Environment, Natural resource management, Policy

142 – The “Caring for our Country” Business Plan

The Business Plan for the new national environmental program, released November 28, is a substantial improvement on equivalent documents for past programs. Although there are areas that could be improved, the new Australian Government does appear to be taking seriously the cost-effective pursuit of environmental outcomes, rather than just activity. It will still be difficult to deliver this, but the Plan is a good start. Large parts of the program align very well with our INFFER framework for planning and prioritising environmental investments.

There are, of course, positives and negatives in the Caring for our Country Business Plan, but for the first time since the Australian Government became active in national policy for natural resource management in around 1990, there is a sense that the Government is serious about achieving environmental outcomes. There was no sense of that in documents for the previous programs: the National Strategic Plan of the Natural Heritage Trust, or “Our Vital Resources“, the nearest equivalent documents for the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. The latter, in particular, was just dreadful.

In the new document, there appears to be a willingness to take reasonably seriously the need to target resources to the highest priority areas, rather than attempting to fund too many projects at inadequate levels. With a fixed budget for the program, picking winners implicitly involves picking losers too: accepting that there are things you will not try to do. If you try to do to much, you will actually achieve less, which is what we have observed in past programs.

Picking investments that will actually be effective and cost-effective is not easy. It requires a detailed integrated assessment, drawing together technical, economic and social consideration. The list of assessment criteria that will be applied to the selection of specific projects (pages 38 and 39 of the Business Plan) provides a good basis for prioritisation of investment. It includes key criteria like technical feasibility, adoption, and use of best available science which were badly neglected in past programs.

It will remain difficult to apply these criteria in practice. To help with this, I am hoping that the Australian Government will make use of INFFER as part of their process. The assessment criteria of the program line up very well with what we do in INFFER, as shown below.

Caring for our Country assessment criteriaHow is it dealt with in INFFER?
Technical feasibilityAssessed explicitly.
Delivery mechanismsPolicy mechanisms and policy interventions explicitly documented. Their selection is guided by the Public: Private Benefits Framework.
Scale and degree of intervention proposedProposed specific on-ground works documented.
Likely degree of adoptionAssessed explicitly. Adoption by three potential target audiences is considered: landholders, partner organisations, and the general community (in the sense of political acceptability of the proposal).
Alignment with national strategiesInvolves assessment of asset significance, which includes factors such as alignment with national strategies.
Public benefit per dollarConsidered using the Public: Private Benefits Framework and the Cost-Effectiveness Index.
Value for moneyAssessed using the Cost-Effectiveness Index.
Best available science and collective knowledgeRequired by INFFER as a whole. The science is integrated with other knowledge.
RiskCaptured and managed in various ways: knowledge gaps documented, probabilities of success specified, influential factors driving cost-effectiveness can be identified, clear goals or targets identified for the project.
Engagement with stakeholders and partnersThe full INFFER process includes community consultation about about asset identification and valuation. Additional aspects would be drawn out in the project proposal, separately from INFFER.
Capacity of proponent and partnershipIs implicit throughout the INFFER Project Assessment Form, and in the assessed cost effectiveness of the project.
Potential to raise community awarenessINFFER is focused on assets, rather than on general community awareness, although awareness raising and capacity building can be specified as delivery mechanisms, if they are judged to contribute sufficiently to outcomes.

Weaknesses I see in the new Business Plan include the following.

(a) I suspect that the budgets allocated to some of the specific elements are too small. For example, the stated “five year outcomes” for the Great Barrier Reef are not outlandish, but even so I wonder whether the budget of $200 million over the life of the program will be sufficient to achieve them. Are they based on the “best available science”? If proponents of projects do bring together the best available science (and economics), they may put up proposals that indicate that more modest target outcomes are realistic. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to revise the program’s targets (or budgets) as the best available information is brought to bear (in the spirit of adaptive management).

(b) Point (a) partly reflects the fact that the full set of assessment criteria were not used to select the target “outcomes” of the program. Given the unreasonably tight timelines imposed on the departments by their ministers, it was impossible to do so. To avoid this problem in future, the departments need to rework their analyses and targets on an ongoing basis, well in advance of future program decisions. This type of analysis should be a core part of the program.

(c) The section on “Improving Land Management” is the weakest of the main components. To be fair, it includes attempts to target effort. The focus has been narrowed to a few specific land degradation issues (soil erosion, soil acidity and soil carbon) and for each of these there are maps showing areas where these issues are priorities. There is no indication of how these priority areas were chosen, and some of my colleagues who are experts on these issues have been scratching their heads about some of the choices. (A stand-out is the choice of the Perth region as a national priority for increasing soil organic carbon!) It is disappointing that there doesn’t seem to be any requirement for investments in soil erosion and acidity to be targeted to locations where they will generate the greatest benefits for non-agricultural assets (although there is a slight hint that this would be smiled on). Making that a clear requirement would have been a way to increase the public benefits and the cost-effectiveness of the investments, consistent with the program’s stated assessment criteria. Finally, the policy mechanisms flagged in this section of the Business Plan do not seem to be well considered. They emphasise the sorts of delivery mechanisms that were relied on rather naively in the previous programs: “extension and capacity building initiatives such as demonstrations and workshops, the development of codes of practice, or similar guidelines.” For these sorts of activities to be effective in promoting adoption on a large scale, the practices being advocated need to be highly attractive to landholders, but not yet adopted by them. For this to be true, the practices would need to be new and previously unknown to the landholders, or else circumstances would have to have changed substantially since farmers became aware of the practices and initially decided not to adopt them. The former is clearly not relevant to the practices that the program is trying to promote, at least not for most farmers. The latter might become partly true for soil carbon (depending what happens with national climate change policy) but not for the other two. Overall, I’m pretty pessimistic about the outlook for this part of the program, unless it is modified.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Anonymous (2008). Caring for our Country, Business Plan 2009-2010, Australian Government, Canberra, http://www.nrm.gov.au/resources/index.html