Defence’s long-time efforts to change its culture are stalling and it needs to revamp the process, according to a new report from the Australian National Audit Office.
The release of Defence’s Implementation of Cultural Reform comes as Defence grapples with the fallout from findings that SAS soldiers were involved in the unlawful killing of prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan.
Defence is three years into a second five-year strategy to establish universal values across the organisation to make it more inclusive, diverse and able to attract the best talent available.
Systemic behaviour issues have dogged the military for years, ranging from alcohol abuse to sexual harassment, bullying and toxic loyalty.
This second phase was supposed to embed ‘positive workplace norms’, but the audit found Defence has been unable to show that the strategy has been implemented effectively or that intended changes have been achieved.
The report says that Defence has no clear way to measure change or know if its efforts are bearing fruit.
The strategy had identified work-related unacceptable behaviour as an ongoing concern, but the report says Defence had not drawn on available evidence such as survey data from the first strategy (2012-17) that would have helped make progress in this area.
The report says that while there has been a decrease in the number of complaints, work-related unacceptable behaviours, particularly bullying and discrimination, continue to be the most common types experienced in the workplace, and satisfaction and confidence with the complaint process remains an area of concern.
“Women continue to experience unacceptable behaviour at higher rates than male counterparts and females are twice as likely to experience sexual-related unacceptable behaviour,” it says.
The report says that from 1 December 2016 to 1 April 2021, the Commonwealth Ombudsman received 2,819 reports of incidents of abuse.
The report called Defence’s decision not to evaluate the first strategy to help guide the second a missed opportunity to establish what reforms had been achieved and identify and overcome hurdles to further change.
An internal report prepared for Defence in June 2020 said that the second strategy’s approach did not clearly define responsibilities and accountabilities.
“It has lost its focus and has not set specific targets or milestones that define what changes or reforms are being sought,” the investigation found.
Defence told ANAO that it did not conduct trend analysis of the types of reported unacceptable behaviour, although its Workplace Behaviours Survey asks respondents how little or how much unacceptable behaviour they have witnessed or experienced in Defence workplaces.
Defence says it is working to increase the amount of data it captures to improve its analysis.
The report urged Defence to establish measurable outcomes for the strategy and develop a set of performance criteria that are accurate, reliable and complete so it can properly assess its progress.
Defence agreed to the recommendations and said the next phase beyond 2022 would align with the Defence Transformation Strategy released last year.
It said progress had been made, including increased diversity with more women, Indigenous Australians and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in Defence, and a better response to incidents of unacceptable behaviour.