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The AgSIP dinner party. An appetite for social change in a political context.

Scott Cawley

AgSIP Program Leader, Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, PO Box 61 Miles Queensland 4415.
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The very nature of the Regional NRM environmental agenda is political, a process by which a community adjusts and reconciles its component beliefs and values. Many of the stakeholder positions taken and beliefs held are based on limited understanding and dialogue with those of opposing or even shared views.

The AgSIP was a strategic investment in the regional NRM process that took the position that the likelihood of progress on environmental issues and role out of priority strategic projects meant major stakeholders needed to be around the table and dialogue needed to be meaningful, based on explaining the basis of why different organisations held different views, their vision of the future, the operational reality of making things change at a property level and what criteria they used to assess the success or impact of a project or initiative.

This paper outlines the challenges, reflections, and learnings of the AgSIP program which set out to run a strategic process of coordination of sustainable agricultural activities across 5 industries, 8 regional bodies and 3 levels of government but was reliant on using processes and activities which targeted individual social processes as building blocks to underpin these changes.


The AgSIP is an $8M funding programme established under the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. Its purpose was to support initiatives that would have a strategic benefit to the regional NRM process in the area of improved sustainable agricultural production providing improved salinity and water quality outcomes.

The AgSIP programme was developed after 18 months of scoping and dialogue with various stakeholder groups which identified, prioritised and subsequently implemented and managed a group of projects. AgSIP consisted of 18 funded projects in four broad themes of:

  • Grazing lands management,
  • Enhancing industry’s capacity to engage in NRM,
  • Integrated Area Wide Management, and
  • Coordination and process support to industry and regional bodies

These projects were implemented by a range of contracted service providers QFF, Cotton CRC, DPI&F, DNR&M, CSIRO and Central Queensland University. These providers are answerable to a stakeholder Implementation Board.

The very establishment of the Regional NRM Process was new and brought about a whole new way of doing business in the NRM agenda. It totally changed how NRM issues were identified, prioritised and addressed by empowering local regional community bodies to lead and be accountable for implementation of the process. Both State and Commonwealth Government took on an overall accountability role in what then was a very loosely defined process with similarly defined roles and responsibilities.

Industry and Conservation Peak Bodies were given no clear role and were aggrieved that their previous level of influence in defining and implementing a NRM agenda was changed drastically. They now had to establish networks and dialogue with a third party (Regional Bodies) rather than have direct and unencumbered access to government.

So from the elements of a new process, new stakeholder roles and responsibilities and emerging agendas grew the AgSIP “Dinner Party” - a strategic process of coordination and networking of sustainable agricultural activities across 5 industries, 8 regional bodies and 3 levels of government.

This paper outlines the challenges, reflections, and learnings of a process which was reliant on using processes and activities which targeted individual social processes as building blocks to span a range of evolving agendas and outcomes.

Deciding upon the Theme?

If the AgSIP was likened to a dinner party there was a very significant early stage which could be described as the conflicting turmoil of defining the theme for the night.

The establishment of the Regional NRM Process in its own right created considerable ‘animated debate’ as it changed traditional positions and roles of power and influence:

  • It was an invigorating but perplexing challenge for the new regional bodies that were given many new responsibilities, limited resources and compressed timelines and who were keen to establish or impose themselves and stand their process up.
  • Peak bodies were suddenly out in the cold and were determined to get back in the door of influence and represent their constituents as they are the only ones that can do that.
  • Government became schizophrenic as one component dictated to Regional Bodies and another part being told to be their servant. In either role government was uniformly held in suspicion and held in a low level of trust. All individuals inherited this dubious mantle.
  • For all parties where there is money, there is power. Where there is power, there is politics

So when the invitation went out that there was proposed dinner party in the form of a funded program to deal with strategic sustainable agricultural production issues there was naturally animated discussion as to actually what it should be.

Virtually none of the early dialogue was positive. Its negativeness was driven by individuals’ prior perceptions of roles, issues and priorities, stereotyping and fear of the unknown. Trust of others was commonly low.

So in this light it soon became apparent that everyone wanted the AgSIP to be something different and most were forthright is saying so! As such all parties were good at talking but not listening and did not initially pick up on others needs and concerns as they pushed their own agendas.

It took an emphasis by the AgSIP coordinators to repeatedly go back to defining what the imposed parameters of the AgSIP were (1) it had to be strategic i.e. benefit all NAP regions or significant impact on industry at a state level (2) it had to involve sustainable agricultural production (3) it had to have salinity and water quality outcomes.

Once this was done it narrowed the dialogue and increased the focus. Perhaps the most significant impact was getting the various different stakeholders together in one point in time to discuss what the AgSIP was about and how it could meet their needs given the parameters. Though wary this reduced adversarial approaches as people realised that it was difficult to “get one up” on others when those very people were present in discussions. This resulted in a more collegiate response and one which incorporated a more earthy realism of respective political agendas.

The invitation list and seating plan? Who gets invited?

Once the parameters of AgSIP, or the theme of the dinner party, were agreed to and understood the invitation list to be involved was discussed and expansion considered.

The very nature of the Regional NRM agenda is about the environment, and hence very political as it involves a process by which a community adjusts and reconciles its component beliefs and values on the environment. The major differences between stakeholders in the AgSIP dialogue could be defined as (1) different weightings across the triple bottom line criteria of sustainability – environment, profitability and social; and (2) who makes what decisions and levels of participation within that.

In acknowledgement that the AgSIP program lived within a wider environmental political arena the coordinators set out to involve those parties that were seen to be representative of the different positions involved. Many of the suggestions came from early participants who put forward suggestions of who to invite. This was particularly useful in targeting individuals within organisations. In an organisational sense representation included NAP Regional Bodies, Industry and Conservation Peak Bodies (QFF & its subsidiaries, Agforce, WWF, & Greening Australia), DPI, EPA & DNR&M. In hindsight the level of Federal Government involvement in early stages should have been far greater.

Functionally this could be further broken down, particularly within government and the CSIRO and university sectors into (1) the separate science components of, and integration across research, development and extension; and (2) policy and regulation. Each of the above had specific values, paradigms and biases that had to be accounted for in dialogue and structure process.

Given the breadth of differences one of the important learnings in the AgSIP process was not to badge an individual with the stereotyped reputation of the organisations they worked within. It took considerable storming across stakeholders before this was accepted by most. These initial differences reflected that many of the stakeholder and individual positions taken and beliefs held are based on limited understanding and dialogue with those of opposing or even shared views. How this was addressed will be discussed in the next section under table conversation.

The final seating plan was determined by inviting all who were thought to be relevant. These individuals and organisations determined whether the process, or the party, was relevant to them, and those who accepted made judgements on their level of involvement. Some used material benefit they could, or did, gain from the process as the measure of whether they would accept the invitation to attend the AgSIP dinner party or how long they would stay.

The Seating Plan - Who sits where ?

In the evolution of the AgSIP process it was interesting to note the changes that occurred with respect to who liked working with who, or in the sense of the dinner party – who sat next to who.

This changed as people realised they had more in common, or more mutual benefit, with other parties than originally thought. One of the stranger transformations was the changed preference of one of the conservation groups to work directly with industry groups rather than certain segments of DPI&F who they saw as monolithic “rednecks”, too sensitive to perceived alliances with the very people the Conservations ended working with!

Table Conversation – The bores and conversationalists

It was the food (money) and “being seen” (positioning) that attracted people to the AgSIP dinner party but the success of the party was due to the table conversation (dialogue).

The success of the AgSIP Dinner Party was centred on brokering good dialogue which led to improved understanding of each others’ position, needs, wants and concerns. This was achieved by repeatedly trying to get a person to explain why they held a particular opinion or belief. This provided insight into the reasoning or ‘logic’ behind their belief.

Another successful tool was to encourage people to use examples to demonstrate their points. This helped people visualise the problem/issue and in some cases to understand the experiential side of peoples comments.

As people became more familiar with each other and trust grew they were less inhibited in what they said and the underlying causes to many problems and issues were revealed. In some cases things were said directly between relevant parties. Yet in others a third party was told in order to carry a message. The coordinators, as hosts at the AgSIP Dinner Party, often ended up carrying this defacto role. It was actively discouraged and its absence was used by coordinators as a measure of relationship maturity.

In some cases the hosts had to act as “interpreters” and translate between guests. This most commonly occurred when dealing with government officials responsible for policy and regulation and respective field staff from research and extension backgrounds. As a generalised comment neither were particularly aware of the detail of how each other did business and what drove their thinking and decision making processes. Essentially scientists were driven by understanding what happened, and explaining it, whilst managers & policy people just wanted concise answers. One saw the other as a droning dinner party bore and the reverse an aloof snob.

Again the method to address this was getting people to explain clearly and concisely what they wanted, or their point, and similarly to encourage better listening skills. One method to achieve this is to continually ask “why?” to the original statement and its subsequent explanations and for people to explain what they think they heard.

It was clear throughout the process that the most effective, and probably in the end the most efficient, means of communication and building social capital by coordinators, or party hosts, was face to face communication. Once this built the critical level of social capital other means of communication were then enabled eg phone calls, emails. Lengthy written product was neither read nor effective - a legacy of the competition for time.

Post dinner drinks - The aphrodisiac of power

Throughout the dialogue process in AgSIP there was a continual need to identify the appropriate people to talk to within an organisation. Some were better communicators yet were not in positions to make decisions. Also, particularly with Regional Bodies, there was a ‘revolving door’ problem with staff turnover which meant people had to re-invest in developing social capital to achieve effective dialogue.

In many cases some organisations who centred their information flows and decision making power in an individual ran into problems as these individuals were either overwhelmed by the workload or were seduced by the aphrodisiac of power. In cases of the later, these individuals mimicked the behaviours they had earlier so heartedly criticised in others!

Last drinks and lights out!

So when it is all over who leaves with whom? Everyone will know that in June 2007 when the AgSIP party finishes!


While hosting this dinner party AgSIP noticed that progress was only reached when the hard topics of politics religion and NRM were actually discussed at the table! Many crisis, pregnant pauses, conflicts and emotional times are needed for people to meaningfully engage. A lively dinner party that does not always go as planned is better than a polite dinner party that maintains an existing status quo. For people to decide to work together they have to start by agreeing to sit next to each other and commit to finding common ground rather than imposing their views.

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