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Are we there yet? Capacity building in rural Australia

Anne Currey1, Jeff Coutts2, Bob Macadam3 and John McKenzie4

1 Naturally Resourceful Pty Ltd, PO Box 668, Ballina NSW
Coutts J&R PO Box 2681 Toowoomba, Qld
Rural Enablers Pty Ltd, PO Box 727 Kiama, NSW
RIRDC PO Box 4776 Kingston ACT


A workshop series, developed by the Cooperative Venture for Capacity Building (CVCB) and APEN, took to the road in November 2005 to engage with people involved in capacity building activities around the country. The aim was to explain the elements of capacity building, promote sharing of experiences and perspectives, and get feedback from participants about issues and where future research effort should be directed. The one-day workshops were held in seven locations – Toowoomba, Mareeba, Darwin, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Wagga Wagga – and were attended by over 320 people.

Evaluations of the workshops indicate that participants were generally satisfied with content, although it was clear that they provided just a taste of the subject. Participants were keen to know more, especially about how to evaluate capacity building activities and how to actually plan and implement them. These were the key messages from each workshop, as well as development of “case studies” to help guide people in designing and implementing capacity building activities. A major issue identified by participants was a disconnect between those actually doing capacity building and “bean counters” and policy makers, who appear to take a more short-term approach to capacity building and its outcomes. This has implications for resourcing and funding activities, as well as their outcomes.

Three key learnings: (1) There was strong interest and engagement apparent in all 7 workshops and an apparent acceptance of capacity building principles and practice as an appropriate response to the challenging situations participants are experiencing. (2) There is some confusion and uncertainty about capacity building among practitioners. The concept is often seen as complex, the language difficult to understand and underlain by complicated theory, benefits are not obvious and there is a lack of knowledge about how to engage communities, develop capacity building projects and evaluate them. (3) Institutional issues are of concern to practitioners especially those related to short term funding, bureaucratic silos and the need for sufficient resources and time to achieve outcomes.


Learning, extension, practitioners, professional development, institutions


In November 2005 the CVCB and APEN jointly ran a series of seven workshops around Australia, called “Capacity Building: when, how, why?”. The aim of the one-day workshops was to introduce participants to capacity building concepts and to the work of the CVCB.

The workshops were held at Toowoomba, Mareeba, Darwin, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Wagga Wagga. A program was agreed upon by the CVCB and APEN, after which APEN members at each workshop location organised the venue, logistics and catering.

After each workshop, participants were asked to: complete a workshop evaluation form, identify the key messages from the workshop, the implications of what they had heard, and issues that needed to be addressed now, and provide feedback to the CVCB. Our conclusions about where we are with capacity building in rural Australia now are based on their responses.

Three quarters of the participants were from the government and community sectors. In their report to the CVCB, Extension for Capacity Building: a Review of Extension in Australia in 2001-2003 and its Implications for Developing Capacity into the Future, Coutts et al (2005) estimated that in 2004 there were 2748 individuals involved in agricultural and NRM extension in the government and community sectors in Australia. Given this number of people, and the fact that 227 workshop evaluation forms and 216 responses to the questions about key messages etc were collected at the workshops, it is reasonable to conclude that these data provide a valuable insight into where we are with capacity building in rural Australia today.


Two hundred and twenty-seven evaluation forms were filled in by participants (71% of participants).

Participants were asked to rate the workshop, what they learnt, the presentations and the venue. They were also asked to nominate what they thought was missing from presentations, whether they had heard of the CVCB and APEN and whether they would like follow-up information from either organisation.

In addition, 216 written responses to the following questions were collected:

1. What are your key learnings from today?

2. What are the implications for you in applying capacity building in your situation?

3. What issues need addressing now?

4. What feedback would you like to give the CVCB?

Results and discussion

Where participants came from

People were asked to nominate in which sector they were employed. Some people nominated more than one sector e.g. community and government or academic and government. The sector most represented was the government sector (62% of participants), followed by the community sector (14%). Sixteen people from the private sector who attended, and their evaluations of the workshop were more uniformly positive than those of any other sector. These results are summarised in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Representation of various sectors among participants in workshops

Did the workshop meet your expectations?

The workshop fully met the expectations of a slight majority of participants (52%); and it met to some extent the expectations of 46%. It is reasonable to conclude that the workshop was successful in meeting most of the expectations of almost all participants (Figure 2). This was a significant achievement for the organisers.

The responses in the evaluation forms revealed that the main areas for which people expected some information and none or little was provided were:

  • case studies of successful capacity building projects
  • how to benchmark and evaluate capacity building projects.

Figure 2. Extent to which workshops met participant expectations

What did you learn at the workshop?

A variety of key learnings were nominated by participants, and centred on the following:

  • the five extension models, the extension ladder and the relationship between these
  • the importance of benchmarking and evaluation, including measuring change and empowerment
  • the importance of mentoring and good leadership in building capacity
  • that capacity building involves integration of approaches and is holistic in nature
  • that the CVCB is involved in a diversity of projects and that it is a source of contacts and information
  • that individuals were already applying some or all of the principles of capacity building and that the workshop confirmed their current knowledge
  • the importance of working on all forms of capital
  • the importance of institutional arrangements and their impact on the success or failure of capacity building activities
  • the importance of communities of practice and getting everyone involved
  • that there is framework for addressing and implementing capacity building projects
  • that capacity building requires cooperation, action and review
  • that capacity building requires significant investment of resources and time.

Did the workshop add to your knowledge of capacity building?

People were given a number of options to respond to in this question, ranging from having learnt a lot that could be applied to their job, having learnt a lot that wasn’t applicable, to having learnt a lot but need to know more, and the information wasn’t relevant. A large majority (84%) of the respondents either learnt a lot or learnt some information that was directly relevant to their jobs. Only two people indicated that the workshop was not at all relevant to them.

Figure 3 shows the percentage of participants that responded in each of the following six categories:

A1 I’ve learnt a lot that will be helpful to me in my job
A2 I’ve learnt a lot but it’s not highly relevant to my job
A3 I’ve added a bit to my knowledge of capacity building and can use it in my job
A4 I’ve added a bit to my knowledge but I won’t be using the principles in my job
A5 I’ve learnt a bit but need to know more
A6 The information was not relevant to me and my job.

Figure 3. Participants’ perceived levels of learning from workshops

How likely is it that you will use the information you learnt in the future?

From the responses received (summarised in Figure 4) it seems reasonable to assume that the information was useful to the participants and practical in nature. In fact, 80% of participants said they will use the information in the future, while all other respondents except one will consider it.

Figure 4 Participants’ anticipated use of their learnings from the workshops

Was there something you wanted to learn that wasn’t dealt with today?

Ninety-two people responded to this invitation to comment. The major areas mentioned were:

  • information on benchmarking and evaluation (fourteen responses)
  • information on the practical application of capacity building, practical tools, and case studies that illustrated how capacity building techniques can be applied (thirty eight responses)
  • information and advice on how to engage communities, including different cultures, and communities that didn’t want to be involved in capacity building (eleven responses).

Other responses identified information about the VET sector, facilitation techniques, dealing with jargon, more on the theory of capacity building (a couple of respondents said there was too much theory) and how to integrate the models of extension as areas they wanted more information on.

Was the workshop value for money?

Ninety per cent of respondents rated the workshop as good, very good or excellent value for money (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Participant rating of ‘value for money’ of the workshops

Are we there yet? Issues that need to be addressed

Responses were collated and placed into a number of different theme areas, as follows:

  • capacity building training and skills development
  • practitioner information
  • process issues
  • definition and theory of capacity building
  • VET, mentoring and professional development
  • partnerships and working with others
  • institutional issues
  • evaluating capacity building activities.

Capacity building training and skills development

It was clear that participants see training and skills development as a key issue in their role as capacity builders. This is consistent with the recent finding of Roberts et al (2005). Interactive forums and workshops were nominated as an effective way of improving skills in capacity building and as a way of providing a forum for sharing experiences and developing a network of people dealing with building capacity in rural Australia.

Specific suggestions were made for a “Stage 2” workshop in capacity building skills; “intensive, small group, 2- to 3-day workshop to apply extension theory to current projects and develop improvements”; another roadshow to profile other CVCB projects; consultant/mentor model; and a basic course in capacity building. Such events were also seen as a way of promoting capacity building.

Participants suggested improving the following specific skills in capacity building in the “engine room” i.e. extension professionals: how to do a capacity building audit; how to foster involvement; training in participatory action research; how to “do” capacity building; follow up workshops on the extension models; facilitator training; developing ability to recognise what issues groups/individuals are concerned about or want to learn about; group dynamics/working together with others; skills needed to shift people (individuals and groups) from KASA (Knowledge, Attitudes, Skills and Aspirations) to practice; and a workshop to help people design and build Capacity Building into their own situation or project.

Information for practitioners

Information about capacity building is clearly a big issue for practitioners. While some participants acknowledged that there are research reports available from the CVCB, this is not fulfilling a need, expressed by many, for practical information, case studies and tools that provide a basis for developing and implementing projects incorporating principles of capacity building.

Information was requested on the following:

  • applying capacity building in the field
  • how to use capacity building techniques in crisis situations
  • how to bring about change/how to get on-ground change locally
  • seeing some real outcomes from the publications in the field/in industry
  • optimising and system methodologies for capacity building practice
  • how and what are the best ways of building capacity, i.e. tried and tested or new and innovative ways of doing it
  • the “how to” part of capacity building, particularly tools to engage
  • work drawing together theoretical approaches to capacity building.

(a) Information processes

Specific suggestions about improving access to information included: more information through similar workshops; easy access to information e.g. abstracts of reports; more diagrammatic communication; information going to people and groups who need it e.g. CaneGrowers, BSES, BPS, Landcare, regional NRM groups are not present at workshops; more contact and communication about success stories in extension/capacity building; a guide to where to go for resources (info and research) and specific techniques to build capacity; improved documenting and recording of capacity building success stories; and providing a central point for information.

A number of people nominated a forum similar to Cotton Seed Distributors "Web on Wednesday" as a good idea.

(b) Rural vs. urban

A surprising issue that surfaced was the fact that the workshops focussed on rural and agricultural Australia. A number of people who attended workshops were interested in application of capacity building techniques in urban situations. They questioned the limited focus of the CVCB to rural Australia, and were also interested in whether the same principles applied to urban Australia.

Process issues

A number of process issues were raised by participants. Some of these were general issues to do with working with groups while others were specific to capacity building.

(a) General issues

These general issues included: how to motivate groups; how to engage partners and tips for organising meetings that bring collaborators together; how to get people to participate in programs; how to integrate models of extension; burnout, lack of time to volunteer, people jaded with short term funding and burden of reporting; how valuing volunteers should influence government agencies/community consultations; and reducing barriers to working together and integrating strategies across human, social, financial, physical and natural resources

(b) Process issues specific to capacity building were:

  • information management was seen as a skill necessary for effective capacity building
  • legal aspects for capacity building and extension
  • difficulties with applying capacity building to large, diverse audience
  • process itself is becoming the job - all institutions are in danger of accepting this and forgetting about the outcome
  • the necessity of using and assessing barriers, e.g. cultural, in a positive way to reach project goals
  • more involvement of community in nominating priorities, and how to get this involvement (including of stakeholders who see no value in their role in capacity building and of growers and communities that are becoming increasingly time poor because of financial forces restricting and reprioritising their time to be actively engaged/partners)
  • the importance of leadership and how to identify and “harness” leaders
  • how to approach communities of practice to demonstrate they can collaborate to achieve goals
  • changing communities - understanding them, how to engage different communities
  • linkages with different groups, e.g. Community Arts Network
  • how to actually generate behaviour change/change of entrenched ideas through capacity building, i.e. does this simply come through implementing a good, well planned initiative?

VET, mentoring and professional development

(a) VET sector (vocational Education and Training).

The comments about VET indicated that some people wanted more information on the role of the VET sector in capacity building. There were no more specific requests than this general one.

(b) Professional development.

  • There were several comments about the lack of security of tenure for NRM officers in particular, and the effect that this had on providing continuity to communities where capacity building projects were being implemented.
  • Accreditation for the sector, including private extension practitioners and consultants, was also mentioned in professional development, as was articulation and ways of updating skills in the area.
  • Succession for volunteers is a significant issue for that sector.

(c) Mentoring.

Mentoring, especially of younger officers, was seen by a number of participants as an important area, e.g. “As young extension officers, we have no support to initiate projects ourselves and need to be mentored ourselves on how to successfully implement capacity building into projects because many of our supervisors don't have this knowledge or their fundamental paradigm is not switched onto this approach.”

Definition and theory of capacity building

Comments by participants reflected that they felt they didn’t completely understand the theory of capacity building, or the term itself. Participants seemed to be saying that this is related, in part, to the fact that capacity building is a complex theory and, in part, to the fact that the area is ridden with jargon and impenetrable language.

There was consistent comment about the need for a plain English definition of many of the terms used, including the term “capacity building”. A number of people commented that the jargon that surrounded capacity building was exclusive and a barrier to participation, particularly by members of the community, e.g. “More lay definitions of capacity building to provide landcare groups as even I had trouble with some of the definitions and explanations in presentations/handouts.”

One participant noted that capacity building is defined differently between regions and between state and regional bodies, and that consistency is needed.

Another noted that “the mindset exists in some places that capacity building is getting the community to do what the government doesn't want to do (blame shifting), when it is really about strengthening communities, especially rural areas where population is low”.

Partnerships and working with others

Better strategic alliances to improve interagency activities and industry/community participation, agency cooperation to stop competition, confusion and recreating the wheel, building networks, and community apathy were all mentioned as issues by participants.

Institutional issues

This area was the one that provoked most comments and suggestions from participants, particularly to do with the following:

  • The need for administrators (“bean counters”), funders and policy makers to understand what capacity building is and to recognise the value of capacity building and the fact that it is time and resource intensive.
  • The need for reliable funding of activities beyond a defined, short period of 12 months or 3 years.
  • Leadership to coordinate capacity building activities into the future and to “get the ball rolling on some major issues across organisations. We tend to work in our boxes rather than working in the bigger integrated issues. Management limit the ways we can work.”
  • Developing a sense of common purpose and community across particular industries and communities.
  • Recognising that institutions may unknowingly stifle capacity building with change, bureaucracy, jargon, inflexibility, silo mentality etc.
  • Developing, finding and implementing capacity building programs that are effective, sustainable, and culturally appropriate e.g. for indigenous Australians. “Capacity Building has targeted willing groups/individuals - what of others? Are we going to continue to perpetuate institutional disadvantage e.g. aboriginal socio-economic disadvantage?” and “Cultural capital needs to be a component as it is a real issue in the north of Australia”.
  • Rearrangement or greater capacity to seek broad-based funding to deliver projects that involve capacity building, rather than narrow-based funding approaches.
  • Funding capacity building research in urban areas (who does it?), and developing and supporting capacity building in metropolitan areas.
  • The potential gap or disconnect between what government wants to achieve and what local communities might want to achieve, and how this is done, e.g. “Government direction vs industry expectation”.
  • Communication between various sectors to improve understanding and cooperation to achieve outcomes.
  • The importance of industry sectors and organisations in capacity building, and their noted absence from the workshops.
  • The role of government and community NRM organisations in building capacity e.g. “How to provide better support for NRM regional bodies in their capacity building activities i.e. does the Federal Government have a role in translating these concepts to better tools/methods for regional NRM body investments to achieve targets? Also, how to sell the concept upwards as an important component of NRM program delivery (NAP/Trust), particularly to ministers.

Monitoring and evaluation

Along with case studies to demonstrate examples of successful and unsuccessful capacity building activities, monitoring and evaluation information was high in demand from participants. People wanted information on how to benchmark and evaluate capacity building projects; what particular aspects need to be evaluated as indicators of success; how empowerment and improvements in human and social capital are measured; how to evaluate capacity building in cross cultural settings; how to gather baseline data to evaluate projects; and cost benefit of capacity building.


  • The great majority of people who attended the workshops were satisfied with the workshop content and presentations, although it is also obvious that most people want more information about the practicalities of capacity building.
  • The partnership between APEN and CVCB was a successful one. The CVCB was able to provide funding and support for the workshops while APEN was able to provide on ground logistical and organisational support. APEN also has a network of people who have a particular interest in capacity building and extension.
  • Attendance patterns indicate the workshop promotion was successful amongst the agency and community sector, but less so for the private sector. If the CVCB wants to reach this group of people then it would have to think carefully about the program and its relevance to the private sector. This said, the workshop can still be deemed a successful promotional opportunity for the CVCB, with a large number of follow up contacts to be made.
  • Participants claimed they learned from the workshops and would use this in their work.


Coutts J; Roberts K; Frost F and Coutts A. (2005). Extension for Capacity Building: What works and why?, Cooperative Venture for Capacity Building, RIRDC Kingston, ACT

Roberts K, Paine M, Nettle R, & Ho E (2005). Mapping Rural Industry Service Providers, Cooperative Venture for Capacity Building, RIRDC Kingston, ACT

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