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Towards better understanding the mechanisms which create sustainable public services organizations and systems:

Insights from freshwater governance in New Zealand


Using the lenses of complexity theory and dimensions of the SERVICE framework, the paper provides an abductive analysis of a freshwater governance case study. It aims to further develop our theoretical understanding of the complex interactions which contribute to the operation of sustainable public service organizations and systems. The analysis explores the dynamic features that have helped create this sustainable system. It?also serves to highlight the nature and endogenous origins of the causes of threats to sustainability.


Around the world, governance of critical natural resources such as freshwater is the focus of research to understand evolving practice and develop more effective theory to inform practice. Freshwater governance plays out at the intersection between the scientific measurements of quality and quantity related to the sustainability of the natural water system, societal values for freshwater conservation and use, and the economic development uses of freshwater1,2. Public sector organizations (PSOs) responsible for the governance of freshwater must find a way of operating sustainably in this space. Despite New Zealand’s relatively plentiful supply of freshwater in global terms, it too is grappling with the need for different approaches to water governance which can better cope with increasing demands for additional water for economic development purposes while maintaining community values for swimmable, fishable waterways and a healthy natural environment. The aim of this paper is to further develop our theoretical understanding of the complex interactions which contribute to the operation of this public service system for environmental regulation.

A starting point for the research presented in this paper is the seven propositions advanced by Osborne and colleagues for a sustainable business model for public service organizations (PSOs)3. PSOs, they argue, can no longer act as if their efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability are in their own hands alone: ‘in reality PSOs are now part of a complex service delivery system’3:425. New Public Management (NPM) thinking, they argue, gave rise to a transactional model of the public sector delivering products and was flawed in its foundations and assumptions. Instead they propose a public service-dominant logic is more appropriate for what is now being called New Public Governance (NPG)4,5. This involves creating sustainable PSOs across four dimensions: the sustainability of the individual PSO; the sustainability of the public service delivery system and the governance mechanisms involved; the sustainability of local communities; and environmental sustainability6. Seven propositions for a sustainable business model are advanced within this new service-dominant paradigm under the SERVICE mnemonic (systems; engagement, relationships, value, innovation, co-production, and enterprise). This paper examines the nature of the processes that create the sustainability of a PSO involved in environmental regulation.

Instead of using the SERVICE framework directly, this paper goes behind the SERVICE propositions and selects a complexity theoretical lens for an abductive analysis of a case study of freshwater management to identify the micro-mechanisms which create sustainability (and also threaten it). The complexity lens is chosen because of its fit with the propositions and assumptions of the SERVICE framework. That is the framing of the public service system whole rather than its parts; the focus on the interactions and relationships between the parts that maintain system sustainability; as one consisting of socially constructed and open boundaries between its parts; and in which interactions sometimes lead to emergent features which become innovations in the behaviour of the system or its parts. The intention is to both extend and deepen the SERVICE framework for understanding the evolution of the business model which affects the sustainability of PSOs engaged in water management and demonstrate the usefulness of complexity concepts in public management theory.

The next section provides a brief introduction to the freshwater management case in its policy context and introduces the PSOs which are the focus of the subsequent analysis. This is followed by a description of the research method and analytical framework used to draw insights about the interactions that constitute what Osborne calls the business model that is sustaining the PSOs involved. This is followed by an abductive analysis 7 of the case study findings with the complexity theoretical lenses implicit in the seven propositions of the SERVICE framework and conclusions. The analysis shows how similar endogenous processes within the public service system create the conditions for sustainability of the system and yet also have the potential undermine that sustainability. The implications of this analysis for the management of sustainable PSOs across the four dimensions identified by Osborne and colleagues are discussed.

Case Description and Data presentation

Like other Westminster systems and indeed many other governments in developed countries, New Zealand faces the fiscal challenges created by global economic conditions and increasing demand for new and different services. The New Zealand government’s response to these challenges was the Better Public Services programme of reforms8,9, which has at its heart notions of focusing on results, doing more with less, innovation in public services delivery, and collaboration across government agencies, with the community and private sector.

As part of this general policy environment, since 2010 government has been reviewing its freshwater management policy which had been stalled for over a decade10,11. Making land more productive through irrigation to enable economic development was part of that agenda. More efficient and effective freshwater regulation was a necessary adjunct. A collaborative network of elite stakeholders representing a wide range of interests in freshwater (farming, recreational and cultural) called the Land and Water Forum (LWF) has been advising ministers since 2009 on a new approach to water regulation. It has produced four reports asking for environmental bottom lines and a more collaborative bottom-up approach between communities, water users and regulators, as well as clearer national policy statements and bottom lines12,13,14. The recommendations of these reports are yet to be fully implemented, and some require amendment of the principal environmental legislation. However, the case study detailed below demonstrates how much of the LWF intent is already evident local practice.

The legal frameworks within which water is regulated are contained in the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA). The RMA requires a consent to be granted for any alteration of the natural air, land and water environment. Regional or unitary councils[1], as the PSOs responsible for operationalisation of the RMA, are required to develop and publish a long term (>10 year time horizon) plan. This plan establishes the outcomes the district intends working towards and must then be used to guide decision making about resource use. Figure 1 below depicts some of the action arenas which are part of the complex system within which regional water governance takes place. At the national level, as well as the legislation already mentioned, various other government agencies are responsible for specific regulations, such as for drinking water standards (Ministry of Health), estuary management (Department of Conservation) and Parliamentary oversight of environment matters (Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment).

For the purpose of the analysis in this paper, the regulatory instruments of interest are the National Policy Statements (NPS) and the National Objectives Framework (NOF) which the RMA provides may be promulgated by the Minister for the Environment. Any requirements for freshwater quality standards established through these instruments then become the responsibility of each regional council to operationalize and enforce through their planning and consenting processes. Although the RMA was enacted in 2001, at the height of the NPM reform era in New Zealand, the first NPS for Freshwater Management was not promulgated until 2011, nearly 20 years after the passing of the RMA. The NPS now states a national objective of maintaining or improving ‘the overall quality of fresh water within a region’. Between 1991 and 2014, each regional council had established its own policy to give effect to the RMA with variable results. In 2014, the NPS was amended to include ‘national bottom lines’ for a few aspects of water quality such as nitrate and phosphate levels, and a requirement to report against ecosystem health and water quality15. These were generally seen as positive steps towards helping regional councils do their job although water ecosystem experts want them to be much stronger, for example by specifying a level at which visible invertebrates such as mayfly and caddis fly larvae which signal ecosystem health can survive in reasonably high numbers.


The analysis in this paper focuses on the Canterbury region in particular. This region has 12.7% of the national population, 17% of New Zealand’s land area, much of it irrigable, contributes 13% to GDP[3] and includes Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city. The current Plan for the Canterbury region, 2009-2019, records that one of the ‘foremost issues’ for the Canterbury community arising from consultation was the quality and availability of water16. This emphasis is attributable to the rapid change in Canterbury land use occurring since 1994. Rapid degradation of lowland water quality has resulted from increased irrigation and land-use conversion from forestry and sheep farming to intensive dairying4 that has occurred over the last decade. The PSO responsible for water management in Canterbury is the Canterbury Regional Council, usually referred to as Environment Canterbury (ECan).

Research question, theoretical framework and research method

The data about ECan come from a qualitative case study of freshwater management in Canterbury17. The initial analysis of documents and interviews with key actors took a grounded theory approach and inductive analysis of themes18 to explore how water management policy was being implemented in the region and to what effect. The research objective of this paper is to further develop our theoretical understanding of the complex interactions which contribute to the operation of the public service system for environmental regulation in Canterbury. It uses an abductive analysis of the case findings with a complexity lens and the SERVICE propositions advanced by Osborne and colleagues3. This involves iteratively exploring the case study data through the complexity theory concepts to better understand how the conditions for PSO and system sustainability arise. According to Tavory and Timmermans7, abductive analysis is a process of reasoning that allows us to deepen our understanding of theory by iteratively reflecting upon the inductively derived grounded theory from our case study with knowledge from existing theories. A consciousness of other theories as part of the iterative reflection during analysis both alerts the researcher to factors that might be more generalisable, and also to where the existing theory might be inadequate to explain the phenomena observed.

Water governance involves many organizational and institutional actors at the national, regional and local level as depicted in Figure 1. These actors are interdependent and the sustainability of the water governance regime is related to the interdependent functioning of the network whole19,20,21.

The analysis below builds on the general overview above and fleshes out some of the interactions between the interdependent actors and institutions which make up the Canterbury water management system using the complexity lens. It then relates the findings of that analysis to the SERVICE propositions for the additional insights to be gained into the sustainability of ECAN and the water management system.

Analysis of the Canterbury water management case study

In its first 20 years of operation under the RMA (1991-2011), ECan approved individual water resource consent applications on a first-come, first-served basis without the benefit of a regional plan for freshwater management22. With ten significant water catchments and large ground water systems, freshwater seemed an unconstrained resource which could be harnessed for economic benefit. During this period, ECan’s operation conformed to the NPM mode. The operational agent worked within the parameters of the RMA and each decision was approached as an independent output and not as part of an overall outcome22. Consents for water abstraction were granted case by case until the water available for allocation was exhausted. There was no apparent consideration of the wider impacts that might result from particular water uses or alternative uses. ECan’s water quality focus in that period was on point-source contamination from manufacturing and agricultural processes such as freezing works and wool scours. There was little recognition of the growing importance of diffuse sources of freshwater contamination from surface run-off in rural and urban areas or from changes in land use which had led to rapid increases in dairy herd numbers enabled by irrigation.

Dissatisfaction with this piecemeal approach to water management grew over the late 1990s and into this century from a number of directions: 1) individual farmers and businesses that could not obtain a water consent because all the available water was already committed; 2) from district mayors who saw the approach as time consuming and creating uncertainty for economic development; 3) by irrigators who were frustrated in their attempts to create more storage to offset seasonal variations in water quantity; and 4) urban dwellers and recreational water users who were witnessing deteriorating water quality to the level where some rivers and lakes were unsuitable for human contact because of rising nitrate and phosphate runoff from fertilizer use and dairy herds. ECan’s decisions were frequently contested in the Environment Court and the elected councillors could not gain agreement to their proposed Regional Resources Plan (required by the RMA). As a result the sustainability of ECan and it’s business model was frequently under threat of one sort or another. Through the complexity lens, we can see multiple feedback loops at work, with an overall trend towards ineffective governance and poorer ecosystem health. The unsustainability of the environmental management resulting from ECan’s approach in this period also threatened the sustainability of ECan.

Still lacking a regional resources plan, in 2000, ECan initiated a different approach, the Canterbury Strategic Water Study (CSWS). This study was a joint project with the predecessor of today’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) in an effort to develop an effective vehicle for strategic regional management and development of Canterbury’s water and land resources23. In response to community concerns about the impact of dairying and other intensified land use made possible by irrigation, the focus of the CSWS shifted from the previous focus primarily on water availability to include consideration of water quality, ecosystem sustainability and the need to understand community water values more broadly. The study appears to have had an educative effect, by raising community knowledge about the complexity inherent in water management and enlisting community support for a different approach. An evaluation of the second phase of the study was done by a reference group of people from across Canterbury with a wide range of interests: Ngai Tahu as tangata whenua5 and farmers, irrigators, anglers, recreationists, and environmentalists. This led to the formulation of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS) launched in 2009 and owned by the Canterbury Mayoral Forum, a body consisting of the mayors of the ten territorial areas in the Canterbury region (one of which is Christchurch City) and the Chair of Ecan, and strongly supported by Ngai Tahu. There was wide consultation in the region on this more strategic framework which set out a values framework for decisions on water management. More specific targets were added in 2010 and implementation began.

In the period discussed in the paragraph above, we see a broader understanding of sustainability come into play and a more sustainable approach to balancing economic development, community values and ecosystem health. Osborne and colleagues contend that PSOs such as ECan cannot act as if their efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability are in their own hands alone: ‘in reality … [they are] part of a complex service delivery system’3:425. In the case study so far, through the complexity lens, we see a number of interdependent actors in action arenas at the national, regional and local level, interacting in ways that reshape the water governance system as something potentially more sustainable for all. ECan struggled throughout the 1990s to establish its authority sustainably22. Adoption of the CWMS involved ECan sharing its authority to establish a resource plan with the district mayors. It was also a bifurcation or tipping point that marked the beginning a new era. Authority for the mayors to take this step arose from changes to the Local Government Act in 2002 which introduced a focus on sustainability and stewardship of four ‘well-beings’ (economic, environmental, social and cultural). Not only did the mayors now own the CWMS, they were eager to see it implemented because they saw it as a route towards local economic development and an escape from their experience of protracted and litigious decision making over the previous decade.

It was not long, however, before ongoing divisions within ECan, mostly between councillors representing rural versus urban constituencies, led the mayors to doubt the capability of ECan to implement CWMS effectively. They appealed to the Minister to take the unprecedented step of dismissing ECan. As a network of organizations, the Mayoral Forum could not function effectively, if the key organization with the necessary powers under the RMA to regulate freshwater was not able to do so because of internal conflicts. So again the sustainability of ECan was under threat, this time as a result of interactions internal to ECan which threatened the sustainability of the governance regime that had been established through the Mayoral Forum.

Ministers responded by first commissioning a review and then, accepting the findings of the review panel, dismissed the elected ECan. Special legislation was enacted to enable Ministers to appoint Commissioners to carry out the functions of ECan. Ministers went further and, while encouraging continuation of the collaborative approach begun by the Mayoral Forum and CWMS, legislated to give ECan exemptions from some of the requirements of the RMA ‘to provide the Council with certain powers that it does not otherwise have to address issues relevant to the efficient, effective and sustainable management of fresh water in the Canterbury region’ (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management Act, 2010). Significantly, the legislation limited the grounds for appeal of decisions in the Environment Court[6]. While there was some adverse reaction both nationally and locally to the suspension of a democratically elected Council in Canterbury and the reduction of the grounds for appeal about ECan’s decisions, this was quickly overshadowed by events triggered by the fatal earthquake in Christchurch in February, 2010. Later, the appointment term of the ECan commissioners was extended beyond the intended 2012 local body elections. Ministers subsequently agreed on a new hybrid model of elected and appointed Commissioners after the 2016 local government elections. With the help of national level actors and new institutional frameworks, ECan was again in a position to pursue sustainability, within this altered governance system because of interactions between the regional and national parts of the service delivery system.

At the time the Commissioners were appointed, continuation of the CWMS was not a foregone conclusion. However CWMS survived because of the commitment of the mayors. As a statement of shared values and outcomes for water resource management in Canterbury, CWMS has as its vision: to enable present and future generations to gain the greatest social, economic, recreational and cultural benefits from our water resources within an environmentally sustainable framework. It identifies targets as an agreed way to measure progress toward this outcome and includes a set of goals, applying from 2010, that reflect the fundamental principles[7]. Targets have been set for 2015, 2020 and 2040 to provide a set of long-term environment, social, economic and cultural outcomes reflecting a sustainable development approach to achieve the goals. In 2015, ECan produced its first report against the CWMS targets showing a lot of activity underway but little impact so far in improving water quality.

The detail of how CWMS targets are to be met is worked out through 10 zone committees (one for each major water catchment in the region and one to oversee region-wide infrastructure and co-ordination issues). These zone committees, established progressively by ECan and the respective territorial councils since 2010, are joint committees under the Local Government Act 2002, which among other things means that they are subject to the Local Government (Official Information and Meetings) Act 1987. Nominations for membership were sought from the local communities in each zone. Committee members are required to give effect to the fundamental principles, targets and goals of the CWMS; be culturally sensitive observing tikanga Maori[8]; give consideration to and balance the interests of all water stakeholders in the region in debate and decision-making; work in a collaborative and co-operative manner using best endeavours to reach solutions that take account of the interests of all sectors of the community; promote a shift in philosophy from an individual rights basis towards using water resources to a collective interests approach. ECan selects zone committee members for their ability to work constructively with others holding different views. As well as reflecting a particular perspective, members often have deep roots in the community arising from regular contact with other interests, such as the farmer, who is also a recreational angler, and whose children like to swim in the local stream: We look at geographic spread … at skill set—there is quite a broad assessment criteria … when people are sitting in front of us we might say, well you would both be very good, but when we look at who is already on the committee and what is missing … (ECan informant, 2014). The committees are advisory to ECan and the relevant territorial council and operate under terms of reference but have no other statutory authority.

At least one of the ECan Commissioners attends Zone Committee meetings regularly, along with the representatives of the district council and Ngai Tahu[9]. Expert advisors can be called on for scientific input. The intended outcome for each catchment is a Zone Implementation Plan (ZIP) which sums up the local priorities for freshwater management. Reaching this point is a lengthy process and many remark on the difficulties inherent in working collaboratively. ‘We are four years in now. Our ZIP was developed over about 18 months and was a very interesting process … we all bring our experiences and expertise and come from different backgrounds…. In those early days there was quite a bit of laying your cards out on the table, letting everyone have their say, and listening and understanding each other…. We developed respect for each other and respect for each other’s approaches and where they were coming from (Personal communication, Zone Committee Chair, December, 2014).

A ZIP typically includes recommendations to amend ECan’s rules, for example in relation to the amount of nutrient that can be allowed to leach into waterways or the minimum flow required on a particular river. ZIPs might also include recommendations for additional flow, water quality monitoring or action on biodiversity. Recommended rule changes are taken up by ECan using its powers under the RMA to create or amend detailed requirements of the regional plan.

Through the complexity lens, each zone committee is a sub system operating largely within the parameters provided by ECan but also bringing community knowledge and values to bear to interpret the scientific information about water quality and economic development opportunities. Through the discussions that take place in the zone committee forums local solutions are developed which are more likely to have general acceptance when later incorporated into the ECan plan. Zone committees contribute to ECan’s sustainability and the sustainability of the service delivery system of which they are a part. Zone committees also contribute to sustainability of the system because they increase the input of highly contextualized, diffuse and uncodified knowledge of local waterways and the contributors to their degradation. That is they are sites of sensemaking, emergence and innovation. They bring intimate tacit knowledge of what it might take to change the current state for the better, where there is room for changed management practices to bring about water quality improvement, what is might take to changes these practices and how reduction in nutrients causing diffuse pollution might be achieved.

Since 2010 ECan has promulgated the long awaited National Regional Resources Plan (NRRP) which had been a work in progress since 1991. It subsequently revised its Regional Policy Statement to which all such plans (including District Councils’ plans) are subject and replaced the NRRP with a shorter and more accessible Land and Water Regional Plan (LWRP). The work of each zone committee will over time and where necessary be adopted by ECan as a sub-regional chapter of the LWRP. Plan amendment by ECan remains tricky. The wishes of a community-based collaborative network must be translated into the statutory rule-making within processes dictated by the RMA. ECan has to balance two very important tenets that coincide when top-down rule making meets bottom-up and middle-out collaborative processes: maintenance of the trust of the community and the community collaborative capital generated through the processes of consultation carried out over several years by the zone committees; and exercise of ECan’s statutory obligations, including the necessary independence of their decision making. This delicate balance has been achieved so far because the ECan commissioners have honoured the collaborative capital built up through the zone committee process and continue to work on the quality of the relationships which have been established between the Commissioners, the zone committees and the wider Canterbury community. Interpersonal relationships between the ECan commissioners and the zone committee members, and communication plays a big part. There is also high quality paper and web-based public information on process, progress and outcomes. Interestingly in this regard, the current ECan commissioners are well aware that adopting the recommendations of local zone committees could lead to different solutions to meeting environmental bottom lines in different catchments. In the words of one Commissioner: ‘the right way is as much what we all agree to do. There are tests as to whether it is working or not. But if we are agreed to do it this way, then does it really matter that Australia does is this way or America does it slightly differently. It might reflect culture or it might reflect circumstances or it might just reflect that this is the bargain that we struck here’ (Personal communication, ECan Commissioner, 2015).

Adding to the omissions of the past, two factors continue to have a negative effect on water quality in Canterbury (and elsewhere): ongoing increases in dairy herd numbers and land area devoted to dairying facilitated by increased irrigation; and historical water-use consents granted over the years by ECan, and only recently, or yet to be, acted on. When the appointed Commissioners took over in Canterbury in 2010, they decided not to revisit previously agreed consents which, according to one Commissioner, would have been a massive and problematic exercise as well as controversial and probably court-contested given the strict processes laid out in the RMA for the review of consents. ECan and the zone committees, have focused on Farm Environmental Plans as an engagement and education tool for gaining farmer buy-in to more environmentally sustainable farming practices: ‘We need to get a change in mind-set; make it natural that people do good management practice and look after their water’. Personal Communication farmer and zone committee chair. This approach by ECan recognizes that the sustainability of the system whole is the result of the decision making and actions of individual farmers and this might be more quickly changed through education as well as the traditional use of penalties for allowing runoff into waterways.

Using the complexity lens we get some insights into factors likely to affect the sustainability of this PSO system in the future. Focusing in turn on each of the interacting systems we can see some of the feedback loops affecting the stability of the overall system and also how these might be disrupted to create a different pattern which could threaten sustainability. There is likely to be an increase in irrigated land arising from existing and new consents, facilitating more intensive farming, and making increased nutrient runoff into waterways likely and therefore threatening the environmental sustainability of the system. The new national bottom lines and the ECan LWRP requirements aim to regulate this in the future and apply penalties for non-compliance. Observers note that the parallel achievement of reduced nitrate loads and increased irrigation will be problematic: ‘existing users will need to adopt better than good practice management and incur cost’, hence ECan’s focus on changing on-farm practices. Achievement of ecosystem sustainability is made more complex and difficult to fully understand because a large proportion of Canterbury’s water is trapped in underground aquifers which will continue to be affected by past diffuse pollution for decades to come. It is clear that past neglect cannot be undone quickly, if at all and ECan Commissioners admit that the state of the environment will probably continue to get worse before it improves. Public and political reaction to these two factors remains a treat to ECan sustainability.

ECan’s June 2015 Progress Report against CWMS showed that the first five years of CWMS have been largely about setting up the processes and getting the community’s buy-in, particularly in rural and farming districts. National environmental reporting consisting of indicators such as total phosphorus and dissolved nitrates at monitoring sites in the region reveal a pattern of low water quality in most lakes and lowland streams. The 2015 CWMS Progress Report confirms this pattern24. Aquatic ecosystem health of spring-fed plains and urban streams showed a rapid decline in the 2012-2014 period over the previous three years with around 70% graded as poor or below. The CWMS has milestones mapped out to 2040 and the next progress report is due in 2020. The LWRP has set some water quality and nutrient discharge limit rules for the region which are now being acted upon and will progressively be refined in the sub-regional chapters resulting from ZIP recommendations if more stringent limits are required to maintain or improve water quality. ECan is currently committed to its collaborative approach to rule-making and also to voluntary or incentivized action in the form of on-farm management practices, to make water use more efficient and limit nutrient loss from the soil root zone into freshwater sources, backed up by the new regulatory limits in the National Policy Objectives, the LWRP and the new sub-regional chapters as they are promulgated. ECan also has an ‘immediate steps’ programme and has allocated funding to improve habitats that contribute to aquatic ecosystem health. The sustainability of ECan in this environment is very dependent of public and political opinions about the effectiveness the water governance in achieving a sufficient impact on stemming environmental degradation in the short term and improving it over the longer term.

In 2015 the national government established a new Act which requires the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand to publish a synthesis report every six months on one of the five environmental domains (air, freshwater, land, marine, atmosphere and climate), on a 3-year cycle beginning with freshwater in mid-2016. However monitoring sites nationally remain too few and the information obtained is insufficient for monitoring long term trends and changes that might be signals of catastrophic change in river systems—the ultimate threat to the sustainability of the system. In early 2016 against a growing national attention to water quality, and taking a lead from the recommendations of the LWF’s 2015 report25, ministers put forward proposals for a further tranche of provisions to apply nationally. These include introducing a national regulation that requires exclusion of dairy cattle from water bodies by 1 July 2017, using the Macroinvertebrate Community Index (MCI) as an additional measure for monitoring water quality, allowing regional councils to set technical efficiency standards for water use.

As ECan’s regulatory screws tighten we can expect new threats to the sustainability of ECan and the water management system as those reluctant to change their practices, and meet more stringent requirements, push back. It is not clear whether national and regional politicians and bureaucrats are ready for this and prepared to meet this challenge to their authority in a wider court of public opinion, and use all the regulatory powers they have to compel compliance. Knowledge sharing, between those intimately involved in zone committees and the general public, remains a threat. The low availability of environmental monitoring and reporting, in forms more easily understood by non-specialists and the general public is a weakness in the current water management public service system. National debate is also beginning about pricing water and creating incentives for the highest value uses of freshwater which have not to date been part of the New Zealand policy scene.

Discussion and conclusions

The analysis of ECan and the Canterbury water governance system in this paper had the purpose of demonstrating the complex and interdependent interactions which, over time, have contributed to the sustainability of ECan and the public service delivery system for Canterbury’s water governance. According to Osborne, Radnor, Vidal and Kinder,6 this sustainability results from interactions across and between four dimensions: sustainability of ECan; sustainability of the service delivery system and its governance mechanisms; sustainability of the local community and environmental sustainability. These four dimensions are used to discuss the findings from the complexity analysis above and draw some conclusions.

Sustainability of the individual PSO

ECan’s sustainability over the last 25 years, as seen in the previous section, fluctuated because of changes in the wider systems of which it was part and also because of internal causes. As part of a larger complex system ECan was at different times affected by changes at the national and regional level and also factors endogenous to ECan itself. In the first 20 years, the absence of national policy and guidelines led to a too-narrow framing of decisions made by ECan and undermined its sustainability. Involvement of a wider constituency in setting ECan’s goals and processes helped to make ECan more sustainable while internal divisions undermined it. Throughout, the sustainability of ECan remained interdependent with other parts of the water governance regime at the national regional and local level.

Sustainability of the service delivery system and its governance mechanisms

Interdependent interactions were described between the ECan as the principal PSO in focus, and the national system of water governance, and the CWMS. ECan Commissioners, mayors, farmers and others involved in the implementation of CWMS frequently remarked that ‘there had to be a better way’ than the time and expense of constant referral of ECan’s decisions to the Environment Court for adjudication. ECan’s initial failure to take a strategic and longer-term view of water management and its inability to make progress on an agenda to make better use of the region’s water through irrigation from 1991-2010 contributed to an unsustainable position in 2010 for both the PSO and the water regulation system.

The collaborative approaches that produced the CWMS have provided the basis for a modified governance structure for water management in Canterbury. Since 2010, the regional rules have been made clearer through the LWRP and litigation has ceased to be the default response to ECan decisions. There appears to be community support for the zone committee processes devised under the CWMS and acted upon by ECan. Further tightening of regulation at the national level has positively reinforced the changes made by ECan and strengthened the governance regime sustainability. The national decision to return to some elected members of ECan in 2016 could again open up the possibility of interactions internal to ECan threatening the sustainability of the service delivery system.

The collaborative processes being employed in the zone committees and nationally in the Land and Water Forum, to arrive at the regulatory standards are themselves innovative in the context of water regulation and governance in New Zealand. Both of these processes have allowed innovative solutions to emerge and have contributed to overall sustainability of the water governance regime. Collaboration was a response to information and resource deficiencies26,27 as well as a source of innovation28. At the regional level, district councils came together to co-labour across boundaries, to achieve common goals such as more water for irrigation to enable economic development. The imperative for collaboration increased with: the complexity of the issues under consideration; the need for information and expertise outside of ECan; and recognition that a diversity of perspectives might assist understanding, helping point the way to successful intervention, and creating legitimacy29.

Sustainability of the local community

According to Osborne et al.3 sustainable PSOs are dependent upon building long term relationships across service systems rather than seeking short-term discrete and transactional value. Through the engagement of ten zone committees, involving collaboration and co-production with affected communities, ECan has established new regulation for water use and also remedial strategies. In doing so, ECan has strengthened not only its own sustainability but the whole water governance system. The ECan example is closely followed at the national level by LWF and the Ministry for the Environment as a test case for future regulatory change. ECan’s approach is also being copied by other regions.

Progress through the Canterbury Water Study process, the CWMS and zone committees required exploration and identification of community values for freshwater, education of water users, particularly irrigators and behavioural change. Technical knowledge and expertise about water quality remained a core element, but local experience and values also played a role in how the ‘hard’ science about water quality and availability was interpreted and applied. These processes have also brought about understanding and acceptance of the need for behavioural change at the level of the individual water user. The complexity lens takes account of the interdependency and the reflexive interaction that occurs between institutional actors in a service delivery system30,31,32,33. It also allows us to understand why the sustainability of a single PSO within such a system might not be sufficient for the sustainability of the whole. Repeated iterations of interaction between organizations and institutional actors are nonlinear and create patterns, some of which will be novel. The patterns produced by these interactions between the parts might appear stable at the macro level because of the effects of many negative feedback loops which cancel out change. Alternatively, these interactions might achieve a trajectory in a particular direction because of predominantly positive feedback loops and become a source of emergent phenomena which are necessary for innovation34, or they might appear chaotic with no overall direction of change because there is instability in the patterns of change produced through the interactions between the actors. In the latter case, the policy or implementation might be observed as stalled. Through the complexity lens, we understand the sustainability of the system is a product of the relationships between the parts and the patterns created by their repeated nonlinear interactions.

Sustainability of the environment

ECan and CWMS are needing to address processes of environmental change that have a long history of commission and omission. The pattern of land use-change becoming more intensive and bringing associated degradation of water quality goes back at least to early settlement in New Zealand. Economic development and social changes in the last few decades have accelerated the trend and begun to threaten the sustainability of the natural environment in Canterbury. The state and trends in water quality and quantity in Canterbury are ongoing threats to the sustainability of ECan and the water governance regime. ECan’s sustainability depends on gaining sufficient public acceptance that enough is being done to stem the trend and in time turn it around through tighter regulation, penalties and education to change individual user practices. Hence information sharing and collaborative participation are two strategies adopted by ECan.


Finally, the complexity lens helps us to see the interdependence that exists between all four of Osborne and colleagues’ dimensions. Public service systems co-create valued services through the interaction of the interdependent parts of the service delivery system. These collaborations also require a particular style of mutual learning. System governance relies upon different types and sources of knowledge. These include science based knowledge about water quality, quantity and the sustainability of the natural ecosystems. They also need knowledge of social systems such as: local economic development trends and what influences them; farming practices and influences on them; social and cultural values for water; and global economic trends and their influence on local economies21. Such knowledge is either siloed in the case of more discipline-influenced knowledge or highly distributed, uncodified and often heavily value laden. Collaborators must learn about the problem and its solutions from each other. The must also learn the way forward through experimentation and learning by doing35,36.

Looking backwards, as well as forwards in the Canterbury case, it is possible to identify that sustainability of the public service system was endogenously generated within the system itself and also that threats to sustainability could arise from similar processes of interaction with the system. Future research needs to focus on how the positive influences on sustainability are best identified and reinforced. Equally there needs to be a focus on detecting the small changes that might signal threats to sustainability and how to disrupt them without unwanted effects.


1 Elected bodies mandated through the Local Government Act 2002.

2 Office of the Auditor General (OAG) and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) are both independent statutory bodies which report directly to Parliament on the efficiency and effectiveness of policy and regulation. ECan is a regional council and it has ten district councils in its area of responsibility.

3 Source: Statistics New Zealand and Census 2013.

4 According to Statistics NZ, in 1994 there were 212, 492 dairy cows in Canterbury and by 2013 this had increased by 514% to 1,304,618.

5 Native Maori people of the local land.

6 For a more detailed account see Brower, 2010 and Brower and Kleynbos, 2015.

7 Targets have been developed for: 1. Ecosystem health/biodiversity; 2. Natural character of braided rivers; 3. Kaitiakitanga; 4. Drinking water; 5. Recreational and amenity opportunities; 6. Water-use efficiency; 7. Irrigated land area; 8. Energy security and efficiency; 9. Regional and national economies; 10. Environmental limits.

8 Maori customs.

9 The main Maori tribe on the South Island.



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