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Institutions for sustainable development

Steve Dovers, Su Wild River

Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, The Australian National University

Sustainable development is a difficult, long term, global agenda that questions deeply our patterns of production and consumption, settlement and governance. So what has it to do with Australian local government? For far too many people — and far too many policy makers — local government is small stuff and this is a big issue. In one small council — let’s call it Buggerup Shire (not related to any similarly named Western Australian council) — the building inspector goes about his daily tasks. Those small tasks connect absolutely to that big global agenda of sustainable development, through climate change and energy use, and through the tortuous negotiations under the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the associated Kyoto Protocol which Australia will not ratify. Meanwhile the Buggerup shire engineer has her daily tasks as well, concerning drains, sewers and swamps. These small tasks connect to the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and to a raft of state and national policy and law in Australia. What matters in Buggerup matters in Canberra, in small Pacific islands, Europe, the UN, everywhere. Hence Local Agenda 21.

Such connections are obvious to people in local government (LG) and justify the well-worn slogan ‘Think globally, act locally’. Some overturn that slogan and target the big scales and processes — ‘Think locally, act globally. But both are far too simple, because sustainable development is far from simple. Issues of sustainable development occur across and between individual, household, local, regional, national and global scales, over short and long time frames, and our policy and management responses must match and moreover coordinate all that. Managing the dynamic interaction of scales of time and space and of jurisdictions and policy processes is above all an institutional problem. We only collectively achieve things through institutions — formal and informal ones, legal and economic, local, regional, global. Institutions structure our interactions, provide our ground rules, coordinate our activities. If institutions are inadequate, we will not advance far towards a future that is ecologically sustainable and humanly desirable.

Yet we know our institutional arrangements are inadequate; even official policy statements say so. This paper does three things in response: it reviews the state of play in Australia with what we call ecologically sustainable development or ESD; it proposes the key characteristics of institutions for ESD, based on a view of the nature of sustainability problems; and it considers what those characteristics mean for LG.

The state of play with ESD

Australia responded to the sustainable development agenda reasonably well in the early 1990s, with an inclusive process for a national strategy and a number of related policy initiatives (Hamilton and Throsby 1998; Dovers 1999). Since then, though, implementation has been variable. On the one hand, Australia has proved its ability to develop policy and institutional responses to resource and environmental issues, and even to the broader ESD challenge. Among the positives of recent decades are (we do not comment on LA21, as this is covered by other contributions here):

  • inter-jurisdictional settings such as the Murray-Darling Basin Initiative (including the Cap, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago), Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and Alpine Alps management arrangements;
  • innovative inquiry, policy-informing and research initiatives such as Victoria’s long standing and now lessened Land Conservation Council (LCC) and the globally remarkable and now defunct Resource Assessment Commission (RAC);
  • the wide (if vague) expression of ESD principles in statute law (Stein 2000);
  • national R&D mechanisms, in particular, Land and Water Australia;
  • co-management arrangements for multiple use reserves, involving government and indigenous communities;
  • integrated catchment management initiatives;
  • a range of community-based programs combining community initiative and government support, epitomised by Landcare; and
  • regional natural resource management organisations and processes, addressing social, environmental and economic futures (but, post-war Australian history is littered with discontinued regional initiatives; see Dore and Woodhill 1999).

Mind you, we should have runs on the board. Australia is a developed country with strong financial, scientific, infrastructure, human and educational resources, making it well capable of responding to sustainability issues. It has low population pressures, stable legal and political systems, isolation from many exotic pathogens and, despite considerable environmental degradation, a sound natural resource base and areas of intact natural systems. If we can’t do it, who can?

Weighed against this is a history and continuation of ‘policy ad hocery and amnesia’ in Australian environmental policy (Dovers 1995, 2001a; see also Walker 1994; Walker and Crowley 1999). The negatives of our ESD policy record include:

  • continued degradation and poor practices (eg, land clearing, disintegrated coastal management, over-allocation of water, excessive per capita resource consumption and waste production (the more important side of the population-environment equation), lack of long term energy planning, etc);
  • insufficient continuity of efforts over time, featuring reactive rather than proactive responses (ad hocery), and a lack of learning and consolidation of policy experiences over time (amnesia);
  • poor implementation of ESD policy, with the Productivity Commission (1999) noting a lack of normal, ‘good policy practice’;
  • weakening or discontinuation of positive institutional initiatives (eg LCC, RAC);
  • poorly coordinated policy field, across sectors and issues (forests, water, biodiversity, energy, etc) and jurisdictions (levels of government, regions, catchments);
  • lack of long term support for community-based arrangements that, having proved their worth, deserve to move from short term program funding to long term funding, legal status, solid administrative capacity and better defined roles and powers; and
  • an emerging risk that, without a reversal of ad hocery and politicised short term programs, the rising tide of populism and the decline in political trust in Australia will damage the prospects for these community-based initiatives.

Also, ESD is not the only social goal or policy imperative occupying us. Social justice, national security, economic growth, changing information technology, rural decline, trade, globalisation — these may be in tension with sustainability or at least divert attention. Most significant has been marketisation, the manifestations of neo-liberal political ideology and neo-classical economic theory, in the forms of privatisation, corporatisation, outsourcing, public sector shrinkage, competition policy, application of managerialist approaches, and deep institutional change (Dovers and Gullett 1999). The impact of this on environmental management capacities deserves thorough investigation.

So the Australian story since Rio has been mixed. A crucial weakness has been a lack of deeper institutional change, with the focus being rather on short term programs, organisational change at the margins, and non-binding policy. It pays to consider why the response has been insufficient.

Why so hard? The nature of ESD problems

Implementation of ESD policy has been poor, but there are other considerations. One is time — as an ‘official’ policy agenda, ESD has only been around for a decade and these things take time. Also, the federal system of governance in Australia makes for difficulties of coordination and implementation, as well as wonderful opportunities for buck-passing and obfuscation. For LG, the fact that federal and state governments seem to consider it an optional part of Australian governance, a place to dump unwanted or thankless tasks, makes this worse.

However, it is the case that the challenge of ESD is hard, involving the integration of social, environment and economic concerns over the long term, in the face of uncertainties. We should not expect instant policy gratification, and should be prepared for a long haul, understand what it is about these problems that make them hard and think hard about what needs to be different about our response. Important ESD issues — greenhouse, integrated waste or catchment management, biodiversity — have characteristics that make them difficult policy targets, and different to traditional public policy problems (Dovers 1997):

  • broader and deeper scales of space and time;
  • irreversible and cumulative impacts;
  • interconnected problems and processes;
  • pervasive risk and uncertainty;
  • important assets not valued in economic terms;
  • poorly developed policy and property rights and policy approaches; and
  • most importantly, problem causes that are ‘systemic’, located deep in patterns of production and consumption, settlement and governance.

These problem characteristics invite a more serious policy and institutional reform, a ‘deeper’ response to ESD, with the following transitions:

  • from short term management interventions in particular places, to integrated management regimes connecting these interventions across time and landscapes;
  • from short term and narrow policy instruments and programs, to improving the capacity of underlying policy processes;
  • from marginal organisational change, to reform of the institutional system;
  • from community participation via short term programs with little devolved power, to longer term status and resource commitments; and
  • from reshuffling government departments and portfolios from the top down, to new forms of governance driven by genuine partnerships between science, government and community.

In response, the idea of ‘adaptive’ institutions and policy processes has been developed as a general framework for analysing and prescribing new ones.

Attributes of adaptive institutions

Ecologists and managers, faced with the uncertainties and complexity of managing ecological and resource production systems, developed the idea of ‘adaptive management’ (Gunderson et al 1995; Dovers 1999). Management actions are explicitly framed as experiments, with strong monitoring, information flows and feedbacks to allow learning and improvement. We can apply the ‘adaptive’ idea to institutional arrangements and policy processes and seek to act with purpose, but also with the humility to accept what we do not know, to persist, monitor, learn and adapt. Is this too obvious? It is not exactly rocket science, but the history of policy ad hocery and amnesia indicates that we have not been doing it. ‘Policy learning’, something we might assume just happens, is actually rare (May 1992).

This broad idea can be developed further by defining the attributes that an ‘adaptive institution’ would have, in answer to the characteristics of the problems they must deal with. The following set of attributes are informed by institutional theory, the nature of sustainability problems, and analysis of environmental management arrangements that have been more impressive over time than others (Dovers 2001a):

  • persistence and longevity, to provide sufficient time to learn and evolve policy and management responses, often demanding a legal basis rather than being left in the shaky realm of ‘policy initiative’;
  • purposeful, where accepted principles underpin policy. ESD principles are the most widely expressed set we have, reflecting the international agenda created at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, to be reviewed at the 2002 World Summit. ESD principles have been expressed in hundreds of Australian policies and manylaws (Stein 2000). The challenge is to implement them;
  • information-rich and –sensitive, with wide ownership and use of scientific, traditional and community knowledge describing the environment, human interactions with it, and the effectiveness of policy and management responses;
  • participatory, given the need for the sustained involvement of stakeholders and communities in policy and management. Such participation must be clear in terms of responsibilities, transparent, predictable and maintained over time;
  • flexibility and experimental, so that learning and improvement can take place, and persistence and purposefulness do not inhibit adaptability. Key elements are the blending of the often unconnected organisational roles of research, policy and management, and explicit mandates for cross-sectoral and comparative analysis and use of innovative approaches;
  • coordinated and coordinating, being well-connected, structurally and functionally, to other parts of the institutional system; and
  • sufficient resources, including financial, human and administrative.

Combining these attributes in one institutional arrangement will not be easy, or even necessary every time. Certainly few existing arrangements do well against them. But this provides a basis for analysing existing arrangements or for developing proposals for reform (see Dovers 2001a). Here, we can use these attributes to organise some observations about LG.

Local government as adaptive institution?

To bring this broad view closer to the level of practicality with which this conference is largely concerned, we can think about how well LG fits against these attributes of adaptive institutions and, if not, why not. There are three interrelated aspects to this: how well does LG fit these attributes; what serves as drivers for LG achievement of ESD goals; and what serves as constraints to this capacity. (Much of what follows draws on detailed empirical research by Wild River 2002).

Persistence and longevity. Few of our ESD policy experiments have a solid enough basis, legally and institutionally, to guarantee their survival for long enough for their value to be properly judged. This includes many institutional arrangements outside traditional scales of governance (local, catchments, regions, bioregions, etc). LG has often been overlooked, ignoring the fact that it is a well-established, legally defined and administratively competent part of the Australian policy and institutional landscape. LA21 has tried to fill this void at the LG level, but is an optional add on-for most already over-worked and under-resourced councils. It has not delivered sustainability across most of Australia’s LG areas. LG is also representatively democratic as much as state or federal governments are, and far more so than most recently created regional, district or catchment bodies are. This brings in an important point: the persistence and longevity of LG must be judged relative to that of other legal and administrative capacity at the local, regional and catchment scale. While we have many new institutional and organisational initiatives at these scales, most have little persistence and no real prospects for longevity. There is huge potential for stronger linkages between LG and these other scales of resource and environmental management, even for these new scales to be defined around and legally structured through LG. However, that would require state and federal governments accepting LG as a genuine third tier of governance, and devolving real power and resources. It is at these scales that the principle of subsidiarity — devolvement to the lowest level appropriate to the issue — instructs more power to LG on those issues where that is appropriate. There would be a long list of issues.

Coordinated and coordinating. LGs’ capacity to coordinate efforts towards ESD operates differently than for other spheres of government. The local sphere is often where coordination of state government policies takes place. LGs must integrate environmental protection with environmental planning, workplace health and safety regulations, waste management requirements and a range of other environmentally relevant areas. Individual state agencies tend to address just one of these issues, but LGs look after them all and are the conduit by which the various policies impact on businesses and other policy targets. With different policy areas and professions housed within often small and rarely large organisations, integrating social, environmental and economic policy can be easier than in the larger, fragmented state or federal spheres. When there are conflicts, ambiguities or overlaps between different state government statutes, it is generally LGs that will first be made aware of these issues, and will face the most pressing need to coordinate policies so that they make sense during implementation. LGs are more likely to do this with reference to local demands, than state government priorities, because local areas are their priority. This can confuse and frustrate state governments, which generally consider that LGs are agents of the state, whose primary purpose is to effectively and consistently implement state government policy. This problem, labelled the local-state antinomy (because of the inherent contradiction between LG as a creature of the local and a creature of the state) underpins many of the problems between the two spheres of government, and restricts the effective coordination of sustainability policy across Australia (Wild River 2002). Coordination between LG and district, catchment and regional scales of environmental management is problematic, with recent years producing more of a maze than a coordinated pattern in many parts of Australia.

Purposefulness. LGs use many options for purposefully moving towards sustainability outcomes. Broadly, expression of ESD principles in local government and planning Acts is important, but has been patchy so far. But there are other avenues to drive change that LGs can use. In Victoria for instance, where LGs were forced into amalgamations in the mid-nineties, and then required to competitively tender most council services, many have found ways to harness these changes as ESD opportunities. Ecologically-focused contract specifications, market development strategies, and the direct involvement of developers to drive outsourced environmental innovations have all been attempted with success (eg. Osmond and Ray 1996). LG’s purposeful efforts for sustainability are also often seriously constrained by a lack of effective statutory powers to address pressing local issues. In the Northern Territory for instance, LGs lack most of the planning powers enjoyed in other jurisdictions, yet they still have an interest in the land use planning in their local area, and are responsible for the long-term management of infrastructure. This tends to be costly and cumbersome when it has not been factored in early in the process (James. 1998).

Participatory. LGs often take steps to include a broad range of local and regional stakeholders in decision making, aiming to incorporate their concerns into the policy process. These efforts take various forms, with varying levels of effectiveness and integrity. Public notices inviting submissions about development applications and other specific decisions that fall within a policy framework give little opportunity for strategic or systematic participation by local community members. One-off, face-to-face public meetings between councils and communities on specific issues can be more cathartic, but again, these often occur when policy objectives have already been established. Both of these styles of public participation are also common in other spheres of government. A mode of participatory decision making and action more distinctively local is the establishment and support of community groups, made up of volunteers working on local issues and who are not selected for their elite status in relation to the group’s focal issues. Considerable time and effort is required to establish effective representative groups, and continue to involve them throughout policy development and implementation. A risk with all participatory processes is that subsequent decisions that fail to address the issues expressed by participants can erode trust and future willingness to cooperate. LG is unique in being a constant meeting place for community and government — indeed, elected members of councils embody this dual reality.

Resources. LG is responsible for only 4.5 per cent of total government expenditure, yet contributes 53 per cent of total government environment spending (Trewin, 2000. p2; Trewin 2001, p.16; Commonwealth of Australia 1999. p.8; Searle 2000. p.8). Clearly, LG environmental resources are stretched. Recent years have seen extensive devolution of environmental and other tasks to LGs. In some cases these have been invited by LGs. In others, LGs have resented or opposed them because they have been imposed without an effective resource base. However, simple finance is not the only resource issue that strongly affects LG capacity to deliver ESD outcomes. Initiatives with an ongoing resource base pose very different issues for LGs than the many one-off, short term programs. Also, conceptual systems that recognise broad-scale issues but can be translated into local contexts are often important resources, as are skilled people, adequate physical infrastructure and sufficient time (Wild River 2002).

Information-richness and sensitivity. LGs are most rich in, and sensitive to, information about their local area, both in terms of their own interpretation of issues, and compared to broader spheres of government. There are costs and benefits to this. This sensitivity may mean that they can highlight and manage local environmental interests effectively. But LGs may also be unaware of the regional or national significance (or insignificance) of their local areas. When special local values are highlighted through recognition as RAMSAR wetlands, or inclusion in World Heritage areas, this can constrain development but may also bring new interest, and perhaps new visitors and resources into a local area. It is harder to effectively perceive and manage environmental threats like gradual suburbanisation of tracts of remnant vegetation. And while new planning legislation throughout Australia has increased accountability mechanisms about the speed of decision making, these statutes lack mechanisms to consistently track the quality of environmental decisions about these types of issues. More generally in the ESD field, basic environmental monitoring is widely agreed to be insufficient, but so is monitoring of policy and management interventions and the vital information that can emerge from that (Dovers 2001b). The role of LG associations and other LG networks in allowing communication of the many LG environmental management experiences is potentially a strong positive of the LG sphere as opposed to the state level.

Flexibility. The many state and federal policies that have changed the ways that LGs are required to operate over recent years have sought to increase both the flexibility and consistency of LG work. The internal conflict between those two goals is seldom acknowledged. In practice, the conflict is not readily resolved. Flexibility is needed because of the enormous variety between LGs, local environments and local communities. These differences often justify a flexible approach to governance, and to policy implementation. Yet consistent outcomes between local areas are also a legitimate goal, since otherwise the increasing inequality between local areas may be further exacerbated. Finding ways to support flexibility, that also deliver consistency is a key sustainability policy challenge for those agencies working with LGs.

Closing comment

This discussion has been brief, but is sufficient to suggest that local government, as a diverse institutional layer in our system of governance, meets the attributes of adaptive institutions rather well, at least in a general sense. The extent to which any one council does so or not is another matter, as the environmental performance of LG ranges from very impressive through to very poor. However, the potential for LG to contribute to achieving ESD is clear, but so are some of the constraints on that potential.

Meanwhile, back in Buggerup Shire in five, ten or fifty years, things will have changed. Those daily tasks are still connected to the global and national scenes. The building inspector, Ahmed, and the chief engineer, Kylie, deal daily with energy efficiency standards and audits, recycled materials regulations, mandatory water re-use systems, and similar tasks. LG has changed, with constitutional recognition of local governance, long term partnerships with state and federal governments in policy design and implementation, dedicated ESD staff commonplace in councils, and recognition and resourcing of LG as the statutory and administrative basis of local, regional and catchment environmental management. LG has two members on the powerful National Commission for ESD, having input into coordinated state of environment reporting, national policy development, and reporting under international treaties and processes. LG participated in the 2004 national review of a wide body of Australian statute law for consistency with ESD principles, which began a process of genuine legal and institutional reform. ESD has become institutionalised properly in the landscape of policy and law, and local government is a core part of that. Shall we wait five, ten or fifty years?


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About the author

Dr Stephen Dovers is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University. He researches, writes and commentates on policy and institutional aspects of sustainable development, science-policy linkages, and environmental history. Recent work includes the edited books ‘Environmental history and policy: still settling Australia’ (Oxford, 2000) and ‘Uncertainty, ecology and policy: managing ecosystems for sustainability’ (Prentice-Hall, 2001), and a paper in the ACF’s Tela series entitled ‘Institutions for sustainability’.

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