116 – Capacities of regional NRM bodies

A number of natural resource management (NRM) programs around the world have devolved decision making powers to regionally based bodies involving links to local communities. But do these bodies have the required capacity and competencies to make these very complex decisions?

Managing investments of public funds in the environment and NRM can be tremendously challenging. The problems are very complex, usually involving a difficult mix of technical and socioeconomic issues, sometimes overlaid with unhelpful political expectations..

About a decade ago in Australia, these difficult management problems began to be devolved to 56 regional NRM bodies. They vary in style from state to state, but they are all meant to have strong links into their local communities (stronger that state governments, anyway). As a group they have spent billions of dollars of public money.

A key question is what skills and capacities they need to have to do the job they have been charged with, and whether there are any important gaps in those capacities. We conducted a phone survey of 18 of the regional bodies to delve into these questions. In addition, we have reviewed over a dozen of their regional strategic plans.

We concluded that they have strong capacities in some respects, but that there are a number of important capacity gaps that appear to be commonly shared by them. The key ones are in the areas of: selection and evaluation of scientific information; use of economic and social information; integration of diverse information types in planning and prioritisation; and monitoring and evaluation. Some key lessons from our research in this area are outlined below.

  • Use of best science. Our experience in the SIF3 project (http://dpannell.fnas.uwa.edu.au/sif3.htm) reinforces the view that good regional NRM planning and prioritisation requires a strong evidence base and good analysis, combined with good judgment by decision makers. Currently, many regional plans have relied strongly on judgment, but with much less emphasis on the use of evidence and analysis. In addition, the regions need support from governments through the provision of quality-assured data needed for planning. There are important gaps in the required data in many (and perhaps all) regions.
  • Economic and social information in regional NRM planning. The most consistent and conspicuous capacity gap identified in this research is in economics. There are many ways that economic expertise and economic information can improve the processes of NRM planning and prioritisation (see PD#96). The minority of regional bodies who make use of economics at all do so in a limited and narrow way. The use of social information is also limited, mainly focused on social profiling. This may be helpful but there is also a need to draw on good expertise in behaviour change, and for this to be considered in a hard-nosed way when prioritising investments.
  • Integration. In most cases, the integration of information in regional NRM planning occurs informally and in ad hoc ways. There is considerable scope for more formal integration through structured decision frameworks such as SIF3. Such frameworks also provide guidance on which information is needed to support particular decisions.
  • Selecting targets. Current processes for selecting NRM targets are often very weak. Targets should be based on analysis, and should realistically reflect the available resources and the likely behavioural responses of landholders. Very few of the existing targets do so. Commonwealth and states should revise their requirements for target setting to ensure that targets are measurable and achievable, which implies the need for them to be spatially explicit and time-bound.
  • Monitoring and evaluation. Regional NRM bodies recognise monitoring and evaluation as an area of weakness. We believe that improved approaches for selecting targets are an essential prerequisite for improving monitoring and evaluation. Current monitoring and evaluation activities tend to be focused on activities and outputs, rather than on the achievement of NRM outcomes.

All of these issues can readily be addressed by the relevant government agencies (the providers of funds), with appropriate support, guidance and incentives (carrots and sticks).

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Seymour, E., Pannell, D., Ridley, A., Marsh, S., and Wilkinson, R. (2007). “Capacity needs for technical analysis and decision making within Australian catchment management organisations”, SIF3 Working Paper 0702, Future Farm Industries CRC, Perth. Full paper (404K)

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