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Lessons to Improve Community Engagement for Natural Resource Management – A Case Study

Paul Harris1 and Owen Thompson2

1Principal Advisor, Department of Natural Resources & Mines, PO Box 573, Nambour, Queensland 4560, Australia.
Farmer, “Goorah” 58 Thompson’s Road, Gundiah Queensland 4650, Australia.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Natural Resources and Mines or the Queensland government or any organisation with which they are associated with.


Planning staff from the Department of Natural Resources and Mines participated with twenty-three volunteer committees in a statutory planning and community engagement exercise to provide advice and recommendations to the Queensland government between 2000 and 2003. This paper reviews impacts and lessons from a case study of the community engagement process implemented in the Wide Bay Burnett and South East Queensland regions. Feedback from members of the Committee’s is used directly to indicate lessons from the experience. The paper uses frameworks for community engagement and tools that assist the critical thinking, reflection and deliberative planning for community engagement processes to recommend key characteristics to improve performance in participatory processes for natural resource management.


Between 2000 and 2003 a team of planning staff from the Department of Natural Resources and Mines designed and implemented a community engagement process with the help of a large group of community volunteers. The process evolved from the Vegetation Management Act 1999 (VMA) requirement to develop a series of Regional Vegetation Management Plans (RVMP’s) containing advice and recommendations to the Queensland government on sustainable vegetation management. These RVMP’s were to reflect the specific and localised differences for native vegetation management across Queensland. The Queensland Government approved the recommendation to achieve this task by undertaking a consultation process-involving peak statewide and regional stakeholders through the formation and participation of community based Regional Vegetation Management Committees (RVMC’s).

RVMC’s were established under a detailed term of reference to provide advice and recommendations to the Queensland government on a range of matters including statutory outcomes for vegetation management and voluntary outcomes, including local guidelines, for tree clearing, sustainable land management and local best practice. RVMC’s were also required to:

  • Report on consultation and communication strategies involved in the process.
  • Report on the delivery of incentives and other assistance.
  • Report on strategies for review, monitoring and evaluation of regional guidelines.
  • Identify priorities for research.

The consultation process for regional vegetation management planning was a significant challenge in terms of complexity of issues to be addressed, the scale of the consultation process and the short timelines for outcomes. Twenty-three community-based RVMC’s with between twelve-fifteen members, each representing diverse community values and interests, operated concurrently across neighbouring regions in Queensland between 2000 and 2003. All RVMC’s completed draft Regional Vegetation Management Plans (RVMP’s) containing local guidelines, advice and recommendations to the Queensland government within the timelines required. The cost of the process to the Queensland government and community in real dollar terms, effort and time was considerable.

This paper reviews lessons from the RVMP exercise in two regions within Queensland, the Wide Bay Burnett and South East Queensland regions. The concerted effort applied to accountability, governance and continuous improvement by the planning staff provides a comprehensive source of data from RVMC members involved with the engagement process. Comments from feedback

captured during the process and testimonials from RVMC members provide insight into the lessons and impacts for participants. A thorough review of the pre-planning activities, features of the engagement environment and practices for the case study is found in Harris and Thompson (2005).

Impacts and Lessons for Participants

Part 1 – Engagement process

Members of the RVMC’s initially found the task of compiling local and regional advice and recommendations on vegetation management using an engagement process involving a large multi sector membership a somewhat illogical, difficult and challenging task. For example:

“The task of the Committee was complex and difficult: masses of information, legislation and technical detail to come to terms with; development of working relationships amongst a diverse group of people with often conflicting points of view………….” 1

“At the outset the diversity of views, opposing perspectives and differing levels of expertise of the participants made one wonder if this was merely a waste of time and effort.”22

“Even though I have participated in a variety of committees, I found the Vegetation Management group a difficult and challenging task not only for the participants but also our SEQ RVMP Team. Major early challenges included the following;

  • We were all mostly strangers and the group dynamics had to be developed;
  • We were unfamiliar with the task, our roles/responsibilities;
  • The views and positions of our fellow members differed on the subject creating doubt of achieving acceptable - negotiated outcomes;
  • We all brought varying levels of knowledge to the working group-a level playing field had to be established with minimal impact on the process;
  • There was mistrust, suspicion, and lack of faith and acceptance of the government legislation.” 3

A key strategy adopted in the exercise was the use of protocols as a baseline for the process and behaviour involving all participants. This was instrumental in attempting to achieve a safe and respectful environment that acknowledged and respected diversity as well as clearly defining the framework and mechanics of the process. Examples included:

  • Behavioural protocols - to guide effective behavioural participation and promote a safe and respectful environment, in a transparent way.
  • Operating protocols - to provide a clear, transparent and agreed framework for operating procedures including strategies to deal with situations where the integrity of the process is compromised.
  • Protocols outlining the approach for decision making - providing a clear working definition for consensus and the steps required to craft consensus outcomes.
  • Communication strategies outlining actions to ensure high order outcomes were achieved.
  • Documenting the statutory framework, terms of reference for RVMC’s, expectations and obligations of participants plus levels of influence and power in relation to the task at hand.

The discussion on protocols and terms of reference “Helped negotiate roles and responsibilities for all members in the process including protocols for behaviour and process. This established the benchmark for participation/relationships and accountability. This in turn established the foundation of excellent group dynamics by fostering a comfortable-safe environment – encouraging everyone to participate without fear or favour and built trust and mutual respect.” (Gittins et al 2002)

“The quality of the resulting plan has been achieved due to the protocols and processes which were drawn up by the whole Committee. These procedural guidelines provided a mechanism to keep the process moving toward consensus outcomes from diverse and sometimes competing broader interests. They also provided a pathway for the flow of useful information to and from the broader community.” 4

Evaluations and behaviour at workshops indicated that while the protocols provided a structure for the process and helped ensure equity for members, some found it difficult to adhere to the “work together - negotiation approach” of the decision making process and desired to have more influence on outcomes. In particular, some members found the process very confronting – and negotiating for consensus outcomes in principle compromised their own personal opinions and at times, may have not aligned with a position held by a peak body at the state level with which they were aligned. As a result, a small number of non- consensus outcomes were recorded and some environmental advocates actively sought to influence the decision making processes of government on tree clearing matters by exercising their democratic rights outside the RVMC process.

Feedback on weaknesses and threats of the engagement process included:

  • No compensation for member’s time and payment for replacement labour at businesses.
  • Undermining of group consensus positions by members whose sectors sought to achieve more restrictive development and pressure greater environmental outcomes.
  • Compromised environmental consideration due to self-interests.
  • Principled positions by members who were not economically impacted by recommendations.
  • Process was pressured by timeframes and consensus model.
  • Process was limited by too many up front non-negotiables by government.
  • Individuals not committed to the consensus process and guidelines –a lack of trust in integrity of other members leading to breakdown between members and the process.
  • Various sector views and positions being continually challenged.
  • RVMC members not sticking together even after reaching consensus during the consultation of their work.

Evaluations also showed Committee members appreciated innovative and flexible approaches during the process and enjoyed experiencing new tools and techniques.

“I must admit I was a bit concerned at the first meeting – especially sticking pieces of paper all over a fish – but it was a fun activity that indicated just how large the task is going to be and also how close we are as a group with our thinking on the components for the task. It was quite amazing how it brought the group together even though, at first glance, we appear such a diverse group.”5

Participants also felt that the process significantly contributed to skill and capacity development and some Committee members are applying their knowledge and experience in other engagement processes.

“I must admit that I have used my experience on this group as a base for other groups on how they are functioning. The consensus format that was developed was a leading example of how to operate with a diverse group.”6

Feedback also indicates that many of the challenges and concerns for the process, including credibility of government engagement processes, were addressed and for some it represented a “winner” or benchmark for future community engagement programs:

“Without doubt this process, in which we were privileged to participate, is one of the better if not the best. Obviously many factors lead us to this conclusion. The design, implementation, the protocols developed and the participative approach had a major influence. However the encouragement of group processes leading to consensus views and the vast majority of participants gaining mutual respect and developing and maintaining relationships contributed greatly to the overall process. Added to these influences was the accessibility to the team, their preparedness to listen to constructive criticism and then jointly review the process seeking a strategy of continuous improvement and innovation within the process made this a winner.“7

“Your community engagement program is one that is characterised by trust in the RVMP process and, in turn, has led to better-informed outcomes for vegetation management in Queensland. The achievements in your community engagement program are significant for all stakeholders. The process you implemented represents a benchmark when evaluating the effectiveness of community engagement programs undertaken by other government agencies in the future.”8

Impacts and Lessons for Participants

Part 2 – Post legislative amendments

The release of amendments to the VMA 1999 in May 2004 had a significant impact on the role of the draft RVMP and the Committee members themselves. The election commitments of the State government required new components to the legislative framework that resulted in significant changes to the legislative baseline for the RVMP program. For RVMC members this meant that the boundaries or “ goal posts” requested by their terms of reference had significantly changed, effectively meaning the outcomes from the consensus-participatory process were prepared under a different set of rules.

While the recommendations and advice contained in the draft RVMP’s was used to inform some components of the new legislative framework, RVMC members found it difficult to identify where and how this information had been used. For example, the tree clearing codes were required to be drafted in a legal framework, using a lawyers language, that met requirements for assessment codes administered under the Integrated Planning Act 1997. While this redrafting was completed with attention to the intent of the advice and recommendations from the relative parts of the draft RVMP’s, it was also required to comply with a new overall state framework as part of the State government election commitments. This meant a new, more stringent legislative baseline determined the acceptance or rejection of local and regional best practice outcomes. It also had the effect of adopting new performance based outcomes from other regions in Queensland over the recommended local and regional approaches. In most cases, the language and structure of the advice and recommendations contained in the draft Plan’s was altered to an extent that Committee members could not recognise their work.

RVMC members experienced a large range of emotions including frustration, anger and confusion over these changes to the vegetation management-planning program. The protocols and terms of reference for the process were clear with regards to the level of influence and power in the process – that is, the treatment of information, advice and final decision-making lay with the government. But even acknowledging this could not replace feelings of anger and frustration resulting from the significant investment and ownership by the community in a local and regional process that would contribute a relatively small percentage of what in the end, was a more stringent state framework. A state framework that had many components not aligned to the features of the regional landscape and on the whole, resulting from election commitments.

The regional vegetation management plans had been compiled as a local and regional document relevant to one particular region of Queensland. In many cases, decisions and recommendations were intrinsically linked and reliant on other recommendations and outcomes being included and adopted. The engagement and consensus process had ensured that the Committee’s had balanced the economic, environmental, social, wider community and regional scale aspects of complex resource management issues. For this reason – they represented a “complete and balanced package for sustainable landscape management” where single components could not stand-alone from the rest of the “package”.

RVMC members had recognised that two of the largest threats to the process and their work included the “political process”; and that the “Queensland government will just pick the eyes out of what we present” without recognising it represents a package with most sections reliant on outcomes from others.

Feedback received on the impacts of this situation, particularly on the rural RVMC members involved with the RVMP engagement exercise include:

  • Frustration in the lack of consideration of what was well considered, logical and practical information appropriate for the region.
  • Erosion of personal and professional credibility in terms of community standing.
  • Assertions of personal character and abilities by association with the process.
  • Frustration and disappointment in lack of influence and value placed on their work.
  • Cynicism and mistrust in government consultation processes.

Feedback from the process indicates that the engagement process had been robust and rigorous in technique, and had clearly built a strong level of relationship between members, ownership and pride in the work developed by the Committee’s. But indicators that the planning and design of the process were not well aligned to the context and scale of the situation, and that the power characteristics of the task had not been understood, are clearly evident.


In July 2003, the first of the “Engaging Queenslanders” series were published as part of the government’s commitment to increase the involvement of Queenslanders in a range of government processes and deliberations (Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet 2003a, 2003b, 2003c). These indicate that the current emphasis on community involvement in government processes in Queensland is in response to more accessible, responsive and accountable government. Community engagement is described as a continuum of practices, with increasing levels of engagement and influence:

In response to this initiative the Chief Executive Officers (CEO’s) Committee for Land and Resources (2002) developed a framework for community engagement in land and resources business, which amongst other things, aims to increase knowledge and understand effective practice and associated risks of community engagement. This provides a framework whereby activities can be designed and described in terms of their location and spread along three elements:

1. The level (or purpose) of engagement – ie. information provision, consultation, participation or partnership.

2. The type of community/communities – ie. specific interest groups, local communities, regional communities or state communities.

3. The position of the process in the cycle of government business – ie. policy development, planning, implementation, monitoring and review.

The CEO’s Committee suggest that by carefully analysing the features of each of the elements of the framework it is possible to improve the design of engagement processes. However on their own, it is suggested here that these elements are broad and do not provide sufficient direction or stimulate enough critical thinking for the design of complex engagement processes. For example, the engagement process for the RVMP case study could be described at a local and regional scale involving at least three levels of engagement and included most of the business cycles of government.

Outcomes from the case study also indicate that scale is not just about community – but that people relate, think, problem solve and live in “places” and that engagement processes must be relevant to the appropriate scale of context or “place”. The scale of the “place” will vary according to the nature of the issue, which in turn will influence the engagement process – for example the engagement approach will differ depending on whether the scale or context is a square metre vs. backyard vs. neighbourhood vs. catchment vs. region vs. state etc. The “place context” for the case study was the local and regional scales and was grounded in the practical knowledge and experience of the community representatives for that “place”. The engagement process implemented in the case study used approaches and styles that were appropriate at this scale and context. But as the lessons indicate, these approaches and styles were inappropriate when the outcomes of the process were applied by the government at a state “context”.

Oliver and Whelan (2003) suggest that the four different levels of engagement can be stretched to as many as sixteen different forms of citizen participation if outcomes of the engagement process are considered and are used to inform the type of relationship appropriate for the exercise. In their work on participatory decision making and environmental advocacy, they suggest characteristics of the engagement exercise that influence the appropriate relationship include the level of influence and power relationship (impacts on decision making and implementation), the scope of the potential options (that is, limited and defined vs. many and ill defined), the roles of citizens and government in implementation, and options/requirements for government and citizens to jointly gain better understandings of meaning systems and perceptions (social learning). The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) also suggest a key feature of any framework for community engagement is that the commitment being made by the sponsor/investor or “promise to the public” will vary depending on the level of engagement (IAP2 2005). This provides another method to integrate some of the characteristics described by Oliver and Whelan (2003) and aligns them to the lessons from the case study. Table 1 provides an alignment of features for an engagement framework based on the principles and findings from these sources.

Table 1: A practical framework for community engagement activities.

Community Engagement Process


Promise to the public

Appropriate Relationship

(eg government and public)

Information sharing

Information provision

The one way sharing of information and data. Fundamental to most engagement activities. It can raise awareness of issues but cannot in itself influence decision-making.

We will keep you informed.

Government fully manages the activity, implements the activity and does not need any involvement from the community. Government will only seek to inform the community on what is happening, what has happened or will happen.


Involves two-way communication - feedback, views or comments on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions. Activities are generally focussed on a specific issue or proposal, where government defines the issues and controls the final decisions. Structured forms include advisory committee’s or representative panels that mediate community input.

We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how your input influenced the decision.

Government fully manages and implements the activity; however provides feedback on how public input influenced outcomes.


Processes that work directly with the community and allow for greater community input to decision-making. Participatory approaches may provide opportunities for communities to have a role in reviewing a series of options and providing information on a preferred option.

We will work with you to ensure your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives developed and provide feedback on how the public input influenced the decision.

Government fully manages the activity; however requires the cooperation or collaboration of the community in order to implement the activity. The government and community “pool resources” (information, money, labour etc) in order to solve a problem or issue neither can solve individually. The community will have a direct influence in the conduct and decision-making associated with the activity.


Partnership or collaboration approaches provide opportunities for shared responsibilities in each aspect of a decision (eg developing alternatives and identifying preferred options). It involves joint decision making, negotiated outcomes, joint management or service delivery and shared leadership. Partnerships could involve a negotiated sharing of roles, responsibilities and resources, through to full devolution of responsibility to communities for decisions, resources and actions.

We will look to you for direct advice and innovation in formulating solutions and incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decisions to the maximum extent possible.

Government works with the community as partners to manage and implement the activity. Both parties collaborate – but power is shared based on negotiated roles and responsibilities and commitment of resources.


The RVMP case study indicates it was necessary for government to embark on a participatory or collaborative engagement process in order to obtain a high level of community input on recommendations and advice for local and regional vegetation management practices and guidelines for tree clearing. Government simply did not have the necessary information and local knowledge to solve the problem. That is, it was necessary for the “pooling” of local community information and knowledge resources with government in order to obtain relevant information for sustainable land management for problems and issues that neither party could solve individually. However, the outcomes of the case study indicate that the community involved (in this case the RVMC’s) did not have a direct influence in the conduct and decision-making associated with the activity. If indeed the engagement process that was adopted was not aligned to the purpose and appropriate relationship – then that may be an error of the government planning staff. If however, the engagement process and relationship were appropriate for the context of the issue – then it could indicate an abuse of power and relationship in the implementation of the outcomes from the RVMP program.

Feedback from community directly involved in the RVMP engagement process indicates very positive lessons and experiences in the style and approach of the program at a local and regional scale.

The language used by the Queensland government indicates the principles and future directions for community engagement is to continue to strive for increasing levels of participatory engagement and for community to be involved with and influence government decision making and outcomes. However, the lessons from the RVMP case study show it is necessary to critically think and deliberate over key design characteristics to determine the appropriate approach and style of community engagement processes. To improve the performance of participatory approaches, deliberation needs to consider five key characteristics:

  • Ensuring a clear, shared view of the purpose of the task at hand and boundaries of the exercise.
  • Ensuring the form of engagement approach aligns with the purposes to be achieved.
  • Ensuring the purpose of the process and form of engagement aligns with the appropriate relationship and promise to the public. Explore the willingness of all parties to engage at the appropriate level and review the power characteristics of the issue and process.
  • Ensure the process adopts practices and approaches matching the features of the context of scale and “place”, along with the cycle of government business.
  • Ensuring clarity on the role of the sponsor/investor and level of commitment for the life of the process. This includes feedback on the final decision making process and how information provided will be valued and used.


Chief Executive Officers (CEO’s) Committee for Land and Resources (2002) A Framework for Improving Community Engagement in Land and Resources Business. Queensland Government.

Gittins M Jensen J Bettany B Armstrong E Taylor T Boyland D (2002) Community Nomination for NRM Award for Excellence in Style and Approach – The SEQ RVMP Team.

Harris P and Thompson O (2005) Sharing lessons from the engaged and the engagers – A Case Study. International Conference on Engaging Communities, Brisbane, Queensland. Australia.

International Association for Public Participation (2005) Public Participation Spectrum

Oliver P and Whelan J (2003) Insiders and Outsiders: Participatory Decision-Making and Environmental Advocacy. Sixth International River Management Symposium. Brisbane.

Queensland Department of Premiers and Cabinet (2003a) Engaging Queenslanders: Get Involved. Improving Community Engagement across the Queensland Public Sector. Queensland Government.

Queensland Department of Premiers and Cabinet (2003b) An Introduction to Community Engagement. Queensland Government.

Queensland Department of Premiers and Cabinet (2003c) Engaging Queenslanders: Get Involved. Improving Community Engagement across the Queensland Public Sector. Queensland Government.

Vegetation Management Act (1999) Office of the Queensland Parliamentary Counsel.

1 Community Representative, Nambour, North Coast RVMC

2 Conservation Representatives, South Coast & North Coast RVMC’s

3 Farmer, Kilcoy, Brisbane Valley RVMC

4 Farmer, Gundiah, Coastal Wide Bay RVMC

5 Farmer Calliope, Coastal Wide Bay RVMC

6 Farmer Kilcoy, Brisbane Valley RVMC

7 Conservation Representatives, South Coast & North Coast RVMC’s

8 Chair, Ministerial Advisory Committee – Vegetation Management.

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