Part 3: New approaches to using information about biodiversity to prioritise work

Department of Conservation: Prioritising and partnering to manage biodiversity.

In this Part, we discuss how well DOC gathers and uses information on biodiversity to target its resources towards maintaining and restoring biodiversity. We review some of DOC's more recent tools and systems for targeting resources.

We discuss how DOC uses information to:

We expected that DOC would use the information it gathers on biodiversity to prioritise resources effectively to achieve its outcomes for biodiversity, and use monitoring information to adapt and improve its effectiveness over time.

Summary of our findings

DOC's ability to monitor the effectiveness of its work on biodiversity and its new prioritisation approach will require better data than DOC currently has. DOC has identified what information it needs and has begun to collect it. The first complete set of information for the state of biodiversity on conservation land is expected to be available in 2016/17. Trend information will follow in five-yearly increments to show changes over time.

Measurement of the effectiveness of interventions needs to be progressively implemented through monitoring a selection of optimised ecosystems or species projects (see paragraphs 3.19-3.21). In our view, DOC needs to make a long-term commitment to collect monitoring information to achieve a view of the effect of interventions on biodiversity health over time and to gain a better understanding of how effective its programmes are.

We see vulnerabilities in implementing the new prioritisation approach and how it may affect DOC's relationships with major partners. DOC still has a significant amount of work ahead to manage and adapt while its new tools and systems are implemented and new biodiversity information is collected.

Assessing the health of species and ecosystems

DOC does not have adequate state and trend information to measure the overall condition of biodiversity. DOC has worked to address shortcomings in how it collects and uses information.

A challenge in managing biodiversity is protecting individual species and their ecosystems. The challenge for New Zealand is that resources for addressing the threats to biodiversity are limited. DOC's response to this challenge has been to prepare new prioritisation tools.

DOC's work includes projects that focus on specific species as well as projects for ecosystems and the species that live within them. DOC is working to further integrate its work in these two areas. In Part 6, we discuss case studies that include examples of DOC's work involving species (for example, the West Coast Wildlife Centre kiwi husbandry operation), as well as ecosystem-based projects (for example, the Puketi Forest Trust, and the Kia Wharite Project in the Whanganui River catchment).

DOC assesses biodiversity threat and status by considering the current state as well as the trend of a species or an ecosystem. DOC has information on the state and trends of many species, but it does not currently have the information it needs to assess the state and trends of a representative set of ecosystems, although it is building this information base. This information is important to monitor the results of managing threats to protect biodiversity.


DOC has good information and an established system for identifying risks to particular species. The system used to identify the risk of extinction to species is the Threatened Species Classification System. Based on the population size (number of birds, fish, or plants in each category) and population trend (increasing or decreasing over time) of various species, each is ranked as threatened, at risk, or not threatened. DOC relies on this system to inform priority programmes of biodiversity work, including work to conserve a particular plant or animal, habitat, or whole ecosystem. However, there are still many species on which there is not enough data to judge their status. DOC is slowly working to gather this data.


Documents that we reviewed indicated that the significant threats to biodiversity are well understood. On conservation land, pest control is the "single biggest determinant of ecosystem health and of biodiversity loss or gain".28 On other land, changes in land use affect some ecosystems. In particular, threatened lowland ecosystems tend to be located in high-value, productive pastoral areas, which are difficult and/or expensive to acquire and therefore under-represented in terms of protection.29

DOC has started to measure the health of ecosystems on conservation land and freshwater catchments under the Ecological Integrity Framework. DOC plans to measure more than 1300 sites on conservation land and waterways and is working with local authorities to set up monitoring sites on other lands. Measuring the healthy functioning state of ecosystems is tied to DOC's core concept of "ecological integrity". There are three aspects to a healthy functioning state:

  • Species occupancy (to avoid extinctions) – are the species present what you would expect naturally?
  • Indigenous dominance (to maintain natural ecological processes) – are the ecological processes natural?
  • Ecosystem representation (to maintain a full range of ecosystems) – are the full range of ecosystems protected?30

Biodiversity can be analysed within this framework because it is a central part of ecological health.

DOC will collect information for each of the three aspects on a five-year rotating basis, beginning in 2011/12. The information includes, for example, measuring how much land is covered by native plants, whether the ecosystem has been damaged by fire, the number and abundance of species present within monitoring plots, and how many species remain threatened. However, several of the required indicators are not yet available. The information available to guide DOC's management of biodiversity will improve over time as more baseline measures are collected, additional measures are developed, and trends are identified.

Prioritising work to manage species and ecosystems

DOC has developed a national approach and tools for prioritising its work. The approach is intended to strategically allocate resources so that more species and ecosystems can be protected. DOC also has a new tool intended to provide a more consistent approach to deciding which Resource Management Act issues DOC will become involved in. These prioritisation tools are not fully implemented so we cannot comment on their effectiveness.

DOC recognised that it needed to improve the information it gathers on the state and trends of biodiversity (species and ecosystems) and also the need to be more strategic in how it uses the resources it has for managing biodiversity.

DOC has prepared new information-gathering systems as well as new species optimisation31 and ecosystem prioritisation tools. The aim is to increase the number of threatened species and the number and range of ecosystems that DOC actively manages. We also discuss DOC's new prioritisation tool for the work it does in advising local authorities on Resource Management Act matters.

Using information on biodiversity to prioritise work to manage species and ecosystems

DOC's new prioritisation tools will model the costs and benefits of managing a particular species or ecosystem and aim to maximise or "optimise" the benefits within a budget. The prioritisation tools draw on a range of information, including biodiversity risk, expert opinion on how to respond to the risk, and judgements about biodiversity values and national priorities.

Currently, about 2800 indigenous species are threatened. DOC has been actively managing about 200 of these species and is planning to increase this to 300 threatened species in the next four years (see Figure 3). DOC has recognised that the ecosystems it manages are not representative enough and is trying to improve the breadth of ecosystems that are protected. To do this, DOC has started focusing its work on what it calls "prioritised management units". Each unit contains a cluster of ecosystems. DOC plans to manage 400 such units in the next four years.


DOC is gradually implementing its tool for optimising species management. As a result, the number of species being managed has increased. In 2011/12, 50 prescriptions (plans for managing a species) from the optimised list were implemented. Of these, 20 were for species already being managed and 30 species began to be managed.


DOC is also moving towards an identified set of priority ecosystems, which should enable it to better target its limited resources to greater effect. In November 2011, preliminary priority ecosystems lists were generated to provide guidance for DOC's operational planning. However, DOC staff recommended that these lists be updated with better information. As a result, DOC has not yet implemented prioritisation for ecosystem work but plans to do so in 2012/13.

DOC has provided details on its targets for managing new ecosystems and species based on its prioritising system (see Figure 3).

Figure 3
The Department of Conservation's targets for protecting more species and ecosystems

Year From the prioritised
ecosystems list
Total From the optimised
species list
2011/12 Not yet available 50 species 50
2012/13 Top 100 ecosystems

Additional 50 from the top 200 ecosystems
150 50 species

Additional 50 from the top 200 species
2013/14 150 ecosystems

Additional 75 from the top 300 ecosystems
225 100 species

Additional 50 from the top 200 species
2014/15 225 ecosystems

Additional 75 from the top 350 ecosystems
300 150 species

Additional 75 species
2015/16 300 ecosystems

Additional 100 from the top 400 ecosystems
400 225 species

Additional 75 species
Target 400 300

In future years, DOC plans to align its species and ecosystem prioritisation. DOC told us that it is likely that some threatened species will live within the prioritised ecosystems and will, therefore, be managed within them.

An independent specialist on biodiversity has reviewed the prioritisation tools and considers them to be technically sound and consistent with DOC's goal of increasing the number of threatened species it is able to protect.32 Using a national set of priority ecosystems and species as a decision-making tool is intended to improve the co-ordination and alignment of DOC's work.

Although DOC recognises that future funding constraints are a challenge, it is confident that the targets set out in Figure 3 are achievable. DOC has emphasised that it intends to implement the new programme of work at a pace the organisation can adapt to. In our view, DOC's phased implementation is prudent.

Challenges in implementing the new approach to planning work

Because the prioritisation and optimisation tools are not yet fully implemented, we cannot comment on their effectiveness. The tools appear to be technically sound, but their effectiveness will depend on how successfully they are implemented. Our audit has highlighted that there are several risks to implementation.

Risks to relationships with existing partners and staff morale

Although DOC has been communicating with stakeholders, and training staff, staff told us that they had concerns about the effects of the new approach on programmes of work and existing partnerships. Stakeholders, particularly at local authorities, expressed concerns about DOC withdrawing from established projects at short notice. DOC acknowledges that:

... any existing work that is not able to be aligned with the optimised work programme will become apparent as the programme is implemented, and will need to be stopped, unless another party is willing to pick up the work.33

In our view, the potential tension between DOC stopping work on some historical projects that involve partnerships while it attempts to increase the proportion of resources for managing biodiversity from existing and new partners is a risk that needs to be actively managed.

Also, it appears that DOC staff's lack of understanding about optimisation, and their beliefs about its potential implications for the work that they carry out, is lowering morale and might affect how well staff support the implementation of the optimisation tool.

Risks to value for money

Most biodiversity management programmes in the regions require years, if not decades, of investment. Changes to the plans for these programmes, before their goals are achieved, can result in a waste of resources. For example, pest management must be maintained otherwise pests will quickly multiply and negate previous progress on controlling their numbers. Therefore, there are risks to achieving value for money (or a return on investment) if prioritisation criteria or the resulting work plans are changed once under way.

Staff in local authorities who work with DOC have raised concerns that a longer-term commitment of resources for core biodiversity work has been lacking (see paragraph 4.15). More recently, some of DOC's current partners on biodiversity projects have expressed concern that the prioritisation tools may put some historical work at risk and result in wasted resources. We consider that the way DOC implements its new prioritisation tools poses a risk to existing partnerships and the successful achievement of biodiversity outcomes.

Staff skills and capabilities

It is unclear whether DOC's staff have the skills and capabilities to implement the new prioritisation tools in the context of the partnership model, which is a risk. As part of a review of DOC's capital intentions for 2012, the Treasury also noted the need to lift the capability of DOC's staff. DOC will need to ensure that staff understand the prioritisation tools, know how to interpret prioritised lists, have the capabilities and skills to use this information in a range of contexts, and are able to negotiate changes with existing partners.

In our view, DOC needs to prepare a well-developed implementation and risk management plan. DOC also needs to support regional conservancy staff to operate effectively under its new business model and using the new prioritisation tools.

New tool for prioritising Resource Management Act advisory work

As well as actively managing species and ecosystems, DOC works, under the Resource Management Act, on matters affecting biodiversity off the public conservation estate. This includes providing advice, advocacy, and support to local authorities on plans, policies, and resource consent applications.

Historically, DOC staff have had little guidance on how to prioritise advisory work under the Resource Management Act. The need for DOC's new tool for prioritising this work arose from DOC's organisational review, subsequent changes to its operational structure, and budget pressures.

We reviewed the new prioritisation tool, its criteria, and examples of how it is intended to work. We expected to find that DOC would use the information it has on the condition of species and ecosystems as well as other criteria to help prioritise issues related to biodiversity.

How the prioritisation tool works

The prioritisation tool indicates that, where DOC's services are discretionary under the Resource Management Act, those services should meet at least one of seven criteria to be considered for DOC's involvement. The criteria include some biodiversity considerations, including whether the work involves sites that have a high biodiversity value (and threatened or rare) or included in the Natural Heritage Management System. If one of the criteria were met, then the Resource Management Act request would be assessed in more detail.

However, in the cases we reviewed, it was not clear to us how the various criteria were weighted at the next level of assessment, and biodiversity information did not seem to be critical for prioritisation to be decided. In the examples we reviewed, decisions were made without confirming the condition of biodiversity values that could be affected. It is also unclear how the tool would result in more consistent decision-making when there is no weighting of criteria to guide staff about how to decide what would be a priority.

The design and intended implementation of a Resource Management Act prioritisation tool appear to be facing several of the same challenges as the ecosystem and species prioritising tools. For example, staff in the regions were unclear whether these tools were intended to be used to make definitive decisions or as decision-support tools with some discretion left to staff.

DOC's staff in the regions and local authority staff agree that DOC needs to be more strategic in how it decides which Resource Management Act matters to be involved in. However, there was a degree of concern about DOC decreasing its involvement in Resource Management Act matters because stakeholders see DOC as the only agency with specialist expertise on biodiversity and with the mandate for conservation.

Monitoring progress and measuring effectiveness

DOC is in a weak position to assess progress in terms of national biodiversity goals. The development of ecological integrity indicators and their collection should improve DOC's monitoring by providing a nationally representative set of indicators. However, it will be years before DOC has impact measurement data available to assess its effectiveness.

DOC needed, and now has, an improved performance framework, but it still needs to improve its performance measures and reporting practices at the programme and operational levels. Once DOC does this, it will be better able to identify the effectiveness of its work on managing biodiversity, learn from that, and adapt its approaches accordingly. We would expect that DOC uses the information it gathers to prioritise its resources as well as to assess its effectiveness and determine how to improve the way it works in meeting its outcomes for biodiversity.

DOC has not been monitoring its progress toward national biodiversity goals effectively. Biodiversity management requires a long-term investment, and decisions must be supported and carried through over many years. In the past, monitoring of results has been based on specific project- or species-level results. However, there is a need to monitor the effect that DOC, and its strategic approach to management, is having on biodiversity at a broader level.

Multiple reports since 2005 have validated DOC's core conservation work, but these reports also noted that DOC was in a weak position to assess progress on national biodiversity. The most significant gaps have been in environmental performance measures, nationally representative data, and integrated data.

DOC has identified a more purposeful approach to data collection for its managed sites. The Natural Heritage Management System includes features designed to remedy the shortfalls noted in paragraph 3.42.

The development of ecological integrity indicators and their implementation through the Natural Heritage Management System should improve DOC's monitoring. However, only one year of the first five-year cycle has been collected, and it will take four more years to have a complete set of representative biodiversity information about the baseline condition of the monitored sites. Trend data will be available when successive cycles are completed.

Monitoring the effectiveness of projects will occur as the optimised projects are implemented. Although the data will be collected and output achievements identified each year, it will be years before DOC has enough measurement data to assess its effectiveness.

The Natural Heritage Management System appears to be well positioned to meet DOC's information needs in the future. External expert review has validated its main features, including indicators of ecological integrity. However, we expected to see a programme of work that would use this data for evaluations or impact assessments to identify progress and demonstrate performance in the interim. We did not find this.

There is a risk associated with the long time required to see the results of the new data collection system. Much like the investment in biodiversity management, too much change to the data monitoring plan will result in wasting earlier investments. The system will not be able to establish trends and effects unless data is consistently collected for adequate periods of time.

Recommendation 1
We recommend that the Department of Conservation put in place an implementation and risk management plan for its new prioritisation tools, ensuring that:
  • staff have the skills and support needed to successfully use the new prioritisation processes; and
  • there is adequate ongoing consultation with communities and key stakeholders and partners as part of prioritisation.
Recommendation 2
We recommend that the Department of Conservation ensure that there is effective long-term monitoring and reporting of the effects of biodiversity management, including through the Ministry for the Environment's national environmental reporting.

28: Briefing to the incoming Minister of Conservation (2011), pages 5-7.

29: New Zealand's Fourth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (2009), pages 5, 12, 15, 19, 20, 23, and 26.

30: Department of Conservation (2011), Statement of Intent 2011-2014, Wellington, page 18.

31: The academic papers describing this process use the term "species optimisation".

32: We contracted Professor David Norton to provide independent technical advice on DOC's biodiversity monitoring and prioritising systems.

33: Department of Conservation (2012), Statement of Intent 2012-2017, Wellington, page 16.

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