Administration of the Improving Water Information Program

Water conservation Fresh water Australia

This audit assessed the effectiveness of the Bureau of Meteorology’s implementation of the Improving Water Information Program.

To form a conclusion against this audit objective, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) adopted the following high-level criteria:

  • sound planning processes and governance arrangements were established;
  • effective arrangements for collaborating with water organisations and providing financial assistance to water data providers were developed; and
  • arrangements for collecting and managing water data and for producing high-quality water information products were appropriate.

Overall conclusion

The Improving Water Information Program is a relatively new and complex area of activity for the Commonwealth. The program was introduced in 2007 as a key element of the wider national water reforms designed to improve water management in Australia. At the time, governments in Australia were under considerable pressure to address water supply problems that were accentuated by prolonged drought conditions. However, effective policy responses were constrained by poor water information and a lack of nationally consistent data in areas such as water availability, allocations and entitlements.

In the six years that the program has been in place, the Bureau has expended $186 million and collected more than 21 million water data files containing more than four billion time‑series observations. This data covers thousands of water monitoring sites. From this data and meteorological information, the Bureau has introduced a range of new products and services that have improved the comparability and quality of available water information. These have included: annual national water accounts; water resources assessments; tracking of water storages; and seasonal streamflow forecasts.

The Bureau has developed effective arrangements for collaborating with water data providers that supply much of this data, with these providers generally complying with the legislative provisions. High participation in data licensing arrangements has also helped to maximise the utilisation of the Bureau’s water data by third parties and increased the availability of water data to the Australian community.

In addition, the Bureau has improved the collection of water information nationally through its collaboration with, and financial assistance to, water data providers. The Modernisation and Extension of Hydrologic Monitoring Systems Program (M&E Program) delivered financial assistance to eligible data providers to assist them in modernising and extending their hydrologic monitoring networks. The Bureau received a total of 789 applications across the five rounds of the program. Of the eligible applications, 60 per cent were awarded funding that totalled $78.1 million. The majority of funding was allocated to projects that focused on modernising and extending monitoring equipment and networks and improving water data management systems and the quality and accuracy of water data. The Bureau effectively administered the M&E Program, with funded activities collectively contributing to improved accuracy and quality of water data and better equipping policy‑makers to manage Australia’s water resources.

While stakeholders generally viewed the program and the effectiveness of the Bureau’s implementation positively, there has been a gap between the expectations of users and the range and completeness of the Bureau’s products and services currently provided. Stakeholders are seeking increased coverage and better quality products and services, including data downloads, so that they can address their own specific product and service needs. Services, such as data downloads, were included as a priority in the Bureau’s 2008 strategic plan for improving water information, but have yet to be fully delivered. While the Bureau’s forward work program is designed to address a number of these concerns, closer consultation with key agencies through established forums (such as the Jurisdictional Reference Group on Water Information) would further assist in managing expectations.

A key constraint on the effectiveness of the program’s implementation and the capacity of the Bureau to meet expectations has been the limited functionality available through the system designed to manage national water data—the Australian Water Resources Information System (AWRIS). The development of AWRIS was a key program objective and was fundamental to the Bureau delivering improved national water information. The functionality of AWRIS is severely limited and this has constrained the range and timely development and release of new products and services. Overall, the development of AWRIS was characterised by technical and governance shortcomings, changes in design and approach, unanticipated cost increases and delays. As a consequence, the Bureau has not achieved its vision for AWRIS as a reliable, national repository for water information. Further, the level of expenditure has not been proportional with the level of functionality obtained, with the Bureau expending $38.5 million on AWRIS and associated systems and applications as at 30 June 2013.

The issues encountered by the Bureau in this information technology implementation emphasise the importance of agencies understanding their business environment and the likely operational risks and challenges they will be facing when developing new systems. Clarity as to the requirements of users is important, along with the recognition that these may evolve or change over time requiring enhancements to functionality over and above planned business as usual processes. In the case of AWRIS 1, clearly defining business and system requirements and establishing governance arrangements that were commensurate with the risk profile of the project, would have better positioned the Bureau to develop and deliver a system with greater functionality within more reasonable timeframes. The limited functionality that led to the decision to decommission the data warehouse component of AWRIS 1, which is estimated to have cost $12.5 million, raises questions regarding the value for money achieved from the investment in new information technology.

Determining the extent to which the Improving Water Information Program is achieving its objectives has been affected by changes in performance measures over the course of program implementation. The program’s early key performance indicators (KPIs) were broad and difficult to measure. While the KPIs have become more measurable over time, the program’s current KPIs do not readily inform an assessment of the extent to which the program is achieving its outcomes. Having a set of specific, measurable and consistent KPIs that provide the basis for reporting on the program would better position the Bureau to inform stakeholders of program progress and the challenges involved in achieving program outcomes.

The ANAO has made two recommendations designed to strengthen the development and management of information technology systems and improve the measurement and reporting of program performance.

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