258 – How many environmental targets are SMART?

In PD257 I talked about why it is important for environmental managers to set SMART targets for the projects they develop – SMART meaning Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. In practice, many environmental targets are poorly defined. 

Frustrated at the lack of SMART targets he observed in natural resource management plans and strategies, Geoff Park suggested that we quantify the issue. We looked at a specific set of targets: resource condition targets related to biodiversity, water and community engagement, set by Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) in the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales, through several planning cycles commencing in 1997. We examined hundreds of targets that are documented in over 50 regional plans that have been endorsed by governments at different times across the two states.

Because we lacked the information needed to assess achievability and relevance, we focused on whether targets were specific, measurable and time-bound.

Overall, the quality of targets was poor, with less than 30 per cent meeting all three criteria. Some targets met one or two of the criteria, but most failed to meet all three.

The proportion of targets that are SMT has not increased over time, and in New South Wales it has declined. This is perhaps surprising given the robust criticism by the Australian National Audit Office (Auditor General, 2008) when it reviewed the regional natural resource management system. For example, looking at a smaller sample of targets than we examined, they found that around half were not measurable or time bound.

How about the other two criteria: achievable and relevant? The ANAO noted that there was little evidence to indicate whether targets were achievable, and that where there was evidence, the targets clearly were not achievable. “Where the impact on resource condition is identified by regional bodies, the expected results were often low (frequently less than one per cent of the longer term resource condition target).

They also observed that there was “little information” about whether targets represented value-for-money outcomes – that is, in my interpretation, whether they were relevant.

Our experience is in line with the ANAO obervations. Although 30% of targets were SMT, I expect that only a small handful of the hundreds of targets we looked at would meet all five of the SMART criteria.

In the paper we published on this (Park et al., 2012), we suggested some likely reasons for this disappointing result:

  • a lack of appropriate standards and guidelines from governments to enable high quality target setting;
  • a lack of realism about the budgetary and technical feasibility of ambitious environmental targets amongst those involved in natural resource management; and
  • a lack of adequate focus on outcomes by both CMAs and governments.

How can this be improved? Fundamentally, it depends on leaders in government agencies making it a priority. They could start by making sure that the targets of their own agencies are SMART. For outside groups that receive government funding (such as CMAs), the only way we’ll see a general improvement is if government agencies provide guidance and training, send strong signals that improvements are needed, and reward regional bodies that do practice outcome-focused accountability.

Further reading

Auditor General (2008). Regional Delivery Model for the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, Audit Report no. 21 2007-08, Performance Audit, Australian National Audit Office, Canberra.

Park, G., Roberts, A., Alexander, J., McNamara, L. and Pannell, D. (2013). The quality of resource condition targets in regional natural resource management in Australia, Australasian Journal of Environmental Management (forthcoming). Journal Web Site


  • stirfry
    29 November, 2013 - 9:14 am | link

    With respect to your undoubted expertise, I would like to make the following observation. I work in the NRM field at local government level, doing on ground assessments for mainly revegetation projects. Especially during this time of federal policy reassessment, it seems that nearly all our NRM triplocrats are so caught up in strategies, SMART targets, policy formulation and general MERI planning, that nothing is actually being done in the paddock. In fact our WA wheatbelt nursery industry is suddenly on its’ knees with just 8% of nursery capacity booked for the 2014 planting season.
    To counter this I would propose that a tree planted anywhere for any reason, as long as it is the right tree in the right place, needs no further evaluation or analysis. It will conform to any oversight you may wish to place on it.
    It therefore, could be implemented, a system where trees planted in an agricultural setting automatically conform to these oversights, negating the need for the oversight in the first place. The value of a tree should not be in dispute and should by now have its’ own mathematical formula as to its’ value.
    All that is then required is a tick from the local NRMO to say that the job was completed, the trees were real and X amount of trees were added to the Australian landscape. A simple rebate system could then be implemented, negating the need for incessant oversight.
    SMART targets perhaps, should be applied to the amount of effort triplocrats are spending compared to the on ground achievements in their catchments.
    Oh, that would require more triplocrats. Scrub that idea.
    A message to the moderator. Yes, I am a frustrated NRM professional, working 300 km from our regional groups’ HQ, with no programmes or funding to work with, whilst receiving a never ending stream of regional strategies, SMARTs, visions, social and cultural treatises while our environmental effort dries up.
    PS- I am not alone.

    • 3 December, 2013 - 8:46 am | link

      This comment potentially opens up discussion on a big range of issues. To pick a few:
      1. The challenges for people in stirfry’s position are obviously enormous. To me, there is a real problem with a system that would create a position like this and leave them so unsupported and under-resourced.
      2. There clearly is a trade-off between the transaction costs in evaluating a project and the benefits of doing so, depending on the project’s scale. Tiny individual interventions clearly don’t warrant individual evaluation or individual targets.
      3. Evaluation and targets are warranted at some higher level of aggregation. Somewhere in the system there needs to be a decision made about how planting trees in a region of the Western Australian wheatbelt stacks up against the many other possible uses of environmental program funds. At some level of aggregation that makes sense, a SMART target is still appropriate.
      4. The suggestion that any tree is a good tree might make sense at some reasonably fine scale, within certain boundaries. At a larger scale, though, the environmental contributions made by additional trees vary enormously. Given how limited our environmental resources are, it would be better to target effort to those situations where the environmental benefits are largest, rather than supporting any tree anywhere.

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