18 Oct 2022

Concern over value for money of govt's $2b annual spend on environment

6:00 pm on 18 October 2022

There is no reliable data to know how much water is being taken from lakes, rivers and aquifers, Simon Upton says. Photo:

The government is avoiding proper scrutiny for its environmental spending because information is hard to get and filled with gaps, a new report says.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, has released a report on the country's environmental reporting, research and investment.

It has found there was no clear way to know if the country was making progress.

The government spends over $2 billion each year on the environment, but how much of a difference that money has been making is unclear.

Links between data, research and money thrown at environmental problems were thin, lacking transparency and governed by short-termism, the report concluded.

Simon Upton

Simon Upton Photo: [https://www.flickr.com/photos/eu2017ee/35725837402flickr]

Government agencies were focused on measuring performance by output, rather than actual outcomes, which the report said was a shortcoming which made it difficult for Parliament and the public to hold the government to account.

"There is a maze of strategies, all sorts of agency-level initiatives and virtually no systematic way to evaluate whether we're making a difference," Upton said in the report.

It found environmental data was fragmented, relying on contributions from different organisations for different purposes and using different methodologies.

One of the key difficulties in current reporting was that environmental problems often lacked a simple link between cause and effect or, in some cases, there was a complete lack of data.

"For a country that is so heavily reliant on the biophysical world to make a living, it is remarkable what we do not know," Upton said.

For example, there was no reliable data to know how much water was being taken from rivers, lakes, and aquifers.

The poor data made it hard for MPs and the public to identify any failings.

"[MPs] should be able to hold a government to account to say, 'look you've been talking about biodiversity for yonks, all of these programmes go on year in and year out, are we making progress?'" Upton said.

"That is the question we need better answers on."

Recommendations to government

The government needed to be focused on the end goal for work on environmental issues - not just what it was spending on them, Upton said.

Those outcomes needed to be clearly stated to ensure accountability by both Parliament and the public.

Upton said more investment was needed for research and to clearly state what issues were being prioritised.

The commissioner said a lot of raw material existed but it was poorly collated or labelled.

All government agencies needed to specifically detail:

  • All the environmental outcomes each agency was contributing to
  • How much that was costing
  • And what each agency was contributing to those outcomes

NIWA scientists want more action

NIWA chief scientist - freshwater Dr Scott Larned and NIWA emeritus scientist Dr Clive Howard-Williams agreed with the commissioner but had more recommendations.

They said for environmental degradation in Aotearoa to be reversed, three things needed to be done better:

  • Monitor the various pressures that caused environment degradation
  • Use monitoring data to rigorously link pressures to degradation, in order to target management actions Predict the effects of pressures, management actions and policy options in advance

The two scientists said there was an "urgent need" to expand the range of environmental monitoring across the country to include the likely causes of environmental degradation, such as land use activities, wastewater discharge, water abstraction and diversion, commercial and recreational fishing, and many other pressures caused by humans.

Aaron Pannell, Marlborough Oysters operation

An oyster operation in Marlborough (file image). Photo: Aaron Pannell

Concern over unclear outcomes

Auditor General John Ryan welcomed the report, saying it reinforced the need for effective public accountability.

He said he was concerned that it was often unclear what outcomes were being sought by governments, how that translated to spending, and ultimately what was being achieved with public money.

"The report's messages are important. We need to understand how government decisions relate to the long-term environmental outcomes they are pursuing. But the links between good information, research, and spending are too often tenuous, lack transparency, and focused on the short term" he said.

He said a comprehensive review was needed.

"This will help the public sector maintain an informed, trusting, and enduring connection with the public they ultimately are there to serve. An outcome I think we would all support."

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