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Transparency Spotlight On Large Infrastructure Projects

It’s not easy for the public to see how large, public infrastructure projects in New Zealand are performing, with key project documents often being not publicly available or hard to understand.

This is a key finding from new Massey University research commissioned by Te Waihanga - Transparency within large publicly funded infrastructure projects. The study looks at the accessibility of key documents for 27 large projects across central and local government. These range in cost from $50m to more than $1b and have a collective value of over $70b. These do not just relate to current projects: they span a wide timeframe - for example, one project began construction in 2012 and 21 projects are still ongoing.

"New Zealand has a long-standing commitment to being open and transparent, and as a result ranks within the top three countries in Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index," says Ross Copland, CEO of Te Waihanga, New Zealand Infrastructure Commission. "However, information about big investment decisions is not always available to the public.

"New Zealand does not currently have public accountability standards for proactive disclosure for large, public infrastructure projects, so we’re seeing inconsistent performance in how New Zealanders are being kept informed. The research showed that around half of all the Business Case and Assurance Case documents in these big, public projects were not accessible, and that reviews were not accessible for completed projects."

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Allowing New Zealanders to have oversight of what their government’s investing in is a core principle of the New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy--.

While large, public infrastructure projects are subject to normal official information processes, web and plain language standards, they‘re not required to proactively publish key documents.

The study gave projects overall ratings out of nine for accessibility of their project documents.

For key documents:

- 37% of projects scored nine out of nine, while 63% scored only three to five.

- All these highest-scoring projects were run by an independent board, rather than by a government agency or council, and nearly all were worth over $500m.

However, having a board or a big budget didn’t always mean key documents were ‘accessible’. Because, of the study’s 17 low-scoring projects, 41% also had a board and 23% were worth over $500m.

"The research has shown how good some of these big projects are with proactive disclosure, which is pleasing to see," Copland says. "However, it also shows significant opportunities to improve transparency across our major projects, including increasing the expectations for proactive disclosure."

Currently, around 16% of New Zealanders’ household budgets are spent on infrastructure services, according to recent Te Waihanga research-.

When project activities and decisions are transparent, New Zealanders are better able to hold government and delivery agencies to account.

So what’s next?

Te Waihanga is considering the findings of this research and aims to publish recommendations on how to improve infrastructure investment and performance by the end of the year. As part of this work, we’ll be engaging with a range of entities and agencies that have responsibilities for government processes around transparency and public infrastructure projects.

- What do our infrastructure services really cost? (Te Waihanga study, June 2023).

-- Core principles for infrastructure decision-making


When were these projects planned and funded?

The planning and construction phases of these projects span a wide time frame. One project began its construction in 2012, with planning prior to this, and 21 projects are still ongoing.

How does this research show if information is being appropriately released?

The study was independently conducted by Massey University acting as a "lay person" or ordinary citizen. This means that they did not have visibility of what (if any) information was being withheld so were unable to tell if the information was being appropriately released or withheld under the OIA or LGOIMA legislation. Also, where they received redacted information they did not have a full (unredacted) version to compare it to. They therefore couldn’t tell if redactions were appropriate (for example whether the reasons given for redaction were valid).

Did the research assess whether the information made available was accurate?

The study was independently conducted by Massey University acting as a "lay person" or ordinary citizen and only looked at the documentation that was made available to them. This meant that they couldn’t assess if the information given to them was accurate.

What is the requirement for projects or programmes to make information available to the public?

Official information legislation (the Official Information Act (OIA) 1982 and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) 1987) allow the public to access information that supports transparency, accountability, and public participation in governance. However, there does not appear to be any specific guidance that lets public sector infrastructure projects know what infrastructure documents they should look to make available.

How big is the sample and how confident can we be that the findings apply across all public infrastructure projects?

Twenty-seven projects (six historic and 21 active) were picked for the study. The projects were chosen by Massey University and Te Waihanga to provide a representative sample of active and historic projects. This included making sure that we included a mix of projects, for example central government versus local government. In total, the 27 projects were valued at $70.5 billion. In comparison the current budgeted infrastructure pipeline is $76.9 billion.

Were there differences between:

- Local government projects versus central government projects

- Types of infrastructure

- Regions

- Agencies?

While the chosen 27 projects represented were representative as a whole, the individual sample sizes within the above categories would be too small to draw any conclusions from so this analysis was not conducted. The study instead focused on an analysis of two larger types of groups:

- Projects valued between $50M and $500M were compared to projects valued over $500M.

- Projects that were being delivered by government ministries/departments or councils were compared to projects that were being delivered by an entity with a board (for example, government agencies like Waka Kotahi, State-owned enterprises like KiwiRail, or council-owned organisations like Watercare).

What were the differences between projects run by a council or government agency and those run by independent governance boards?

While half the projects with an independent governance board had an exemplary ‘accessibility’ score, the other half had similar accessibility scores to projects run by government agencies/ministries or council.

Who is responsible for delivering Auckland Light Rail?

The report notes Auckland Light Rail as being delivered by Waka Kotahi. However, during the course of the study (October 2022) a new organisation - Auckland Light Rail Limited - was established to deliver this project.

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