The Hub and ‘huddles’ make us more nimble
The EPA responds to environmental incidents, performs regulatory tasks and carries out enforcement actions. We need to allocate this work to our operations staff as efficiently as possible. To improve our efficiency, in September 2020 we drew together experienced operational staff to form a new statewide team, ‘The Hub’.
The Hub’s role is to:
- allocate work across operational teams
- help prioritise regulatory actions
- provide guidance on difficult issues
- redirect resources to meet changing priorities.
The Hub team meets daily with the operations leadership team in a ‘huddle’. Here the teams assess work tasks and assign them to work units, allocating them according to each unit’s capability and capacity. In the process, the teams share their expertise and understanding of stakeholders.
In its first year, The Hub has absorbed 16% of work from frontline staff, who now have more time to respond to stakeholders.
To be more agile and responsive, we have moved away from both allocating work to EPA offices by location and the ‘responsible officer’ model. Our case management and information management systems allow cases to be handled by operations staff across NSW. Stakeholders may now deal with more than one office or officer, rather than a single one as they may have in the past.
No longer allocating work by geography gives us greater ‘surge capability’. The bushfires, floods and COVID-19 pandemic of the last few years have shown how important it is to be able to quickly mobilise resources across the organisation.
Surveys have told us that stakeholders want us to be more consistent in our approach, and more responsive. The Hub is doing this. By scheduling work across teams, the Hub also helps the EPA:
- better identify emerging issues and important trends
- regulate more consistently
- collaborate across the organisation
- prevent regulatory capture.
Embedding a culture of continual improvement
In 2019 the EPA Board recommended a ‘focus on continuous improvement in EPA regulatory practices from end to end’. From this, our Continual Improvement Program was born. The program’s aim is to make us a more effective regulator by:
- improving our work processes
- learning from best practice in other agencies
- fostering a culture of continual improvement.
A culture of continual improvement necessarily involves a learning mindset – a characteristic of a world class regulator.
The Continual Improvement team works with other teams across the organisation on their problems, big or small. It has a variety of tools and techniques that can identify needs and drill down to root causes. This year the team’s initiatives included:
- reviewing how the EPA fulfils its requirements under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009, to improve response times
- identifying how we could be more effectively involved in land-use planning processes
- making key administrative processes more consistent and efficient
- exchanging practice insights between the EPA and other regulatory authorities.
A new digital ‘backbone’ for regulatory activities
The EPA’s new Environment Protection Incident and Cases (EPIC) management system went live in March 2021. EPIC is a cloud-based, end-to-end case management system designed specifically for the way we work and the legislation we administer. We consulted extensively with stakeholders on its design.
EPIC is the digital ‘backbone’ of our regulatory activities. It integrates with our core systems for records management, licensee management, stakeholder relationship management and geospatial tools, and supports work such as:
- responding to incidents, reports and complaints
- taking regulatory action
- tracking investigations and inspections
- issuing and tracking requests for technical and legal advice to support case management
- flagging safety risks to staff.
EPIC provides a framework within which we can track investigations and inspections from beginning to end. It integrates several systems, eliminating the need to duplicate records.
Through EPIC, we can easily validate information such as incident locations, stakeholder details and ABN numbers, making it easier to report and analyse data.
We recorded 8,568 environmental incidents impacting human health and the environment in 2020–21.
The trend shows an increase from the baseline of 7,434 in 2015–16. While the target is to reduce the number of environmental incidents, due to increased public awareness and direct education campaigns, the target is to also increase the number of incidents reported. As a result, performance since 2015–16 is considered to be on track.
Understanding emerging issues, trends and opportunities
Regulatory intelligence helps us to understand, respond and adapt to key environmental and human health issues.
The EPA collaborates with partners across Australia to ensure its intelligence systems and skills are at the forefront of the craft. It receives and shares relevant intelligence with partners, for instance by linking into a national network for horizon scanning and using interagency platforms for sharing intelligence.
Leveraging intelligence is key to meeting the challenges set out in our Regulatory Strategy and to achieving our objectives of protecting, restoring and enhancing the environment and reducing the risks to human health.
Rural sunset, NSW. Photo: iStock
The EPA collects and uses intelligence for four main purposes.
We use intelligence to identify and understand emerging issues, trends, risks and opportunities. Horizon scans conducted by our intelligence team in 2020–21 generated insights into economic development, technology, climate change, community values and urban land use that informed the EPA’s strategic planning and decision-making.
We use intelligence to inform the development of policy and compliance approaches to regulatory challenges in areas such as native forestry, pesticides, dangerous goods transport and waste management. In 2020–21, intelligence assessments across these areas helped the EPA see and take opportunities to intervene and respond.
We use intelligence to identify and understand companies, individuals and networks that may be involved in environmental crime or present a security threat to EPA officers. In 2020–21 the EPA identified and implemented policy reforms to make it harder for environmental criminals to stay in business.
We use intelligence to guide the development of our capabilities. For example, intelligence on African Swine Fever received in 2020–21 supported the EPA in collaborating with government on incident-preparedness exercises and developing specialist knowledge and spatial products that could be quickly deployed in the event of a biosecurity outbreak.
Responding promptly to customer enquiries
The EPA replies to correspondence it receives directly from the public, and also provides replies on behalf of the NSW Government and the Minister for Energy and Environment.
The EPA aims to reply to all correspondence that it receives. In 2020–21 we dealt with 2,218 items, a 50% increase on the previous year. We replied to:
- 91% of general correspondence within the target time of four weeks, falling only slightly below the target of 95%
- 59% of parliamentary correspondence within the target time of two weeks, 21% less than in the previous year. This below-target rate was due to the large volume of correspondence, much of it about koala habitat and matters related to the 2019–20 bushfires (such as logging in native forests and rebuilding communities).
Environment Line is a significant channel of interaction with the public. It is a ‘one-stop shop’ for people reporting pollution and environmental incidents to the EPA (and to the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment). Information from calls is recorded in the Compliance Incident Reporting and Management system. Every call received is a valuable opportunity for us to listen and act.
In 2020–21, Environment Line:
received 63,794 phone calls, with more than half (57%) being solely for the EPA
generated 10,139 incident reports of pollution where the EPA had regulatory responsibility, 17% more than in the previous year
resolved 74% of issues during the initial call
received 29,950 email inquiries and reports, 17% fewer than in the previous year
Most contacts related to water pollution, odour, noise, waste management and air quality.
The total number of contacts has fallen by about 20% since 2019–20. It is returning to a more typical value after a spike caused by the 2019–20 bushfires and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
EPA All-Staff Festival goes digital
CEO Tracy Mackey and EPA Chair Rayne de Gruchy with Matt Kean, Treasurer, and Minister for Energy and Environment at the EPA All-Staff Festival 2020. Photo: EPA
In September 2020 the EPA broke new ground with its first online All-Staff Festival. The theme of the festival was ‘Storytelling’ and its power in building naturally influential relationships with all EPA stakeholders.
We initially planned the event as a traditional face-to-face gathering. But the COVID-19 pandemic meant we couldn’t bring people together in person. So we reworked the one-day festival into an online event that ran over two weeks on the @Workplace platform.
The festival worked extraordinarily well. Viewers posted more than 6,600 comments and reactions in the festival month. Almost 5,000 of these posts were made in real time, during sessions.
When participants were surveyed:
- 82% agreed or strongly agreed that the festival had been a valuable use of their time
- 78% rated the event four or five out of five
- only 9.5% said they’d prefer an in-person event in future.
After this success, we can feel confident about running more such events.
Adopting remote inspections
First spans being installed for the new Batemans Bay Bridge over Clyde River. Photo: Transport for NSW
In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic restricted travel and gatherings. As a result, the EPA had to rapidly change many of its regulatory practices, such as how we interacted with our stakeholders and carried out work previously done in the field.
One way we adapted was to start doing remote inspections. We used a variety of technologies for these, including up-to-date satellite imagery and site walk-throughs on virtual meeting platforms. The project to replace the Batemans Bay bridge demonstrates this.
Construction was taking place over a sensitive waterway with high conservation value; community interest was correspondingly high. The project needed close engagement. Traditionally this would have included an EPA officer visiting every month to inspect.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, we adapted to use virtual tools. The licensee surveyed the large and complex premises by drone and sent the EPA a high-definition video showing the entire premises and associated works. We found that the drone survey accurately identified all the challenges associated with the works. In some instances, it provided a better contextual understanding of the works than an in-person inspection.