Abstract Conservation monitoring in Australia has assumed increasing importance in recent years, as societal pressure to actively manage environmental problems has risen. More resources than ever before are being channelled to the task of documenting environmental change. Yet the field remains crippled by a pervasive lack of rigour in analysing, reporting and responding to the results of data collected. Millions of dollars are currently being wasted on monitoring programmes that have no realistic chance of detecting changes in the variables of interest. This is partly because detecting change in ecological systems is a genuinely difficult technical and logistical challenge. However, the failure to plan, fund and execute sophisticated analyses of monitoring data and then to use the results to improve monitoring methods, can also be attributed to the failure of professional ecologists, conservation practitioners and bureaucrats to work effectively together. In this paper, we offer constructive advice about how all parties involved can help to change this situation. We use three case studies of recent monitoring projects from our own experience to illustrate ways in which the disconnect between science and bureaucracy can be bridged and some obstacles to collecting and analysing ecologically meaningful data sets can be overcome. We urge a continuing discussion on this issue and hope to stimulate a change in the culture of conservation monitoring in Australia.