Part 3: What themes will we explore?

Introducing our work programme - Water management.
He waka eke noa

There are many strongly held and often conflicting opinions about how water resources should be managed. Water is also a broad topic, with many angles, issues, and risks that we could look into. The topics we have chosen – drinking water, freshwater, stormwater, and the marine environment – will enable us to explore themes that fall within our mandate and areas of expertise:

The role of information in water management

Overall, the community expects its water management and services to be effective, efficient, collaborative, democratically controlled, and oriented toward serving the national interest.
Governance of Water: A proposal from the Turnbull Group, 2009, page 5

Good management and use of information is essential to providing effective and efficient public services. Information held by organisations can be used to improve service delivery, to support evidence-based policy development and decision-making, and to accurately measure performance and effectiveness.

Having good information is critical for managing risk, for making decisions about what to invest in, to make the costs and benefits of policy choices and trade-offs explicit, and to enable accurate and timely performance reporting. Good information depends on collecting the right data (and determining the right data to collect), which in turn depends on having the right questions to answer.

There are gaps in the understanding of New Zealand's water resources, including the health of those resources and what is having an adverse effect on them. For example, the report Our fresh water 201712 has identified gaps in New Zealand's understanding of freshwater resources. The report Our Marine Environment 2016, also published under the Environmental Reporting Act 2015, included similar findings about gaps in national data about the marine environment.

Similarly, local authorities have variable understanding of the three waters assets.

There are good examples of progress in filling these gaps – for example, the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) website displays water quality data collected by regional councils at more than 1100 sites throughout New Zealand. LAWA is a collaborative effort between regional councils, the Cawthron Institute (an independent science organisation), and the Ministry for the Environment, with support from Massey University and the Tindall Foundation.

We are interested in understanding how organisations are using information to identify risk, prioritise activities, make investment decisions, and monitor and report on performance in water management.

Innovation and good practice

We are interested in identifying where innovative approaches are used to address water management challenges and the activities of organisations that are considered to be examples of good practice. For example, we might see:

  • useful non-regulatory and cost-effective approaches; and
  • practical actions that are making a positive difference to how water resources are managed.

Balancing competing interests and priorities

Our water work will consider how organisations make decisions to balance competing interests and priorities.

Both central and local government must balance competing interests when setting strategies and policy, developing regulation, and in deciding how best to implement those strategies, policies, and regulations. They must strike a balance between protecting and preserving resources and meeting the needs of current and future generations – the recently enacted "swimmability" targets are an example of this aim.

There is no single organisation accountable for managing water in New Zealand. Striking a balance is particularly challenging when roles and responsibilities are spread between organisations and each organisation has its own statutory mandate.

Making decisions about investment

Organisations have important decisions to make about how they will use ratepayer and taxpayer funds in managing water resources and delivering three waters services.

In a 2014 report, we noted:

Making good choices about where we spend our scarce resources is critical to ensuring that the public sector delivers the right services. Prioritising is vital in making good choices.13

Increasing regulatory standards, changing demographics and community expectations, climate change, and affordability issues are some of the matters that organisations need to consider when deciding what to invest in, where, and when.

Organisations will often need to make trade-offs when making investment decisions and need to consider when best to invest. Councils make their investment decisions in consultation with their communities through the long-term planning process under the Local Government Act 2002.

Parliament and the public expect to see a return on the investment made – whether that be improvements in freshwater quality, protecting people from flooding, or making sure that towns and cities have the infrastructure needed to support a growing population.

We are interested in how organisations make their investment decisions and consider the benefits from that investment – for example, what information do they use, how do they juggle different priorities, how do they communicate the issues, choices, and implications of a proposed investment, and how do they measure the return from their investment?

How organisations work together and with others

Organisations in both central and local government play critical roles as policy makers and regulators in managing water and delivering water-related services. There are many examples of organisations working collaboratively in carrying out these roles.

We made the following observation in a 2017 report:

The way central and local government work together to consider the challenges and make decisions is likely to become more rather than less important. Local authorities will need to not only engage effectively with their communities but also with central government about the options, costs, and associated trade-offs.14

Our work will consider how organisations are engaging with each other and their communities (including iwi/hapū) in setting strategic priorities and making investment decisions regarding water management, how they are working together in carrying out their roles and responsibilities and in delivering programmes of work, and what regulatory and non-regulatory approaches they are using.

Working with iwi/Māori

Our wai (water) is an inseparable part of our whakapapa and our identity, and is a fundamental part of what drives our very existence. The future health and wellbeing of our waters are a matter of utmost importance to all iwi, as well as all New Zealanders.
Iwi Chairs Forum, Freshwater kaupapa

Many organisations have obligations under legislation to consider the Crown/Māori relationship under the Treaty of Waitangi when carrying out their water management roles and responsibilities.

As well as these statutory obligations, some Treaty settlements include co-management and co-governance arrangements between iwi/Māori and other organisations – for example, the Waikato-Tainui settlement and the Te Arawa Lakes settlement. There are likely to be more co-management and co-governance arrangements in the future.

How organisations give effect to the relationship with iwi/Māori will vary according to the legislative requirements, the existing relationship between iwi and the organisation, the issues they are managing, and the broader community context.

We will explore how well organisations are meeting their obligations as they carry out their water management roles and responsibilities.

Capacity and capability to address the challenges

We will consider the public sector's capacity and capability to address water management challenges, and what actions are being taken to address any gaps and barriers.

We plan to assess:

  • Whether the local government sector has the resources and tools it needs to meet regulatory requirements set by central government – are organisations able to effectively and efficiently carry out their water management and service delivery roles and responsibilities?
  • The role that central government plays in supporting local government in managing water and delivering three waters services – for example, through regulatory and non-regulatory measures, guidance on implementing government policy, provision of funding, and research.

12: Published by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand under the Environmental Reporting Act 2015.

13: Office of the Auditor-General (2014), Reflections from our audits: Our future needs – is the public sector ready?, Wellington, paragraph 3.4.

14: Office of the Auditor-General (2017), Reflections from our audits: Investment and asset management, Wellington, page 18.