority recommendation (30) that the Steering Committee consider his recommendations and determine a strategy for how to address the many issues requiring resolution over the next 12-8th months, AND recommendation 29, that the Steering Committee request a follow-up audit of operational planning, governance and procurement in April 2020, possibly by the program’s Risk Management Group (37)
Steering Committee’s responses to his priority issues do not inspire confidence.
Steering Committee develops a new set of ‘outcome focused’ program performance indicators ..this financial year. Steering Committee’s Response: ‘to be approved before …May 2010’. The General Manager told ABC radio in early June, the program was still working on them.
Steering Committee improves treatment and surveillance. Steering Committee’s response: ‘is implementing changes…will be reported monthly.’ No report on what changes.
Steering Committee clarifies the nature of the shared public-private responsibility. Steering Committee’s response: ‘Determine how people and organisations understand their obligations.’ Industry representative at a stakeholder forum in 2018 said they are happy to fulfil their responsibilities if Biosecurity Queensland fulfilled theirs.
Steering Committee develops appropriate regulations to internalise the cost to those responsible for creating fire ant habitat. Steering Committee’s response is to ‘consider and investigate further’ and ‘will shortly engage an independent party ‘
Steering Committee introduce regulations and fees to inspect loads of fire ant carriers crossing the operational area boundary. Steering Committee’s response. ‘will investigate by the end of 2020’
Steering Committee initiate more detailed analysis of efficiency options identified for uptake as soon as possible. Steering Committee’s response: ‘Agree. Quarterly reports’.
Steering Committee to set a planning cycle available to all staff and Standard Operating Procedure to be revised as soon as possible. Steering Committee’s response: ‘Planning cycle to Steering Committee in May 2020’ and Standard Operating Procedures ‘to be reviewed.’
Steering Committee consider the themes of its communication strategy, in the light of launching the self-management component. Steering Committee’s response: ‘will be re-worked’
Steering Committee consider the program’s proposed approach to management information to assist decision making. Steering Committee’s response: ‘report to Steering Committee by May 2020’
Steering Committee request out of session monthly updates on progress as well as quarterly reports. Steering Committee response: ‘Monthly reports to be provided.’
Steering Committee review the expertise it needs to progress the issues at hand. Steering Committee’s response: ‘Revised skills matrix to be reviewed in May 2020.
Steering Committee establish its own communication strategy as soon as possible, including its own website. Steering Committee response: ‘Is assessing a case for the Commonwealth to host the website.’
In response to the reviewer’s recommendation that Steering Committee consider the findings and recommendation of the review and determine a strategy for how to best address the issues requiring resolution over the next 12-18 months, Steering Committee said it will establish a sub-committee to oversee the recommendations of the review.
In response to the reviewer’s recommendation of a follow-up audit in April 2020, Steering Committee’s response was to delay the audit until July 2020.
It is time for a Royal Commission to hold the Steering Committee of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program to account for the waste of $500m of public money and a worsening fire ant infestation.