Sustainable development: Implementing the Programme of Action.


The Sustainable Development for New Zealand: Programme of Action (the Programme of Action) was the Government’s response to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (the World Summit) in Johannesburg. At the World Summit, participating countries agreed to work towards sustainable development goals in areas spanning social, economic, and environmental concerns.

The Programme of Action, published in January 2003, set out 10 sustainable development principles for central government to use in policy development and decision-making, and a programme of action for the four main areas of focus (called workstreams). It also set out how progress towards sustainability would be measured. The four workstreams were Quality and Allocation of Freshwater, Sustainable Cities, Energy, and Investing in Child and Youth Development.

Why we did our audit

In 2002, an international working group of Auditors-General promoted audits of government responses to the World Summit. In our annual plan for 2005/06, we proposed carrying out a performance audit of the Programme of Action.

The Programme of Action sought a different way of working by requiring central government to work more collaboratively on complex issues, to better integrate existing initiatives and to learn from new processes. We saw an opportunity to assess how well the Programme of Action was implemented and also to identify any implications for other complex cross-agency work.

Sustainable development has been on the Government’s agenda for some time. In February 2007, the Prime Minister announced that sustainability was a top priority for the Government and that the Government intended to take a leadership role to contribute to this goal.

The scope of our audit and our expectations

To assess how effectively the Programme of Action had been implemented, we audited how the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) undertook leadership and co-ordination, planning, and evaluation and reporting of the Programme of Action as a whole.

We also audited the leadership, planning, and evaluation by the Ministry of Economic Development for the Energy workstream, and by the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Economic Development for the Sustainable Cities workstream.

We expected to find:

  • effective co-ordination by DPMC, and effective collaboration between DPMC, departments, and other parties such as local government;
  • support for the sustainable development principles;
  • effective planning and implementation of the Programme of Action as a whole and for the two workstreams; and
  • evaluation and reporting of the processes and progress of the Programme of Action as a whole and for the two workstreams.

How we carried out our audit

We talked mainly to staff involved in the Programme of Action’s implementation and reviewed many central and local government documents. We talked to the co-ordinating Minister, current and past senior staff from DPMC, staff from the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Economic Development, and local government representatives in Auckland.

What we found

Collaboration, co-ordination, and support for the sustainable development principles

A Senior Officials Co-ordinating Group under DPMC’s leadership was established for the Programme of Action. The group provided support for the lead chief executives and the co-ordinating Minister, and leadership for the Programme of Action. Cabinet gave the Minister for the Environment a co-ordinating role in overseeing progress on the four workstreams; in practice, DPMC undertook this role.

Departments responsible for the individual workstreams established crossagency steering groups and work teams, which provided co-ordination for each workstream. Officials and stakeholders consistently told us that collaborating and working together on the Programme of Action had contributed to better relationships between the central government departments involved, particularly between central and local government.

DPMC set up a separate initiative, which we termed the Quality Practice initiative, to give policy and information support about the sustainable development principles to the workstream participants. The Quality Practice initiative created opportunities for learning through workshops and forums, and commissioned some local research. Information about the training events, such as seminars with overseas experts and forums to share information about the progress on the workstreams, was placed on an intranet site by DPMC and workstream leaders and shared with workstream participants.

Our views

Collaborative ways of working were a successful feature of the Programme of Action for each workstream and, in particular, in the Auckland Programme (a part of the Sustainable Cities workstream that involved central and local government working together on Auckland urban issues). We were told that working together on the Programme of Action had led to a better understanding by central and local government about what each sector did and how they worked. The experience has supported many subsequent initiatives by central government.

The Programme of Action set out a number of principles for use in policy development and aimed to have this principles-based approach at the core of all government policy. Some methods for using the principles in policy-making were put before the lead agencies’ chief executives, and some research was commissioned but not completed.

We were told that the principles were used to test ideas and projects informally in decision-making on the workstreams, and the shared learning opportunities for the participants contributed to their understanding the Programme of Action. However, few formal methods were used to apply the sustainable development principles.

Workstreams had clear governance structures from the co-ordinating group through the lead chief executive to a Minister. However, in our view, governance for the Programme of Action as a whole was less clear because of a lack of Ministerial meetings, and the number of agencies with responsibility for leadership, co-ordination, and oversight of the workstreams and the Programme.

Effective planning and implementation of the Programme of Action and the Sustainable Cities and Energy workstreams

A three-year programme of new and existing projects was identified for the Sustainable Cities and Energy workstreams, and DPMC retained oversight of the workstreams through the Senior Officials Co-ordinating Group and the roles it undertook in the workstreams. Many of the objectives in both workstreams were achieved by identifying synergies between the Programme of Action’s aims and existing departmental projects. Funding was reallocated within departments to support those initiatives identified as Programme of Action projects.

Cross-agency budgets with a focus on sustainable development were prepared for projects included in the Programme of Action.

The Sustainable Cities workstream included a large number of projects, several of which are ongoing. The work undertaken for the Energy workstream has been included in the subsequent development of a National Energy Strategy.

Our views

Project planning for cross-agency work is complex, but we found a limited number of project plans for the workstreams and limited programme planning that addressed issues such as joint planning and consideration of the resources needed to implement the Programme of Action.

While individual projects had project plans and budgets prepared, in our view, the longer-term aims of the Programme of Action would have been more fully supported by an increased focus on programme planning for the Programme of Action as a whole.

However, in general, the workstreams achieved progress on particular projects during a time of changes to legislation that affected the local government, energy, and transport sectors.

In our view, a high turnover of staff in leadership positions made continuity more difficult.

Evaluation and reporting of the processes and progress of the Programme of Action

DPMC reported to the co-ordinating Minister mostly verbally, and workstreams provided reports to their Ministers. DPMC reported on progress to chief executives, and DPMC and the workstreams reported to each other in regular forums and through a shared intranet site. Workstream leaders took opportunities to provide information on the Programme of Action at a number of conferences and seminars – in particular, during 2003 and 2004. Some workstream reports were available to the public through publications and websites.

During the three years, there was an assessment of processes and progress through a survey of the lead chief executives in 2004 and the preparation of a draft mid-term report.

At the conclusion of the Programme of Action in July 2006, lead departments evaluated the processes, achievements, and outcomes of each workstream, and DPMC commissioned a final evaluation, Implications of the Sustainable Development Programme of Action. This final evaluation includes an overview of the Programme of Action as well as coverage of what the Programme of Action workstreams achieved.

Our views

DPMC and workstream leaders successfully used a number of informal methods to share information and report to each other about the particular challenges of using the sustainable development principles in policy development.

However, publicly available information and reports also support shared learning and public accountability. Neither the draft mid-term report nor the final evaluation report of the Programme of Action was publicly released, and the shared intranet site is no longer active. In our view, both the longterm effectiveness of shared learning for the wider public sector and public accountability would be strengthened by publicly available information and reports on the Programme of Action as a whole.

Implications for cross-agency work

We identified implications for cross-agency work and for projects involving both central and local government within three broad themes: leadership, co-ordination, and governance; project management and planning; and accountability through reporting, monitoring, and evaluation.

Leadership and governance

Leadership requires good governance and clear roles

Leadership of cross-agency work needs suitable governance structures to be established and maintained, clear decision-making processes, and clearly understood roles. This is particularly important when responsibilities are not immediately clear because, for example, there are overlapping responsibilities or different goals for individual agencies. It can be challenging for departments seeking to use partnerships and collaborative processes, and it requires people with skills in working collaboratively. Managers should ensure that these people have time to work on collaboration.

Principles need to be applied with appropriate policy and decision-making methods

Departments applying principles endorsed by the Government should ensure that the principles are defined and understood, agree on how the principles will be applied using suitable policy and decision-making methods, and reflect their commitment to the principles in accountability documents and in any crossagency agreements. Such a principles-based approach to decision-making and policy development offers a more flexible, less prescriptive mechanism for carrying out the activities of the Government, and will readily allow for ”learning by doing” as the principles are applied. However, departments need to establish appropriate methods for the implementation of principles agreed by the Government.

Project management and planning

Long-term initiatives need an integrated management approach

Strong relationships and collaborative processes are important for the success of complex long-term initiatives with multiple projects. These factors need to be supported by effective programme planning that involves agencies and partners, and that ensures integrated decision-making and prioritisation, continued commitment, and resources.

Cross-agency and shared outcomes necessarily require several agencies to be involved and committed to a programme over time, and programme or senior managers need to focus both on the programme as a whole and on individual projects. Planning, including budgeting, needs to take account of short-term, midterm, and long-term objectives.

Cross-agency work presents special challenges for project planning

It is important to allow time in the early stages of programmes or projects for agencies and departments to plan their resource needs. For instance, the timing for preparing Budget estimates should take account of the planning and budgeting cycles of all the agencies and departments involved. This applies to new projects and ongoing planning for existing work programmes.

Accountability through reporting, monitoring, and evaluation

Public information supports capability building and accountability

Public information enables the public and participating agencies to assess progress against programme aims. In addition, publicly available information supports increased capability in the public service by sharing knowledge. This is particularly useful when a programme is seeking changes in the way the public service operates. Sources of this kind of knowledge could come from both informal and formal forums.

Long-term initiatives need ongoing monitoring and evaluation

Many outcomes from cross-agency work will become visible only in the longer term. Ongoing monitoring is important for assessing outcomes, providing information for reporting on results to Ministers and the public, and identifying emerging issues.

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