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Towards a national framework for assessing local sustainability

Andrew Ross

Director, Sustainability Unit, Environment Australia


The purpose of the framework is to provide a structured framework for assessing and recognising progress towards local sustainability. Not Milestones.

• The project can be applied to LA21 as well as other similar approaches.

• Arose from a proposal by the National Local Leaders in Sustainability Forum that such a framework be investigated.

Benefits of a framework include:

• tracking progress and feedback to decision makers

• encourage effort towards local sustainability by providing credit for performance;

• enable learning from successful practitioners;

• lead to better overall results Australia wide.

The project

Environment Australia sought tenders for the preparation of the framework, and the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation won the contract. The following analysis draws on SMEC’s work. Your reaction to the following analysis will be built into the further development of this project.

SMEC has:

• carried out a wide-ranging review of literature and international experience (including UK, NZ and Canada);

• prepared and disseminated an Issues Paper to key stakeholders (Environment Australia, strategic partners, council interviewees, and informants) and through LGA and sustainability networks;

• engaged two ‘strategic partners’ - the South Australian Partnership for Local Agenda 21 and the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, holding workshops with them during the project

• held telephone or face-to-face interviews with a cross-section of councils and ‘key informants’ with experience of implementing local Agenda 21, and

• prepared a draft national framework that was discussed with focus groups in Vic and WA (20 council officers, councillors and State LGA staff attended).

Key issues raised in project consultations

Could milestones be developed for LA21?

Many Councils in Australia believe that since LA21 is a philosophy or approach to addressing sustainability milestones are unnecessary. Other key informants and stakeholders question how LA21 can be moulded into a milestones framework.

• While milestones have been used in Cities for Climate Protection™ Program, climate change is a much easier concept to undertake and monitor because there are tangible goals that can be quantitatively measured.

Framework for assessing progress

If a framework approach is to be adopted:

• it should build on previous initiatives and efforts to improve rather than add another formal planning and reporting requirement;

• it should assess and validate council’s efforts without imposing a prescriptive or uniform approach - entry into the process needs to be simple and not resource intensive;

• it should allow for continual improvement

• further efforts will be needed to build high level support.

Building on existing initiatives and efforts

Many Councils have limited resources available. There would be resistance to any proposal that might create (or appear to create) another formalised requirement for councils to prepare reports and plans:

• it is important to give full recognition to existing council activities relating to sustainable development, especially where they conform with the legislative requirements (Local Government Acts, planning legislation, environmental protection legislation, environmental monitoring and state of the environment reporting) imposed by State and Territory Governments;

• relationships with other programs and initiatives need to be clearly articulated, such as Cities for Climate Protection, Environmental Management Systems, National Local Biodiversity Strategy and State of Environmental Reporting (in NSW).

Allowing for diversity

It is extremely difficult to translate a complex, multi-faceted initiative such as the achievement of sustainable development into a simple sequence of tasks and reports:

• approaches and sequences of actions will and should vary from one area to another.

• at the same time, there needs to be a strong focus on real action - implementation projects and tangible outcomes, rather than just plans and reports.

Need for high level support

The keys to successfully integrating sustainability/LA21 into Council strategic, corporate and operational planning, decision making and budgets are strong political and/or senior management support as well as strong support from other spheres of government and the local community:

• if LA21 is to have such support, then it takes time to develop the necessary commitment and make the necessary changes to Council’s way of operating.

Possible approach

Any framework for implementation of LA 21, and more broadly achievement of sustainable development, needs to include both process elements (information base, stakeholder consultation, goals, implementation measures) and content elements (economic development, social cohesion, environmental conservation).

One approach is an Achievement Recognition Matrix. This matches the key elements of a (generalised)’local Agenda 21’ process with a set of (specific) content objectives tailored to local circumstances. Councils would add two or three specific local content objectives under each of the broad headings to include locally relevant issues linked to wider national and global concerns. Current or previous initiatives towards sustainable development would be built in to the new approach. An outline of such a matrix is attached.

The proposed system would recognise achievements in sustainable development without requiring councils to undertake a separately defined LA 21 process. Existing plans, policies, programs etc. could be submitted for recognition - with or without suitable modifications - and the assessment process could be adapted to suit different approaches in different States or regions. There would be multiple ‘entry points’ reflecting local circumstances and priorities.

Efforts will be recognised provided that the methodology and process is appropriate and accords with sustainability principles. The matrix would not be a simple checklist of progress. It would provide the starting point for review council’s efforts. The process would promote information exchange, shared learning and critical self-examination, rather than assessment for its own sake or to meet uniform guidelines.

Assessment of progress

There are a number of options for assessing progress. These include:

1. self-assessment;

2. peer review;

3. independent (‘expert’) review and verification;

4. formal audit;

5. statutory compliance.

Option 1 alone would not produce credible assessments, while options 4 and 5 would be expensive and could discourage Council cooperation. One approach would be to combine Options 1 to 3, with self-assessment, in conjunction with a system of peer review. This could be supplemented by some form of independent verification. This could provide a degree of consistency across Australia that would increase the credibility and benefits of the scheme.

• Peer review could be based on State and/or regional partnership networks similar to the South Australian Partnership for Local Agenda 21 or a regional organisation of councils.

• The combined option is a relatively low-cost approach, that also offers the advantage of opportunities for regular exchanges of views and experience, shared learning and benchmarking.

Next steps

Consultation and review

Whilst this report is based on quite extensive consultation with Local Government representatives and others, further discussion and review will be undertaken. This will include consideration of resourcing needs and options.

Preparation of guidelines

The explanatory notes attached to the draft matrix need to be expanded into a more comprehensive set of guidelines for Councils and review panels.

About the author

Andrew Ross is Director of the Sustainability Unit, Environment Australia. Recently Andrew has managed: a range of initiatives to promote ESD and Local Agenda 21; Australian input to the OECD sustainable development project; and the Secretariat for a National Council of Environment Ministers. Prior to his current position, Andrew was with the Waste Policy Section of Environment Australia and developed a major package of industry waste reduction agreements and strategies which was approved by Commonwealth and State Ministers. Andrew has also worked in senior positions in Treasury and been an environment policy consultant to the OECD in Paris.

Example of achievement recognition matrix

Content Objectives (insert specific local objectives)

Process Elements









Integration of economic, social, environment issues.

Community/ stakeholder involvementa

Clear goals, priorities, measurable targets, indicators.

Planning, management and decision-making processes

Specific measures, tangible evidence of progress

Monitoring, reporting, review, continuous improvement.

Data collection, information systems

Ongoing partnerships

Community wellbeing, key social issues*


Economic progress, employment


Sustainable land and water resources management-


Protecting biological diversity-


Energy use, renewable energy


Land use planning


Environmental protection, pollution control-


Sustainable consumption, minimising waste


Lower greenhouse emissions, better air quality


Better research, technologies and information systems-


a This includes the involvement of women, young people and indigenous peoples

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