Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Ministry performance reporting falls short of expectation

A review of performance reporting by public organisations has found that the public and Parliament are not being given the information they need from public organisations to effectively scrutinise how public money will be spent.

In a statement, the Office of the Auditor-General, which conducted the review, said measures that assess the stewardship, oversight, and monitoring functions of departments must improve.

“Based on our observations, changes to Standing Orders for the 2023-26 Parliamentary term will facilitate more and deeper scrutiny of public organisations. The quality of their performance measures and reporting will need to greatly improve to give Parliament the information it needs to hold them to account,” the Office stated.

“We urge public organisations to develop meaningful, comprehensive, and relevant performance measures for their appropriations. Parliament can then use these measures to effectively scrutinise proposed public expenditure during the Estimates process, and both the public and Parliament can use them to hold the public sector to account for its performance.”

It said the Office had good practice resources dedicated to improving performance reporting. These include guidance on setting performance reporting frameworks, the essential qualities of performance reporting, and what makes for good performance indicators.

Several of the organisations the Office focused on for its audit were lead departments – or ‘stewards’ – of different sectors.

It found that performance measures and reporting for these functions and appropriations by these leading departments were often “inward-looking”.

“Performance measures for the Ministry of Education’s oversight of the education system include measuring timeliness of responses to Parliamentary questions and the number of webpage visits/downloads of new research reports.”

“They do not provide a meaningful assessment of how well the Ministry is providing effective oversight of the education system,” the Auditor-General stated.

“The Ministry of Social Development has an important leadership role in the social sector as a steward of benefit and employment support functions. Appropriations that relate to stewardship include Policy Advice ($22.26 million in 2023/24), Data, Analytics and Evidence Services ($44.65 million in 2023/24), and Planning, Correspondence and Monitoring ($6.27 million in 2023/24).

“In our view, the performance measures for these appropriations are inward-looking – for example, measuring the quality and timeliness of policy advice and other services to Ministers. They do not provide a meaningful assessment of how well the Ministry is providing effective oversight of the system.”

It said the Ministry provided a substantial amount of useful information on its website and in publications.

“We think there are opportunities to incorporate these activities more formally into the performance framework.”

The performance information for the Ministry of Transport’s stewardship role also came under fire for failing to enable an assessment of how well the Ministry is addressing major funding and financing risks faced by the sector now and into the future, such as with the National Land Transport Programme.

The Office also found gaps in what departmental assessment measures had set out to achieve and what they had delivered.

“Many of us want to know if, and how, services and activities delivered by the public sector are leading to better outcomes for New Zealanders.”

“The wider performance reporting framework for spending under Vote Transport has meaningful and appropriate information about what value is being achieved. For example, the transport sector’s outcomes framework is supported by 37 indicators to measure and report on progress against outcomes.

“However, performance measures for several new initiatives have not yet been developed.

“The measure associated with the $275 million in new road funding in response to the January 2023 floods and Cyclone Gabrielle are focused on the administration of funds. The $55 million allocated for improving resilience of the roading network, in response to climate-related weather events, is also administrative.

“Because outputs for both initiatives were in the early stages of development at the time of the Budget, we were advised that the performance measures for both will be revisited through the 2023/24 Supplementary Estimates Process.”

The Office assessed the performance measures for the Ministry for Primary Industries’ budgeted $365.2 million for biosecurity in 2023/24.

“The performance measures for these appropriations focus on the Ministry’s activities to prevent, monitor, and manage biosecurity risks. One, for example, measures the “percentage of international air passengers that comply with biosecurity requirements by the time they leave the Biosecurity Control Area at the airport.”

“The measures, while helpful, focus more on the Ministry’s activities rather than the impact of these activities and whether they resulted in better protection from biosecurity risks.

“Conversely, performance information for the fisheries and food safety appropriations generally provide a meaningful assessment of how well the Ministry is delivering its services and achieving better outcomes. The performance measures in these two areas include a mix of measures that assess how well the Ministry is delivering its services and the outcomes it intends to achieve — for example, the rate of a common food-borne illness per 100,000 people, and the percentage of scientifically evaluated fish stocks with no sustainability issues.”

It also found that in Vote Education, performance measures for the primary and secondary education system focus largely on inputs and participation rates.

“It is unclear how they assess the quality of education the system is delivering.”

In its conclusion, the Office reiterated that good performance reporting by public organisations was crucial to enabling the public and Parliament to determine whether public money is being spent appropriately.

“It has long been unclear to the public and Parliament what outcomes are being achieved with public spending. To maintain trust and confidence in government, we all need to understand what value we are getting from our taxes, and what difference this spending is making to our lives.”

“As public organisations plan their performance measures for this financial year and beyond, we encourage them to develop meaningful measures that tell the public and Parliament a clear, compelling story about whether their spending is achieving better outcomes for New Zealanders,” the Office said.

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