Infrastructure lacks transparency

By Anne Tolley
Transparency International New Zealand

Lower standards of transparency is one of the factors that makes infrastructure projects prone to corruption – this is detailed in the ICRAT (Infrastructure Corruption Risk Assessment Tool) that has been developed by Transparency International Australia.That tool highlights the importance of transparency and accountability throughout the entire process of public infrastructure projects.

The recent research report commissioned by Te Waihanga - New Zealand Infrastructure Commission Transparency within large publicly funded New Zealand infrastructure projects offers valuable insight into why transparency is such an important tool for public accountability.  

The Te Waihanga research looked at 27 large publicly funded infrastructure projects with a project value of $50 million or more,  a combined total value of $70.5 billion.  The project list is familiar, including Let’s Get Wellington Moving, Auckland Light Rail Project, Christchurch Schools Rebuild Programme, Waikeria Prison Build, Waterview Tunnel, New Plymouth Yarrow Stadium Redevelopment, New Dunedin Hospital, Provincial Growth Fund and Transmission Gully Motorway.

The report asked How transparent are public sector entities in the disclosure of information and practices of public infrastructure projects?  

The answer is ‘poor overall’.  It found that over half of business case documents for large infrastructure projects were not publically accessible and reviewing those that are accessible  is time-consuming and the documents are hard to understand.  The breadth and quality of business case documents was highly variable and in some instances Treasury New Zealand’s better business case guidance had not been used.

93% of projects valued between $50m and $500m made no assurance plan documents accessible.  Most worrying is that a concerningly high number of entities (92%) subject to direct political instruction had inaccessible assurance plan documents. Very big projects valued at over $500 million scored better than those between $50-$500 million.

Independent project governance was a key positive contributor to higher scores.

Whilst all projects had 100% compliance when responding to official information request lodgements, in nine cases there were potential breaches of the OIA Act.  There was also substantial variation in the use of redaction, without obvious or comparable justification.

The report recommended:

  • greater coordination with infrastructure stakeholders to create a consistent approach for proactive release;
  • remedying the accessibility issues;
  • embracing principles and practices that remove ambiguity and better future standards for measurement;
  • creating more practical means for the public to scrutinise core documents for large infrastructure projects;
  • a review of the redacted comment within core infrastructure documents, with a focus on justification;
  • more research to understand performance variations within sub-groups based on project size and entity type and if these factors have a causal effect on transparency performance;
  • regular measurement of infrastructure transparency every two years to track the impact of interventions and adjust resources and priorities accordingly.

In summary this important report makes it clear New Zealand has the legislative framework, strategies such as proactive release standards, as well as web standards, redaction and disclosure guidance, and administrative guidance documents, to enable transparency.   But that is not enough.  These measures are not currently being sufficiently followed to facilitate transparency within large New Zealand public infrastructure projects.  

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