Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

NRM Engagement, Relationships Australia or the Rubik’s cube? Stakeholder engagement and dialogue in AgSIP!

Valerie Sapin1 and Scott Cawley2

1 AgSIP Coordinator Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, PO 23 Kingaroy Queensland 4610. Web site: Email:
AgSIP program leader Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, PO Box 61 Miles Queensland 4415. Web site: Email:

Key words

engagement processes, sustainable agriculture, multi stakeholder dialogue


The new regional NRM process has created many challenges and many opportunities for building relationships and partnerships.

On the one hand, there is an opportunity for different parties to come together and join forces in an innovative, more creative and coherent way. On the other hand, the new order challenged the previous status quo of state agency expertise, established planning and funding powers and the established channels of influence by industry and conservation bodies. Regional bodies’ with their new role of coordination, prioritisation and arbiter of funds have a large number of tasks to perform, on tight imposed time lines and limited staffing resources which combine to limit the breadth and depth of engagement, though not the intent.

This article describes the engagement processes that the Sustainable AgSIP and its multiple partners have put in place in this context, across eight regions, five agriculture industries and four State and Federal RD&E agencies in both remote and peri urban locations.

AgSIP efforts focus on

  • Developing area wide local NRM monitoring information systems
  • Progressing issues of data sharing arrangements and privacy issues between regions, state agencies, and industry.
  • Helping conservation groups and local government environmental officers have input in the design and overseeing of agency projects
  • And facilitating cross fertilisation and exchange of extension and engagement strategies across industries.

This paper outlines examples of new NRM engagement processes flowing on from one industry to another and the synergies emerging from these new partnerships. It also highlights the challenges ahead and the crucial gaps needed to progress towards end of catchment targets.


The Sustainable Agriculture State-level Investment Program (AgSIP)‘s consists of a suite of 18 projects funded under the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP). The projects span across

forestry and horticulture industries in both remote and peri urban locations.

AgSIP’s focus is to improve Regional Bodies and Industry’s capacity to support on-ground change in agricultural production that result in improvements in water quality and/or salinity.

AgSIP was one of several programs that were framed in the context of gaining efficiency and effectiveness from focussing on strategic issues at a state level. In this case strategic implied investment that benefited more than one region, or industry as a whole.

Designing, securing support and then delivering the AgSIP suite of projects across so many different regions, sub-catchment groups, agencies industries, and conservation organisations has required and still requires colossal communication, engagement and inter-personal efforts including constantly:

  • Revisiting clarifying and communicating AgSIP’s overall purpose,
  • Scanning and adjusting to changes in the NAP context
  • And gradually shifting engagement priorities when the needs arise.

As AgSIP progresses its partners change or multiply in numbers. Each new partnership requires going through the well-known “storming, norming, forming, and performing” phases. This means that AgSIP partnerships sometimes look like a series of concentric circles that have problems sometimes engaging each other! When people do try to engage each other, a region or an industry, the situation sometimes turns into a Rubik cube with none of the sides presenting a homogenous face!

This article describes AgSIP engagement and communication challenges overtime and the processes that are being used to attempt to overcome them.

The Initial storming phase (or how the best partnerships may be born out of a crisis!)

The new regional NRM process when implemented introduced a new way of doing business for the major stakeholder group involved in NRM. Regional community Bodies were created and had the role of identifying and determining NRM priorities and subsequent funding to address these issues. It effectively changed the power dynamic and influence for Peak Bodies who were use to using direct government consultation to negotiate desired outcomes. Now they were faced with having to go through a ‘third party” who may or may not agree with their position- effectively functioning as a filter.

So when the $8 million AgSIP funding was established to provide strategic investment in sustainable agriculture production there was no established framework for identifying relevant stakehodlers, their roles capacities relationships needs and wants. This new situation created much uncertainty, lack of trust and dysfunctional dialogues.

AgSIP coordinators when appointed, were provided with an early draft of suggested investments or projects. When this was outlined in early consultations it attracted widespread criticisms from mainly within government and industry which included comments relating to “ no consultation/participation” or “wrong focus/issues”. Regional bodies at the time were not yet fully functional so there was limited feedback.

Industry in particular were aggressive in their condemnation of the AgSIP proposal for several reasons. The main one being they were annoyed at government for changing the avenues of influence and were scared of being shut out of the decision making cycle, and as the actual representatives of the landholders, who had to implement changes, they thought they had the right to look after their interests. Industry were also interested in a parallel issue of trying to protect their right to farm on a voluntary basis rather than a legislative basis and hence were keen on trying to use their non –approval of the AgSIP proposal as a way of achieving leverage against DPI and Qld Government. A series of issues and agendas clouded the dialogue creating friction to relationship development.

It soon became apparent that a different approach was needed.

The Forming phase

AgSIP coordinators decided to do a more detailed scoping of NRM agricultural production issues suitable for strategic investment. They set about discussing with each regional body as to what was as their issues, their locations, and priorities. It soon became apparent that the regional bodies in many cases had not been established long enough to have detailed justification for their priorities. Instead they preferred to provide a” gut feel” of how AgSIP could bets provide support for their needs which was generally targeted as certain activities in their local area.

Industry bodies eg: Queensland Farmers Federation (Canegrowers, Cotton Australia, Queensland Dairy Organisation, Queensland irrigators and Growcom) and Agforce were consulted on a similar basis. They tended to provide ideas more at a program or general activity level.

Conservation bodies were more interested in trying to address issues that related to interaction between agriculture and the environment at a landscape level.

As discussions and face-to-face meetings progressed, the following issues/gaps started to emerge across all parties:

  • Quantification and benchmarking of off site movement of pesticides and nutrients;
  • Supporting industry efforts towards better NRM;
  • Costings and analysis of Natural Resource Management decisions / economics;
  • Landscape management;
  • Grazing lands management; and
  • Coordination and process support to help industry and regions partnerships and to foster multiple agency and cross regional scientific activities.

Each of these themes has specific questions attached:

  • How to identify drivers for land use change and incorporate them into sustainable agricultural initiatives;
  • How to develop and implement best practice at a landscape scale (multiple land use & stakeholders, dialogue development, conflict resolution, scaling impact up and down, private and public good issues);
  • How to best facilitate cross industry and cross regional learnings;
  • How to reinforce the linkages and relationships of policymaking and science in the delivery of programs and projects.
  • How to foster and skill project proponents in better impact assessment
  • And finally how to better coordinate approaches to planning, implementation and impact assessment of sustainable agricultural initiatives.

Twenty-one project proposals emerged out of these consultations.

By that stage AgSIP coordinators had observed that speaking to people on a one to one basis continued to attract division and to foster mistrust. In order to address this issue and to build a better forum for dialogue, trust and relationships AgSIP coordinators decided to bring together the different stakehodlers during a three-day study tour. This study tour consisted of visits to different projects and regions to explore the themes and questions listed above. The multi-stakeholder group comprised representatives from two conservation groups, different regional bodies, industry peak organisations and state agencies.

The tour was a great success in that it allowed positive debates and dialogue rather than adversarial jousts. It also provided a forum for discussing cause and effects issues, sharing ideas, and elaborating potential solutions. Participants having time to discuss their values and beliefs, more common ground was found than the common stereotypes would imply.

It is at that point AgSIP coordinators suggested developing specific investment criteria for the proposed 21 projects. These criteria were to help rank and prioritise amongst all the project proposals and assist in developing a common vision for AgSIP. The actual formulation of the criteria ended up becoming an important turning point. It brought about for the first time, a clear agreement/consensus on what AgSIP was to deliver. Because people were encouraged to formulate these criteria and thus influence the programme direction, it indirectly cemented their support. Ranking the 21 projects was then just a formality and JSC approved the first 18 projects ranked.

The need for constant Norming (or common visioning)

Having agreed on common selection criteria for investment with one set of stakeholders, and then secured funding for 18 projects, AgSIP coordinators then had to start the same process again from scratch with 40 newly appointed AgSIP project leaders and their staff who were tasked with detailing the initial project proposals. Agreement was indeed needed to further refine individual project objectives, deliverables and performance measures. It was also crucial for these staff to gain ownership of these new projects. This took another 12 months.

At the same time AgSIP started discussing with yet another audience “the SIP coordination forum” to decide on common Impact Assessment Criteria1 for all the SIPs Queensland wide.

Discussing investment objectives, deliverables and impact assessment criteria are most excoriating2 at the best of times. Discussing them with different participants in different arenas that do not necessarily intersect makes it an ongoing feast!

AgSIP found this norming phase fraught with uncertainty, conflict and / or tensions3. The tensions come from forcing project proponents and their partners to enunciate what their project should deliver, why and by when, and how its performance will be evaluated over time. While painstaking and not easy, it is an essential step before any action takes place.

AgSIP project leaders have now all agreed upon a common set of objectives and deliverables as well as common impact categories or performance targets with their partners. When new staff and or new partners come along, this common visioning needs to take place again, and be updated. Each time AgSIP hires new staff and or forms new partnerships with local government, Federal government representatives and R&FD Corporations, a new visioning and norming process is necessary.

Gradually moving towards a Performing phase: Towards a more coordinated approach to planning, implementation and impact assessment of sustainable agricultural initiatives Queensland wide.

During the initial design of the project the need for coordination and networking across ‘sustainable agricultural’ initiatives emerged very clearly, and in a magnitude that was unexpected (Cawley et al 2003 p 19).

There was a need for

  • Defining the different intents and meanings of Best Management Practice;
  • Developing Landscape management approaches
  • Progressing data sharing arrangements for Monitoring and Reporting on resource condition
  • Designing decision tools scaling up from paddock to region to state
  • Identifying drivers for land use change and incorporating them into sustainable agricultural initiatives;
  • Facilitating a dialogue that incorporated social commercial and environmental issues, with policy planning and legislation.

Numerous coordination activities have since taken place at an operational level to progress

  • The development of area wide local NRM monitoring information systems
  • Data-sharing arrangements between regions, state agencies, and industry.
  • The establishment of more functional partnerships between regional bodies, industry, conservation groups and local governments
  • The development of new decision support tools and processes including NRM economics tools
  • And finally, the exchange of NRM extension and engagement practices across industries.

AgSIP programme leaders have also been instrumental at a more strategic level in:

  • Progressing inter-departmental policy discussions on grazing lands BMP monitoring and extension
  • Fostering better Government-Regional Body-Peak Bodies partnerships
  • Brokering dialogue and exchanges of results between different scientific projects
  • Helping to coordinate, identify, set priorities and secure funds for Non NAP regions
  • Progressing evaluation issues across stave level investment plans and Reef Plan
  • Profiling and lobbying for more NRM economic decision support tools and processes
  • Progressing inter agency data sharing protocols
  • Helping industry further design and refine it Farming Management System Concept
  • And building the capacity of industry, local governments regional bodies and agency staff to network and access new resources or skills.

None of the issues above can be addressed single-handedly by one project, agency, region or industry alone! As collaborations mature and start performing the demand for integration, joint interpretation and joint promotion of results and learnings increases. That in itself could be a valuable performance indicator!

So what engagement challenges remain for AgSIP and others?

Being realistic about people’s ability to be engaged: Landowners regional staff local government and agencies all have finite resources and a limited ability to be engaged in the regional NRM process. One of the biggest uncertainties at this stage is still landowners’ actual ability or willingness to be involved in the forthcoming regional investment activities. There is a general tendency to overestimate community groups’ capacity and resources when in fact some communities, regional bodies, conservation groups or industry peak bodies have a very limited intrinsic capacity to be involved. AgSIP also has to be realistic about this and adjust its future recommendations accordingly.

Rigorous impact assessment of current or future engagement processes: One of the many enticements that are being considered to boost engagement levels and encourage landowners to change their practices are grants, market based incentives and or competitive tenders. This new type of engagement process has some merit. However, like all engagement processes its actual performance will only be known if it includes a rigorous auditing system on the actual environmental outcomes achieved through this process. AgSIP is trying hard to build a better accountability and impact assessment culture within its own projects but further cultural changes are needed for that to effectively take place.

Strategic and focused engagement efforts: Prioritisation and strategic use of resources is still lacking in many NRM plans and in industry and agency efforts. Investments still seem to try to be comprehensive and equitable rather than focusing or the most pressing issues or the one that will have the biggest impact within the timeframe imparted. This is something that needs to be addressed urgently if the mistakes of NHT1 want to be avoided.

Continued coordination efforts to nurture new alliances: AgSIP has focused its efforts on developing strategic linkages and relationships between policymakers, regional bodies, industries and science. This coordination role takes time and effort and has finite resources that will end in 2007. AgSIP partners need to discuss whether there is a need to prolong that role post June 2007 and where this high-level coordination is best located.

Changing agency culture: Finally, as Kelly points out in her thesis on participation and power, people and organisations “in control” often do not wish to change the status quo (Kelly, 2005, p 14). It is obvious though that NAP has changed the status quo and that the future regionalisation of NRM will force agencies to take on a different role and change the way they are used to doing business. Accepting the devolution of NRM planning and funding powers to the NAP regions and maybe taking on a strategic capacity-building/advising role will require some clear direction and leadership from within Departmental agencies. That leadership has not been forthcoming so far.


AgSIP has shown that although neither perfect or satisfactory the use of specific project management tools or processes definitely create reinforce and maintain engagement and trust across a very large number of parties with different cultures, resources, constituents, power sources and modes of operation.

AgSIP has tried to foster and maintain high engagement levels by encouraging multi-stakeholder groups to:

  • Agree on common criteria for investment
  • Share the supervision and overseeing of projects
  • Establish commonly agreed and realistic performance measures
  • Share power and devolve funds
  • Resource and build the capacity of people and organisations to be adequately engaged
  • Regularly critically and collectively review progress and act on feedback provided
  • Demonstrate leadership in impact assessment and transparency in reporting on results

It is hoped these engagement tools ongoing processes and learnings or suggestions contribute towards smoother regional NRM relationships (at least in Qld)!


AgSIP is funded by the National Action Plan for Water Quality and Salinity (Australian and Queensland Governments) and is led by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.


Cawley S., Anderson E, Sapin V (2003), Sustainable Agricultural Production Strategic Investment Proposal.

Cawley S, Anderson E, Sapin V (2003), Sustainable Agricultural Production State Investment project (March 2003 Interim report).

Kelly D (2005). Power and Participation; Participatory resource management in South-West Queensland. Doctoral Thesis submitted to Australian National University, Canberra April 2005.

Sapin V. Regionalisation and devolution of power: what are the implications for

Australian Farming Systems and Farming System Approaches? Inaugural Australian Farming System Conference Toowoomba October 2002.

1 See a separate article by V Sapin on the use of Evaluation for better Engagement in this symposium’s proceedings.

2 Literally “to tear off the skin of a person or an animal”, or “to criticize something or somebody very strongly”

3 The author recalls the same experience when undertaking on farm participatory research projects with farmer groups. Defining a research question and looking a how success would be judged seems to always be the hardest part of any collective and participatory project.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page