Grab the opportunity to talk about governance

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After two workshops with the Governance Project, we have agreed on 5 systems that need to be improved. We’re out recruiting more participants, and Peter Greig, President of Upper Barwon Landcare Network and one of the Project design team, suggested that we might need to offer some assurance that talking about governance can lead to landscape change. He pointed out that “landcare participants want action first, and talking second, and only if it leads to action.”

A preference for action and suspicion of “too much talk” is strong in landcare, as it is in other community-based groups. Landcare members have wasted much time talking in official venues about what ought to happen, and not seeing any result. They are justifiably cautious when invited to step up and talk (yet again) about stuff (like governance) that needs to be improved. Will talking make any difference?

People in landcare are not anti-talk, or anti-intellectual. They love to talk, and their talk is rich in story, in contestation, and in fine distinctions about what makes a difference. Talk is the juice of the landcare community. But as people living in and working with the land, they also know that action has to be taken. There are cows to be milked daily, feed to be sorted, spraying to be looked to at the right point in the season, paperwork to be done, a multi-stranded and shifting field of activities to be managed, whether your land is 1000 or 100 or 2.5 hectares. If a reasonable amount of talking doesn’t point the way to a course of action, then why waste energy on it? There are simply too many other vital things to be getting on with.

Digging out examples of change in governance changing landscapes is a good idea, but people interested in being constructively critical about governance will grab the opportunity for a vigorous conversation with others who want to improve governance. Once you’ve been through a couple of cycles of “bold new approaches”, you understand how deeply persistent assumptions and established arrangements undermine improvement in governance. You don’t need evidence of better landscapes or even better governance to get started talking. You start to look out for people to talk to.

What do they look like, these people who want to improve governance? Last Friday, I spoke with two of them. First, with Jane Ryan, in DEPI Regional Services, who is negotiating a planning process (and actual plans) for pieces of Victoria’s coast. She’s working with members of Coastal Boards, a small staff team and a host of stakeholders crying out for commitments on the use of coastal environments. She’s savvy and streetwise in NRM-inflected planning, and she’s really got her work cut out for her with this new task. We had a good discussion about how she’s bringing together the various people who can contribute to the design.

Then Moragh Mackay and I sat down with Mark Eigenraam, DEPI. One of Mark’s passions is measuring outcomes in NRM, and MM met him when the (former) ecoMarkets team came in as a partner in the Westernport Targeted Land Stewardship Project around 2009. We were there to tell him about the Governance Project and about one issue in particular, that of creating a better system to measure outcomes. We thought he’d be interested: he was, but we talked about much more besides.

We talked about the way big ‘P’ policy issues (clean water, healthy soil) get lost as planning moves to the little ‘p’ policy work of constructing or assessing options and setting up programs. We talked about the silos in little ‘p’ policy development that stop people seeing how the big ‘P’ matters are woven together in the actual landscape, and howplanners with a strong commitment to one aspect of landcapes, biodiversity for example, can end up planning as if the landscape didn’t have anything else in it, like people. We talked about the peopled landscape as the one that landcare groups and networks work in.

In these conversations, there was never any doubt that talking about governance was necessary and useful – that we need ways to set goals and priorities that take account of differing stakeholders, that we need policy that integrates with action on the ground as informed by it, not wilfully ignorant of it, that we need planning in government that integrates with planning in communities.

But these are people who work in the governance system, who feel its effects each day on themselves personally and on the effectiveness of work areas around them. What about people in landcare, who don’t live and breath governance? What leads them to see governance as something that needs to and can be redesigned. Perhaps there are two transition points.  The first is seeing the rhetoric of new policies in NRM end up with the same practice, even when well-intentioned people and thoughtful people are enacting the new rhetoric. The rhetoric-practice gap shows not that they are duplicitous, but that there are other and stronger forces at work than good intentions, keeping ineffective ways of governing in place.

The second is having a local initiative syymied by the command-and-control paradigm. That either makes you want to give up, fight the bastards, or reinvent the system in which we all operate. Fighting is tiring; redesign with others who see the need for change is demanding but more sustainable.  Once you reach that point, then you start look around for people who have reached the same point – and set yourself up for deeper, more demanding and more satisfying conversations than the shallow and debilitating litany of complaint that landcarers can get sucked into.

So yes, there are case studies of shifts in governance that have led to better management of landscapes, and those can inspire and inform your own inquiry into governance. But if you need that evidence before you start talking about governance in NRM, then your missing out on a grand conversation.

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