Monthly Archives: April 2009

153 – Best Management Practices (BMPs)

The term “Best Management Practice” is a pet gripe of mine. It is either intellectually sloppy or dishonest, depending on how you look at it. It is probably bad marketing too.

This week I reviewed a research paper from the US that focused on so-called “Best Management Practices” (or BMPs) for farmers. This reawakened my strong dislike of this term, which is widely used in North America and Australia to mean farm management practices that are good for the environment.

My first problem is that the term lacks intellectual rigour. For who or what are the practices best? Best for the environment, best for the farmer or best overall? In practice, the term is applied to conservation practices, but why should these qualify for the label “best”? A practice might be good for the environment but really terrible from the farmer’s perspective. It might even put the farmer out of business. Taking the farmer’s perspective (which might be appropriate in a program that is promoting actions to farmers!), it would make more sense to describe as “best” those practices that maximised net benefits for farmers. From a policy perspective it would be more defensible if “best” meant best overall, once you factored in public and private benefits and cost.

But even those options don’t really make sense in practice because there is so much spatial variability in bio-physical and socio-economic conditions. Which practice is actually “best” from any particular perspective will vary from case to case. (If you observe what farmers do, it varies widely from farm to farm and from field to field.) Whether you focus on the environmental perspective, the farmer’s perspective or the policy perspective, no land management practice deserves to be called “best” as a generalisation.

Even if we do focus solely on the environment, some of the available conservation practices are in competition with each other, and some obviously work better than others in particular situations, so they obviously can’t all be “best”.

It’s apparent that “BMP” is an attempt to market a product. It is trying to apply some sort of persuasive pressure on landholders: if you are a good farmer you should adopt these practices because they are “best”. It’s bordering on dishonest really. In the commercial world, there are laws against false advertising. You can’t call your shampoo “Grow Hair on a Bald Head Shampoo” unless it really does.

As a marketing ploy, I suspect it often backfires anyway. In Pannell et al. (2006) we highlight the importance of trust and credibility if you wish to be effective at influencing farmers. Trust and credibility are hard to win and easy to lose. If I were a farmer, I think my view would be that anyone who named a practice “best” even though it did not suit my farm or was not consistent with my goals, clearly would not deserve my trust and would have little credibility. I’d dismiss them as highly biased, and as running an agenda of their own, which they were trying to impose on me. I’d feel more negative about them for making a weak attempt to disguise their agenda than if they were up front about it.

For all these reasons, the appropriate thing is to call these practices what they really are: conservation practices, or environmentally beneficial practices, or something like that. That would be best, I think.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J., Marshall, G.R., Barr, N., Curtis, A., Vanclay, F. and Wilkinson, R. (2006). Understanding and promoting adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46(11): 1407-1424.

If you or your organisation subscribes to the Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture you can access the paper at: http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/72/paper/EA05037.htm (or non-subscribers can buy a copy on-line for A$25). Otherwise, email David.Pannell@uwa.edu.au to ask for a copy. See http://www.ruralpracticechange.org/.

152 – “Understanding practice change” videos and podcasts

Back in November we ran a Symposium in Melbourne on the topic “Understanding practice change by farmers and other rural landholders”. Thanks to some generous sponsorship we were able to record the day on video and audio, and the presentations are now available on line.

Speakers on the day were Neil Barr, Allan Curtis, Geoff Kaine, Rick Llewellyn, Graham Marshall, David Pannell, Frank Vanclay, and Roger Wilkinson, and the chair for the day was Andrew Campbell.

We have established a new web site to host outputs from the Symposium http://www.ruralpracticechange.org/ For each speaker, the web site provides material from the Symposium in a range of formats:

  • a video containing an edited version of the speaker’s presentation which can be viewed to on line.
  • a video of the complete presentation which can be downloaded and viewed any time.
  • an audio recording of the complete presentation which can be listened to on line.
  • a podcast (MP3 file) of the complete presentation which can be downloaded and played any time.
  • a copy of the speaker’s PowerPoint file that can be viewed on screen.

There are also links to key papers and reports by the authors, and we are working on written versions of our presentations to be the basis for a book to be published later this year or next.

Sponsors of the Symposium were the Department of Primary Industries, Victoria; Future Farm Industries CRC; Landmark; University of Melbourne; University of Western Australia; and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Check out the site. Tell your friends!

Understanding Practice Change by Farmers

National Symposium, 14 November 2008, Melbourne.

Outputs from the Symposium, including videos, audio podcasts, and PowerPoint files, are now available at http://www.ruralpracticechange.org/

Speakers (L-R): Geoff Kaine, David Pannell, Neil Barr, Frank Vanclay, Graham Marshall, Roger Wilkinson, Allan Curtis, Rick Llewellyn

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J., Marshall, G.R., Barr, N., Curtis, A., Vanclay, F. and Wilkinson, R. (2006). Understanding and promoting adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46(11): 1407-1424.

If you or your organisation subscribes to the Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture you can access the paper at: http://www.publish.csiro.au/nid/72/paper/EA05037.htm (or non-subscribers can buy a copy on-line for A$25). Otherwise, email David.Pannell@uwa.edu.au to ask for a copy.

151 – Additionality in environmental programs

Recently, someone was telling me about a study that had found that the value of environmental services provided by a sub-set of Australian farms was several fold larger than the value of their agricultural production. I have doubts about the accuracy of this, but my biggest doubts are about its relevance. It is not really relevant to any sensible environmental policy question, in part because it ignores the principle of additionality.

Additionality basically means that a policy shouldn’t pay people to do things that they were going to do anyway (or were already doing). They should be doing additional works to qualify for funding.

This is important because resources are limited. If you create a policy program where people can be paid for environmental benefits that they would have generated even without being paid, there are consequences:

(a) If the policy program has a fixed budget (most do), it basically means that the program will deliver less in the way of environmental benefits than it could have done, because some of the money is being spent on things that do not generate new benefits.

(b) Even if the budget is not fixed, it means that the program is transferring money from taxpayers to recipients under the program, without generating new environmental benefits.

Some might argue that transferring money to farmers is a good thing, but if financial benefits are to be transferred to a particular group, it is better to do this explicitly, rather than hide it within a so-called environmental program. It is also worth recalling that spending public money involves taking it away from other uses via the tax system. And that it is not free to move money around like this; it may cost something of the order of $0.30 in administration costs to spend each tax dollar.

There has been a lot of attention paid to the concept of additionality in the area of climate change policy. As an illustration of how important it is to focus on additional carbon sequestration, imagine if every existing tree in the world made its owner eligible for a carbon payment. This would move massive amounts of money around, without achieving a thing for climate mitigation, since the trees are already there and would have stayed there.

There has been much less attention to additionality in areas like rural environmental policy, although it is just as relevant.

Some argue that environmental payments can be a legitimate source of income for farmers. I agree that it can, but one has to be cautious it.

For example, if a farmer has to give up an income-earning activity to undertake some environmental works, it is reasonable to compensate him or her for the resulting loss of income. Indeed, they will probably not undertake the environmental works unless you do compensate them. Such a payment is consistent with additionality because the works would not proceed without the payment. However, payments beyond the lowest level needed to make the farmer willing to take up the works would not be consistent with additionality.

Although conceptually the idea of additionality is simple, it can be difficult to apply it in practice. In particular, how can you tell what people would have done without the payment, considering that people’s behaviour and business management is always in flux to some extent? One strategy is to use an auction or tended-based process. Participants make bids, revealing what they are willing to do for a certain price, and the environmental managers choose those bids that offer the best value for money. Other options might include surveys and economic modeling, which could be of more or less relevance depending on the context.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

150 – Why don’t environmental managers use decision theory?

In a newsletter editorial last week, Hugh Possingham of University of Queensland asks the following question. Given the strong potential benefits to the environment from using formal decision tools (consistent with decision theory) to prioritise environmental investments, why don’t environmental managers and policy agencies use such tools more? He discusses a number of reasons. I’ve got some more.

I’ve invested a lot of time and effort in the past five years developing decision tools for environmental managers, and trying to get them actually used. We’ve made some progress. Currently about 14 of Australia’s 56 regional Natural Resource Management bodies have at least trialed INFFER, and it is clearly influencing the way some people think about the issues. We’ve also made some mistakes and learnt some lessons the hard way. Given all this, I’ve got a strong perspective on Hugh’s question.

Hugh discusses three possible contributing reasons (see here), the first two provided to him by Max Bourke.

  1. “It [decision theory] is ‘too rational’ and does not take account of the socio-political environment which of course clouds all decision making.” I agree with Max and Hugh that this is probably a factor, but it shouldn’t be. Decision tools don’t necessarily need to take account of the socio-political environment to be useful. People do that. The tools just have to provide useful information. (Having said that, we do take account of some aspects of the socio-political environment in INFFER, because given what INFFER aims to do, it’s important.)
  2. “It has potential in a perfect market, but these don’t exist.” This seems to imply that decision theory tools only have potential in a perfect market. If that’s the message, I don’t agree at all. It’s precisely because markets are not perfect that you need such tools. Maybe Max means something different than my interpretation.
  3. “Decision theory diminishes the influence of decision-makers, and in general they don’t like that.” Certainly this is sometime true. In talking about INFFER to a ministerial advisor, she was concerned about whether it would reduce the Minister’s discretion.

There are many other reasons as well, and different ones come into play at different time. I group the reasons for non-adoption into three categories: those related to the tools and their capabilities (point 1 is one of those), those related to the intended users and their capacities, and those related to the institutions that the tools would have to work within (point 3 is one of those). If you want to get your decision tool actually used, you’ve got to pay attention to all three aspects: the tool itself, the users, and the institutional environment.

Here are some other possible reasons for non-adoption of decision theory tools that may be relevant in particular cases.

The tools

The tools require a level of expertise or knowledge that users do not possess. For example, they may be comfortable dealing with technical information, but uncomfortable with socio-economic information.

The tools are not sufficiently flexible for different people to use them in ways that suit them. The literature on adoption of innovation shows that users often adapt innovations to suit their own circumstances.

The tools are too complex, making them difficult and expensive to use. In INFFER we’ve put a lot of effort into making the tools as simple as possible (e.g. Pannell, 2008; Roberts and Pannell, 2009) but even then many people find them challenging.

The tools themselves are not up to the job, for various reasons. They answer the wrong question, or require data that isn’t available.

The tools contain bugs. It doesn’t take much of a bug for potential users to lose confidence.

The tools are poorly documented and lack adequate help facilities.

Most of the above problems can probably be summarised under one point: The tools were developed without adequate consultation and collaboration with intended users.

The users

Potential users are not aware of the available tools. Developers of decision tools are not good at explaining them, or may have made no attempt to promote them to the relevant people. Users are very busy with other responsibilities and don’t have time to search for or evaluate decision tools.

There are too many tools available, and it’s hard for users to tell what they are good for and which ones are worth using. Scientists don’t provide sufficiently clear and helpful advice about this when asked. (I’ve seen an example of that recently.)

Users have had bad experiences with decision tools or scientists in the past.

Intended users are suspicious of the tools, or suspicious of any scientist who is perceived to be promoting his or her own work. Users don’t distinguish adequately between (a) scientists who are attempting to advance the public interest and (b) the general run of snake-oil salesmen and vested interests who they have to deal with all the time.

It is believed (quite possibly correctly) that the tool’s developers do not understand the policy environment or the relevant decision problems adequately.

Users have a particular world view that conflicts with some aspect of the tool. For example, I’ve had people object to the very idea of prioritising environmental investments because they believe that we should be encouraging and supporting all landholders to manage sustainably, or because it smacks of defeatism to admit that we can’t save everything. The very idea of taking the necessary time to collect and integrate all of the required information to make a more balanced decision is quite a novelty to some users we have worked with. (It seems such a fuss! Is it really necessary?) In other words, it may not be just a matter of adopting a new tool, but rather requires a substantial change of mind set.

The intended users lack the skills or knowledge needed to use the tools (e.g. Pannell et al. 2008). They have not had the training that would be required.

The institutions

There are three essential aspects of the institutional arrangements that will affect the success of a decision tool: (a) training and support, (b) the incentives that exist for using the tool, and (c) the processes into which the tool’s output would have to fit.

(a) Training and support

There is a need for training materials and one-on-one support, but these are not available.

(b) Incentives for use

There are inadequate incentives for people to use the tools. People need a strong reason to change what they are doing. Some people may be prompted to action by the opportunity to do a better job, but in general one should expect that there will need to be carrots (rewards for use) or sticks (penalties for non-use). For example, in getting INFFER used at the regional level, we believe it is essential for governments to give clear signals to the regions that there will be benefits to regions who do use rigorous tools to develop and assess projects. It should be clear that they stand a better chance of getting funds for their proposed projects if the projects have been evaluated positively using an appropriate assessment tool. At the level of a policy agency, the incentive to head down this line might be pressure from a minister for better evaluated projects, or from a body like the Australian National Audit Office.

These carrots and sticks probably need to be strong enough to offset disincentives for use of decision tools that are built into the system. Disincentives can include that:

  • There is no perceived need for improved decision tools. There is already a decision making system in place which people feel is adequate. Decision theory tools are more expensive to apply than the existing decision methods. There is a lack of appreciation about how poor existing decisions are.
  • Decision theory tools take time to apply, but politics requires quick action. It is administratively or politically difficult to spend money on analyses for decisions that won’t be made until a later year.
  • Some people with influence have a vested interest in the existing system. For example, INFFER has faced opposition from a number of people who had a commitment to an existing approach of one sort or another. Some of this opposition has been vociferous and energetic.
  • Given the incredible pressures on bureaucrats and politicians, there is not time to become sufficiently informed about decision tools.
  • The decision maker would prefer to maintain their discretion to make decision for reasons other than environmental outcomes.

(c) Processes

There is no point in using a decision tool if there is no scope for it to influence the actual decisions. The decision process needs to be set up such that there are people responsible for overseeing the application of the tool, there is adequate quality assurance (such as expert review of the data and assumptions used) to minimise gaming of the system, there is time for the application of the tool to occur, that the body that makes the decisions has an adequate understanding of the tool and how to interpret its outputs, and that the procedures followed make it possible for the decision tool to have an influence. If these conditions do not exist, you should either give up, or work to bring these conditions into being.

When you recognise all these issues, it is not in the least bit surprising that decision theory is not used more often by environmental managers and policy makers. It is more surprising that it is used at all.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Roberts, A. and Pannell, D. (2009) Piloting a systematic framework for public investment in regional natural resource management: dryland salinity in Australia, Land Use Policy (forthcoming). Full paper (270K) · Journal version on-line

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2009). Conducting and delivering integrated research to influence land-use policy: salinity policy in Australia, Environmental Science and Policy (forthcoming). Full paper (94K) · Journal version on-line

Pannell, D., Ridley, A., Seymour, E., Marsh, S. and Wilkinson, R. (2008).Capacity building in regional NRM, Issues in prioritisation, planning and implementation of environmental works at the regional level, RIRDC Publication No 08/181 RIRDC Project No UWA-92A, RIRDC, Canberra, Full report (630K)

Pannell, D.J. (2008). Public benefits, private benefits, and policy intervention for land-use change for environmental benefits, Land Economics 84(2): 225-240. Here