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Chapter 24: Assurance and accountability

Summary

24.1 Inquiries into natural disasters are complex, time consuming and, generally, costly. They provide insights, observations and recommendations. Many recommendations are accepted by governments – and then disappear. Further, details of monitoring and implementation are not communicated to the public – and then there is another disaster and another inquiry, often into the same subject matter.

24.2 Australia has a history of more than 240 previous inquiries related to natural disasters. As a nation, we need to do more than just identify lessons from past disasters, we need to learn our lessons and follow through with action. If a recommendation is not accepted, reasons should be provided for doing so. If it is accepted, steps should be taken to implement as soon as practicable, and to monitor, and report on, the extent of implementation.

24.3 While state and territory governments maintain primary responsibility for management of natural disasters, Australian, state and territory governments should also be accountable for their respective responsibilities. This includes understanding and communicating the extent to which they are contributing to, and tracking, disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

24.4 An approach to continuous improvement and best practice that has worked successfully for some states is the establishment of an Inspector-General for Emergency Management. Similar arrangements would be desirable for other jurisdictions.

24.5 This is the first Royal Commission to be convened into Australia’s natural disaster arrangements at a national level. A large body of material has been gathered and analysed, contributing to a significant public record. The public work of our inquiry should remain available and accessible on a long-term basis for the benefit of individuals, communities, organisations, businesses and all levels of government.

National accountability for disaster risk and emergency management

The importance of accountability

24.6 Accountability is a core component of effective governance, made up of four key elements – transparency, answerability, enforcement and responsiveness.

24.7 In an emergency management and disaster risk context, accountability is required of all those with responsibility for disaster management on behalf of others, including federal, state and local governments, businesses and non-government organisations.

24.8 The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) highlights characteristics of accountability governance arrangements at these levels, including: [2646]

  • at the national level:
  • efforts by government agencies directed and coordinated towards disaster risk reduction
  • funds (eg from public sources) which are spent
  • information gathered by officials made more widely available
  • assets accruing to those institutions and other actors remaining under appropriate control, and
  • service to the community demonstrated.
  • at the community level:
  • devolved structures that enable participation
  • access to information
  • capacities of communities to influence plans and actions
  • inclusion of vulnerable groups in decision-making
  • participatory monitoring and evaluation systems, and
  • high level of volunteerism for disaster risk reduction.

24.9 As the UNDRR notes, ‘governments need to create the necessary conditions in order to make accountability a living reality. These conditions are appropriate policies, enabling legislation, necessary institutional arrangements or reforms, allocation of sufficient resources, definition of clear roles and responsibilities, and effective enforcement mechanisms’.

24.10 Australia has a long history of seeking to understand the causes and impacts of natural disasters, and how disaster arrangements can be improved. We identified more than 240 previous inquiries relating to natural disasters. 45 of those inquiries were at a national level. [2647] Figure 98 gives an indication of the subject matter and timing of previous reviews across recent decades.

Disaster inquiries in Australia 1970-2020

Figure 98: Disaster inquiries in Australia 1970-2020 [2648]

24.11 The existence of such a large number of reports may speak to the intractability of some of the problems, perhaps even a reluctance to implement recommended solutions.

24.12 For example, we learnt that recommendations, findings and directions from the last 20 years of natural disaster inquiries, roadmaps, strategies and frameworks have advocated for consistent disaster risk information, greater investment in national resilience and in mitigation of risk, and improved collaboration. Yet, based on the evidence available to us, many initiatives appear not to have been adequately implemented to date.

24.13 Determining the implementation status for many recommendations is difficult and for many inquiries, if examining solely based on publicly available information, impossible. Such information as was publicly available was not always readily accessible, consolidated, or comprehensive.

24.14 We required Australian, state and territory governments to provide us with information on the implementation of findings and recommendations of previous inquiries. Even with those responses, it remained difficult for us to assess the implementation status of some recommendations, because that status was not always tracked.

24.15 Governments should be transparent about these matters, to enable better accountability to the public for decisions.

24.16 We have seen that governance and accountability arrangements have been improved in recent years within the emergency management sector with the introduction of external review and assurance bodies. Victoria and Queensland have Inspectors‑General of Emergency Management (IGEMs), who have published updates or progress reports on the implementation of recommendations from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and the 2011 Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry respectively. In so doing, these offices have supported public accountability in addition to their core objectives of encouraging a culture of continuous improvement and best practice in emergency management within their states.

Accountability in strategies and frameworks for disaster risk, resilience and climate adaptation

24.17 National acknowledgement of disaster resilience, preparedness and risk reduction is prevalent, as indicated by the numerous strategies, frameworks, policies and programs that have been brought to our attention, including:

  • National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy (2015)
  • National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework (2018)
  • National Partnership Agreement on Risk Reduction (2020), and
  • First National Action Plan to implement the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework (2020).

24.18 National frameworks and strategies generally establish sensible principles. It has, however, been difficult for us to determine the extent to which these principles have been, or will be, translated into tangible outcomes.

24.19 Many of these frameworks, strategies and plans include agreed review periods, some of which are due over the course of 2020. [2649]

Example – National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework

24.20 The National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework (NDRRF) is a commendable and contemporary national strategy for reducing disaster risk. It was developed between Australian Government, states and territories, and select private sector organisations, and originally released in April 2018. [2650]

24.21 It aligns with the United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015‑2030. It addresses drivers of increased disaster risk including: more frequent and intense natural hazards and exposure of interconnected and interdependent essential services; and forecast growing costs of natural disasters, both human and economic. It is intended to be applied holistically across four domains: built, social, natural and economic.

24.22 The NDRRF lists broad goals to be achieved by 2030, priorities to guide achievement of these goals, and outcomes to be achieved against these priorities within five years.

24.23 It has four priority areas: understanding disaster risk; accountable decisions; enhanced investment; and governance, ownership and responsibility, and identifies three broad goals to achieve by 2030:

  • take action to reduce existing disaster risk
  • minimise creation of future disaster risk through decisions taken across all sectors, and
  • equip decision-makers with the capabilities and information they need to reduce disaster risk and manage residual risk.

24.24 In March 2020, the NDRRF was endorsed by state and territory governments. Jurisdictions also entered into a new $261 million Commonwealth-State partnership agreement to fund implementation of risk reduction.

24.25 To implement the NDRRF, emergency management ministers adopted The First National Action Plan [2651] (National Action Plan). The National Action Plan highlights actions that the Australian, and state and territory governments are taking ‘to enable the nation to reduce disaster risk now and into the future’. The National Action Plan ‘will be reviewed and updated annually in consultation with stakeholders’ and ‘reflect how best to progress the systemic changes needed to reduce disaster risk’.

24.26 The National Action Plan mostly refers to existing initiatives, as actions that the Australian Government is taking to deliver on the NDRRF’s four priorities. It does not outline whether, or how, existing initiatives are being enhanced.

24.27 The National Action Plan identifies various government and inter-governmental initiatives against the existing strategies agreed under the NDRRF, and lead agencies and timeframes for the work. For example, Priority 2 of the NDRRF concerns ’accountable decisions’, whose specified strategies are:

  • A – Consider potential avoided loss (tangible and intangible) and broader benefits in all relevant decisions
  • B – Identify highest priority disaster risks and mitigation opportunities
  • C – Build the capability and capacity of decision-makers to actively address disaster risk in policy, program and investment decisions
  • D – Establish proactive incentives, and address disincentives and barriers, to reducing disaster risk
  • E – Maintain planning and development practices that adapt to rapid social, economic, environmental and cultural change
  • F – Promote compliance with, and embed resilience requirements into, relevant standards, codes and specifications

24.28 The National Action Plan sets out the following plan of action for Priority 2 (see Figure 99).

National Action Plan – Actions being undertaken to address priority 2 (accountability decisions)

Figure 99: National Action Plan – Actions being undertaken to address priority 2 (accountability decisions) [2652]

24.29 However, many of the main objectives of the NDRRF are reflected as Future areas of work’ in the First National Action Plan, which leads us to query: if not now, then when? Examples of the National Action Plan’s deferred bodies of work, many of which we have sought to address in this report, include:

  • data and information - to make authoritative climate and disaster data and information available and accessible
  • risk disclosure – to identify the relevant stakeholders who can take action to improve the disclosure of climate and disaster risks
  • research and learning – to address gaps in knowledge and coordinate and harmonise research to understand high priority disaster risks and vulnerabilities
  • priority risks – to work with partners to identify risks with the greatest potential impact on the nation to guide investment and mitigation efforts
  • investment – to identify how increased investment literacy across all sectors can be supported to ensure investment opportunities are leveraged to reduce disaster risk, and
  • transparency of risk transaction – to identify how transparency of disaster risk and potential impacts in transactions can be supported where disaster risk may be shifted from one party to another. [2653]

24.30 To assist with determining its effectiveness, the NDRRF also notes that success will be measured against nationally relevant targets of the Sendai Framework, including the reduction of disaster mortality, number of people affected by disasters, direct economic loss, damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services.

24.31 The disaster risk reduction goals under the NDRRF, to be achieved by 2030, are to:

  • take action to reduce disaster risk
  • minimise creation of future disaster risk through decisions taken across all sectors, and
  • equip decision-makers with the capabilities and information they need to reduce disaster risk and manage residual risk.

24.32 We heard that the NDRRF does not directly adopt the seven global disaster loss targets under the Sendai Framework as national targets. Instead, the NDRRF focuses on enabling and tracking systemic change to reduce disaster risk. Member states, including Australia, are required to collect data and report on seven targets set out in the Sendai Framework. We heard that the Department of Home Affairs collates data to track progress against the Sendai goals for reporting to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, including against the associated indicators to understand disaster loss trends in Australia. In October 2018, Deloitte Access Economics undertook a review on behalf of the Department of Home Affairs to inform Australia’s obligations to collect data and report to the United Nations on the Sendai Framework. The report determined that Australia was able to report on 25 of the 38 indicators associated with the seven global targets. [2654] We addressed the importance of new data and its collection in Chapter 4: Supporting better decisions.

24.33 Evaluating Australia’s success against these frameworks is vital so that governments, businesses and individuals have confidence that Australia continues to take cost‑effective action to reduce disaster risk. This is especially so, in light of the disaster outlook.

24.34 The status and currency of national strategies, plans and frameworks for disaster risk, resilience and climate adaptation should be clearly and publicly communicated.

24.35 The Australian Government, together with state and territory governments where appropriate, should consider whether national strategies, plans and frameworks for disaster risk, resilience and climate adaptation remain fit for purpose, and how they can align with national level strategic settings.

24.36 It would be desirable for national strategies, plans and frameworks for disaster risk, resilience and climate adaptation to incorporate clear lines of accountability, and measurable targets.

24.37 Consistent with these principles, in developing an appropriate accountability mechanism, consideration is required as to the way to track, review, evaluate and report on the key responsibilities of the Australian Government, for example:

  • the extent to which the Australian Government has implemented recommendations, accepted by the Australian government, of previous inquiries into natural disasters, climate adaptation, natural hazard resilience, and natural disaster risk reduction, and
  • the extent to which the Australian, state and territory governments have implemented national frameworks, strategies, action plans, partnership agreements and other such arrangements directed to climate adaptation, natural hazard resilience, and natural disaster risk reduction and recovery.

Assurance, continuous improvement and best practice

24.38 Quality assurance and monitoring supports accountability and builds consistency across all levels of disaster management arrangements. With the goal of promoting best practice and continuous improvement across all phases of disaster management, these encourage the best use of resources, and best possible outcomes for our communities. The process of assurance, particularly when conducted by an external and independent body, enables a statement of confidence to be made as to the effectiveness of agencies operating within disaster mitigation and management arrangements. Assurance can also reinforce a shared responsibility for better disaster mitigation and management outcomes for the community.

24.39 States and territories have shown interest in learning from each other. They have told us of the value of lessons management – be it through sharing experiences in operational matters, or examining and learning from each other’s strategic arrangements in practice. There are various formal and informal arrangements that support this. For example, the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) has been described as a collaborative forum, where emergency services leaders actively share best practice; [2655] the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience runs a Lessons Management Forum, bringing together practitioners to share good practice, learnings and innovations. [2656]

24.40 We heard that post-event analyses are vital in many circumstances, but have limitations when it comes to providing broader forward-facing policy direction:

Part of the problem in after-action reviews and in inquiries is that we can come up with a range of different recommendations but, in fact, they can be contradictory to each other. They can then create other problems and bottlenecks further down the track. [2657]

The value of independent assurance bodies

24.41 The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and the 2011 Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry both recommended ongoing evaluation and reporting on implementation of their inquiries’ recommendations, which provided the basis for establishing a formal external assurance body, the IGEM. These recommendations were made in the wake of two of Australia’s biggest disaster events.

24.42 The Victorian [2658] and Queensland [2659] IGEMs have developed and maintained monitoring and assurance frameworks for emergency management, against which the capacity, capability and performance of the emergency management sector is to be assessed. They are independent, and report to Parliament. [2660] In establishing the IGEMs, Victoria and Queensland have provided their respective emergency management sectors with an important resource for ‘reassurance and a calibration and a feedback mechanism, particularly for people who are involved in real-time performance monitoring’. [2661]

24.43 If the Australian Government intends to adopt greater responsibility in national coordination of disaster management, as we propose in this report, those responsibilities need to be underpinned not only by clear lines of accountability, but also quality assurance mechanisms to enable ongoing learning, continuous improvement and promote best practice as to:

  • the effectiveness of the national committees and co-ordination mechanisms for natural disasters that the Australian Government facilitates (see Chapter 3: National coordination arrangements)
  • the effectiveness of the Australian Government non-financial assistance processes for natural disasters (see Chapter 3: National coordination arrangements and Chapter 7: Role of the Australian Defence Force)
  • the effectiveness of Australian Government natural disaster related information systems (see Chapter 4: Supporting better decisions), and
  • the effectiveness of the Australian Government financial assistance processes for natural disasters (see Chapter 22: Delivery of recovery services and financial assistance).

Recommendation 24.1 Accountability and assurance mechanisms at the Australian Government level


The Australian Government should establish accountability and assurance mechanisms to promote continuous improvement and best practice in natural disaster arrangements.

24.44 Queensland and Victoria’s IGEM arrangements perform valuable assurance, evaluation and continuous improvement functions for their state fire and emergency services. Other jurisdictions should establish similar arrangements.

24.45 It is important that the discharge of these functions is independent, and conferred and discharged as a whole, not fragmented between different agencies.

24.46 In establishing similar arrangements, states and territories without IGEMs should consider conferring the following functions:

  • tracking and reporting on the extent to which that state or territory government has implemented recommendations, accepted by that government, of previous inquiries into climate adaptation, natural hazard resilience, natural disasters and disaster risk reduction
  • sharing best practice in relation to climate adaptation and natural hazard resilience, disaster risk reduction, natural disaster response and recovery, including the sharing of recommendations and findings of post-action reviews
  • reviewing and assessing the effectiveness of the state’s or territory’s engagement with and implementation of the national natural disaster frameworks, strategies and plans, including resource sharing arrangements
  • monitoring implementation of critical infrastructure resilience arrangements, assessing incremental improvements, and identifying improvement opportunities
  • regularly reviewing and assessing the effectiveness of disaster management by that state or territory, including relevant natural disaster management plans and their implementation
  • regularly reviewing and assessing the effectiveness of disaster management by district and local groups, including state or territory, district and local disaster management plans
  • reviewing and assessing cooperation between entities responsible for disaster management in that state or territory, including whether the disaster management systems and procedures employed by those entities are compatible and consistent
  • recommending or making disaster management standards
  • regularly reviewing and assessing disaster management standards
  • reviewing, assessing and reporting on performance by entities responsible for disaster management in the state or territory against the disaster management standards
  • working with entities performing emergency services, departments and the community to identify and improve disaster management capabilities, including volunteer capabilities
  • monitoring compliance by departments with their disaster management responsibilities
  • identifying opportunities for cooperative partnerships to improve disaster management outcomes, and
  • reporting regularly and advising about issues relating to these functions.

24.47 Those states with an IGEM should also consider whether the functions of their IGEM encompass each of the above functions.


Recommendation 24.2 An independent accountability and assurance mechanism for each state and territory

Each state and territory government should establish an independent accountability and assurance mechanism to promote continuous improvement and best practice in natural disaster arrangements.


Box 24.1 Best practice in assurance and evaluation

Queensland and Victoria’s IGEMs are statutory positions created in response to an identified lack of overarching assurance for the emergency management sector in their respective states. Their benefits and attributes include:

  • providing greater confidence to government and the community in emergency management
  • promoting a culture of continuous improvement within the sector, and encouraging all levels of the emergency management system to conduct their own self-assurance processes
  • identifying benefits in consistency and collaboration
  • strong engagement with stakeholders, community involvement and facilitation of better cooperative arrangements between agencies
  • performing an accountability function through monitoring the implementation of previous review recommendations
  • independent and accountable to Parliament, and
  • building trust and relationships and taking a non-adversarial approach.
  • Queensland and Victoria’s IGEMs undertake ongoing engagement with each other.

A public record of national significance

24.48 This is the first Royal Commission to be convened into Australia’s natural disaster arrangements at a national level.

24.49 An extraordinary body of material has been gathered and analysed, contributing to a public record of national significance.

24.50 Continued availability and accessibility of the material published on our website, including exhibits, transcripts, submissions, papers, presentations, videos and photographs, will promote accountability, continuous improvement and best practice in national disaster arrangements.


Recommendation 24.3 A public record of national significance

The material published as part of this Royal Commission should remain available and accessible on a long-term basis for the benefit of individuals, communities, organisations, businesses and all levels of government.


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