Part 5: Working with others to manage biodiversity – a summary

Department of Conservation: Prioritising and partnering to manage biodiversity.

In this Part, we discuss how effectively DOC has worked with others to achieve its goals for biodiversity in the regions. We start by setting out the criteria we used to assess DOC's working relationships. We then summarise our assessment of DOC's performance in working with others based on eight case studies.

In the case studies we looked at, DOC's involvement fell into four broad types:

  • ecosystem-based collaboration (Puketi Forest Trust and Kia Wharite);
  • commercial partnerships (pest control at Tiwai Peninsula and the West Coast Wildlife Centre);
  • regional responses to wetlands at risk (Wairarapa Moana Wetland Group and Waituna Lagoon); and
  • regional community-driven strategies (Northland Biodiversity Forum and Southland Biodiversity Forum).

We also set out themes that emerged from our interviews with DOC staff and people in the agencies that work with DOC.

Our overall findings

Working with others to manage biodiversity has been a part of DOC's strategies and policies for achieving biodiversity outcomes for many years. DOC intends to increasingly focus on managing biodiversity through partnerships.

We found examples of partnerships that met all or most of our expectations, were clearly achieving measurable biodiversity outcomes, and were supported by positive working relationships. The partnerships that worked best were structured, including the ecosystem-based and commercial partnerships.

We also found initiatives that DOC was involved in that struggled to show tangible results after years of collaboration – including work associated with wetlands at risk and community-driven initiatives that DOC was supporting.

Stakeholders value DOC as a partner, as a supporting representative on working groups, as a funding agency, and especially for the specialist technical expertise that its staff provide. Stakeholders observed that DOC's working style is changing, which has resulted in improving working relationships in some instances. Some stakeholders indicated that improvements could be made to DOC's processes to help make partnerships more effective.

In our view, DOC's funding criteria and reporting requirements for the Biodiversity Advice Fund could usefully be reviewed for larger multiple-year collaborative projects to improve the outcomes achieved.37 DOC could support improvements in how these projects are set up and operate by providing tools to applicants. We note that DOC has yet to implement recommendations made in an independent review in 2009 of the Biodiversity Advice Fund and other contestable funds that DOC administers (see paragraph 2.19) to improve these funds' performance framework and reporting practices.

Our criteria for assessing DOC's working relationships

Based on DOC's mandate and best practices on collaborative initiatives, we looked for the following characteristics in the partnerships and collaborative initiatives that we reviewed:

  • a shared understanding of the biodiversity risks and the problems that needed to be addressed to remedy the risks;
  • clarity of purpose for the partnership or initiative;
  • some form of implemented working agreement or memorandum of understanding between partners;
  • clearly defined and agreed roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities of the agencies and partners involved;
  • some form of strategy or plan with specific actions to achieve common goals;
  • a clear performance framework, with actions linked to outputs (achievements along the way) that link to outcomes (some tangible outcome for biodiversity species or habitats), with time frames for achieving targets;
  • scheduled reporting (milestones and annual reports) to track progress; and
  • clear systems for reviewing and assessing whether changes or improvements are needed (adaptive management).

We formed a view on whether the working relationships were effective. We also looked for evidence that collaborations or partnerships were achieving their desired outcomes and leading to biodiversity improvements.

Some criteria might not be relevant to all types of collaborative projects or initiatives. However, we consider these criteria to be reasonable where DOC works with major stakeholders as part of operating within its mandate or on more formalised projects or strategies, such as those that we have reviewed for this report (see Part 6).

Summary of our assessment of DOC's performance in working with others

In our view, the effectiveness of DOC's current approach to working with others is variable. A more structured approach would be helpful, especially given that DOC's strategy is to increase its focus on working in partnership with others to achieve its outcomes for biodiversity.

The case studies we selected provide a range of examples of the partnerships and collaborative initiatives on managing biodiversity that DOC has been involved in. These case studies also show the different roles that DOC has in working with other agencies on biodiversity.

For the most part,38 agencies and stakeholders appear to understand the risks to biodiversity in the regions and within specific ecosystems included in our audit work.

In several cases we looked at, working agreements and clearly defined roles and responsibilities and accountabilities were not in place. Many stakeholders and DOC staff indicated that some form of working agreement would improve DOC's effectiveness in working with others.

More structured working plans are needed that specify the overall purpose of the initiative and the actions needed to achieve common goals and that identify responsibilities and milestones to report progress and results against.

The lack of performance measures and reporting needs to be addressed. Cases we reviewed that had not set up performance frameworks (inputs, outputs, and milestone targets, linked to outcomes for the project) also lacked the ability to report on progress and struggled to identify what progress they had made. In a few cases, these groups also struggled to maintain focus and direction over time.

The cases we reviewed show variable performance in reviewing and assessing the partnership or project over time to consider whether changes were needed and to improve effectiveness. The examples that had more formalised working agreements and well-developed action plans tended to also include adaptive management in their approach.

Aspects of partnerships that were working well and areas needing improvement

The commercial partnerships that we reviewed (pest control on Tiwai Peninsula, and the West Coast Wildlife Centre) and the Puketi Forest Trust are collaborative partnerships that met our expectations. More importantly, they showed measurable improvements in biodiversity outcomes. These partnerships were based primarily on positive working relationships.

In our view, the Kia Wharite project is an excellent example of a well-developed collaborative and formal partnership between DOC and Horizons Regional Council and also iwi, landowners, and community groups. The project aims to integrate management practices across the boundaries between conservation land and privately owned land in the region. Its plan includes clearly defined roles and responsibilities, funding responsibilities, and actions linked to targets. Reporting against these is showing positive biodiversity results so far.

Stakeholders value DOC's contribution to setting up and supporting the collaborative Wairarapa Moana Wetland Group. Achievements were recorded in various documents and showed some progress being made.

Given DOC's lead co-ordinating role in the Wairarapa Moana Wetland Group, we expected to see more structure to how progress was monitored and reported against the Action Plan so that outcomes were identified. Stakeholders expressed concern about the lack of a strategic action plan and what measurable biodiversity outcomes had been achieved to date. The new project plan for the Fresh Start for Freshwater Clean-up Fund funding (see paragraph 6.64) should address some of these gaps, if it is integrated into the group's Action Plan and reported against.

Given the various roles that DOC has for the Waituna Lagoon and the critical state of the Lagoon in recent years, we expected to see DOC take a more proactive and targeted approach to working with others to address the threatened state of the Lagoon. More broadly, staff and major stakeholders expressed the need for more formal working arrangements and healthier working relationships between the agencies involved in addressing the risks to the Lagoon.

The Arawai Kākāriki Wetland Restoration Programme, which includes the Waituna Lagoon, has a well-developed implementation plan. Achievements to date are encouraging in some areas. However, the lack of reporting of outcomes on the work in the Waituna catchment area makes it difficult to identify the results achieved for the resources invested. Questions were raised about whether funding had been prioritised appropriately, given the threatened state of the Lagoon.

Locally driven regional working groups have also struggled to achieve tangible biodiversity results over time. These cases showed the value that DOC can provide by advocating for and supporting the development and implementation of better practices for collaborative initiatives, especially given its new business model and community engagement roles. There is also room for DOC to promote and expect (or require) better results through its power as the administrator of different biodiversity funds.

Several case study projects had received funding from the Biodiversity Advice Fund for a number of years. We reviewed some of the project reports to the Biodiversity Advice Fund as part of our work and expected to see clearer results being achieved, especially where projects received funding for the same initiative over several years. In our view, improved reporting requirements and monitoring for larger multiple-year projects might help improve the outcomes achieved.

DOC's varied roles

As a funding agency, DOC has a role in improving the effectiveness of local collaborative groups or initiatives by setting up funding criteria that would encourage more structure to how the local initiatives are set up, operate, and report on outcomes.

As a participant on locally driven collaborative working groups or initiatives, DOC's role could also usefully be to provide support, advice, and tools to improve how these groups are set up, operate, and report on their progress and outcomes.

Part 6 provides details on the case studies we reviewed and our assessments for readers who are interested in more detail.

Recommendation 6
We recommend that, where biodiversity of national significance is at risk and requires timely and integrated responses, the Department of Conservation's national office ensure that effective regional leadership and co-ordination with other agencies is in place to respond to risks appropriately.
Recommendation 7
We recommend that the Department of Conservation produce policies, practices, and tools for preparing working agreements and collaborative action plans that would be appropriate for the range of partnerships it will be involved in.
Recommendation 8
We recommend that the Department of Conservation review the criteria for the Biodiversity Advice Fund for larger multiple-year collaborative projects, advocate for using standardised tools and templates, and set out specific reporting requirements for repeated funding applications.

Themes that emerged during our interviews

We interviewed various stakeholders who work with DOC, as well as DOC staff, to inform our assessment of how effective DOC is in working with others to manage biodiversity. We reviewed the information we gathered and identified themes that arose.

Our audit was conducted when DOC was going through a major change process, which can affect people's views. We acknowledge that these views may change over time as the new business model is implemented and as DOC's transition progresses.

As a part of our audit process, interim findings from our work (including the themes discussed here) were provided to DOC for its consideration and follow up.

Theme 1 – respect for DOC's regional staff

DOC's regional conservancy staff were cited as DOC's strength, highly respected for their technical specialist knowledge and willingness to work with others to address local issues. Representatives of other entities said that they depended on DOC's regional specialist staff. Stakeholders expressed concern about the loss of regional specialist advice and support arising from DOC's restructure and centralising of significant positions. They felt that this would affect the ability of DOC's staff to be effective and responsive.

Feedback about staff in the national office or in management positions was not as favourable. Stakeholders who interact with regional conservancy offices and the national office said that they found DOC's staff at national office to be less "amenable", not as accessible, nor as respectful of local knowledge and relationships. In several instances, they said that this lack of respect for local knowledge and established relationships had had a negative effect on relationships with local iwi. This feedback was echoed by central government stakeholders working with DOC on biodiversity.

Theme 2 – slow and onerous processes

Many stakeholders told us that DOC's processes and responses can often be slow and unnecessarily onerous. Stakeholders believe that this stems from overly bureaucratic processes driven by a risk-averse culture. They commented that this style of work culture is not conducive to DOC's plan to work more with other agencies to achieve biodiversity gains, and noted that DOC needs to find the right balance to work well with others.

Theme 3 – desire for active management of more conservation land

Stakeholders and private landowners expressed concern and frustration that such a small portion of conservation land is actively managed. It results in biodiversity risks when animal and plant pests move between public and private land. DOC's active management of a small proportion of conservation land results in a perception that DOC is not a responsible neighbour, nor does it set a good example of how to manage biodiversity risks effectively.

Theme 4 – new approach to setting priorities might undermine existing projects and relationships

Staff and external stakeholders were concerned about whether the new prioritisation tools will align resources with the interests of community groups and potential partners. People felt uncertain about how any gaps between the new tool's priorities and community interests would be managed. They were also concerned about how existing projects not considered to be priorities in the future might affect existing working relationships and staff's ability to achieve DOC's objective of expanding partnering to manage biodiversity.

Theme 5 – balancing conservation and economic development

Balancing conservation and promoting economic development is confusing to many stakeholders and an uncomfortable, if not at times conflicting, coupling of responsibilities for staff. Some iwi representatives said that they were losing trust in DOC because of this new strategy, as well as because of the loss of regional specialist staff.

Theme 6 – viability of DOC's strategy

Staff and stakeholders questioned the viability of DOC's strategy to increasingly achieve biodiversity gains through community and commercial partnerships, especially in regions with lower socio-economic characteristics or smaller populations to draw from.39 Some questioned whether DOC's working style and staff capacity and capabilities might be obstacles to the success of this new strategy.

Feedback from our audit interviews showed that stakeholders have observed that, recently, DOC's working style appears to be shifting. This is having a positive effect on some of DOC's working relationships. Some stakeholders questioned whether the improvements were based on personnel changes rather than organisational changes. However, it is clear that DOC needs to consider how to build on the positive shift that is being observed and continue to adjust its operational practices and the way it works with others, especially with its increasing dependence on working with partners to manage biodiversity.

37: The Biodiversity Advice Fund is funded from DOC's appropriation for NZ Biodiversity Funds (see paragraph 2.22).

38: The exception was on the West Coast, where DOC and the West Coast Regional Council have been in the Environment Court for years over the definition of wetlands and what needs to be protected. There is also some disagreement between DOC and farmers in the Waituna catchment.

39: For example, Northland and Wairarapa.

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