Biosecurity helps prevent the establishment of pests or diseases that would damage our primary production industries, native flora and fauna, or our health. Our country is more dependent on biosecurity than any other developed country. Biosecurity is fundamental to New Zealand's economic health and natural heritage.
The system to ensure biosecurity is complex. Since 2004, a number of mergers and restructures have changed the responsibilities for managing biosecurity. The new Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has provided biosecurity leadership since 30 April 2012.
This year, the theme for my office's work programme is Our future needs – is the public sector ready? The focus is on how public entities prioritise work, develop necessary capabilities and skills, and use information to identify and address future needs.
In this context, we carried out a performance audit that looked at how effectively the biosecurity system works in preparing for and responding to the arrival in New Zealand of foreign pests and organisms – biosecurity incursions.
MPI and its predecessor organisations responsible for biosecurity have been, by and large, successful at responding to incursions, dealing with between 30 and 40 incursions a year. They have developed generally high-trust relationships with partners by working together on responses and have improved biosecurity by sharing knowledge and fostering innovative practice.
No border control is 100% effective, so it is important that New Zealand is prepared to deal with incursions effectively. However, it is my view that MPI is under-prepared for potential incursions from some high-risk organisms. Responding to incursions has taken precedence over preparing for the potential arrival of other pests and diseases. Not enough priority has been given to planning. Many response partners who have worked with MPI and its predecessors believe that stronger response capability is also needed.
Improvements are being made, including trying to detect threats earlier by better targeting of surveillance activities, updating existing plans for dealing with specific pests and diseases, and more regular testing to ensure that plans and preparations will work if needed. A new response system has brought more consistency and efficiency to how incursions are dealt with. Some improvements to information systems and how information is used have begun. There is more openness about acknowledging mistakes and treating these as learning opportunities.
However, there is still a lot to do and some serious weaknesses remain. Plans for responding to potential incursions from some high-risk organisms are not yet complete. For example, the plan for dealing with a foot and mouth disease outbreak is inadequate.
Workforce planning and capability development needs to be stronger, so that MPI has the appropriate people, with the right skills, in the right place. Staff are not using the new response system to its full potential, so a better approach is needed to managing staff experience, development, and training. Contracting with partners during responses needs to be more efficient and there is potential for better value for money. Some information systems do not yet link together and information is not used as effectively and efficiently as it could be.
Performance reporting also needs to improve. Stronger outcome-based measures and performance measurement tools are needed to identify how effectively and efficiently incursions are responded to and to ensure continuous improvement.
The recently merged and restructured MPI has an opportunity to achieve lasting improvements in biosecurity preparedness and response. However, the previous track record of delivering sustained improvements is not good. There are many instances where initiatives either have not been completed or have been delivered but not embedded.
There is a desire for improvement, but this requires continued strong leadership from the new management and commitment throughout MPI. I have made some recommendations for improvements to biosecurity preparedness and response that will need to be implemented if MPI is to bring about the changes required.
I thank the staff of MPI and its response partners for their assistance and co-operation in the course of our audit.
Controller and Auditor-General
22 February 2013