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Current engagement practice for NRM in the SEQ western catchments

Cristine Hall1, Tim Smith 2 and Toni Darbas2

1 CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Toowoomba, Australia
CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Brisbane, Australia


Natural resource governance in Australia has been increasingly focused on the effective engagement of stakeholders in both the decision-making and implementation processes of NRM. However, many peri-urban landscapes are in a state of transition, which makes the challenge of engagement increasingly complex. This paper details the first of three phases of research (understanding current engagement practice) relating to long-term effective community engagement for NRM.

Within the South East Queensland Western Catchments (SEQ WC) engagement practitioners from a range of institutions were interviewed, current engagement practices were observed and documented, and current engagement strategies were desk-top reviewed. The key findings include: (i) engagement practitioners often perform multiple roles that may be in conflict; (ii) most engagement practitioners have little formal training in engagement; (iii) the majority of tools used are top-down and reactionary; (iv) there are examples of innovation in engagement; and (v) context is a major influence on the success or failure of an engagement initiative.

Specific recommendations to improve engagement for NRM include: (i) greater training in community engagement theory; (ii) increase the target audience through alternative engagement tools; (iii) include a monitoring and evaluation component to engagement activities; (iv) continue to support innovative engagement; (v) greater coordination of engagement activities and knowledge transfer; and (vi) engagement tools must be contextually relevant. These outcomes have broader applicability for other NRM regional bodies working in transitional landscapes.

Media summary

Understanding current engagement practice is a pre-requisite for effective long-term community engagement for NRM. Findings and recommendations could have broad applicability across NRM regions experiencing transition in terms of landuse and population.


Effective engagement, natural resource management (NRM)


The eastern seaboard of Australia is an area in transition. In particular, the peri-urban landscapes are undergoing enormous changes (eg. in terms of landuse, holding sizes, demographics, and pressure for development). Because of this, enacting meaningful community engagement is especially challenging in these peri-urban environments. There are many ‘tools’ for community engagement but matching the most effective tool to the appropriate audience and outcome desired is currently poorly understood by both researchers and practitioners. This project aims to increase the understanding of, and capacity for, long-term effective community engagement in the SEQ Western Catchments and other NRM regions.

The SEQ Western Catchments Context

The SEQ WC covers more than 12,000 square kilometres. It includes the Stanley and Upper Brisbane, Lockyer, Bremer and Mid Brisbane Catchments. More than 164,000 people populate the region, including a major urban centre (Ipswich city) and several smaller towns. The region is dominated by rural landscapes, with grazing and cropping remaining the major land uses.

The peri-urban nature of this catchment is significant when considering NRM. ‘Lifestyle farmers’ have become increasingly dominant in this landscape, ‘who typically derive the majority of their income from non-farming activities’ (Hollier et al. 2003) and are not well catered for by traditional agricultural extension services. These shortfalls are serious because this emergent demographic has the potential to impact severely on NRM.

One NRM aspect of the SEQ WC is that the lakes and dams of the region provide the reticulated water for the residents of South East Queensland (SEQ), primarily Brisbane. The townships within the western catchments do not have access to this water supply. The western catchments region also provides important natural, recreational, cultural and economic resources to the wider SEQ region, so contributing to SEQ’s environmental, social and economic well-being.

The South East Queensland Western Catchment Group (SEQ WCG) is one of 56 regional NRM bodies responsible for the planning and delivery of community-based natural resource management (NRM) throughout Australia. The establishment of the regional bodies has taken up to 5 years – from the 1999-2000 Federal review of the National Landcare Program (Lee 2004) to the Federal and State Government bilateral final agreement in June 2004. From a community point of view, this change in institutional design for delivery of funding for NRM plus the long time frame was experienced as confusing and disruptive.


Data collection and analysis

Data was collected via key informant interviews and participant observation of engagement practice. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews targeted key practitioners involved in NRM engagement in the SEQ Western Catchments region. A total of 41 interviews represented 29 institutions, including: (i) the regional NRM group; (ii) local governments; (iii) State government agencies; (iv) industry groups; (v) conservation groups; and (vi) universities. Data was coded and analysed using the NVivo software package. The data analysis was designed to extract emerging themes and to construct a framework for types of engagement.


The key findings include:

  • Engagement practitioners often perform multiple roles (eg. encouragement of bio-diversity conservation and sustainable production), that may be in conflict;
  • Most engagement practitioners have little formal training in engagement, but instead have backgrounds in science or planning;
  • The majority of tools used are top-down (engager-driven), reactionary, and largely involve the usual suspects;
  • There are examples of innovation in engagement, such as the SEQ Western Catchment Group’s sector liaison officers (engager teams combining local context with sector specialisation); and
  • Context is a major influence on the success or failure of an engagement initiative.


Specific recommendations to improve engagement for NRM include:

  • Greater training in community engagement theory to compliment and enhance engagement practice
  • Increase the target audience through alternative engagement tools (i.e. match engagement tools to motivations, preferences and capacities);
  • Include a monitoring and evaluation component to engagement activities (to allow greater practitioner reflection and capacity-building);
  • Continue to support innovative engagement approaches (eg. SEQ WC liaison officers);
  • Greater coordination of engagement activities among the various engagement practitioners and transfer knowledge among engagement practitioners in the SEQ WC region (eg. via an e-discussion forum or a quarterly in-person forum with guest speakers illustrating engagement experiences); and
  • Engagement tools must be contextually relevant, where contextual opportunities and constraints may either enhance or limit engagement effectiveness (eg. community distrust of government, points of community galvanization, and opportunities for engagement synergies).

Applicability to other NRM regional bodies

Understanding current engagement practices is the first phase of developing an effective long-term community engagement strategy for NRM. Research on current engagement practices has been conducted in the SEQ WC in a context relevant to the local NRM regional body (SEQ WCG). SEQ WC is one region of many across the State that is experiencing the social phenomenon of transitional change and the emergence of peri-urban landscapes. It is thought by the authors that the findings and recommendations from this research conducted in SEQ WC is relevant to other regions, especially those along the eastern seaboard, as well as those exhibiting tree-change1 and sponge city traits2. These are the regions of rapidly increasing population and subsequent increasing pressures on natural resources.

The APEN ( NRM symposium provides an opportunity to engage with NRM regional body representatives in order to strengthen networks and communication, which are important strategies in effective engagement to overcome the barriers of institutional silos. It is imperative to garner the response of those familiar with other NRM regions to this research in an effort to direct the relevance of the project to a greater number of NRM regional bodies across the State. A network of researchers or representatives linked to or within each of the NRM regional bodies is necessary to expand the research findings and recommendations. The responses of the NRM regional body representatives is an important feedback mechanism for the review process of each research phase (action research).


The findings have a number of implications for both NRM engagement and governance in peri-urban areas both within the SEQ Western Catchments and potentially in other peri-urban landscapes. The major implication is that NRM in peri-urban landscapes necessitates engagement with broad range of stakeholders and that traditional agri-extension approaches may no longer be appropriate in these transitioning landscapes. In order to determine the most appropriate mix of engagement tools, motivations and preferences of potential participants must be linked to engager capacities, which may occur through an understanding of current engagement practice and the population of a typology of engagement.

Identifying (i) how existing engagement efforts can be better supported and self-sustaining; (ii) opportunities for community galvanisation; and (iii) innovative adaptive design of engagement processes, may contribute to engagement synergies. By synergies we mean that engagement research can help practitioners to pull in a common direction, develop better horizontal and vertical linkages between practitioners and government resources so as to generalise important learnings regarding engagement and encourage engagement practice for NRM to become more self-sustaining.

The next phases of the research are: (i) to understand motivations and preferences to populate the engagement typology; (ii) to match various engagement tools to those motivations and preferences, as well as the capacities of engagement practitioners; (iii) to work with engagement practitioners to trial the effectiveness of various tools (action research); and (iv) develop tools to encourage engagement evaluation and a reflective practitioner approach to sustain and improve engagement in the SEQ WC in the long-term.


Many peri-urban landscapes are undergoing rapid change, which adds complexity to community engagement for NRM. The effectiveness of traditional approaches to engagement in these landscapes (eg. agri-extension) may continue to diminish over time. A novel approach to maximising engagement effectiveness has been proposed by the authors, which has a focus on matching potential participant motivations and preferences for engagement with engagement practitioner capacities. A first step in achieving this is understanding current engagement practices and the development of a typology of engagement, rather than the approaches that have dominated in the past of attempting to homogenise and understand potential participants via arbitrary groupings (eg. landuse, income or profession). The development of a typology of engagement has the added benefit of highlighting non-NRM engagement activities that could add value to NRM engagement processes. When designing an engagement strategy, the authors’ also highlight a number of opportunities, constraints and governance considerations, which are often context-specific, and may bound the success or failure of actual engagement practice.


This project is jointly funded by National Action Plan for Water Quality and Salinity (Queensland government and Australian government) through the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, and CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems. A copy of the full report is available at


Hollier, C., Francis, J. and Reid, M. 2003, Shrinking Extension to fit a Growing Small Farm Sector, Department of Primary Industries, Rutherglen, Victoria.

Lee, M. 2004, ‘Evaluating Community Based Programs in Australia: the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality’, OECD Workshop on Evaluating Agri-Environmental Policies, Paris.

Salt, B. 2001, The Big Shift: Welcome to the Third Australian Culture, Hardie Grant, Sydney.

Smith, T. F. and Doherty, M. (in press.), 'The Suburbanisation of Coastal Australia', In the forthcoming Australian State of the Environment Report 2006, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

1 Tree change refers to 'the phenomenon of increasing migration to, and suburbanisation of, inland Australian towns, particularly those areas outside the primary urban metropolitan centres' (Smith and Doherty, in press).

2 Sponge city (Salt, 2001) refers to a rural centre that is drawing migration from surrounding smaller rural townships and localities, which are in decline.

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