Finding companions

It’s mid-summer and the weather is mild, the birdsong sweet, the bushfire season just begun. I’ve been hearing about the thinning of bird populations at Ann Jones’ Off-Track (ABC Radio National) and reading about it in the New York Review of Books (“What’s Happening to the Bees and Butterflies?”). Industrial expansion is eating into the inter-tidal zone where migratory birds feed, and the immediacy of their critique take me back to an old dilemma: How do the few people passionate about any matter (like declining bird populations) keep in touch with and support each other?  I chanced upon the stories I mentioned, above, but how would I find others interested in loss of habitat for migratory birds, or thinning of bird populations? Or how to monitor the thickness of the bird populations in my own locality?

My day job is the social project of taking situations of social concern and learning like crazy. A first step is to find the people who give a damn, and the places they interact, because it’s here, in the interplay between knowledgeable and caring people, that knowledge is held and created. What we know is made in the intersubjective space, and though the myopia of me, me, me obscures this.

The internet was going to connect us to each other. It’s speciality unless adroitly managed, seems to be divergence, not places to converse. Example: I went looking for more on the “Australasian flyway”, the vast route between the poles that Ann Jones is investigating, I put the word ‘Australasian beltway” into Google. Did you know that on January 12, 2015, someone posted a comment on Australia’s Highway 1 as a beltway, a road that encircles a geographic area, noting that this road is the longest beltway in the world.This piece of Oz-trivia was on a site Greater Greater Washington, a website for

“a community of people who want to live and work in communities with sidewalks, bike lanes, and frequent transit; with grocery stores, parks, and plenty of housing choices at attainable prices; that is accessible and welcoming to people of all income levels and backgrounds.”

The posting on the patchwork of Highway 1 spoke of someone with a fine-grained understanding of a macro-level transport phenomena, and I marveled how the web makes space for specialist interests. If I was into the transport infrastructure system of Washington DC, I’d hang about on that website, and see what else that person was saying, and who else was there. Maybe we could talk. Maybe we could meet up.

I’m in the ‘natural resource management’ sector, and the social side of that what’s more, a practitioner of the frail arts of supporting social learning. Where do my people hang out? I try the digital, but each time my net has few pickings. Think lateral, I tell myself, and I’ve ended up the P2P, Commons transition world. NRM people on the social side don’t seem to convene online, and I wonder why. Perhaps we’re each so exhausted from holding our ground in the war of attrition that email has become, that we don’t build other facilities. The Landcare Share Centre, the Victorian Landcare Magazine, the Landcare Gateway, LAL’s Landcare in Focus, the video stories appearing on the websites of CMAs – these are signposts pointing to the creative people in Landcare, but not places to talk.

Yes, the face-to-face is the gold standard, the place where the intersubjective space is most generous and productive. But the fast, light connections of the internet might let us at least find people interested in similar interests, obsessions and questions. Craving lightness, weightlessness, Laurie Anderson’s poignant question – “How do we begin again?” – pushes me back down into the ground. I want to wind down a bit, but as a Baby-Boomer, I feel some responsibility for the last 50 years of destruction. To carry my responsibilities, I need company. How to find it is one of my Questions Without an Easy Answer.

Progress with peer-to-peer learning in Landcare

It’s reporting time for the CLEA project, a 3 year Victorian Landcare Council project funded by the Natural Resources Conservation League and the VLC. The task is to find ways to support peer learning and mentoring between grassroots environment groups, specifically around what it takes to organise community action, collaborate with partners, and influence decision makers. The social knowledge in Landcare drives its contribution and its evolution in communities.

At the end of Year 2, the NRCL asked us “to reflect on what your group has learnt in regard to building capacity” and “any changes you have made/will make to the project as a result”. Hmmm – now that’s a good invitation! Here are three lessons from the year.

Lesson #1.  Landcare Network Committees of Management need on-going support to become nodes of peer learning

CLEA’s strategy has been to develop CoMs as nodes of peer learning within a network of Landcare peers across the State. Progress is slow, because it is fitted in around short-term business, and the sometimes irregular meetings of CoMs. Even when there is strong commitment to addressing a Question Without Easy Answers, Coordinators still need discussion with CLEA to talk about what has happened and what they need to do next. They need support and a nudge to keep moving.

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Mid Loddon Landcare Network Committee of Management

Lesson #2.  Capacity building around organising, collaborating and influencing is constrained by: a) the old imaginary of Landcare as planting trees; b) weak institutional support for social knowledge in natural resource management; and c) the isolation of the social innovators in Landcare

See here for more on these constraints. The implication is that it’s absolutely critical to connect the social innovators in Landcare – the people who are remaking Landcare, small piece by small piece, in the face of long-term shifts in the social and political context.

Lesson #3.  Use what’s there, don’t build from scratch

In Year 1, CLEA decided to focus on Landcare Network CoMs as a place for peer-to-peer learning, because they are peers talking to each other, regularly. No need to invent new meetings – just use what’s there. This year, research with VLC delegates showed that there are people already connecting those who want support and expertise with those who can give it. We called them Network Builders. We need to cooperate across levels of governance to support those Network Builders. What they will do is move knowledge and make support available, when and where it’s needed.

Year 2 has also brought the painful realisation that not many people read this blog (!), and that it is smarter to find ways to use established communication channels than to set up a new one and try to pull people to it.

On the wide open plains

It’s our last day in north central NSW, a land of wide open plains, and in the old days, as the poet Dorothea Mackellar had it, “of droughts and flooding rains”. We’ve seen precious little sign of the flooding rains. Irrigators own 75% of the water, and the rivers are now channels to move water around to the imperatives of the market.

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The modestly good news is that under the new Basin Plan, 25% of flow must be allocated to environmental uses. I’m here in a project organised by the Murray Darling Basin Authority to trial a process for indigenous assessment of the health of river places that will put in front of water planners the priorities of Aboriginal communities.

I’m facilitating the action research, and I’m driving the bus.

I work my way carefully along the dirt track to the junction of two rivers, the first of two sites we’ll visit this morning. We’re close to the main town, at a place where local people have gathered and lived for a long time, and to which they return for picnics and swimming and fishing.

We spill out of the bus and the 4WD, stretching legs and lighting up, and settle into the comfortable twos and threes that have taken shape over the week. Conversations begin.

As usual, I bring my sense of being out of place culturally. But I’ve come to know these people a bit, and they me. I feel more at ease and more present in the relationships, listening and joining in without forcing things. There is a gentleness at work between us, and I notice that stories about the place are coming more easily. I wonder why.

We’ve gathered each morning, packed the vehicles, debated again where we’ll go first, and then there’s been the driving, yarning, standing together looking at a changed river, with all the sadness this brings, but a river nonetheless on Country, with its history, memories and obligations. We’ve gained a sense of each as a particular person, with a particular relationship to Country.

I’ve worried that our carefully designed form, with its many questions, is using indigenous knowledge as feedstock for another exercise in meeting the terms set by the centre. I’ve seen it in mainstream agricultural communities—the decision criteria set by management leach all the nuance out of people’s living knowledge of a landscape, leaving a skeleton of “facts”.

But we’ve been together, on Country, and the intimacy that’s developed between us seems to form a safe space where memory can surface stories of the place – stories of big floods, of swimming here as a kid, of what my mother told me about the old days, stories of how good the fishing used to be.

In these stories is the knowledge for making authoritative cultural assessment. Knowledge is held in story, and but stories aren’t shared with just anyone. Our process has been tuned to this, seeking people’s free, prior and informed consent at each step in the project. We built on relationships developed over years between MDBA staff and Aboriginal people. We developed the project in collaboration with the indigenous nations organisations in the Basin. We visited communities to invite them into the project well before we showed up to run the assessment week.

If I was writing a report, I might talk about the importance of trust, but if I speak from my own experience of the work, it feels like intimacy. I could call it trust, but the word “intimacy” has more feeling in it, more blood and more risk.

P1100517The intimacy seems to hold as much for relationships between members of the Assessment Team as it does with us white fellas. The team are from different families, young people and older people, people who have always lived here and those who moved here through marriage or work. A week of assessing places on the rivers have brought us all closer together.

In natural resource management, it’s often said that we need to integrate local and scientific knowledge. In the intimacy of this group of people feeling out a river and assessing it, what I find is an openness to differing ways of knowing, and to what those differences might bring to our shared knowing, if we are gently present to each other.

Finding others with similar interests

The Wettenhall funded “Taking Landcare Planning to the Next Level” is winding up. the workshops with Goulburn Broken Landcare were a stunning success, and the big question is what next. I’ve a report of findings and broad recommendations in draft, and I’m working out what specific new projects might be ventured.

CLEA (Community Learning for Environmental Action) is well underway, with a trial of QWEA completed, and a first round of interviews with exec and staff of Landcare networks, and the beginning of a regular email letter with links to the CLEA blog, and CLEA holdings. I”m getting ready for a curated issue on a theme, and asking how to avoid simply becoming a warehouse.

There are several spin-off projects in the queue: taking the Goulburn Broken Landcare material on Questions Without Easy Answers and seeding out the questions and answers through the region; costing what it would take to contract a journalist to interview around a theme in a region, probably the Corangamite region.

New preoccupations, as I pull mroe stories out of the interviews I’ve done, is how to get autonomous production of stories at regional level, and how to link inquirers.

Moragh Mackay and I took systemic inquiry to the big smoke, with the two current regional inquiries sitting down with people at State/Federal level in Victoria interested in improving NRM governance. A great crew cam together to put on the event – Catherine Allen, Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt Univesity, and Ray Ison, Phil Wallis and Seanna Davidson from the Systemic Governance Research Program, Monash University Sustainability. We put out an invitation, and ended up with about 20 of us in the room.

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People really like being about to sit down with others and talk. We surfaced severn possibilities for further inquiry:

  1.  How can we measure the social side of NRM?
  2. What narrative will legitimate investment in the capacity of land managers?
  3. What would be a good process for planning for biodiversity in Victoria?
  4. How can the performance of NRM organisations be assessed?
  5. How can the language of goals, targets and outcomes used in NRM be improved?
  6. How can we interact with the NRM funding environment in ways that minimise competition and enhance co-operation?
  7. How can we do NRM planning in ways that are fit-for-purpose in a climate-changing world?

Talk about questions without easy answers! For those who came, the ball’s in their court now.  We’re inviting people to be self-organising – if they want to keep talking about these things, get it organised, and we’ll show up. Or hire us to organised it.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Riddells Creek Landcare’s multichannel communication strategy is bedded in, with a monthly posting to the local rag, Riddell Roundup, to the RCL blog, and hard copy hand out of the same story on the desk at the Riddells Creek farmers market every two months.

That’s a lot of writing and webby cross-weaving! I’m very happy most of the time. Occassionally I think maybe I’ve wandered right off the map.

Finding others with similar interests remains a major focus for me.

Questions beget questions

Some years ago, running action learning in the Water and Rivers Commission in WA, I developed a bunch of materials and thinking around the idea of intelligent enterprise. What might that be? Recent work with Landcare is the same question in a different context, where the issue is more starkly how to mobilise distributed intelligence.

When you have a strong question, a Question Without Easy Answers, it’s a law of the the universe that such a question spawns other questions, and attracts many answers.

Distributed means that the context varies at each point in the field of intelligence. But when we talk with each other, how do we take in the context of the person speaking, when our own is either so different as to make it hard to enter the other’s, or so similar that we fail to see that water we’re swimming in?

Case example: Last December, the Latrobe environmental philosophy group that Freya Mathews convenes met to wrap up the year, not discussing a text, as we usually do, but with a round where we each describe one current project. One of our elders, the woman in who’s house met, kept time, 20 minutes each:

Mayer, who walked up the Yarra, is now exploring the state of loving attention that happens in writing, and when being in nature, and in meditation.

A Brazilian guy going back to home to talk with indigenous philosophers, and analyse what happens when those sages’ voices are brought to the Western World.

Alexis reading the British naturalist Wallace ( he of the Wallace Line and contemporary of Darwin), to understand his presentation of himself as a man of science. In the 19th century, this included a deep draft of emotional and moral sensibility. How did Wallace respond, Alexis is asking, to the realisation in the science of the time that species die out?

And on we went, seven of us in all, with our two elders attending, Freya alert to when some angle of inquiry was overlooked.

Next morning, in that lovely reverie s possible on a Saturday morning, what came to me was the value of encountering great differences when there’s an underpinning similarity in sensibilities. Delicious.

Next case example, also from the end of 2014: a gathering of landcare in the Goulburn Broken region, which surfaced five Questions Without Easy Answers, setting us up for inquiry till we reconvene early February 2015 for answers. I was thrilled we made it this far in just one session, but one moment in particular stayed with me.

Discussing what was needed next for Landcare, one woman pointed out that accountability for projects and expenditure needed to be well managed. I found myself interjecting to say that flexibility is necessary too, at least with projects where the purpose is to create something new that works, and in exploratory projects born out of and run by a community.

CLEA is one such project – how to mobilise distributed intelligence is a question for exploration and innovation. The paths of such projects can be mapped out in advance somewhat, the deliverables pencilled in, but ink them in and you kill the innovation.

So the distributed intelligence question spawns another question – how can government bureaucracies, with their accountabilities and command-and-control cultures, support innovation? This is a question I find genuingly perplexing.

Many people speaking out

Working out the first experiments for CLEA, a network supporting peer learning and mentoring for community environmental action, I have decided that I can’t do it on my own.

Not news to anyone else, but when you’re engaged as a consultant, and have already generated lots of ideas for a project, it’s easy to get carried away assuming that you have to do it on your own – while knowing that you can’t and dreading the grind of doing it on your own!

This project will create a platform for talk between Landcare volunteers and staff about organising, collaborating and influencing. It’s a place to talk about the social side of Landcare, and it’s on the social side of organising local action and forming alliances between players in the NRM space that Landcare excels. The Victorian Landcare Council, which is sponsoring CLEA, wants to add to that mix greater facility in influencing decision makers, specifically politicians and the urban electorate, where Landcare can no longer assume support.

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It’s all in the conversations

How to do support such a network? Not by rushing around collecting stories and pumping them out, but by giving those who already speak out in the Landcare community simple tools and a platform for doing so, from many points in the landscape. And alongside the tools for telling your story and expressing your opinion, the tools for building an audience. A gentle nurturing of the community of practice, between the over-committed. It’s all in the conversations – though I can’t say that now without a wince, after Rob Sitch’s “Utopia”.

So I’ve put out a call for help with developing my own digital toolkit, taking myself as a somewhat represesentative sample of such Landcare persons. I need, for example, to ramp up my own mail lists – I’ve been much influenced by Brett de Hoedt’s post on the power of email.

If you want to join in, drop me a line ross.colliver@bigpond.com

The faultline between community and government

The Commonwealth’s new National Landcare Programme seeks greater ‘community engagement and participation.”

I had the opportunity to sit in with a peer inquiry group set up by Dr Lisa Adams, the National Rabbit Facilitator, with people working in northern Victoria. Membership was Landcare staff, CMA engagement staff, and one Landcare community member with a leadership role in her community.

Amidst the incredibly demanding situations discussed, the group touched on the renewed desire of government agencies to engage with communities, and the way that might not be easy for bureaucracies to undertake.The Consultation Paper for the new National Landcare Programme, which follows through on Minister Hunt’s promise to “put Landcare back at the centre of the Government’s land management programme”, asked some searching questions about the mechanisms that will actually do this (see VLC Policy Briefing #18, with links to the full VLC submission and the Consultation Paper).

As these practitioners talked, what came to mind was Ruth Eversole’s sensitive probing of the “deep tension between the traditional hierarchical ways of organising that characterise government bureaucracies, and the mandate to create more networked, horizontal interactions with diverse groups outside of government.” Government programs like to organise community action the way governments organise things. Their staff are often blind to the way communities go about organising their own action, and blind to their own assumption government programs’ ways of organising are the only worthwhile way to drive change.

This blindness will affect the possibility of transforming NRM governance. It is practitioners like this, working each day on the faultline between community and government, who will either make some headway with this transformation, or get caught in an awful grinding of gears. Probably a bit of both.

They’ll certainly need to take time to talk within their peers, in collaborative inquiry.

Developments in the NRM space

The Australian Government has stumped up $5m for small grants to community groups, in celebration of this being the 25th year of Commonwealth involvement in Landcare, and to avoid being seriously embarrased by rebadging their NRM program the “National Landcare Program” but leaving no money of Landcare groups! Now I have some sense of how Aboriginal people might have felt about the appropriation in the term “Caring For Our Country”, the last national NRM program.

Bigger news has been the requirement that 20% of AG funds to regional NRM bodies be allocated to Landcare projects. This is a major opportunity for Landcare to get a place at the table and for regions and Landcare to develop collaborative decision making.

In the VLC submission to the current Senate inquiry into the National Landcare Program, I made the point that change will come through Landcare participation in design of programs of action that influence practices in communities. Landcare members have deep holdings of social knowledge on which draw on – community segments, history, networks, influentials, and past NRM successes and failures, the memories of which linger long after the government staff have moved on.  See VLC Submission to Senate Inquiry 080814 for more on this.

And there seems some prospect of discipline around design and evaluation of the NLP, with an intelligent set of questions in the Consultation Paper for the NLP.

The VLC agenda to support the Australian Government’s commitment to “place landcare back at the centre of land management”, and “support and encourage strong community engagement and participation in regional NEM planning and implementation” will be guided by four principles:

Innovation across the NRM system. We don’t need one fix applied everywhere – we need many points of innovation, and many innovators in governance, doing what they think will make a difference and feeding that into a network of similar innovators. NRM is multi-level and multi-regional, so we need to connect across levels as well as within levels. Innovators do their own thing, but they need a community of practice within which they can push themselves into and through the contraints they encounter

Devolution of responsiblity for decisions and action. The next level up has to loosen up, listen up and let go, come down off its high horse and show some respect and interest in the intelligence, knowledge and skill that the next level down brings to the NRM enterprise. Lighten up the systems for proposing and reporting projects. Get out of the way. Give the support people need to build their competence.

Learning from diversity. NRM situations are complex and contested. There are many possible points of leverage, and many interests, each seeking outcomes important to them.  If the answers were easy, we would have had them implemented 20 years ago.  Answers will be forged in the vigorous discussion and the determined action initiated by the diversity of people with a stake in any situation.

Challenging old habits. Improvement in NRM is blocked by old habits of decision making and old assumptions about who has power and who has authority. The deathlock that scientific management has on NRM will only be broken when it is challenged.  Enough talk of partnership, engagement and collaboration: let’s have bold experiments, with close assessments of what is improving decision making, and what’s getting in the way.

For how I turned this into specific recommendations on NLP mechanisms, see the VLC submission to the NLP Consultation.

Making planning more adaptive

In the Natural Resource Mangement (NRM) sector, there’s a patchy, inadequate mish-mash of systems to monitor outcomes, an obsessive interest in counting activities and expenditure, and precious little time spent extracting learning from the experience of implementing actions from the plan, of which figures describe just one slice.

Why doesn’t NRM do better on this? It’s not just because there is precious little time, but because the culture of NRM doesn’t have a set of legitimate, valued and argued out practices around learning from action. Working recently on design of a workshop to cultivate adaptive management in the NRM world, I suggested that “the problem is not keeping records, it’s the lack of a culture of inquiry.”

It seems to me that to improve how we learn from action, and through that, improve how we design new action, we ought to open up inquiry (period) and in particular, into strengths and weaknesses in the ways we do (or don’t) currently learn from action. The would provide a grounded start to ( to use Etienne Wenger’s felicitous phrase) design for learning.

For a draft design for conducting such a review activity, see The next step in adaptive management in NRM.

For a recent note on the place of review in planning in Landcare groups, go here.

Wired to the web

I’ve got a background project going: how to reduce the space between forming an idea or project, and putting it into the world.

My Nokia phone lets me post a photo direct to my Facebook page – pretty neat, but how to ramp up the thinking content of the happy snap? I’ve been challenging myself to add text to say what is happening in the picture.

Next step up is making a movie of work on Riddells Creek Studio, using stills and video and the Windows movie editor, posted to my Facebook page.

Here’s another experiement: putting materials for the upcoming “Taking Planning to the Next Level” workshop into a website, so they can grow as the workshop progresses.

Then there’s Les Robinson, a master at using the web to make his work accessible. Les says he’s built online mentoring into his web-based Changeology program, using Google Docs. He can give feedback on the projects people develop during the online workshop, as they develop it. Nice work Les!