Auditor-General's overview

Commentary on Te Tai Waiora: Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā karangarangatanga maha o te motu, tēnā koutou.

Many of the challenges that New Zealanders face are complex, far-reaching, and can span generations. To manage and account for the implications of these challenges, the public sector cannot just rely on information about what individual public organisations have done in the past or are doing today.

This is why I have taken a close interest in a suite of public sector "stewardship reports". Stewardship reports provide information that helps the government to act as a long-term steward of the public interest. The reports should also strengthen the public's trust and confidence in the government's actions.

The Treasury produces various stewardship reports on a regular basis on topics such as future challenges and opportunities to the government's long-term financial position and how the government's most significant assets and liabilities might change in the future.

In 2020, an amendment was made to the Public Finance Act 1989. This amendment is intended to build a broader understanding of New Zealand's well-being and help increase the use of well-being information throughout the government. The amendment introduced a requirement for well-being objectives to be incorporated into annual Budget processes. It also required the Treasury to report on the state of New Zealand's well-being at least once every four years.

In late 2022, the Treasury published its first report on the state of New Zealand's well-being, Te Tai Waiora: Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand (Te Tai Waiora). This report adds to the Treasury's existing set of stewardship reports.

Producing a report on the well-being of a nation is not an easy task, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. In that context, Te Tai Waiora provides a large and well-considered collection of information and analysis about the state of New Zealand's well-being and the risks to its sustainability.

In my view, the Treasury has delivered on what it set out to do and Te Tai Waiora fulfils its legislative requirements. This includes exploring what is important to Māori through a Māori well-being framework (He Ara Waiora).

All this information is important in supporting an explanation of well-being. However, as a stewardship report, Te Tai Waiora will only reach its full potential if it is widely understood, discussed, and used.

The Treasury told my staff that Te Tai Waiora has been used to improve its internal capability and knowledge about well-being. The report has also been used to inform the government's annual Budget processes and other policy decisions. All of this is consistent with the Treasury's in-depth analytical approach to Te Tai Waiora.

However, there is less indication of Te Tai Waiora starting wider discussions or debate about New Zealand's well-being. After reading the report, I am left with questions about what all the technical information means for New Zealanders and how the report can be used more widely to improve their understanding of well-being and their trust in the government's stewardship of well-being.

The Treasury consulted with many experts from the public and private sectors. However, preparing a report about New Zealand's well-being is also an opportunity to build closer connections with New Zealanders, develop a wider understanding of what matters to New Zealanders, counter misinformation, demonstrate public accountability, and strengthen trust and confidence in the public sector.

In my view, the Treasury has the opportunity to realise this potential. Doing so would improve the report's explanation of what matters most to people and result in a richer picture of New Zealand's well-being. It would also give the public an opportunity to meaningfully engage with the report's analysis and insights in a way that could inform future public policy.

Although the purpose of reporting may differ in some respects, the Treasury could learn from other countries that report on well-being. We found that other countries use a wider public engagement process during and after the report's preparation. Involving the public more could include engaging people from all walks of life through in-person groups or online platforms, as other countries have done.

The Treasury's stewardship reports have the potential to engage New Zealanders in a wider discussion about what matters to them and to government, today and in the future. For Te Tai Waiora, involving New Zealanders could add some real-life perspectives to support the Treasury's own explanation and analysis of well-being. It could also mean that public organisations have access to a richer and more relevant set of information to help them consider well-being outcomes over the longer term and plan for them.

The Treasury is likely to publish a second well-being report in 2026. The Treasury told us that it may decide to use a broader engagement and collaborative process. If this happens, it will be a positive step. Although any commentary from my Office on future well-being reports will be a matter for my successor to determine, there are changes that I suggest the Treasury consider for future reports:

  • Take a broader perspective on well-being that is informed through conversations with the public, community groups, and iwi, hapū, and whānau Māori, including a wider and more aligned engagement process for the Treasury's Living Standards Framework, the He Ara Waiora framework, and the well-being report.
  • Use more accessible language and helpful channels of communication, such as easy-to-read reports, summaries, and/or regional breakdowns.
  • Explain how the information in the well-being report relates to and complements other relevant stewardship reports and recognised national well-being reporting, such as the reporting on sustainable development goals and Statistics New Zealand's reporting.
  • Highlight how previous well-being reports have affected policy decisions throughout the public sector.

I thank the Treasury for its assistance. Preparing this first well-being report is a significant achievement and I look forward to future reports building on the potential of this type of reporting.

Nāku noa, nā

John Ryan
Controller and Auditor-General | Tumuaki o te Mana Arotake

23 August 2023