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Wrapping themes — integrating from the beginning

Debra Just

General Manager Strategy and Policy, City of Onkaparinga, SA


Strategic, or community plans, form the direction setting documents for most local authorities with governance responsibilities for communities. These documents need to be enacted with progress against them assessed in a manner that is built into every day operations. This flow requires linkages between, and the integration of, processes and structures. It includes decision making, prioritisation and resource allocation processes.

While strategic or community plans may be premised on pursuing sustainable development, or Local Agenda 21, they are usually articulated as separate goals or themes (eg environment, economy, society). Common analogies for this approach include describing sustainable development as a three legged stool or as pillars which, while separate, together support a common structure or outcome.

This concept runs counter to integration and may create goals which are at odds or difficult to reconcile. The three legged stool is not altogether a good analogy for sustainable development as integration needs to start from the base; from the beginning.

Words describing a sustainable future

The City of Onkaparinga’s first strategic directions document, (Creating our Future 1998–2001) was developed in response to the newly created entity arising from the amalgamation of three councils in 1997, and followed the separate goal based approach. As such, three of the its five themes are instantly recognisable, namely:

• promote economic development and employment opportunities;

• protect and enhance the environment; and

• support community and cultural development.

This approach served the City well between 1998–2001 and reporting back against the undertakings in the strategic directions document indicated a high completion and success rate. The document was legible to community and Elected Members and staff were able to clearly identify their roles and responsibilities for delivering on the strategies.

However, this three-legged stool approach also had the potential to create strategies and actions, which are at odds or difficult to reconcile across the disparate goals. As an approach, it also does not actively foster integration or the pursuit of multiple outcomes. Nor does the act of delivering upon those strategic directions actively promote a greater understanding and awareness of sustainable development as it allows practitioners to remain within the domain of their specialist areas and to pursue these in a unilateral way.

It is in the interstitial spaces between disciplines, where territory is not pre-owned, that the fertile ground lies for advancing sustainable development and bringing about change.

The challenge when producing the new set of strategic directions for 2002 onwards (creating our future 2002–2005), was to commence the integration of goals or strategic directions from the outset. The new strategies developed through consultation processes were wrapped together, examples of which include:

• foster enterprising communities (brings together social capital and economic development notions and promotes community empowerment; building competitive advantage based upon an area’s natural strengths and growing local ideas and enterprise as a basis for local employment)

• turn waste to wealth (focuses upon attracting or growing local industries and enterprises which reduce resource consumption and greenhouse gas generation; that create local economic development opportunities from treating waste as a resource or through environmental rehabilitation)

Wrapping two themes together represents a start in the right direction and was a task readily undertaken by community members participating in the forums to develop the new strategic directions for the City. Participants felt it was a more ‘natural’ way of viewing the world in comparison to the professional penchant for dis-aggregating down to component themes — looking at the three separate legs of the stool.

The achievement of sustainable development has an intergenerational timeframe which needs to form the basis of, and be reflected in short term planning timeframes (one to five years). In the City of Onkaparinga’s case, consultation and agreement on the description of a preferred future formed the basis for the longer term guidance within which the strategic directions for the next 5 years were cast.

While the preferred future was described under the headings of ‘our people’; ‘our economy’ and ‘our environment’, these statements were blended across the themes wherever possible, while staying true to the sentiment and ideas expressed by the community. Examples include:

Our economy is built on the strengths of our people and our environment in a sensitive and creative way.

Our coast is a precious environment which we protect and utilise for recreation, employment and tourism.

In a further step that recognised not just the integration of environmental, social and economic themes, but also some key understandings relating to sustainable development, the Councillors at the City of Onkaparinga formulated a Charter for Future Generations. The Charter also acknowledged, in lay language, their privileged role as community decision makers and that their decisions affected future generations. It recognised the local area’s attributes and aspirations in a global context; a simple way of beginning the understanding of the local-global connection.

The Charter also contains a series of pledge statements, expressed as a commitment from the Councillors, that outline the views emerging from the consultation processes. Those statements too blended together key themes outlined in further detail in creating our future 2002–2005 in the strategic directions and associated strategies.

The City of Onkaparinga’s Charter for Future Generations was commenced prior to knowledge of ICLEI’s Earth Charter, which it parallels.

The three legged stool would appear to weaken as an analogy when the approach of wrapping themes occurs from the outset including community input to describe a preferred future, local leader’s pledges and the strategic directions outlined in a plan or charter. A better analogy would be one which is organic, still living and growing and with a single unified support mechanism. Perhaps the trunk of a tree which feathers out into many branches?

Words to action

The challenge of translating the words of strategic directions and charter documents into action is usually progressed through gaining commitment and resources. At the most fundamental level in organisations and local authorities, this translates into business and action plans (responsible officer/section; timelines; specific actions and reporting mechanisms) and training along with human and financial resources.

For creating our future 2002–2005, the approach taken recognised Council’s responsibility as a level of governance to represent the aspirations and needs of the communities within its boundaries, regardless of whether the strategy related directly to Council’s responsibility. Local authorities have roles beyond that of a direct provider of selected services, or a regulator or enforcer of legislation. The roles of leadership, facilitation and advocacy called forward additional energies to identify other parties and partners willing to take on the task of enacting the strategies flowing from the community. The approach will see an increase through time in the number of NGO’s, state and federal agencies, community groups and others, willing to be listed on Council’s website as furthering or fulfilling a nominated strategy. The use of an action or progress tracker, combined with an officer contact email address, will further strengthen commitment and delivery upon the strategic directions. The Wide Bay Region in Queensland utilises an action tracker.

To ensure tight alignment between the strategic directions for the City and the resourcing mechanisms, the Council’s 5 year Financial Directions document seeks to establish the alignment of proposed projects, programs and capital works with strategic directions and scores items in accordance with their level of alignment.

This test of alignment is one of two primary, or weighted, criteria utilised, the other being an assessment of risk. While the risk assessment process utilises the standard frequency/consequences approach, the considerations are broadened to reflect sustainability parameters and to consider the consequences before and after the proposed action. The risk analysis format also reinforces the integration process as it considers the elements of the natural environment, public safety, socio-political (i.e. community disenfranchisement, outrage or poor public opinion) and business risks.

A range of secondary, or unweighted criteria are also deployed to assist decision making with regard to the assessment of proposals and the prioritisation of competing demands and needs in a manner which promotes the integration of themes. This is further reflected in scores, for example, relating to the achievement of multiple outcomes, linkages and a broad interpretation of cost benefit analysis.

By way of examples, stormwater management projects which also achieve environmental benefits (e.g. water quality enhancement, revegetation plantings) and amenity, rate more highly than basic engineering solutions. A multi use path connecting schools and recreation reserves, or shopping facilities, receive a higher priority score than a footpath in a local street. Programs which promote community development, enhanced personal skills and support fledgling enterprises receive a higher rating than those serving a single target segment.

The prioritisation and scoring processes are aligned to project management processes, which in turn assist decision making by ensuring that all aspects and impacts of an initiative are examined at the start.

In terms of on-ground actions, procedures and training for all staff and targeted key staff, have been utilised to affect changes to work practices. This has included:

• general sustainability awareness training;

• the development through consultation of specific procedures (eg working in native vegetation procedure);

• audits (eg legislative compliance audit, waste audit) which have led to the alteration of physical work practices in the ways in which materials are consumed, handled or stored; and

• the introduction of an on-call environmental advisory service.

The externally provided environmental advisory service has proved to be very effective as staff view it as value adding. It provides a sound and responsive source of information and practical expert advice on how to act in particular circumstances and on specific sites.

It is critical that the processes used for decision making, including prioritisation, resource allocation and risk management, reflect integration and the concept of sustainable development. Incongruities between intended directions and the on-ground outcomes need to be minimised through training, commitment and ready sources of good quality advice.

Weighing the words

A number of mechanisms exist for monitoring progress and attaining feedback on the efficacy of policies and strategies. Feedback on progress was previously referred to in the paper in the form of an action or progress tracker for specific strategies. The City of Onkaparinga has also developed a project register and reporting tool which is currently in a trial stage. Scorecard systems are increasingly used, including sustainability and ‘state of the city’ or ‘state of the environment’ styles of report cards.

Following the development of the first strategic directions document for the City of Onkaparinga (Creating our Future 1998–2001), the task became to produce a set of indicators that would allow progress towards the strategic directions, and hence sustainability, to be measured. This was particularly challenging as the document had not been written with that purpose in mind at the time. Funding was obtained from the Local Government Research and Development Scheme and the City of Onkaparinga project managed the development of a guidelines document for local government which examined the frameworks and applications to date of strategic indicators (Monitoring Outcomes: achieving goals). The City also subsequently applied those indicators in its State of the City report card which indicated trends and movement towards or away from goals. (refer to web address). The scorecard is underpinned by an additional layer of information and detail relating to the data used.

With the value of experience, the strategic directions for 2002–2005 identified the desired outcomes required by the community at the time the strategic directions were being formulated. This ties together the description of a preferred future with the specific strategies and makes the task of identifying indicators easier. It will give rise to a new set of indicators for 2002–2005.

Examples of the types of desired outcomes (potential indicators) presented included:

• attraction of new and enterprising industries

• increased access to diverse education and training opportunities

• preserved local heritage and cultural places

• reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

• businesses that convert waste into a resource

• participation in leisure and recreation activities etc.

Simple, legible and accessible feedback to the community, leaders and organisations promotes transparency and an examination of the efficacy of policies and strategies.


Analogies, structures and processes which separate the themes of environment, economy and society are counter to achieving the integration required to attain sustainable development and the commitment required to bring about institutional change. It entrenches discrete disciplines and disparate goals. Integration needs to occur from the start and new analogies are required to better describe and educate with regard to a fully integrated approach.


City of Onkaparinga (1998) Creating Our Future, 1998—2001

City of Onkaparinga (2000) Monitoring Outcomes: achieving goals. A practical guide for using community indicators to monitor the strategic directions of a local government area or region. (refer to

City of Onkaparinga (2001) State of the City 2001 (refer to

City of Onkaparinga (2002) Creating our future 2002–2005 and Charter for Future Generations. (refer to

ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Indicators) (2000) The Earth Charter — Values and Principles for sustainable development.

Wide Bay 2020 —

About the author

Debra Just has a Masters Degree from the Adelaide University where she taught for seven years. She has worked in the local government sector for 10 years. As the General Manager for Strategy and Policy at the City of Onkaparinga (SA), Debra is responsible for incorporating the pursuit of ESD into the City’s strategic plan, policies and projects. She is also responsible for managing planning relating to the environment, infrastructure, built and cultural heritage, social and recreation matters and land use planning for the City.

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