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Working From the Bottom Up

Participatory Extension and Acid Sulfate Soils

A.C. Woodhead

NSW Agriculture, Wollongbar Research Institute, NSW 2477


Does working from the bottom up, by collecting both qualitative and quantitative data, and then taking it back to the stakeholders, create a climate for change when dealing with complex environmental problems?

What is working from the bottom up?

Many decisions in government, private industry and other organisations come from the top down. The person or persons at the top level make decisions without consulting with people at other levels. There are some good reasons why this occurs. The goals that senior management wish to achieve are usually different to goals of other stakeholders. It takes more time to develop a bottom up policy forum. Probably most confronting, the control of the project is no longer totally in the hands of senior management. However, one of the problems of top down policy is that unworkable and unsupportable strategies can develop that do not address the problem or empower the staff and the stakeholders. More drastic effects can be complete breakdowns in communication with staff going their own way and no uptake of the technology by the stakeholders.

Bottom up participatory extension can help the senior management to better target funds and create a healthier climate for change. Scarce resources require the targeting of extension to avoid telling people what they know already or what does not apply at all to their circumstances. Bottom up decision making is attempting to incorporate ideas from stakeholders who are both outside government agencies and within, but at lower levels than the decision makers and controllers of funds. The benefits are that those that are being asked to implement the change and possible change have an opportunity to contribute their ideas. This in turn means that the extension strategy uses the historical and management knowledge of the stakeholders. Therefore the resulting changes are addressing some of the goals of all interested parties. It also means that more people are informed about the objectives and the constraints within which all stakeholders are operating.

One of the problems of using bottom up information is that it adds complexity. Now there are numerous potentially polarised and conflicting perspectives to consider. Creating order out of this information is time consuming. However, what emerges is a wealth of local, historical and management information that can be used to formulate future policy and develop effective extension strategies. The information also forms the basis for communication literature to the many different stakeholders, literature which can display a depth of understanding about stakeholders concerns and ideas about how progress can be made in the future. Apart from the obvious benefits this provides of acknowledgment of the different perspectives, it also provides an opportunity for the stakeholders to learn from each others experience and decide if there are any best practices that they or their local industry or catchment groups could benefit from emulating.

How to decide what way to collect information and how to effectively communicate and use this information has been the focus of the work funded by Acid Sulfate Soils Management Advisory Committee (ASSMAC). The project, Benchmarking of stakeholders attitudes to acid sulfate soils (ASS), was funded for three years, commencing in 1997 (Woodhead 1999). A re-survey has been funded for 2002.

This paper discusses benchmarking as applied to a complex environmental problem, ASS. It discusses some of the techniques that have been used to develop information from the bottom up and ways to communicate that information back to the stakeholders and the decision makers.

What is a complex environmental problem?

Acid sulfate soils (ASS) are extremely acidic and sulfur rich soils. Potential acid sulfate soils (PASS) is the common name given to soil and sediment containing iron sulfide (usually pyrite). They become ASS if they become exposed to air. Extensive drainage of the NSW coastal floodplains has resulted in changes to the water table, often causing ASS. Water running over ASS will cause acid to run off into the local water systems. Rain after long dry periods tends to result in the most acid. The rising water table coming up through the ASS combined with the ASS scalds on the soils surface will produce enough acid to lower the pH in parts of the catchment down to pH 2.5. This acid often becomes contained behind floodgates and is released in one big event, when the gate is opened.

The acid runoff has many negative impacts including fish kills and loss of biodiversity in catchments. Sustained pressure on rural communities to respond to the ASS issues is complicated by the number of physical and biological factors to be considered and the range of stakeholders involved. The effects of ASS are often temporally and spatially separated from the management practices required to address the cause. Furthermore, the social, economic and environmental consequences of change are largely unknown.

Information needs

Given these challenges, organisations (see Table 1) which have an interest and possibly an investment in change will require reliable methods to measure and facilitate change across a broad range of stakeholders and catchments. Traditional agricultural research, such as crop trials, will not provide the answers. This type of problem needs a broader approach including:

observational research to understand the whole landscape and the institutions;

that participate in the managing of it, and

diverse indicators of social and economic conditions at the community level that measure trends spatially and temporally are also needed if credible information is be provided to stakeholders on issues affecting short and long term sustainability of their catchment.

Strategic Information

ASSMAC the NSW ‘all of government’ committee charged with the management of ASS used three main tools to begin managing the problem:

  1. Risk maps were developed of the coastal catchments. These maps show the probability of having ASS within less than 1m, greater than 1m of the soils surface;
  2. A simple booklet "An introduction to ASS" which has been widely distributed and has raised the awareness of ASS in many stakeholder groups;
  3. Their third major initiative was to fund research, to learn more about ASS in NSW.

Table 1. Principal stakeholders and the issues, identified during the acid sulfate soils study, that cause concern.

Stakeholders in NSW

Issues concerning stakeholders


Land holders and fishers

Land based:
Beef, dairy, sugar cane and tea tree farmers.
Property developers.

Productivity based on flood-gated land; Cost and risk of drain re-design; Individual versus sub-catchment needs;
Government ownership of past drainage -who will pay for changes? Active water management (for water quality) requires much greater landholder input; Regulations may effect farm operations.
Cost of compliance and need for streamlined approvals.

Water based:
Oyster, commercial fishers and aquaculture.

Acid fish kills, oyster mortality and damage to aquatic systems; Floodgates stop fish passage.


Government Agencies

NSW Agriculture, NSW Fisheries,
Dept. of Land and Water,
Dept. Urban Affairs and Planning,
Environmental Protection Agency,
State Forests, Environment Australia, Local and County Councils, Total Catchment Management & Estuarine Management Committees,
Drainage Unions, Universities, consultants and laboratories.

Regulate to avoid disturbance of ASS;
Identify and repair priority ‘hot spots’;
Planning and regulation;
Targeted research;
Develop best management and advisory information;
Prioritise funding and involve key stakeholders in decision process;
Loss of wetland and fish passage, water quality;
Streamline approval process for maintenance works



Coastal residents
Recreational fishers, Environmental groups, Media,
Schools and Tourism.

Ecological sustainability of coastal land and water activities; Efficient use of government resources
Quality estuarine water to attract visitors; Adequate fish stocks; Regional employment in new developments, aquatic and agricultural industries

ASSMAC, whilst acknowledging that ASS are the cause, knew that better water quality was the goal. To achieve this goal ASSMAC realised that they could not do it without the cooperation of the landholders (J. Williams pers. comm). Therefore ASSMAC needed to know more about the landholders and the other stakeholders who would impact on any changes the landholders were to undertake. They needed to change the behaviour of the landholders and other stakeholders through education. However what to change and how is still developing. Research is starting to bring some answers but not enough to provide definitive, positive results. Given that change often requires time and money, and providing the wrong answers could make the problem much worse and create a loss of trust and credibility, caution is needed when developing education material.

Multi-Stakeholder Benchmarking (MSB)

Using information from the stakeholders can help you to work out what information is needed, provide valuable ‘do it yourself’ ideas and knowledge on local nuances. Measuring the effectiveness of extension programs can be gauged from ‘before’ and ‘after’ measurements using appropriate indicators. This process is often called "benchmarking", the first measurement providing a benchmark to compare groups and against which change can be measured.

MSB aims to provide a foundation for program evaluation, to empower individuals and groups and also, to facilitate the process of change (Woodhead et al. 2000). MSB uses triangulation, in which different methods, such as surveys and focus groups, are linked to counteract the weakness of the other and provide information on a single phenomenon (DePoy and Gitlin 1994). This approach to benchmarking helps facilitate change by providing information to stakeholders so that they can compare their attitudes and practices with others, and then determine which practices they wish to change. Comparison may be internal benchmarking within stakeholder groups or external, functional benchmarking between stakeholder groups.

The principles of MSB are:

  • comparison to find and define best practices, within or between groups;
  • goal setting to identify which best practice is applicable to transfer to other groups; and
  • transferring best practice to target groups by investigation and adaptation of other groups’ best practices.

Levels of achievement of these goals are measured against the first benchmark during subsequent investigations of the groups. The MSB process is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Multi-stakeholder benchmarking (MSB)

Surveys establish measurable points

Initially research for the ASS benchmark study concentrated on developing an understanding of the issues and identifying the many stakeholders with an interest or effected by ASS. From these semi-structured interviews a set of survey questions were developed. Table 2 shows the types of data collected.

Table 2: Types of data collected


Data collected on:

All stakeholders
(government, landholders, fishers and excavator operators)

Attitude to management of ASS in catchments
Knowledge of ASS indicators
Sources of information about ASS
Requirements, attitude, knowledge, and involvement in:
drain and floodgate management;
catchment groups and
water quality

Landholders and Fishers

Property location, size and ownership status
Years in industry and age of respondent
Production status (increasing, decreasing)
% of other income


Attitude to ASS management on the farm
Knowledge of ASS on property
Soil testing for pH, use of lime
Number of scalded areas on property

Surveys provide comparable and measurable data. Conducted by telephone, letter or personal interview, surveys can be private and confidential. Respondents can express their views, without group pressure. McComas and Scherer (1999) discuss the role of surveys in communicating scientific information to the public and notes that advantages are:

  • input of a wide representation of views relatively systematically;
  • the data can yield both general and specific results.
  • information can be obtained from citizens who are affected by an environmental problem but are otherwise unable to participate in the policy making.

In the ASS benchmarking survey the landholders were the principal group and 287 landholders in 4 industry groups (dairy, beef, tea tree and sugar cane) responded to a telephone survey. Over the period of a year, 44 government employees, 84 excavator contractors and 39 oyster farmers completed similar surveys. Similar because where possible identical questions were asked. The landholders were stratified into their four industry groups and these became the main groups for landholder comparison. Comparisons (Woodhead and Hughes 1999) were also developed among all the major stakeholder groups and for the seven catchments studied in NSW. For instance the Clarence catchment is described as:

"The principal industry in the lower Clarence is cane, followed by beef and tea tree. Clarence catchment ASS awareness is lower than the Richmond and the Tweed. It also has the lowest involvement with drainage unions and the lowest satisfaction with the community drains (inadequate maintenance, not enough liming, and too much vegetation growing on sides)."

Both qualitative and quantitative data was gathered in the survey. Quantitative data was analysed using S-Plus statistical software. Quantitative data is quick and easy to tabulate into bar charts and tables. Table 3 shows the landholder socio-economic data by industry group. More complex analysis can be done using covariates such as age, income, industry or location, provided that there are enough respondents in each of the categories. Qualitative data can be analysed using Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Search and Theorising (NUD*IST) software (Qualitative Solutions and Research Pty Ltd 1997). The package enables the management of text based information by sorting statement responses into categories, or ‘nodes’, designated and defined by the researcher (Woodhead et al. 2000).

Table 3. Landholder socio-economic data by industry group.


% Income off-farm, mean (s.d.)

Median property size (ha)

Years in industry, mean (s.d.)


16 (25)


27 (14)


54 (38)


21 (12)


4.5 (12)


31 (18)

Tea Tree

22 (37)


6 (4)

Focus groups validate survey results

Results from the survey were presented to the focus groups and discussed using a set of pre-determined questions. The questions can be viewed in Table 4. This enables the respondents to agree or disagree with the findings and to contribute to the discussion, whilst comparing their position in relation to other groups surveyed. Best management practices can be identified in the different groups and the appropriateness of the transfer of this technology to other groups discussed. Questions aim to clarify and further define issues raised by the respondents during the survey. Issues may have evolved because:

  • there is a wide range of disparate views;
  • more information is required to make informed decisions; and
  • when it becomes known that information is needed on an issue and none was previously requested.

The advantages of focus groups are that they are conducted with specific groups. They are simple to set up, especially when using groups sub-sampled from the initial survey. Sub-sampling of the survey respondents can be determined by attributes identified during the survey, such as knowledge levels or attitude. Focus groups are also relatively inexpensive. They provide a forum for discussion and learning about other stakeholders' ideas and management techniques, which is flexible.

The disadvantages are that focus group participants can be overwhelmed by peer pressure, and consequently, withhold their opinions. Results can be analysed by defining and grouping themes and the strength of opinion. However, this analysis is limited, and provides no statistically measurable outcomes. Other problems with focus group are:

  • stakeholders may not be inclined to contribute their time;
  • the findings rely heavily on the quality of the facilitator; and
  • groups may find the issue too complex, confidential, sensitive or incriminating.

Table 4. Focus group questions

Landholder questions

  1. What do you think your industry can do to help you deal with ASS issues?
  2. What do you think the government can do to help you deal with ASS issues?
  3. How could ASS best be dealt with in your catchment? And what do you see as the main issues for farmers working together in catchments?
  4. Why are some farmers unhappy with the community’s views? How can it be improved?

Government questions

  1. What is the role of industry in providing information on ASS?
  2. What is the role of the farmer and community in managing ASS?
  3. What is the role of the government in managing ASS?

Communicate credible information

The survey and the focus groups found that some landholders have developed a high awareness of ASS best management practices on their land. For other landholders to develop a perception that they may have a problem with ASS on their land, they need education on how to identify ASS on their property. Further they need to understand how that affects their production systems and the catchment (Woodhead and Hughes 2000). Government agencies had many similar issues. Although production from land wasn’t a principal concern, understanding the problem and how to deal with it was. Both groups needed to know how to identify ASS. Drain cleaning is of particular concern to both groups. The councils, limited by staff numbers, cannot cope with hundreds of concurrent applications, landholders, constrained by climatic and production factors cannot wait long period for approvals (Woodhead, 2000). The water users are most concerned about water quality.

Landholders in the benchmark survey complained about contradictory information from a number of different government departments. Variability in advice is partly because the management of ASS is an emerging area of research, policy development and extension. There are also a lot of agencies involved, and many staff are unfamiliar with ASS and the complex issues. There is a technical manual on ASS, however this manual is frequently referenced as being too technical and complex. There is also a lack of information about how landholders are currently farming on ASS and how research results can be best adapted to their management practices. What the stakeholders wanted was simple guidelines about how to identify and manage ASS.

The ASS benchmarking project has produced documentation at three levels:

  • Technical – primarily for policy development by senior management
  • Research – published at conferences and in journals for the research community
  • General public – issues covered in the above two documents put in an easy to understand and simple form for those not familiar with ASS. Audiences are the landholders, government agencies and the catchment community.

The style of all these documents includes using quotes from survey participants and quotes gathered at other stages of the research.

The general public books use empowering language. The example from the book, ASS Keys to success, Table 5 shows how to use information from the survey and quotes, to acknowledge the constraints that many landholders feel about tackling ASS. ASS Keys to Success is a direct result of the benchmarking study and it shows how to identify ASS, with some simple management suggestions. It is primarily aimed at the landholders, but it is anticipated that the government agencies will use it as a first step in identification and as a teaching tool for all stakeholders.

Table 5: ASS Keys to Success – empowering language

Regaining control

The 1998 benchmarking survey showed that many farmers feel powerless to do anything about ASS. Therefore, some farmers would rather not know whether or not they even have it. These sentiments were made clear in the survey responses. (Throughout this book we will make extensive use of what farmers had to say in the survey.)

The following direct quotes from the survey sum up the sense of exasperation:

  • ‘ASS will be very expensive if we have it’’
  • ‘Our land will have less value’’
  • ‘Its my land, its my soil, its is my business’’
  • ‘How do I know how to manage it if I don’t know what I’ve got’’

These are all valid concerns, but the experience of other farmers gives cause for hope. Their experience shows that you can regain control. And it won’t necessarily cost a lot or take a lot of time.

The general community books also use quotes to challenge the way farmers think. Choosing the key messages by analysing the responses from the farmers can show where the messages need to be delivered. The quote from ASS Keys to Success (Figure 2) is very important, because it reflects the views of many farmers, that they do not have a responsibility to the environment beyond their property. The quote has been used to develop a diagram which shows how their property is not an island and that it does matter what the water quality is as it leaves their drains.

Extension staff have been enthusiastic about this information. They have stated that its good to have a focus. They need clear simple guidelines to help them provide a consistent message.

I’ve got a big area here and it doesn’t affect no one but myself, so I can sort of do what I like, do you know what I mean? Beef Farmer - Kempsey Area

Figure 2. Quote and diagram from ASS "Keys to Success"


Participatory extension means to share with others, as in benefits or profits. It is an aspiration that people who are managing the extension projects become a part of the community and that the solutions are for the benefit of everyone. Many landholders are keen to actively manage ASS, and they want the community perceptions of landholders to be good environmental managers.

Landholders do need to change practices if they are adversely affecting the environment and to change practices, they need

  • information
  • to acknowledge problems, and understand the problems
  • reflect on past practices, observe ways of change, understand the risks

However, it is important to note that landholders cannot make changes in isolation of other stakeholder groups. There is a danger of creating conflict. Awareness can raise the level of understanding of the consequences of the problem, but, if solutions are not available it leaves the unknowing perpetrators of the problem in an invidious position.

This is where participatory extension is very powerful. For the government to time feedback and avoid confusion and conflict, when they don’t have all the answers, they need to work in partnership with all the stakeholders. Building trust and reducing the us and them top down mentality is essential when asking stakeholders to change behaviour without necessarily supplying them with any other benefit than its good for the environment. Figure 3 shows the building of credibility between stakeholders developed from the ASS model.

Figure 3. Credibility, building it.

Benchmarking can help. It provides:

  • Baseline data on attitudes, awareness and practices
  • A forum for stakeholders to have their views considered
  • Identification of best practices by stakeholders
  • Transfer of best practices to other industries
  • Credible information for developing extension policy and material
  • A measure of the effectiveness of extension strategies.

Of course many stakeholders have provided information in the past. Some refused to participate in the ASS survey. They stated, "Why should I bother to contribute my ideas" or "survey’s, it never goes anywhere but into a report that nobody sees and nothing ever changes". But then as one other landholder put it, "if you’re not in it, then you don’t have any say at all". As government employees, we can help make it worth the bother.


The ideas and research contained in this paper would not have been possible without the constant support of Prof. Peter Cornish from University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury and Dr. Peter Slavich from NSW Agriculture. Both are supervisors of my doctoral thesis.


  1. DePoy E, Gitlin LN (1994) Integrating methods, designs, and purposes In 'Introduction to Research: Multiple strategies for health and human services' pp. 146-159. (Mosby: St. Louis)
  2. McComas KA, Scherer CW (1999) Providing balanced risk information in surveys used as citizen participation mechanisms. Society & Natural Resources 12, 107-119.
  3. Woodhead, A, (1999). 'Acid sulfate soils, farming community ideas about the way forward.' NSW Agriculture, Wollongbar.
  4. Woodhead, AC, Hughes, RM (1999). Cane growers lead the pack on acid sulfate soils. Proceedings of the Australian Society of Sugar Cane Technology 21, 259-266.
  5. Woodhead, AC, Hughes, RM (2000). Acid sulfate soils management: Landholder's identify best practices. In 'Acid Sulfate Soils Remediation Conference'. NSW Agriculture, Wollongbar. In press.
  6. Woodhead AC, Cornish PS, Slavich PG (2000) Multi-stakeholder benchmarking: clarifying attitudes and behaviour from complexity and ambiguity. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 40, 595-607.

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