Simon Upton Speech - Technical Literacy
Technical Literacy in the Core Public Sector
with some thoughts about Biosecurity
A Speech to the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural Science Wellington Branch Meeting
31 May 2000
Rt Hon Simon Upton MP
Embargoed until 7.00pm, 31 May 2000
Two weeks ago the Government allocated an $86 million bonanza to the Arts and signalled solid increases in the years ahead. I didn't agree with the entire package, but there were institutions that needed additional support if they were to survive and I said so.
The same case exists with respect to biosecurity. It will, for me, be one of the acid tests of whether the Government has its priorities right. I fear that the Arts will prove more attractive to voters. After all, it's hard to be photographed looking inspirational with a fruit fly. But if we're engaged for a search for our national identity, I would argue that biosecurity is every bit as vital as ballet. Our indigenous biodiversity is unique and a part of what makes New Zealand special. It is every bit as reliant on our biosecurity as the biological industries that ultimately underwrite our export wealth (and hence, the ability to spend up large on orchestras, museums and such like).
But it's not just a matter of throwing money at the portfolio. It's also a matter of tackling some of the structural weaknesses in the system we've created and having a clear grasp of the entire field. There is, to date, no evidence that we're on top of any of these things. Money without a clear strategic view will be money wasted.
I want, tonight, to talk about what lessons can be learned from the experiences of the last 12 or so years' goings on in the New Zealand biosecurity system, and what role the Royal Society might play from here on. In doing that I am drawing on my personal experience for one short year as Biosecurity Minister and a personal interest in the field that has continue to this day.
I don't claim special expertise but I am prepared to accept my share of responsibility for what isn't right with the current system. Biosecurity is too important to become a political football. The Minister can count on my support for taking sensible initiatives but she shouldn't imagine this is simple territory that rhetoric and a few million dollars will fix.
The history of the Biosecurity Act from someone's imagination in the late 1980s to today is not a particularly happy one. It has to be one of the worst executed legislative initiatives I know of. The Ministers of the day (myself included) have to accept their share of responsibility for what eventuated. But to my mind this is a case where the bureaucracy has much to answer for.
What started, sensibly enough, as an overhaul of a raft of out-of-date statutes like the Animals Act and a widening of their scope to securing the border against all bio-invaders, became one battle ground in a much wider upheaval concerning the role of the state and, in particular, the extent to which biosecurity services should be funded by the government or by those who benefited from them. By 1994, MAF was explaining to the world that "legislative action is appropriate only when the benefits of collective action exceed the benefits of individual action" - without explaining how this apparently black and white calculation would, in practice be carried through. It was - and is - an arcane debate and has resulted in some of the most insufferably complex legislation Parliament has ever been asked to pass.
The fault lies in a number of quarters. I don't believe MAF's legal capabilities have been revealed in a good light. But alongside the incomprehension of the State Services Commission (in overseeing endless re-structurings of the agency) and the fiscal myopia of the Treasury in seeking to make it extremely difficult ever to use the powers available under the Act, MAF's shortcomings are at least understandable. We have an Act - and an operational mindset - that gives little space to overall outcomes and vast attention to the apportionment of costs should anyone ever battle through the undergrowth long enough to be able to impose any.
If my phraseology is a bit baroque, it's my way of dealing with frustration that built up over years sitting in cabinet committees listening to sterile debates that seemed to me to add nothing to a system that had to go on working in spite of us all. And it does. The technical people in the front-line have battled on in spite of the turmoil and in spite of the legislation. But there are significant weaknesses and I'd like to comment on a few - in no particular order and without the expertise to be prescriptive about solutions.
1. There seem to be shortcomings in our ability to make strategically shrewd assessments of the long-term risks posed by newly discovered organisms at the same time as we are dealing with them on an emergency response basis. Clearly, we have to take a precautionary approach in terms of our immediate response but my experience of Tussock Moth leaves me asking whether our ability to make reasonably swift risk assessments about the long term consequences are as good as they could be.
2. Closely related to the first point (and maybe a contributor to the problem) is the absence of an agreed approach to dealing with the fiscal consequences of a new incursion. We have to operate a "shoot first, ask questions later" policy for invasions by species we haven't prepared for in advance. We're quite good at the shooting, but the interminable carry-on about answering the fiscal questions is debilitating. Repeated attempts to fund emergency response initiatives by re-prioritising other activities within MAF's (or other agencies') baselines has often compromised long-run capability in a way that has not been properly understood by Ministers. I shall return to this point in the context of the States Services Commission's responsibilities.
3. There is inadequate research to under-write our biosecurity programme - a false economy given the huge sums that must otherwise be spent on a precautionary basis. A (non-exhaustive) list would include -
* Inadequate operational research into front-line research at the border. We need to develop smart new techniques to cope with the rising tide of imported material. There are all sorts of bio-sensing technologies that have applications in the bio-security field. * Inadequate work being carried out in applying the techniques of quantitative ecology to predicting the processes and dynamics of bio-invasions in our particular ecology * Virtually no work on the nature of the risks that our indigenous flora and fauna face from the introduction of new pests and pathogens. While this field could by itself tie up the entire conservation budget, that is not a reason to do next to nothing. DOC should have an on-going programme that works systematically through the most reasonably identifiable areas of risk. * Again, very little work on marine biosecurity risks - and a matching ignorance of even the existence of the things we might be seeking to protect. (This is a big issue for the Fishing and Conservation portfolios)
4. There seems to be no sense of urgency (in terms of a timetable and the commitment of resources needed to achieve it) in assessing particular import pathways that pose risks and little sign that there is a rational basis for prioritising any such work programme. MAF is in danger of having its work programme driven by the political profile of risks rather than their actual seriousness.
To illustrate, take the work on used cars which has focussed on the likelihood of gypsy moth escaping into the New Zealand environment. The probability of a gypsy moth egg mass hatching here on the basis of used car imports has been estimated at one in 140,845. That's about the number of used cars that arrive here each year. Each one is inspected so the risk is small. Debate now focuses on whether it can be lowered further by having biosecurity clearances pushed back to the country of origin.
Compare that with containers, some 360,000 of which arrive here each year. Not much work has been done on the risk assessment front to my knowledge but a one-off survey that looked at all six sides of 3500 containers revealed one such egg mass. Currently, containers - as physical receptacles - are not themselves inspected. All that occurs is a random inspection of 5% of them to check that their contents matches their manifests (which should disclose any risky contents). In the process of this random audit, the interiors of the containers do get checked but as I understand it the exterior surfaces are not targeted. The single survey I have referred to suggests that containers pose a much higher risk than, for instance, used cars. But they haven't taken the lion's share of the Ministry's time.
If I were the Minister I would want a comprehensive analysis of all the identified pathways for bio-invasions together with a rigorous plan for working through them and an estimate of what resources will be required. The process should involve all stakeholders and employ a methodology that has widespread support so we don't end up arguing about simple matters of fact.
At this point we don't have a comprehensive over-view of the relative seriousness of cars & equipment versus containers, wood packaging, dunnage, ballast water and the actual carrier itself (be it a ship or a plane).
5. Given the very significant resource implications of getting a coherent assessment of national biosecurity risk together (let alone on-going surveillance and preparedness for the key known risks), it is important that greater transparency about who pays for this is established. It will never be a popular issue with industry groups, but if they are dealing with an organisation that can be responsive to their needs - and engaged in commissioning some of the research I've outlined above - they might take a more constructive approach to working with the government. With that in mind, the new government's apparently arbitrary decision to ignore the findings of the task force set up to look into creating a single border agency is disappointing. It could have yielded an agency that industry sector groups found easier to work with.
6. There is no clear oversight of our biosecurity needs notwithstanding the good work of the Biosecurity Council that I created. We still don't have a mechanism for stitching together the full spectrum of activity between emergency response and long-term control. There are very few National Pest Management Strategies. The reason usually given for this is that many pests can be better managed at the regional level. That may well be so but it's not at all clear whether that decision is being taken within a national overview or simply because only a part of the country is aware of the risks. My short point is that pests may only pose a serious risk in one part of the country for the time being but there needs to be a way of thinking about how they may in time spread.
7. Finally, we have to ask whether we haven't a deeply user-unfriendly Act. It is very complex and seeking to activate parts of it requires the patience of Job. This is an area of private risk taking which involves public externalities. If enabling people to tackle those externalities is made too onerous, there will be sub-optimal outcomes. I do find it remarkable that, to this day, we don't have a National PMS for our most widely known national pest - the possum. There are all sorts of people who insist that the aims of the bovine TB strategy and DOC's goals for the public conservation estate do not overlap. That may just be an artefact of how little resource DOC has been putting into its estate. But if it increases its control programmes (as the Biodiversity Strategy demands), the potential for overlap will surely grow. It would be a grand irony if the only reason we can't get a coherent national approach to one of our iconic pests is the complexity of the legislative jungle we're created in its way!
Now those are just some observations about a system that, to my mind, is in need of some careful re-appraisal. What I'd like to do is draw some lessons from it as they apply to the government's central agencies and as they apply to the Royal Society.
My personal experience of the Biosecurity portfolio was that, outside of MAF, no-one knew what was really at stake. And that within MAF, expert knowledge was narrowly focussed and unable to contest some of the non-technical debates that sucked the portfolio into their vortex.
The debate over the long-term ownership of the Plant Reference Laboratory sticks in my mind. Any historian who cares to examine the break-up of MAF into the distinct `businesses' it embraced will come across some very interesting briefing papers.
Until the reform process started in earnest MAF had retained within its ranks a large number of staff who were involved not only in the inspection of things agricultural but also doubled as a standing army to operate the emergency response system if something devastating got loose inside New Zealand. I needn't rehearse the details of this - it was a thoroughly routine piece of institutional reform. As usual, it was the boundary lines that proved contentious and in this case the Plant Reference Laboratory became the cause celebre of the restructuring. Was this just any old laboratory whose services could be contracted by MAF or did MAF need to actually own the skills.
The Plant Reference Laboratory is just a bundle of skills. But they're fairly esoteric skills. The key personnel embrace a collection of `-ologies' that enable the laboratory to focus a multi-disciplinary team on unusual, hard to identify organisms that may cross our border. Much of their work will be routine but it is to this same team that the hard problems are referred. And when they are - in the heat of a crisis - everything depends on their ability to bring together the combined institutional memory and expertise of the team to turn hunches into hard evidence.
It goes without saying that the only priority for this team - the biological equivalent of a military early warning system - is the national interest. In a crisis situation they have to drop everything. But even when there isn't a crisis they have to be free to chase up any niggling worries they have. That means their `owner' has to take a very long-term view of their mission - and accept that it may not be easy in advance to price and prioritise their work in a way that secures the flexibility and responsiveness that is needed.
Managing conflicts is, of course, a day-to-day part of business. Anything can be secured by contract if you're prepared to pay a sufficient premium for it. But intuitively, there will come a point when the easiest way to guarantee your ability to direct resources where they need to be deployed to meet an as yet unknown threat is to own those resources, not just have them available as contracted.
This seemed to me the sort of judgement we were called to make with respect to the Plant Reference Lab. We didn't need to own the certification and inspection system that exporters needed. We didn't need the standing army in our employment. But the very specialised set of skills in which you need to be prepared to invest 20 years of effort to give you possibly a two week lead time in extremis seemed to me to be a core public sector responsibility. The stakes were potentially so great we needed in-house skills that could be directed and re-directed at will to meet the unknown.
You can imagine my amazement - and disquiet - when those responsible for the re-structuring process announced, unanimously, that the Plant Reference Laboratory could be as easily privatised as any of the more routine elements of the skill base. I was not overly surprised that the Treasury should come to this conclusion - it always plays a devil's advocate hand on these issues. I was much more surprised that key personnel in MAF seemed indifferent about who owned the laboratory - especially since they had only shortly before argued that the Animal Reference Laboratory should remain publicly owned. They claimed to believe it was an even call and they weren't going to go into the trenches to defend this singular repository of skills.
Given the budgetary pressures - and endless restructuring they had faced - this may have been understandable. But I was truly floored when the State Services Commission trotted out the same advice. I was by that time their Minister and no longer the Biosecurity Minister. But my interest in what actually happens of the ground led me to become more and more uncomfortable with this united front to privatise. My probing of officials did nothing to lessen my concerns. It seemed to me that they were repeating one another's advice without getting to grips with the realities of what guarantees we as ministers would be expected to give to taxpayers if the worst eventuated and a significant, previously undescribed pathogen got loose.
In the end, Mr Luxton and I substituted our judgements for that of the officials. We came to the view that the safest way of being sure we could marshall the skills we needed over time was through ownership. We were happy to let the rest go - they were run-of-the-mill. But the technical heartland, we believed, was best secured through ownership. While contracting could in theory secure the same access to skills, we couldn't ignore the fact that throughout the private sector businesses choose to own core assets rather than lease them simply because ownership secures a different - and more extensive - bundle of rights. It was a bundle we wanted to own because of the risks involved.
I tell this story not because the particular facts are so remarkable - or even because the case was not arguable. It was. I relate it simply because it convinced me that the central agencies - Treasury, SSC and DPMC - don't always have a clear understanding of what it is taxpayers own and why they have come to own it. There's still plenty in Crown ownership that could, in my view, be privatised. But equally, there are agencies whose importance is such that ownership will be the best way of securing the resources the Crown needs at its disposal.
And if you own something, then you have to be prepared to invest in that ownership. It is here that I believe Treasury and the State Services Commission have let us down. They have failed to articulate a clear case for the ownership of anything much which then means they are often poor advisers on the ownership interest.
In my brief time as SSC Minister I tried to re-orient the SSC away from being a grey, rear vision monitor of what had happened in the core state sector to being a smart, pro-active adviser on the health and future capability of those agencies the government had consciously chosen to own and operate itself. I tried to re-balance the extraordinary effort that had gone into controlling the risks associated with the purchase side of the Crown's interests (i.e. the value-for-money or fiscal interest) with equal attention to the ownership interest for which most ministers are also expected to account to taxpayers.
By the ownership interest I mean understanding the ability of core agencies to be able, over time, to amass the skills and intelligence necessary to deliver the sorts of tasks expected of them - their capabilities. Understanding this interest is not a theoretical matter. It's all about what they actually do. When Ministers make difficult spending decisions - as they must - they need to know what impact those decisions will have over time on the ability of the agency in question to deliver.
Without expert advice, Ministers have know idea whether or not a fiscal expedient today will lead to disaster or whether they have merely removed low quality expenditure that added little to the scheme of things. The State Services Commission should be the guardian of the ownership interest: and between it and the Treasury, ministers should be able to reach a fair conclusion of the trade-offs.
That wasn't possible when I was a minister - and I don't believe it is today. Despite briefing the incoming government on this work I have seen no evidence that the issue is even understood. Indeed, by making the Minister of State Services an Associate Finance Minister with specific responsibility for handling budget round bi-laterals, the Prime Minister has ensured that these tensions will be submerged beneath the inevitably fiscal preoccupations of the annual budget round. Indeed, as I understand it, Mr Mallard has left this part of the portfolio to his associate, Margaret Wilson who is, to put it mildly, pre-occupied with other things.
Now you may wonder why I should choose the Royal Society as a forum to say these things? What has this to do with you? The simple answer is that there are very few organisations which can speak authoritatively about skills and capability. If the State Services Commission can't - and nothing led me to place particular confidence in their skills - and the Treasury has a conflict of interest in wanting always to deliver fiscally palatable outcomes short run, who can comment on the Crown's ownership of pockets of technical skill that could be crucial to out national survival?
The answer is no-one in a comprehensive way. But the Society may be able to offer a commentary that gives the community some sense of the risks we run. It would not be an easy task. All organisations are at risk of capture and the more authoritative and respected the institution, the greater the prize if it can be captured. But that is not a reason not to try. This is a very small country with a very shallow skill-base. The Royal Society is one of the few organisations I know of that can pull together the technical knowledge to provide an independent view on whether our arsenal of skills matches the risks we face - or whether our research effort is commensurate to the risks we face.
My gut feeling is that our biosecurity assets are vulnerable. What we have is good, sometimes very good, but it is thinly stretched. The Royal Society would be doing the public a service if it reviewed the research base that contributes to our biosecurity, and the technical capability that exists - particularly within the public sector - to use and apply that knowledge base. There is no right amount to spend. There are just trade-offs. But they should be made judiciously in the light of the best information we can amass. Endless restructuring within MAF and a revolving door of analysts in the central agencies give me little confidence that current ministers are well informed about the risks they are running.
The current Minister may seek to take comfort from my comments. She shouldn't. It is her job to get her mind around a very complex field and insist on answers to the sorts of questions I have raised.
If she does, the Royal Society should be ready to respond. If she doesn't, the Society should be prepared to take up the cudgels on its own account. Either way it's a reason for working scientists to belong to the Society and see that it can play its part in furthering scientific and technical debate important to this country's future.