21 May 2020

Civil Aviation Authority apologises for 'pockets of poor culture'

6:09 pm on 21 May 2020

A damning ministerial review into the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) released today reveals a toxic culture of bullying and harassment.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford announcing the NZTA review recommendations 9 October 2019

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The review has found complaints about bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, were badly handled, with complainants accused of pursuing personal agendas at the expense of the CAA's reputation.

The reviewers carried out over 120 confidential interviews with past and present staff members, managers, board members and stakeholders.

While they did not find a deliberate and tolerated culture of bullying and harassment at the CAA, they said bad behaviour was able to occur because of leadership's failures to identify and address issues like bullying and sexual harassment.

An "old boy's club" is how one former CAA inspector described the culture to RNZ.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford, who asked for the resignation of the previous board chair Nigel Gould last August, ordered the review the following month.

He said he found it "disappointing" to read the extent to which a failure of consistent and effective leadership created a poor working environment.

"That's not good enough in the modern world for a public service organisation. Any organisation needs to provide a positive, safe, healthy organisation for their staff."

However, Twyford said he had confidence in the new leadership at CAA, which had accepted all the review's findings.

Despite the CAA's problems, he did not have any worries about safety in the aviation industry itself.

"New Zealanders can have great confidence in our aviation safety regulatory programme and aviation is very very safe in New Zealand.

"But this report is about quite a different thing: it's about organisation culture and how people are treated at work."

The review also highlights the high level of "cynicism and distrust" among staff toward senior management, the "personality politics" and the acrimonious relationship between the CAA and the Aviation Security Service, Avsec.

The Public Service Association represents workers at both agencies.

National secretary Glenn Barclay said progress had only been made thanks to the bravery and determination of whistleblowers "who chose to stick their necks out".

"It's about a culture of fear, people feeling worried about speaking up, people having negative views expressed of them, and pockets of staff who didn't know how to treat women with dignity and respect."

Changing the culture would not be a quick fix, he warned.

The authority said it was taking the findings on board.

Chair Janice Fredric has apologised to all staff.

"There will be zero tolerance of poor behaviour, the acting chief executive is in no doubt about that and she in turn has made that very clear to the staff.

"So there will be nobody there in any doubt as to the expectations."

Fredric said no-one had lost their job as the result of the review, which was not intended to blame any individuals.

However, the uncertainty generated by the time it had taken to complete the review - and a drawn-out restructuring process at the same time - may have resulted in "good people" leaving, she conceded.

"But there are skilled and capable people on the CAA staff at the moment and they are passionate and committed to aviation security in New Zealand, and the reviewers were at pains to point that out."

Fredric said the board fully accepts the review findings and will work with management, staff and the unions to implement all the recommendations.

A separate inquiry led by independent QCs into bullying and harassment at Avsec specifically is expected to be conclude next month.