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Evaluation of the NRM Extension Symposium

Kerry Bell


Context: Background of Symposium

The NRM Extension Symposium was held at the Burke and Wills Hotel in Toowoomba on the 28 and 29 September 2005. The purpose of the symposium was stated as below.

This symposium will generate new ideas and identify effective processes and solutions for building capacity and addressing the challenges of engagement. An array of tools and information for facilitating effective decision-making and action will be offered. These resources will be available post-symposium via the APEN website, and published proceedings.

Also, this symposium enables:

  • Regional Bodies to share what is working and identify the challenges for accelerating implementation of improved resource management practices and meeting targets
  • Local and international extension specialists to highlight emerging processes
  • Practitioners to discuss collaborative extension models
  • Networking and collaboration, professional development and practitioner support.

Approach to Evaluation

The attendees views of the symposium were captured through the following methods:

  • Feedback forms (appendix C)1

End of symposium feedback (based on positives and suggested changes i.e. +ve/Δ) from remaining attendees (appendix A)

Graffiti boards made available during the symposium (appendix A)

Ad hoc interviews with the evaluator (appendix A)

The feedback forms captures information from the majority of the attendees, where as the end of symposium feedback, graffiti boards and ad hoc interviews focussed on those who were more willing to express their views publicly and openly. Other information about the symposium was collected through monitoring the media (appendix B) and collecting information on butchers paper and whiteboards (appendix A). The demographics of the attendees was summarised from the attendance database. Information about why people from the NRM regional bodies did not attend symposium was collected through telephone interviews, using a pre-existing database (appendix D).


Demographics of participants

There were 144 people registered for the NRM Symposium. These included 44 people (31%) from southeast Queensland, 23 (16%) from Toowoomba, 40 (28%) from other places in Queensland, 31 (22%) were from other places within Australia and 6 (4%) people from overseas (which include the two overseas invited speakers). (These percentages don’t exactly add to 100% due to rounding, but excel has taken the liberty of incorrectly rounding down ‘SE Queensland’ in the pie graph below.)

There was an approximately even gender ratio of 46% female and 54% male.


Even though a larger number of people attended the symposium than were expected, there was a strong message that a greater cross section of people needed to be represented at the symposium, such as landholders, industry representatives, Regional Body representatives, indigenous representatives, regulatory people, people from the various agencies (eg EPA, policy makers) and politicians.

It was commented that the gender versus age was out of balance, that is, there seemed to be a large proportion of younger attendees who were female and older attendees who were male. Overall the gender ratio is approximately equal.

All of the 14 regional bodies in Queensland were specifically invited to attend the symposium. Out of the 14 regional bodies, there were 36 representatives (25% of attendees) from 8 of the regional bodies. Of the remaining 6 regional bodies, 2 sent apologies and a further 4 did not respond.

Possible reasons for lack of attendance included the travel distance to the symposium, Toowoomba lacking direct flights into the city, time and funding constraints on potential attendees versus their priority placed on attending.

Benefits and knowledge

In the feedback forms, the attendees rated the benefit of the Symposium an average of 4.8 (n=83), just over the mid way on the 1 to 7 scale. There were 88% of respondents who found that attending the symposium was an average to very beneficial experience (ratings 4 to 7).

The rating for knowledge about the effective processes gained by the Symposium was rated lower than the benefit, with an average of 3.8 (n=83), just below mid way on the 1 to 7 scale. There were 66% of respondents who found they received between an average to a lot of knowledge about effective processes.

Comments on benefits and knowledge gained from attending the symposium, given in the feedback form, included (the numbers in brackets represent the number of mentions):

  • The need to have a more practical emphasis, for example giving more case studies and practical tools. (18)
  • Useful models and theory. (4)
  • Good chance to network and learn about Regional Bodies. (3)
  • International and national perspectives, Janice and Niels presentations. (3)
  • Particular presentations were mentioned. (6)
  • Some mentioned the need to have more time to discuss issues that were raised.

Topics of interest

In the feedback forms, the topics identified as of most interest included:

  • Particular references to individual presentations (37)
  • International and national perspectives, Janice Jiggins and Niels Rlings (16)
  • The speaker at the conference dinner (Tom Kirk) (12)
  • NRM engagement with stakeholders and understanding (10)
  • Theory, extension and learning models (10)
  • Practical outcomes (7)
  • Networking (7)

The general themes of topics identified as of least interest included:

  • Too much theory/modelling (need a balance with practical application). (38)
  • Some of the individual presentations. (22)
  • International perspective. (3)

Networking opportunities

There was general agreement that the symposium provided a good platform for networking across a mix of people, from different regions and states as well as different disciplines and agencies. Some attendees thought that representatives were missing from key areas, such as more Regional Bodies, industries, agencies, politicians, Landcare and policy makers.

A small number of people suggested that a more active mentoring or buddy system could have enhanced the opportunities for networking.

Content of presentations

There was an appreciative response by attendees to the presentations discussing the national and international perspectives (Andrew Campbell; Janice Jiggins and Neils Rolings), and the symposium dinner talk by Tom Kirk on aboriginal kinship systems and patterns. There was also positive comment around the ‘big picture’ session after lunch on the second day (this was an example of a presentation with plenty of discussion).

There were mixed responses to the Land and Water talk and the *M*A*S*H* analogy presented on the first morning.

In general the attendees enjoyed the mix of talks available. While some people appreciated the presentations on models and theory of extension-engagement, a lot of people would have preferred a more inclusive mix of practical presentations.

Delivery of presentations

A large number of attendees suggested the presentations could have been more practical rather than theory orientated, such as showing examples of success and failures, and the application of tools. There was also an impression that some of the presenters assumed that the audience understood the jargon and knowledge they were using more than they actually did.

There were several instances where presentations went over their time limit and this frustrated many of the attendees and following presenters. This also cut into the time available to have discussions around the presentations.

The message of some of the talks were perceived to be lost in detail, with comments made that the message should be made simpler and clearer, using a limited number of slides. Also the attendees could not see some of the visual presentations properly as there was too much detail and/or the print was too small.

There were suggestions that the presentations should be quality checked and that time keeping should be enforced.

Effective engagement

Comments from the feedback forms covered the following issues:

  • The need to work in partnerships with entities such as land users/landholders, rural industry, Regional bodies, community groups, indigenous people and government agencies.
  • Engagement can be enhanced through the use of a diverse range of multiple methods.
  • The use of group facilitation and action learning during engagement (and some people mentioning the need for person to person contact).
  • There is a need for long-term commitment of funding and resources for information sharing.
  • The motivation and positive attitude of stakeholders is important for effective engagement.
  • There is a need to create space for social change.

Comments from sources other than the feedback forms include:

  • There is a need to recognize a wider range of stakeholders in natural resource management, for example the indigenous population and the urban population.
  • The responsibility of delivering effective engagement should lie with each of us, and we need to take ownership. There was ‘much hope due to the enthusiasm of young people’.
  • The extension officers need support in having a chance to share the ‘issues’ with others. There was also a concern that more training was needed in extension skills, especially for the people who are new in the job.
  • The lack of continuity of employment meant that it is hard for staff to complete tasks in a short period of time, especially when they need to be concerned about looking for new employment in case their funding is not extended.

Venue and equipment

As the number of people attending the symposium exceeded expectations, it was not unexpected that this lead to comments that the space available at the venue could have been larger, and there was also issues that the air-conditioner was not optimal. As people were placed around the tables and space was at a premium, many people were seated so they had to turn around to see the speaker.

Due to the size of the room people couldn’t always hear and suggestions were made to make better use of the roving microphones.

Suggestions for future symposiums

There was a large emphasis on increasing the practical side of the presentations and having more time for discussion, small group discussion and more networking time. The use of ‘open space’ sessions was suggested as a means to do this.

More involvement (by attendance and presentations) from a greater cross section of the community was suggested, for example indigenous representatives, landholders and land managers, industry representatives, state agency leaders, people from Regional Bodies and community, Landcare and policy makers. There was also a mention of whether this type of symposium could be run in other states. Information from other disciplines and fields could be introduced, such as psychology and health promotion.

The main elements of the comments in the feedback forms about improving the Symposium included:

  • The inclusion of ‘open space’ sessions, more time for discussion (maybe through stricter facilitation of time management) and the use of small group discussion times, more networking time and space to mingle, broker introductions, field trips, farmers presentations, make focus/expectations of Symposium clearer. (53)
  • For individual presentations, reduce jargon and assumption of knowledge from participants, connect with audience, keep to time, limit number of slides, include more practical extension tools/techniques, more case studies and demonstrate success and failures and discuss challenges. (33)
  • The venue, space could be larger, the audio was sometimes difficult to hear, air conditioning wasn’t always optimal, large tables meant people had to turn around to see speaker, difficult to see speaker from back of room, food was seen as ‘poor and unhealthy’ by one attendee, also a mention of wanting wine provided with dinner. (23)
  • More involvement by landholders / land managers, industry, state agency leaders, people from Regional Bodies and community, indigenous representatives, Landcare officers. (7)
  • Inclusion of all speakers in proceedings and more abstracts and papers; more critique and rejection of papers. (5)

Other comments

In general the symposium was well received and worth attending for the information gained and to see what others were doing. In the feedback forms, the attendees rated the benefit of the symposium an average of 4.8 on a 1 to 7 scale (1=Not very beneficial; 7=Very beneficial). The knowledge they gained about effective processes was rated an average of 3.8 on a 1 to 7 scale (1=A little; 4=midway on scale; 7=A lot).

It was announced that the proceedings was not complete at the time of the symposium, as some attendees had not sent their abstracts and papers in time for them to be included, and there will be a chance to receive the proceedings at a later date either on-line or sent to them. Even with this information some attendees mentioned they would have liked to have a completed copy at the symposium.

Feedback from staff of regional bodies who did not attendance

The interviews were conducted either by telephone or e-mail, depending on their availability. There were 4 responses, in summary the main points were:

  • Those that did not come identified - lack of time, money, distance to travel and clashes with other events as main reasons.
  • Staff would have like to come from some regional bodies but it was a medium level priority, or value for money is an issue in remote locations.
  • There was general agreement that there is a need for similar events in the future, with suggestions of a more focussed conference and more 2-way interaction with regional bodies.
  • Ways to attract regional bodies to a similar event would be - more time and funding, convenient locations (eg Brisbane), and more corporates attending and fewer government agencies, LGAs and bureaucrats.
  • APEN needs a stronger focus on deliberative engagement.
  • There was a suggestion of one day NRM Forum information days a couple times a year, and the use of Open Space to help regional bodies get their issues out and talk to each other.

News releases

The symposium had good coverage in the news by the local television station WIN TV on the night of the first day of the symposium. The story ran for 1 minutes and emphasized the bigger picture of the importance of managing natural resources. It featured comments by Janice Jiggins, Michael Goldberg and Neils Roling.


This symposium set out with goals of generating new ideas and identifying effective processes and solutions for building capacity and addressing the challenges of engagement. This is an important and topical issue, generating high expectations from the attendees and some media coverage. The symposium was successful in getting people together and providing a range of presentations to stimulate thinking, ideas, interaction and networking.

With the high expectations of the attendees came some criticism. One, which was not the fault of the organizers, was the assumed lack of attendance of some key people, such as people from the Regional Bodies and other stakeholders. Another criticism that could be addressed at similar future events is a greater emphasis on showing more practical examples of success and failures, and the application of tools. Also, there was a greater demand for discussion time, which could have been fitted in by scheduling these in the program (and possibly using open space sessions) and stopping presenters going over their allocated time.

The symposium allowed for exchange of information and thought about effective engagement with stakeholders, which the attendees viewed positively. Some of the thoughts by the attendees around effective engagement included a large emphasis on the need to work in partnerships and the use of multiple methods to do this. A possible blockage of engagement is the lack of long-term funding and hence employment, leading to issues about staff being available to plan for the longer-term.

The last session of the symposium (developing a ‘where to from here’ document) provided something concrete to take away from the symposium, and now it is up to the attendees to follow up on this and address some of the issues they have raised. An easily accessible location of future symposiums may have an influence on the attendance rate, such as Brisbane, which has easy access to the airport.

1 Reference to information in the appendix can be found in the full report: Bell, K (2005). Evaluation of the NRM Extension Symposium. APEN website

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