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.

Measuring the social in NRM

At the National NRM Regions Knowledge Conference, I presented on measuring community engagement and social capacity. We had 66 people in the room who wanted to talk about measuring the social, and amongst them, a sprinkling of old hands (more than 10 years in NRM engagement), senior managers of NRM regional bodies, and even a couple of social researchers!

It was an opportunity to dig out past work, in particular, the 2005-06 Community Strategies project, which developed a model for regional community strategies and trialled a methodology for measuring and setting targets for social capacity in NRM.

I’d taken a pragmatic approach, looking for indicators that would make sense to regional natural resource managers, and measures with simple data gathering. I had trialled these with the Corangamite CMA and some of them worked really well. At the time, when I toured the results around the State, I found little appetite to use or further develop the measures. I was disappointed, and surprised, and put the lack of uptake down in part to my not having built stronger relationships with regional managers during the process. They hadn’t known enough about what I was doing, what was coming and hadn’t had a strong role in scoping the project.

Hearing about what others were doing right now around Australia, the work stands up well, and that there are aspects that could be picked up and used now. My stand out measure, which I’ve used with NRM teams since, is a method for measuring the strength of the working relationships between CMAs and their stakeholders.

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Listening to where regions are at now with measuring CE/CB, I got at a more balanced understanding of why there hadn’t been uptake of the previous project. At the time, Catchment Management Authorities had a lot on their plate setting up systems to assess and monitor biophysical assets. They didn’t want another asset (the social) to add to their load. The Community Strategies project was a little ahead of the curve.

I think they are still cautious about having the social asset as another reportable in their responsibilities. However, they have a lot more in place for monitoring the biophysical, and there’s more space to think about the social.

Politicians’ interest in engagement at local community level is sharpening attention not just on engaging communities, but on measuring that engagement and its impacts. Regional bodies know they need a compelling story for politicians, and numbers are part of that.