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Sustaining communities by learning from integrated assessments of place

Dick Osborn1 and Mike Mcfarlane2

1 Centre for Public Awareness of Science, The Australian National University, Canberra 0200. Email
SIMSTAT Centre, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, 4350. Email


Communities of place exist at many scales: from global village through nations, catchments, and local governments to millions of properties at the level of households and workplaces. Interventions from beyond their boundaries ensure institutional arrangements for their governance are complex. Political and bureaucratic actors network across all decision-making levels. The actors and their roles change frequently. Even so, connecting two activities can begin the process of engaging stakeholders in sustaining a community of place. First, stakeholders need to assess community conditions relative to a sustainability target. Second, stakeholders have to learn from, and respond to, the information contained in the assessment. In 2005, the authors joined with the Campaspe Shire Council in piloting a practice connecting the two activities. Trends of growth, steady state, or decline, in indicators of the Shire’s human, built, and natural capital stocks were estimated by pooling local and external knowledge. Results were presented as a balance sheet. Senior management then drafted some thirty response-statements by interpreting the accounts. A stakeholder forum used decision-support software to structure relationships between the response-statements. Conducting a SWOT analysis during the forum provided further insights into place-based learning for sustaining communities, and for building capacities to do so.

Three key learnings: (1) Understanding their operational impacts within their community of place is the most useful context within which organisations can engage in sustainability learning; (2) the capital approach to measuring sustainable development simplifies learning; and (3) qualitative local knowledge is a significant element in sustainability assessment and accounting.

Key Words

Integrated assessment, capital accounting, learning community


An organisation becomes accountable to stakeholders when it declares its commitment to a target. Stakeholders then expect the organisation to report progress towards that target. Where sustainability ideals are the target then change from conventional accountability practice is necessary. Two main options for new forms of accountability can be identified. One could be to report organisational performance as a member of a community of interest (eg farming, manufacturing, health services). The other could be to report performance as a member of a community of place (eg settlement, catchment, nation).

Planning for sustainable development is seen as requiring horizontal (sectoral), environmental, vertical, policy, supply-demand, time, political, resource, and institutional integration (Ravetz 2000). Drivers of practice change towards sustainability should understand at least some of the communications dimensions of the two accountability options, especially so given the integration complexity. The networking resources required for each differ considerably, especially at global scale.

Diffusion of environmental/sustainability reporting practices within the global community of business interests requires change-agents network with a population of at least 50million establishments (the number excludes the farm sector where estimating establishments seems near impossible). Diffusing such practices among business establishments began in the 1970s. By 2002, some 85, 000 (0.2%) adopters were identified in the public record (Osborn 2005). Where local government boundaries delineate communities of place then we can consider the global diffusion task as dealing with a population of some 420, 000 authorities (International Monetary Fund 2005). The only known indicator at global scale on adoption of sustainability ideals by local authorities is their participation in the Local Agenda 21 process. A 2001 survey indicates 6, 400 (1.5%) adopters over Agenda 21’s first decade (World Resources Institute 2005). In other words, estimates at global scale suggest organisations working towards sustainability through a community of place are some sevenfold closer to a tipping point than those similarly involved through a community of interest. Further, the greater adoption outcome by organisations engaged in sustaining communities of place has been achieved in a much shorter timeframe.

The place option for sustaining communities also seems a better bet than the interest option to effect practice change in other ways. For example, it offers more opportunities for meeting vertical integration requirements for sustainable development, particularly if the metrics chosen can be a calibrating mechanism between decision-making levels (Allee and Luyckx 2003). Additional arguments for designing accountability practices to sustain communities of place exist elsewhere, but are summarised here as Place is the context, sustainability is the goal, and service learning is the strategy (Zimmerman 2003).

Remaining sections of this paper describe a pilot study with the Campaspe Shire Council (CSC) of Victoria. Its performance within its community of interest is already compared against other organisations through an Annual Community Satisfaction Survey (Department of Victorian Communities 2005). The study reported here considers extending CSC’s accountability through a practice designed to evaluate and improve its performance in sustaining a community of place. The practice embodies a three-phase learning cycle: (1) assess change in place conditions against sustainability criteria; (2) draft response-statements to the assessment; and (3) integrate and implement stakeholder responses.

The first of these phases needs further explanation before describing the pilot. An individual’s welfare can be sustained, and made available to future generations, if it keeps its capital intact and lives off the interest. The same logic appears in a growing literature where the aggregate of non-declining capital over time is accepted as the criterion for assessing sustainability performance. The criterion applies within communities of place, and in communities of interest. Some illustrative examples of the constant capital rule approach to sustaining a community of place include:

  • an indicator and information systems framework identifying capital stocks as means and ends of sustainable development, irrespective of decision-making scale (Meadows 1998);
  • a construction of accounts to evaluate the sustainability of watershed management in the Upper Mississippi Basin (President’s Council for Sustainable Development 1999);
  • a set of principles and practices for Asset-Based Community Development (Mathie and Gord 2002) now being applied in developed and developing countries;
  • an understanding of neighbourhood sustainability dynamics consequent to restructuring coalmining in the UK (Green et al 2005); and
  • an assessment over time in the sources of wealth for some 120 nations (World Bank 2005).

Methods and Results

The pilot study on connecting an organisation’s sustainability performance to change in the capital stocks within its community of place was undertaken with CSC during 2005. The study applied Integrated Assessment and Interpretive Structural Modelling methods to practice a sustainability learning cycle.

Integrated Assessment (IA)

IA has been described as a structured process of dealing with complex issues, using knowledge from various scientific disciplines and/or stakeholders, such that integrated insights are made available to decision makers (Rotmans 1998). An IA model (SCENE) has been tested at city, provincial, and national scales to inform sustainability decision-making (Grosskurth and Rotmans 2005). SCENE uses knowledge sources internal and external to a community of place to assess change in capital stocks within the human, built, and natural domains. SCENE also recognises each indicator of a capital stock as having quantitative, qualitative, functional and spatial characteristics. The local government area was the spatial unit of analysis in the CSC pilot study. Adopting the balance of the SCENE model’s method required selecting variables, and then documenting their quantitative, qualitative, and functional characteristics within CSC’s jurisdiction.

  • Asset classifications for Population and housing censuses, for Classification of produced assets, for Standard classification of land use were sourced from the UN Statistical Division (undated) to provide the basis for selecting indicators. 64 variables were selected. Quantitative measures of change within its local government area for some 55% of the 64 variables were provided to the CSC, using public record sources from Population Census and Agricultural Census conducted by the ABS. The CSC was encouraged to fill gaps in the quantitative estimates, particularly for assessing changes to land use and infrastructure. The authors also assigned a dominant function to each variable in accordance with international standards. Human capital indicators were assigned either a producer or a consumer function. Indicators within the built and natural capital domains were assigned to one of four dominant functions: resource, sink, survival, or amenity consistent with international conventions (UN Statistical Division, 2004).

Australian local governments are familiar with asset management principles in managing public works, and in assessing change in condition with respect to an asset’s function. The CSC was encouraged to assign a score from a five-point scale of –2 to +2 to reflect qualitative change in each of the 64 variables. The final step in documenting change in capital stocks was for the CSC to then combine quantitative and qualitative measures into an overall trend of increasing , steady , or declining change during 1996-2001.

Results were presented as a balance sheet, where capital stock variables assessed as were placed on the assets side, with those assessed as or on the liabilities side of the sheet (Table 1). Note the CSC did not assess 5 of the 64 variables selected.

Table 1: Sustainability Balance Sheet – Campaspe Shire Council

Assets (1996-2001 Trend = )

Liabilities (1996-2001Trend = or )

Human Capital Indicators

Human Capital

Total persons

Aged 4 years & under

Aged 15 years and over

Aged 65 years and over

Indigenous persons

Born in Australia

Workers by industry:

Born overseas

Public utilities & construction

No post-school qualifications


Not in labour force

Wholesale & retail

One parent family


Lone person household

Workers by occupation:

Workers by industry:

Labourers & related workers

Agriculture, forestry & fishing

Median income by:

Workers by occupation:


Managers, administrators,


Clerical, sales, services


Mean household size

Produced Asset Indicators

Produced Asset Indicators


Other agencies’ structures (resource)

Non-residential buildings

Cultivate assets (cereal crops)

Council’s other structures (resource)

Annual currency in circulation

Council’s other structures (sink)


Livestock for breeding


Vineyards, orchards etc


Sown pasture (inc lucerne)


Irrigated land


Natural Capital Indicators

Natural Capital Indicators

Agricultural land

Forest & other wooded land:

Forest & other wooded land

Predominately coniferous

Predominately broadleaved

Land used for quarries, mines

Industrial land

Land of mixed use

Commercial land

Land used for waste infrastructure

Land for public services (utilities)

Wet, open land

Land for transport & communication

Dry open land with special vegetation

Recreational & open land

Open land with insignificant cover


Inland waters

Interpretive Structural Modelling

Interpretive Structural Modelling (ISM) is a computer-aided decision support tool for dealing with complex problems. Early applications during the 1970s addressed NRM issues, including desertification in the Sahel (Warfield and Perino 1999) and soil erosion in the Upper Darling Basin (Osborn 1978). ISM is proving to be useful for engaging stakeholders in structured dialogue across many areas of public policy (e.g. Boulanger undated; Christakis and Bausch 2002; Pell 2002). ISM complements the SCENE Model by achieving consensus among stakeholders within a relatively short time. Table 2 compares generic requirements for conducting an ISM session with their application in the CSC pilot study.

Table 2: Conducting an ISM session in the pilot study

Generic requirements for an ISM session

As applied with Campaspe Shire Council

A set of some 20-50 issue or action statements from, say, content analysis of existing documents, or from brainstorming.

A group of up to, say, 30 decision-makers prepared to own and vote on structuring relationships through pair-wise comparison of all elements in the set.

An agreement within the group as to what proportion of votes cast represents a consensus.

An operating statement for judging the relationship (e.g. causality, importance, priority, severity, precedence) between items in a pair of statements.

A contextual opening statement.

Sufficient time for participants and the software to create a hierarchical structure of the statement set.

30 statements developed by CSC as responses to liabilities on the balance sheet.

CSC’s CEO included 11 other management and operational staff with environmental, social, and infrastructure responsibilities in the session.

80% majority, with three choices: A→B, B→A, or no relationship.

Statement A will assist Statement B.

“In governing for a sustainable community”

The voting session took around 90 minutes to work through 870 (n2 –n) pair-wise comparisons, within a workshop running from 10.00am – 3.00pm.

An image of the map produced from the votes taken by the CSC staff appears as Figure 1. Not all connections between statements are illustrated in its hierarchical structure. The statements structured through the ISM session were responses made by CSC staff to change during 1996-2001 in certain human, built, and natural capital stocks within the Council’s jurisdiction. Hence, the map represented in Figure 1 deals with many of the integration challenges in sustaining a community of place. Its hierarchical structure provides an ordering of actions or issues. Cross-impacts between the human, built, and natural capital domains are also identified.

Figure 1: Relationships between responses to change in capital stocks – Campaspe Shire


The CSC is an organisation seeking balance between competing social, environmental, and economic objectives in performing its functions; and has to do so while taking into account the expectations of its community and of higher levels of government. It is active and effective in the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign conducted by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. The CSC has declared its commitment to sustainability ideals, as have many organisations inside and outside the public sector. Commitment does not, however, mean organisations know how to sustain their communities of place, especially in a world undergoing unprecedented rates of change (MA Board 2005). Such knowledge can only be gained through learning-by-doing, since what is necessary to sustain a community of place will vary over time, between scales of decision-making, and always be affected by uncertainty. The CSC provided resources for researchers to conduct this learning-by-doing experiment.

In learning how to deal with the complexity associated with sustaining communities of place, the authors used their prior experience to adapt two methods of knowledge management. IA and ISM methods were adapted for use at the local government scale of decision-making, but can apply at other units of analysis within statistical geography systems.

A series of procedural guides on managing the project, on assessing change in capital stocks, and on the steps of the ISM session, were provided to the CSC at the beginning of the pilot. A senior management group used the guides in applying their local knowledge to document change in their community’s capital stocks. The group considered it inappropriate to invest time and resources in completing the quantitative measures of change to their capital stock indicators. Reasons given included noting the beginning of the assessment period (1996) occurred shortly after the amalgamations affecting all Victorian councils, with many other changes occurring since its end (2001). Their judgement reflects a number of constraints. They include the rate of change affecting all matters, and difficulty in dealing with the custodians of small area data, especially their charges for access. Some may insist we can only manage what we count. The SCENE model, and other approaches using qualitative systems analysis (eg.Vanclay et al 2003), suggest otherwise. Providers of data from within a community have cost-effective alternatives to recovering it from outside.

Other management and operational staff not involved in assessing 1996-2001 change in the community’s capital stocks joined the senior management group for the workshop incorporating the ISM session. Participants conducted a SWOT analysis after the ISM session. Results are summarised in Table 3.

Table 3: SWOT Analysis on methods and study

Two days were available for face-to-face dialogue between authors and stakeholders/clients during the pilot study. The balance of communication between them rested primarily on production and distribution of procedural guides. The stakeholder forum was the first engagement in the study for the majority of participants. Progress in learning-by-doing seemed acceptable, given those constraints.

A few iterations through the pair-wise comparison of response-statements are typically required before stakeholders understand and accept the outcomes of an ISM session , and deal with the structuring of the issue or action statements they considered. The one iteration possible within the CSC pilot study was insufficient for achieving that objective.


Finding time then to demonstrate a key stakeholder’s accountability in sustaining a community of place is not easy. The CSC study demonstrates this is especially so when a bottom-up innovation is being tested. Potential adopters are usually aware of experiments being conducted elsewhere by change-agents working on top-down innovation at other scales of decision-making. Deciding whether to adopt or reject the practice combining IA and ISM, as proposed by the authors, seems likely to be influenced more by the shifting sands of institutional arrangements than its own merits. Based as it is on using indicators in concordance with international asset classifications, the practice is however applicable in many communities of place, and can apply an extensive knowledge base of small area statistics rarely used in local community decision-making.


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