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Governance and creativity: working together to improve environmental management

Tony Gleeson

Synapse Research and Consulting


Whilst there are economic and technical dimensions to the deteriorating ecological and social conditions in rural Australia it is fundamentally a challenge of governance. It is the challenge of how we use political power in the public, private and community sectors to manage our affairs. And it is a problem for which the solutions are not readily apparent. It is in fact a problem requiring considerable insight and creativity.

The thesis developed in this paper is that our systems of governance in rural Australia constrain insight and hence creativity. We need to develop and navigate new conceptual frameworks to guide governance. Governance needs to make a greater space for creativity.

Institutional support for innovation in rural Australia is circumscribed conceptually by an overwhelming emphasis on commodification (pricing of goods for exchange) and the consequential movement towards rights of exclusion. There is a narrow focus on productivity gains in the agricultural sector, a situation fortified by misunderstandings about the significance of the agricultural sector. The research and development infrastructure underpinning innovation is risk adverse and frequently employs command and control processes.

The reinforcing loop of commodification, of agricultural fundamentalism and of command and control processes, through its constraining influences on the creative field and domain, limits our recognition of the need for insightful solutions. The loop constrains by making more difficult the iterative processes that are essential to problem representation and hence to problem finding and solution.

Against this backdrop the way forward is to remove obstacles to institutional renewal. We need to remove organisational constraints on creativity. We need to recognise the important relationship between the nature of the products of innovation and the characteristics of innovation systems. We need to develop an infrastructure for continuous learning about our impact on the environment.

Accepting the need for more broadly based conceptual frameworks

There are two powerful and interconnected conceptual frameworks operating in rural Australia: the framework of agriculturalism and the framework of commodification. These frameworks are reinforced by our institutional cultures, structures, and processes. We blindfold ourselves with these mindscapes and we stumble down familiar pathways searching for solutions through institutional arrangements that have in large part caused the problems.

The impact of these frameworks is evident in the culture of many of the institutions that support innovation in rural Australia as is illustrated starkly by the following quote from one of the nation’s most influential analytical bodies:

Australia is a country defined by its agricultural sector. Agricultural products were among the first goods traded by this country and remain a critical element of our current and future international trade. Our quality of life is enhanced by the wealth generated by the agricultural sector and the clean, green quality of our food and agricultural products. (ABARE 2000)

We channel most if not all of our thinking and analyses through market based prisms. We operate within a commodified culture wherein an idea, an action, a plant, an animal has no value if it can’t be priced.

We develop the notion that there are three spheres of policy: the economic, the environmental and the social — the ‘triple-bottom-line’. This is muddled thinking. The economy doesn’t have values. It is an artificial construct to help us to achieve our aspirations, aspirations that reflect our individual, social and spiritual values.

We seek to ensure that agriculture is market driven ignoring the reality that farming occurs within social and cultural contexts. We over-emphasise the economic contribution of agriculture and deny the critical linkages and interdependencies between different economic activities. We deny the cultural significance of landscapes and the place of food in our culture. We limit ourselves by denying our own spirituality and that of others.

We need to better understand the values that should influence what happens in rural Australia. We need conceptual frameworks less constrained by the past and more embracing of the unknown.

Accepting the need for institutional renewal

Institutions are supra-individual constructions of systematic human behaviour. Institutions include traditions, families, schools, corporations, government organisations, processes and instruments and markets (after Ball 1996). It is these institutions that enable governance, the exercise of political power to manage a nation’s affairs (Weller 2000). It is these institutions that convey to the individual the power to act in the public good (Saul 1997).

Through the ‘80s and 90’s we developed concepts and strategies for ecological sustainable development. However we failed to build institutional capacities for environmental management. We fragmented the efforts of community, industry, and government. We fragmented efforts within government, fragmented the use of policy instruments and fragmented environmental legislation. We have programs that are about not much more than seeking and distributing financial grants. We have failed to transfer powers and resources to local, community-based and responsive institutions. We have too many overworked and under-resourced committees. Importantly we have failed to develop planning and accountability processes that acknowledge the critical importance of social norms, of intrinsic motivation and of creativity.

The farmer now is not the farmer of yesterday. The farmer now is both a knowledge worker focused on ideas and a manager focused on people and work. The ‘knowledge worker’ farmer needs to be schooled in the use of concepts and information. S/he needs to be as concerned about effectiveness (doing the right thing) as about the quantity and quality components of productivity. The knowledge worker farmer needs to adopt a habit of continual learning. In short the knowledge worker farmer needs to be enabled, not managed. Farming today and tomorrow is an information-based activity ill suited to command and control based relationships with support institutions. And as argued by Drucker (2001) management by self-control requires complete rethinking concerning our use of reports, procedures, and forms. Reports and procedures are necessary tools but their most common misuse is as an instrument of control from above.

Various authors (see Karim 1999; Drucker 2001) trace an evolution from the agricultural age through the industrial age to the emerging knowledge age. From an agricultural viewpoint however it is not so much a transition from agriculture as a transformation within it; from manual, through industrialisation to the emerging knowledge based agricultural era. The knowledge era is, as observed by Harley and Sewell (2001), not so much about an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ economy as it is about new ways of doing old things.

Future institutional arrangements in rural Australia might be characterised by:

  • being more explicitly based on the broad sets of material and non-material values held by both rural and urban Australians, rather than on narrow sectoral based values and vested economic interests;
  • being less accepting of the presumed supremacy of the market institutions and more receptive of the need for social institutions;
  • being more integrated across the three tiers of government and the regional community, broadly represented; and
  • being less agricultural centric and having the charter to place agriculture and farming within a cultural and social context.

Accepting the need for insightful thinking

One of the obstacles to insightful thinking about rural Australia is the unwillingness or inability of agricultural support institutions to view rural Australia as encompassing a broad range of values and activities, rather than in a purely agricultural -centric and protective way.

A 1998 inter-governmental assessment of Australia’s recent performance in sustainable agriculture (SCARM 1998) concluded that ‘a long term downward trend in terms of trade has been largely offset by increases in productivity’. ABARE (1999) reported that

Between 1955–56 and 1998–99, the volume of farm production rose by 187 per cent. Despite falling real prices for farm product, the real gross value of farm production rose by over 25 per cent. However, with rising costs of production, the net value of farm production fell by around 54 per cent in real terms.

The picture these statements evoke contrasts with the equally correct observations that between the early 1970s and the mid 1990s there was virtually no change in the real gross value of Australian agricultural output despite a two-fold increase in the real value of world trade in agricultural products. Furthermore, aggregate real net farm income in the mid-1990s was only one third of what it was twenty years earlier. In 1996–97 and 1998–99 the non-corporate agricultural sector paid no or minimal income tax on agricultural income and in the late 1990s approximately 50% of broadacre farmers earned nearly 70% of their net income off farm.

A key obstacle to insight is fixation on a particular image or way of thinking. Additionally the dominance of scientific and economic disciplines often leads us to seek an explanation based solely on analysis of facts. The valuable potential contributions of imagination and intuition are lost.

We may learn from what has been but we will not move forward by adopting the thinking and strategies that have led us to where we are. We need to be continually searching for new representations of the problem. We need to imagine a different future. To do this we need to remove obstacles to insightful thinking.

Future governance

I have chosen two illustrations of how we might better use the available governance resources to improve environmental management in rural Australia:

  • increasing the diversity of innovation systems.
  • continuous learning through environment management systems.

Increasing the diversity of innovation systems

Support for innovation in rural Australia is largely directed towards agricultural R&D, in the order of $1 billion per year. The execution of agricultural R&D is principally confined to the public sector and has a technological emphasis, patterns begun in the mid-1850s, with the establishment of experimental farms staffed almost exclusively by agricultural and veterinary scientists. This trend has persisted for over 150 years despite (or because of) frequent reviews and restructurings of State Departments of Agriculture.

The Rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) account for at least two-thirds of the influence on the direction of agricultural R&D (Gleeson, Russell and Woods 1999). They are focused primarily on optimising the profitability and environmental sustainability of existing enterprises.

The types of innovation products we produce are predetermined by the nature of the innovation systems we create. If the innovation system is highly planned and controlled as tends to be the case then we will produce innovation products that make incremental changes to existing systems. Such changes are necessary but alone they are unlikely to represent the range of innovation products needed to meet changing requirements in rural Australia. The environment for innovation lacks diversity and is risk adverse.

Continuous learning through environmental management systems

A ‘control and command ‘ approach underpins many of the policy and program developments (and reward schemes) for improved environmental management. Through prescriptive and detailed processes industry and community groups are required to commit to achieving outcomes and to specifying the procedures whereby those outcomes will be achieved. In most cases a ‘higher’ authority specifies both the nature and the level of the outcome and ‘expert’ gatekeepers judge the appropriateness of the proposed methodology.

This form of governance is exemplified by the application of environmental outcome standards across a catchment or sub-catchment notwithstanding that such universally applied environmental outcome standards:

  • cannot reflect the diverse values, aspirations, and capabilities of the land stewards and hence a socio-political climate against adoption or compliance is established;
  • fragment the interactive elements that comprise both the ecosystems and the interface between extractive activities and those ecosystems;
  • require in their construction confidence in our understanding of the ecosystem which history frequently shows to have been misguided;
  • detract from the motivation and capability to achieve beyond compliance;
  • constrain the learning and creativity required for continuous improvement in meeting current and emergent environmental challenges;
  • provide an opportunity for uninformed or doctrinaire external influences to have unwarranted impacts on environmental management;
  • are open to be used as barriers to trade.

An alternative approach for improving environmental management on farms is the adoption of an environmental management system. An environmental management system (EMS) is a systematic process used by an organisation to improve its impact on the environment.

Given the commitment to continuous improvement and the capacity to take into account the particular features of each farm (including the aspirations and capabilities of the farm management team) environmental management systems seem to be a particularly useful tool. However in the final analysis the policy and program frameworks that they operate within will largely determine their usefulness.

Cologianese and Nash (2001) conclude from an analysis of EMSs in the United States that ‘although EMSs may be an effective tool that managers can use to achieve their environmental objectives, the best policy response to their widespread adoption may be no response at all’. The need however is not for a public policy response to environmental management systems but rather for the development of frameworks within which environmental management systems and other management tools might operate. Without these frameworks EMSs will be just another management fad, again delaying purposeful action leading to continuous improvement.

Reflecting the importance of context Landcare has supported the development of an Australian Landcare Management System (ALMS)1.

ALMS is a third party audited environmental management systems approach at the farm level combined with consideration of catchment level priorities and strategies, information exchange between the farm and catchment and public sector and market place recognition of the commitment to continuous improvement in environmental management.

Several features have been built into the design of ALMS so as to avoid the difficulties inherent in using an environmental standards approaches (as described above) and to provide safeguards that improved environmental outcomes will be achieved.

Governments need to recognise and respond to the potential for environment management systems to assist in the delivery of public responsibilities, policies, and programs.

Community organisations, including catchment management groups, conservation groups and consumer organisations, need to lend their advocacy, intellectual and practical support to the implementation of ALMS.

Industry needs to understand the essential nature of environment management systems and how they differ from quality control and best management systems. Industry also needs to recognise the potential for tools such as ALMS to enable a responsible partnership to build between their members and the broader public.

Further consultation is needed to develop and implement specific operational aspects. But this is not rocket science. The solutions are at hand and all that is required is commitment.


Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (1999) Changes in Non-Metropolitan Population: Jobs and Industries, Report to the Department of Transport and Regional Services.

Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (2000) Sustaining a Nation: Celebrating 100 Years of Agriculture in Australia, ABARE, Canberra.

Ball, R. (1996) Institutions of Innovation and Prosperity, Occasional Papers 58, The Centre for Independent Studies, St Leonards.

Coglianese C and Nash J (2001) ‘Toward a Management — Based Environmental Policy’ in Coglianese C and Nash J (eds) Regulating from the Inside, Resources for the Future, Washington.

Drucker, P. F. (2001) The Essential Drucker: Selections from the Management Works of Peter F. Drucker, Harper Collins Publishers Inc, New York.

Gleeson, T., Russell, G., and Woods, E., (1999) Creative Research Environments: Environmental Factors Affecting Creativity in Agricultural Research in Australia, Report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Harley, B. and Sewell, G. (2002) A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing: Getting Below the Surface of the Growth of ‘Knowledge Work’ in Australia, Paper for the Department of Management, University of Melbourne,

Karim, M. R. A. (1999) The Impact of the Knowledge Age on Governance’, 1999 National Conference Papers, Institute of Public Administration Australia in conjunction with the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management.

Saul, J., R. (1997) The Unconscious Civilisation, Penguin Books, Maryborough, Victoria.

Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management (SCARM1998) Sustainable Agriculture: Assessing Australia’s Recent Performance. Report 70.

Weller, P. (2000) ‘In Search of Governance’ in Keating, M. and Davis, G. (eds) (2000) The Future of Governance: Policy Choices, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards NSW.

About the author

Tony Gleeson has over 30 years experience in rural research, policy and political analysis in the public and private sectors and for the past 20 years he and his partner have owned and managed a beef property in northern New South Wales. In 1990 Tony established Synapse (Aust) Pty Ltd, a Brisbane based research and consulting company specialising in policy and strategy analysis. Through the 1990’s Tony was a part-time Director of the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and a Board Member of the Queensland Abattoir Corporation. Tony is currently involved in several projects related to the economic and environmental performance of the rural sector and he is enrolled in part time PhD studies at the University of Queensland and Macquarie University.

1 The need for such a development was identified by Jock Douglas in June 2000

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