6.4 - Proposed key reform directions
6.4.1 - A national environmental information supply chain, roadmap and custodian
The provision of information can be viewed like a supply chain. Information is delivered through a series of processes that convert raw data into end products that can be used—by decision-makers to inform their decisions, by proponents to help them understand and design their project proposals, and by the community to understand the impacts of decisions and the outcomes that are achieved.
As with other supply chains, effort and resourcing is required for an efficient chain that delivers the right products at the right time to the right customers. The customer (the user) is central to the design of the supply chain.
Reform activities proposed by this Review will become core users of the supply chain of information, including:
- requirements to make decisions that deliver ESD
- the setting and implementation of National Environmental Standards
- the development of regional environmental plans and the monitoring and evaluation framework of the EPBC Act (Chapter 7).
The opportunity is broader than just the EPBC Act. A national environmental information supply chain that delivers for a national system of environmental management is needed. The national environmental information supply chain should:
- prioritise the collection of environmental and other information, making the most of modern technologies to do this efficiently
- have a central repository (or clearly linked repositories), from where data can be curated into information and knowledge
- incorporate the data and information that is owned and curated by others, including economic and social information. Indigenous data and knowledge should be also incorporated in a culturally appropriate way, which respects the custodians of that knowledge
- incorporate predictive modelling capability, so cumulative pressures can be considered and, future scenarios and risks can be comprehensively examined
- supply the decision-making frameworks, that enable ESD to be effectively considered, and the precautionary principle applied
- feed into the frameworks that support monitoring and evaluation, of the National Environmental Standards, the operation of the Act and the broader national environmental management system.
A national supply chain, which can deliver the same information to a decision-maker (for example the Commonwealth or a state or territory under a devolved arrangement), will make it easier for governments to demonstrate their systems deliver decisions that are consistent with the National Environmental Standards.
Significant upfront investment is required to deliver the substantial improvement in the information supply chain, and ongoing investment will be required to maintain the system over time. This will improve the effectiveness of Australia’s environmental management and deliver efficiency for governments and for business.
Given the significant investment required, the supply chain should be delivered in a strategic and coordinated way. A comprehensive roadmap is needed. Responsibility for planning and delivering the supply chain should be assigned to a national institution—a custodian of the national environmental information supply chain. There are numerous potential candidates amongst key national institutions. However, the Review is not going to ‘pick a winner’.
The national custodian would have clear responsibility for:
- facilitating the collaboration of relevant stakeholders to establish information needs for national-level reporting, and policy and program design
- developing, publishing and maintaining a long-term data, information and systems strategy and road map that identifies priority needs
- overseeing the central repository (or connected repositories) of information, noting that individual datasets may be managed by the collecting organisation that has the relevant expertise
- providing advice on the national standards for data collection, management and use
- coordinating national level capability for predictive modelling, including facilitating a community of knowledge to support the development and use of these models
- advising on the frameworks for delivering ESD in decision-making and for applying the precautionary principle (which should be required by the EPBC Act).
6.4.2 - A national environmental standard for information and data
A National Environmental Standard for information and data should describe and define data requirements, and the form in which data should be provided to support data sharing and transparency. Building on existing technical data standards, a National Standard should provide a clear framework to support the provision of the required data and information, in a form that supports its integration into the supply chain.
Some standards for data and information already exist. However, there are rarely consequences if these standards are not used. Proponents should be required to submit data and information supporting development approval applications in a standardised way. Compliance with the standard should be a requirement for an application to be validly made.
The standard should apply to proponents and other providers of information and data including relevant departments. The ‘Digital Transformation of Environmental Impact Assessment’ work being delivered through a partnership between the Australian and West Australian governments provides a sound starting point for this standard114.
Legislative changes could further embed expectations for data collection and sharing in the EPBC Act. The Act could include powers that enable the Commonwealth to compel public institutions, researchers and other organisations funded by government grants and programs to provide the environmental information they collect in a manner consistent with the National Environmental Standard for information and data.
6.4.3 - The Department’s information management systems need a complete overhaul
The Department’s information management systems need to be overhauled to provide a modern interface for interactions on the EPBC Act and to embed within systems the key decision-making frameworks that harness information and knowledge.
A modern interface includes:
- a case-management system that supports the full project lifecycle, from application through assessment, approval, to compliance and enforcement
- the capacity to link with others—so that information can be provided once and shared many times (for example with the supply chain custodian or other regulators)
- the ability to record, share and search information related to EPBC Act decisions in a way that is accessible to both the public and proponents
- the ability to readily communicate decisions using modern communication channels, rather than relying on newspaper advertisements and the Government Notices Gazette.
In the short-term, the granularity of National Environmental Standards is limited by the information available to define and apply them to decision-making. A quantum shift in the quality of information is required to transform standards from qualitative indicators of outcomes to quantified measures of outcomes. To apply granular standards to decision-making, governments need the capability to model the environment, including the probability of outcomes from proposals, drawing on predictive modelling capabilities and decision-making frameworks for ESD that will be delivered as part of the information supply chain.
To do this well, investment is required to improve knowledge of how ecosystems operate and develop the capability to model them, which is essential for testing scenarios and making informed, risk-based decisions. This requires a complete overhaul of the systems to enable improved information to be captured and incorporated into decision-making.
The frameworks and data used to advise decision-makers, and how these have been applied in the development of advice for decision-makers (for example in the making of a standard, regional plan or decision on a development application), should be publicly available information. The Government’s systems should have the capability to efficiently support the preparation, consideration and publication of this information.
To build public trust and confidence, the proposed Information and Knowledge Committee (Chapter 5) should be responsible for providing the Environment Minister with independent advice on the application of the National Environmental Standard and the ESD decision-making frameworks. This advice should be transparently provided, and, where the Environment Minister acts in a manner contrary to the advice, a statement of reasons should be published.
6.4.4 - Resourcing reforms
The Review acknowledges that the quantum shift required in information and data systems will come at significant cost.
A national information supply chain, with a custodian, should deliver efficiencies for all governments over time. It is an up-front investment that negates the need for multiple systems to be developed by individual governments, or to fund new one-off initiatives requiring grants or program funds.
CSIRO noted in their submission that systems of linked repositories and standardisation between jurisdictions could deliver both economic gains and increased transparency115. In Western Australia, it is estimated that digitally transformed environmental impact assessment would deliver a benefit of more than $150 million every year through accelerated private and public project development116.
The need for investment in data, information and systems is in part generated by the need to regulate the impacts of development on the environment. Consistent with the principle that the impactor (or ‘polluter’) pays, proponents should be required to pay the efficient cost of the share of information, knowledge and systems required to underpin the regulation of their activities.
 Background on this work can be found in the Digitally Transforming Environmental Assessment Working Group Report, a report of the Digital Environmental Impact Assessment Working Group released in October 2019.
 CSIRO, ANON-K57V-XFQC-Y. Submission in response to EPBC Act Review Discussion Paper.