Sustainable development: Implementing the Programme of Action

Performance audits from 2007: Follow-up report.

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. At the 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. It had four main areas of focus (called workstreams), and 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.

The Programme of Action sought to introduce a different way of working, by requiring central government to work more proactively and collaboratively on complex issues, to better integrate existing initiatives, and to learn from new processes.

The scope of our audit

Our overall aim was to assess how effectively the Programme of Action was being carried out. To do this we audited how the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) carried out leadership and co-ordination, planning, and evaluation and reporting for the whole Programme of Action. We also audited the leadership, planning, and evaluation of the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) for the Energy workstream, and of the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and MED for the Sustainable Cities workstream.

We also saw an opportunity to assess and identify any implications for cross-agency work.

We expected there to be:

  • 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
  • effective evaluation and reporting of the systems and progress of the Programme of Action as a whole and for the two workstreams.

Our findings

Our report did not contain any recommendations, but we did identify implications for cross-agency work within three broad themes:

  • leadership, co-ordination, and governance;
  • project management and planning; and
  • accountability through reporting, monitoring, and evaluation.

Our expectations were mostly met, apart from some aspects of planning and reporting to the public.

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

Working collaboratively was 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).

People we interviewed told us 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. This better understanding had reinforced many subsequent initiatives by central government.

Several sustainable development principles were set out in the Programme of Action for use in policy development. These principles were intended to form the basis of a principles-based approach, one that could be at the core of all government policy.

We were told that the principles were used to informally test ideas and projects during decision-making on the workstreams. In addition, the shared learning opportunities for the participants helped them to better understand the Programme of Action. However, few formal methods were used to apply the sustainable development principles.

Individual workstreams had clear governance structures from the Senior Officials Co-ordinating Group (set up by DPMC), to the lead chief executive, and through to a Minister. However, in our view, governance for the Programme of Action as a whole was less clear. This was because relevant Ministers did not meet, and because of the large number of agencies responsible for leadership, co-ordination, and oversight of the Programme of Action and its workstreams.

Planning and implementation of the Programme of Action and the Sustainable Cities and Energy workstreams

We acknowledge that project planning for cross-agency work is complex. Nevertheless, only a few project plans were produced for the workstreams. There was only limited programme planning that addressed issues such as joint planning, and the amount of resources needed to carry out the Programme of Action as a whole. We considered that 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.

A high turnover of staff in leadership positions made continuity more difficult.

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

Evaluating and reporting on the processes and progress of the Programme of Action

DPMC and workstream leaders successfully used several informal methods to share information and report to each other about particular challenges that arose from using the sustainable development principles in policy development.

However, there was not enough publicly available information to support shared learning and public accountability. For example, neither the draft mid-term report not the final evaluation report of the Programme of Action was publicly released.

The response to our findings

We contacted MED, DPMC, and MfE in October 2008, and asked for their comment on what effect our audit had.

Ministry of Economic Development

MED commented that our findings echoed its own evaluation of its cross-agency work. This was helpful said MED, and suggested that its evaluation was “on the right track”. MED also noted that, because its views were aligned closely with ours, it was not easy to clearly identify specific actions it had taken as a direct response to our audit.

MED is continuing to work with several government agencies on projects such as the New Zealand Energy Strategy and the New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy. The way MED is carrying out this cross-agency work is in line with our report’s suggestions for successful cross-agency interaction – for example, it is providing progress information on its website to support capability building and accountability.

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

DPMC considered that our report made useful comments about initiatives by public entities to foster public sector capability and effectiveness for cross-agency work, and contributed to the complex and challenging field of whole-of-government activity. Since our report was released, DPMC, the State Services Commission, and the Treasury continue to devise ways of working together to raise public sector performance, and ensure that departments are focused on Government priorities and that their efforts are appropriately co-ordinated.

Ministry for the Environment

MfE (like MED) stated that it was difficult to attribute improvements in cross-agency work directly to our performance audit report, but considers there has been a significant shift in how agencies work together since the Programme of Action, and that working co-operatively has required agencies to think more broadly than their own area of responsibility.

MfE believes that our report reinforced the need to create firmer structure and reporting lines at the start of cross-agency projects – so that a stronger mandate for a project’s operating limit is created, and a solid accountability structure is cemented in place, through to the appropriate chief executives and Ministers.

Select committee briefings

We briefed three select committees (Local Government and Environment, Primary Production, and Commerce) on the audit findings. The Commerce Committee, in particular, thanked us for contributing to improvements in cross-agency collaboration.

We are pleased to see that central government agencies are working towards increasing cross-agency collaboration, and are continuing to use whole-of-government approaches to achieve the Government’s broad goals.

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