8 Feb 2017

CERA failed to maintain 'momentum' - report

6:24 pm on 8 February 2017

The now-defunct Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) struggled to demonstrate its effectiveness and value for money the longer it existed, a new report says.

Media conference in the bunker at Parliament. Gerry Brownlee speaks to media.

Gerry Brownlee said the report was unbalanced. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The Auditor-General's report - assessing CERA's effectiveness and efficiency - was presented to Parliament today.

The authority was established in March 2011 in response to the Canterbury earthquakes. Over five years it spent $4 billion on programmes and projects as it co-ordinated the recovery.

The report found while CERA did well early on in the recovery, it did not maintain momentum.

Key findings

  • There were delays with nearly all of the Cera-led anchor projects.
  • CERA and the Christchurch City Council were not open or transparent enough with each other for an effective recovery.
  • CERA failed to communicate and engage well with the community.
  • The role of the Christchurch Central Development Unit was unclear.
  • CERA took a long time to set up effective systems.
  • The public's trust and confidence in information from CERA declined over time.
  • CERA spent more on communications, but did not adapt or change its approach well enough.
  • It could not demonstrate its effectiveness or value for money.
  • It did well early on in the recovery, but lost momentum.
  • Tensions with residents and central and local government caused delays.
  • There is still a lot to be done to complete the CBD rebuild.

Brownlee fires back

The Minister Supporting Greater Christchurch Regeneration Gerry Brownlee issued a statement saying the report was "unbalanced" and "misses the point".

Mr Brownlee said it should be viewed in the context of New Zealand's most significant natural disaster.

"CERA was in an evolving post-disaster situation - that included thousands of aftershocks.

"The report skims over the enormity of this impact on every facet of the community's recovery."

The report unfairly compared CERA to government departments that existed for decades and did not recognise the "unprecedented nature of the organisation and its tasks", he said.

"The report says CERA's communications did not meet public expectations, but fails to compare them with the experiences of recovery agencies worldwide, where this is sadly always the case.

"CERA was subject to annual audits, including quality assurance reports, as well as a robust select committee process and was assisted in financial management by Treasury.

"I remain proud of the work CERA staff accomplished alongside other local and central government agencies and they should be too," Mr Brownlee said.

'Much work remains'

The report said CERA's role became less clear as it took on responsibility for more projects and programmes. It failed to engage well with the community.

It found it struggled to demonstrate its effectiveness and value for money because it had inadequate performance measures and information.

"Good progress has been made in the six years since the earthquakes. However, many people in the region are still facing challenges to their daily lives.

"Many households are yet to settle their insurance claims or complete repairs to their homes, and the effects of the earthquakes and their aftermath on mental health, particularly of young people, is becoming increasingly apparent.

"Much work also remains to be done to complete the rebuild of Christchurch's central city."

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Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The report found that, as it started from scratch, CERA took a long time to set up effective systems and controls, which meant staff worked in a challenging environment without the usual back-office support expected in a public entity.

"CERA's management controls and performance information needed improvement right up to the time of its disestablishment.''

In the early phases of the recovery, the authority led a co-ordinated government response to the earthquakes effectively, the report found.

"However, it became more challenging for CERA to maintain momentum as the recovery moved into the reconstruction phase."

Delivering the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, known as "The Blueprint" of key anchor projects, was less successful.

"Engagement with stakeholders suffered from a lack of clarity about the role of the Christchurch Central Development Unit, and there were delays in nearly all of the CERA-led anchor projects.''

It found the authority needed to manage tensions with residents, and central and local government.

"These tensions caused delays at a governance level, particularly with Christchurch City Council. In our view, both CERA and the Christchurch City Council were not as open or transparent with one another as is required for an effective recovery. This caused delays in some programmes.''

It acknowledged that there were challenges for an agency like CERA to communicate with a community was recovering from a disaster, but found it could have been more effective and efficient in its communication and engagement with the community.

"Senior staff devoted considerable time and effort to communicating with the community, and CERA spent a large amount of money in this area. However, surveys of the community show that the public's trust and confidence in information from CERA declined over time, and many in the community were not satisfied they had enough opportunities to influence decision-making about the recovery."

While CERA spent more money on communications, but it did not adapt or change its approach well enough, it said.

It found it had been difficult to form a view on the effectiveness of the authority because the authority's external performance measures were focused on what it was going to do, rather than on what it was trying to achieve.

"This means that it was not able to provide a good account of its effectiveness or demonstrate its value for money. Having a better performance framework is an important lesson for the future.''

The report concluded that some important lessons and actions were identified that should be used next time New Zealand needs a recovery agency.

"In light of the November 2016 earthquakes in Kaikōura and the surrounding region, these lessons are particularly pertinent."