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Cooperation, collaboration and common sense: Towards a National Extension Framework for Australia

Jeff Coutts1, Jock Douglas2 and Andrew Campbell3

1Rural Extension Centre, University of Queensland Gatton Q 4343
"Wyoming", PO Box 320, Roma Q 4455
Land & Water Resources, GPO Box 2182, Canberra ACT 2600


In February 1999, Jock Douglas as Chair of the Rural Extension Centre Board of Management, cattle producer and one of the founders of Landcare, instigated a discussion starter on the need for a National Extension Framework in Australia (Douglas et al 1999). This was presented to program leaders in Agriculture Food and Forestry Australia (AFFA) and the Land and Water Sector Advisory Committee of CSIRO. Although it generated some interest the concept was not aired beyond these groups. The needs expressed by Douglas remain acute and it is timely to develop the concept further. Given the need for better cooperation between extension providers, more collaboration across states and sectors, it is common sense to make the most of our combined human capacity.

This paper is based on some starting assumptions:

  • There is a continued (enhanced?) need for professional intermediaries between science and practice, especially dealing with public good issues at catchment/landscape scale;
  • The roles of these intermediaries will focus more on informing debate, illuminating trade-offs, managing change, working as a go between, brokering information and community development, than on technology transfer;
  • Radical technological change in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector has profound implications for managing information and social learning;
  • The trend to smaller government will continue or at least not be reversed; and
  • Markets, and regulatory, planning and extension systems will tend to converge around agreed natural resource management (NRM) targets and outcomes.

The discussion starter stated that a National Extension Frameworkwould be a set of nationally agreed principles and protocols for cooperation between Commonwealth, States and organisations involved in providing extension services that support Australia’s rural and regional development (Douglas et al 1999). This paper explores the environment in which extension operates in Australia as we move towards 2002 and the role of such an extension framework in maximising synergies.

The Australian institutional context

The federal system provides a challenge for collaborative action in addressing rural and regional issues in Australia at the government level. Each state has sovereign powers in matters affecting…their rural industries, such as the regulation of agricultural production and marketing within their borders, land tenure and water supply (ARMCANZ 2001 p1). The Agricultural and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ) is a forum at ministerial level to improve Commonwealth-State cooperation with respect to resource management. It is supported by the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management (SCARM), consisting of the chief executive officers from the Commonwealth, States and Territories as well as New Zealand agencies involved in policy for agriculture and resource management.

The Federal government sponsors research, development and extension through a number of mechanisms linking Commonwealth and State government and rural industry. These mechanisms include the Rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) (funded through industry levies matched by public dollars) and supported multi-government agencies such as the Murray Darling Basin Commission. The RDCs have a strong extension role in their charter…to facilitate the dissemination, adoption and commercialisation of the results of research and development (Marsh and Pannell 1997 p.21). A dilemma for the corporations has been that of who takes the responsibility for generic research into, and development of, extension and human capacity development. A recent exciting development has been the proposed joint program between some RDCs and government agencies to jointly address such generic issues (RIRDC 2000).

During the 1990s the Commonwealth began funding major grants programs of the sort previously delivered mainly by States and Territories. In 1997, the Australian Commonwealth provided Aus$1.5 billion through the Natural Heritage Trust to stimulate activities in the national interest to achieve the conservation, sustainable use and repair of Australia’s natural environment. As well as Landcare, the Trust has funded the Murray Darling Initiative, Bushcare, Rivercare, Coastcare, Waterwatch, the National Wetlands Program, World Heritage Area management, the National Reserve System and other programs with similar goals. The recent budget committed a further $1 billion over five years to the Trust.

The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality arose from an historic agreement between the Prime Minister and all Premiers in late 2000 under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). This $1.4 billion package over seven years makes explicit provision for ‘fine tuning’ the national network of facilitators and coordinators working at a community level to deliver the objectives of the National Action Plan.

The Federal Government also runs a number of national extension and human capacity programs through the Agriculture – Advancing Australia (AAA) package. This includes FarmBis (now amalgamated with the former national Property Management Planning programs), a pilot Farm Innovation program, Women in Rural Industries and others (AFFA 2001). Increasingly, Commonwealth funding is being made available directly to individuals and communities rather than provided through State government programs. State government programs seeking to provide services based on this funding find themselves increasingly competing with the private sector.

The necessary coordination, integration and collaboration between this range of initiatives alone justifies a National Extension Framework.

Marsh & Pannell (1997) noted that the private sector is…growing rapidly and taking an increasing responsibility for service delivery of extension messages (p 36), and that the RDCs were actively encouraging this role. They concluded that…extension in Australia involves a great deal of private sector delivery, from programs that concentrate primarily on technology transfer, such as Topcrop, to programs which concentrate on human capital development, such as Property Management Planning (p91). They also concluded however that…the growing number of extension providers working in a wide range of very different employment situations raised issues of both training and professional development…and that…state agencies no longer provide professional support and peer contact for many extension practitioners (p92).

It is likely that most of the people currently delivering private sector extension services were originally trained in the public sector, for example through post-graduate awards funded through Commonwealth Extension Services Grants in the 1960s and 70s. While current budget reporting practices make it extremely difficult to track such figures, it is also likely that overall investment in building extension capacity has declined since the 1960s. The next generation of extension practitioners will not have had comparable opportunities to gain a solid grounding in theory and practice, nor to systematically build a career.

Black (2000), in reviewing extension theory and practice in Australia also expressed concern that there was a risk of fragmentation between research organisations and extension or advisory agencies, between government departments and between public and private agencies and between even related industries (p 498).

Following Douglas et al (1999) we argue that a National Extension Framework is needed to tackle a number of problems and inefficiencies. Major funding programs now rely on mainly junior professionals on short-term contracts, leading to lack of continuity and institutional amnesia. Turn over is very high, and burn out and frustration at all levels are evident. It is very difficult for such people to map out a career path as there are few senior positions in extension with any security, and few road maps, guidebooks or mentors. Commonwealth/State demarcation disputes generate perennial arguments about cost-shifting, and mutual suspicion and distrust. Overlaps, inconsistencies and deficiencies can and do occur. Organisations such as CSIRO and Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) are often out of the extension loop. Programs occurring side by side in the same regions are covering the same ground without collaboration or in some cases, even communication. There is little consensus at a policy level about modes of extension, for example facilitation vs ‘traditional’ technology transfer paradigms and some extension personnel lack basic skills for their role. We know of no proactive institutional attempt to think through the implications of new and emerging information and communication technologies (ICT) for social learning and consequently the design of extension systems.

As might be expected given the above, there is no consensus, consistency or coordination around evaluation of extension programs, so in a collective sense we have a patchy and haphazard understanding of what has worked best, where and why.

The Australasian Pacific Extension Network (APEN) emerged out of the 1st Australasian Pacific Extension Conference held at the Gold Coast in 1993. APEN operates as a professional organisation across Commonwealth and State boundaries and the public and private sector. Its mission is to…enable practitioners, through collaborative activity, to facilitate and influence their professional development and strengthen extension as a profession (APEN 2001). APEN however has a membership of only approximately 500 practitioners and is a loose network rather than providing a framework for effectively pulling extension effort together across Australia.

Despite the attempts at different levels for collaboration across the extension mosaic, the organisational environment in which extension operates is very fragmented.

The extension situation in Australia

There are two converging trends in the Australian extension environment. On one hand land managers perceive severe problems in the form of globalisation, reducing infrastructural support, land degradation (including salinity and acidification) and land title concerns. Australia’s environmental problems are a major problem in Australia for all levels of government, industries and communities. Madden & Hayes (2000 p ii), for example, describe Australia as facing a crisis: Problems such as salinity, river degradation and pollution, biodiversity loss, and soil degradation, show us that the way our land is used and managed is not sustainable. They estimate that these problems are costing AUS$1.4 billion dollars per year (about half the net returns to agriculture), without including losses due to ecosystem degradation, environmental costs or damage to public infrastructure such as roads, railways, housing or water supplies. The latest research suggests that these public costs will be several times, if not orders of magnitude, larger than the direct cost to agriculture of reduced production and higher input costs. These problems do not lend themselves to easy political or technical solutions or simplistic extension interventions.

The other trend, in extension, is an increasing focus on holistic development, human capacity building, partnerships and facilitating interdependent relationships. These are strategies born out of necessity, as well as theoretical development, designed to better deal with the complexities facing all levels of land management and their associated communities. Cavaye (1997) observed that public agencies were taking a more…comprehensive, community-oriented and collaborative approach to public issues. He described this movement to be a result of being “pulled”…by a recognition that local ownership, public participation and a more complex approach to complex problems achieves better long term outcomes…and from being “pushed”…by a wave of government reform, sparked by the need to reinvent government, involving decentralisation, streamlining and greater coordination (Cavaye 1997 p53).

However Campbell and Woodhill (1999) caution that government programs have too often used the rhetoric of participation, community empowerment and consultation to mask approaches that have devolved responsibility to a community level without commensurate power or resources.

The public extension infrastructure has deteriorated over the last decade at a time when pressures on it have been increasing. Extension infrastructures and networks in the States and Territories are now largely unplanned and ad hoc, ‘cobbled’ together around transient programs, often project- rather than program-based, rapidly established and then abandoned with each passing initiative.

At the heart of the public policy dilemma is confusion about the contemporary value and role of extension. Depending on your perspective, you might take the view that extension means:

  • technology transfer between science and rural producers to increase production;
  • facilitating desired changes in behaviour or organisation on the part of the State, industry, or NGOs – extension as a change agent;
  • informing debate and negotiation between competing interests with multiple objectives and diverse value systems;
  • process brokering – designing and delivering community processes to achieve policy aims;
  • knowledge management and information brokering – two way (needs, issues, perceptions of users are brokered back to science); or
  • community development, with greater emphasis on social and human capital (Cavaye 1999 p35).

For an industry-based R&D Corporation, technology transfer remains the main extension model. But to tackle an issue such as salinity, operating over large scales in space and time, with competing values and interests, facts in dispute and high levels of uncertainty around the impacts of any particular intervention, the other five dot points above are equally if not more relevant (Campbell 1995).

There remain some critical issues where our understanding is imperfect at best, and where research on extension is needed, for example:

  • public good
  • duty of care
  • exploiting new ICT
  • factors influencing policy instrument choice
  • use of market instruments and other incentives and disincentives
  • adoption, adaptation and disadoption
  • stewardship
  • networks.

In proposing the need for a National Extension Framework, Douglas et al (1999) saw the main outcome would be to improve the people support framework for rural and regional development. Following Douglas et al, we see benefits as including:

  • Enhancing public policy and delivery of public programs to meet national priorities (eg the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality);
  • Capturing and implementing lessons from the decade of community landcare experience;
  • Building the capacity of current people involved in extension and new people entering the field, developing cross-program skills accreditation and reawakening the extension profession;
  • Improving synergies between programs and people including linkages between extension providers, and RDCs, CRCs and CSIRO, and making better use of resources;
  • Providing more flexibility across geographical boundaries and programs;
  • Improving the strategic approach to Australia’s national extension effort, particularly extension quality assurance and evaluation procedures;
  • Implementing best practice in Australia’s national extension effort and continuous improvement through shared learning; and
  • Enhancing social capital in rural Australia.


Douglas et al (1999) were adamant that the framework should be about…values and principles, not about strategies nor a prescriptive formula…. A National Extension Framework could provide a charter of nationally agreed principles that would underpin efficient and best practice extension in Australia.

Frameworks for extension based on principles and values have been used in a number of contexts. For example, the range of aid agencies working in sub-Saharan Africa developed a set of principles and commitments for a ‘Common Framework on Agricultural Extension’ (Beckman & Kidd 1999) to better achieve collaboration and integration across agencies. In the Australian context, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines in Queensland have developed a “New Extension” strategic framework (DNRM 2000) across their range of programs and structures based on adopting a philosophy …in the way the department undertakes its business (p3).

Principles for a National Extension Framework would need to be negotiated through a comprehensive collaborative process, however they might include such elements as:

1. A focus on people and support

  • tenure, career paths, remuneration, continuity of superannuation/benefits
  • education and training
  • cross-linkages and accreditation
  • celebration of successes;

2. Enhancement of extension infrastructures

  • Teams (mixed skills), centres & networks, mentors, in-service training, support
  • world class ICT
  • re-skilling between programs
  • undergraduate and post-graduate training
  • post-doctoral research fellowships on extension theory, methods and practice;

3. A commitment to building human and social capital;

4. Clarification of community and government dimensions

  • defining the public good
  • Commonwealth, State, and local government commitment
  • recognising differences in States
  • recognising legitimate interests and potential of industry and NGOs
  • learning the lessons (M&E);

5. Development of modes of extension tailored to particular public policy goals;

6. Recognition that producers are clients, sponsors and stakeholders, rather than beneficiaries of agricultural extension;

7. Recognition that market demands create an impetus for a new relationship between farmers and private suppliers of goods and services, and that industry, commercial extension providers, NGOs and government (at all levels) are players;

8. Developing new perspective regarding public funding and private actors;

9. Recognition that pluralism and decentralised activities require coordination and dialogue between actors;

10. Consistent and appropriate monitoring and evaluation should be integral;

11. Recognition that competition among information providers can be healthy if well managed;

12. Demand ‘pull’ is more important than science ‘push’;

13. Information brokerage; and

14. Trust and public good.

These are just possible elements or dimensions of a National Extension Framework. For such a framework to be workable it would need to add value to the individual players in extension in Australia by improving efficiency and effectiveness of programs rather than adding more barriers and bureaucracy. It would need to provide tangible benefits of improved collaboration, human capital and outcomes.

Steps to progress

In order to progress an effective National Extension Framework a number of precursors are needed:

  • Widespread discussion about the need for and potential benefits of the framework;
  • Widespread involvement in developing the elements of the framework;
  • Commitment for working within the framework;
  • Specific mechanisms to support the intent of the framework; and
  • A ‘home’ for the framework in terms of keeping it alive, negotiating modifications and monitoring its usefulness.

APEN could play a significant role in stimulating widespread discussion on the need for, and role of, a National Extension Framework. The involvement of SCARM and ARMCANZ could assist in engendering debate and support in government circles. The Rural R&D Corporations could be engaged through the new prospectus on extension and education research – perhaps as a funded project from this pool.


It is time to make a concerted effort to address widespread inefficiencies in the Australian extension system (or lack of it). Central to dealing with some of the hard issues in rural and regional Australia is developing human capacity – those overtly working in the broader ‘extension system’ as well as those working with extension in rural and regional communities.

A National Extension Framework can provide a strong basis for dialogue between all players involved in providing stronger continuity collaboration and outcomes for the whole community.


  1. AFFA (2001) 3/06/01
  2. APEN (2001) 3/06/01
  3. ARMCANZ (2001) 3/06/2001
  4. Marsh S & Pannell D (1997) The New Environment for Agricultural Extension in Australia: the changing role of public and private sector providers RIRDC 1997.
  5. Black A (2000) Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 2000, 40:493-502.
  6. Campbell, A (1998) ‘Issues in Landcare’ in Critical Landcare, F.Vanclay and S. Lockie (Eds), University of Central Queensland Press.
  7. Campbell, A (1997) ‘Fomenting Synergy—Experiences Facilitating Landcare in Australia’ in N G. Rling and A Wagemakers (eds) Sustainable Agriculture: participatory learning and action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.
  8. Campbell, A (1995) “Landcare—participative Australian approaches to inquiry and learning for sustainability” US Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, Iowa, March/April pp126-131.
  9. Campbell, A and Woodhill, J (1999) ‘The Policy Landscape and Prospects of Landcare’ pp194-208 in Fertile Ground—the impacts of participatory watershed management, F. Hinchcliffe, J. Thompson, J. Pretty, I. Guijt and P. Shah (Eds) IT Publications, London.
  10. Cavaye J (1997) The Role of Public Agencies in helping Rural Communities build Social Capital – Case studies of the interaction between Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Local Communities, PhD Dissertation University of Wisconsin, Madison USA.
  11. Cavaye J (1999) Rural Community Development – The Emerging Role of Extension in Long P, Donaghy P and Grimes J (eds) 2020 Vision – Extension into the New Millennium Proceedings of 2nd Central Queensland Extension Forum.
  12. Douglas J, Coutts J and Duffield B (1999) A National Extension Framework for Australia, unpublished paper Rural Extension Centre UQ Gatton.
  13. Marriot S, Nabben T, Polkinghorne L & Youl R (2000) Landcare in Australia – founded on local action, International Landcare Conference, February 2000.
  14. Madden B, Hayes G (2000) National Investment in Rural Landscapes – an Investment Scenario for National Farmers Federation and Australian Conservation Foundation, The Virtual Consulting Group & Griffin NRM Pty Ltd with the assistance of LWRRDC, April 2000.
  15. Beckman M & Kidd A (1999) Reviewing the Neuchatel Initiaitve Vision in Action: A Case Study from Uganda, PAC Team The Neuchatel Initiative 1999 Department of Rural Development Studies, Swedish university of Agricultural Sciences.
  16. DNRM (2000) “New Extension” – A Strategic Framework for the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, Extension Strategy Working Group, November 2000 Department of Natural Resources and Mines.

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