There is a pattern with innovation. New initiatives start with positive intent, high enthusiasm and expectations. Then, with implementation, reality bites and we become focused on managing the setbacks, issues and critics. We can lose sight of what has been achieved.
Such was Inovact Consulting’s finding in a recent project where we found that regional natural resource management (NRM) organisations are quietly revolutionizing how change is delivered on the ground through community engagement.
The project involved a review of the effectiveness of community skills, knowledge and engagement (CSKE) in natural resource management under the Australian Government’s Caring for Our Country program.
The program involves significant investments of public funds. Organisations in 56 NRM regions across Australia receive an annual base-level allocation of $138 million through Caring for Our Country. It is not a new area of investment. The regional NRM organisations were established nearly a decade ago to invest in protecting the environment and the sustainable use of natural resources.
Effective community engagement is fundamental to achieve and maintain better natural resource management on a large scale. To put it in perspective, private land title is responsible for management of 70 per cent of the landscape, so community engagement is crucial to influence these land managers.
As part of the review, Inovact Consulting conducted interviews with community stakeholders in 52 of the 56 NRM regions and with staff from 43 of the 56 NRM organisations. In total, 659 people participated in the surveys; including 512 community stakeholders and 147 staff.
What we found is that, within a decade, regional NRM organisations have established themselves as the single most important source of information, knowledge, and skills for stakeholder organisations involved in regional NRM. They are providing leadership, valuable knowledge and ongoing engagement of stakeholders in regional prioritisation and decision making. The full reports can be downloaded below.
The system has evolved and adapted and is still a work in progress. However, some important lessons emerge from this work that can inform future decisions by governments and organisations involved in natural resource management:
1. Major changes take time. You can’t invest today and have trusted relationships tomorrow. It has taken nearly a decade for regional organisations to gain traction with community stakeholders.
2. Forget one size fits all. While the broad policy and program directions and standards are set nationally, decisions on ‘how’ services are delivered regionally require some flexibility to respond to the local context and needs. We saw three distinct ‘segments’ across the NRM organisations, each with different CSKE challenges to manage.
3. Effectiveness is about outcomes. Establishing trusted relationships for regional NRM is not an end in itself. But it is a powerful enabling action to influence behavior and achieve NRM outcomes on the ground.
The community relationships formed by the NRM bodies can be considered as a valuable asset for the Australian Government and for the regional organisations themselves. They provide the foundation for an ongoing quiet revolution in better natural resource management across the nation.