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Caring for Country & NRM

Estimates & Committees
Rachel Siewert 21 Feb 2011

Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee - Monday 21 February 2011

CHAIR—I welcome the officers from Sustainable Resource Management. We will go to Senator Siewert.

Senator SIEWERT—I understand your discussion document has been released for the review.

Mr Thompson—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—When was it released?

Mr Thompson—Today.

Senator SIEWERT—That is what I thought. What time was it released?

Mr Thompson—I think it went on the web at about 3.30.

Senator SIEWERT—Yes, I just found it. Obviously, we have not had a chance to look at the review, so there will be questions that I will ask to which you will probably say, ‘Go and have a look at the document.’ Can you tell me who has prepared the discussion document?

Mr Thompson—The discussion document was prepared internally in the department.

Senator SIEWERT—On your website you talk about the consultation process whereby you will be consulting with stakeholders. Is the review part of the consultation process, or did you consult with some stakeholders in preparing the discussion document in that part of the review, the consultation process? That is one question, and the second one is: was there consultation carried out in the preparation of the review document?

Mr Thompson—The discussion paper is really the trigger for formal consultation on the review. We have received lots of comments over the last couple of years about changes to the program, some of which we were able to accommodate, some of which we said we would take into account in the review. We did hold a
workshop with a number of key stakeholders late last year to canvass ideas, which we were able to build into the terms of reference of the discussion paper and the issues to be canvassed in the discussion paper. So informally we have had stakeholder consultation feed into the discussion paper, but the discussion paper itself really triggers the formal process.

Senator SIEWERT—So the process from here, as I understand it, is that submissions close on 20 May. Is that correct?

Mr Thompson—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—Will you then be holding workshops around Australia? What is the process of consultation on the discussion document?

Mr Thompson—We will be doing a number of things. Consultation is to be a significant part of the review process, and we have not bedded it all down. We envisage holding some targeted, face-to-face consultations. We will be accepting written submissions. We will be holding consultations with key groups, such as industry groups and environment groups and state agencies, and we have also put in place a web-based discussion forum, so those people who would not normally come to a face-to-face forum—because it is too difficult or they cannot fit it in their timetable—can still engage in discussion. The experience that other people have had in doing reviews is you can reach a wider audience by using web-based tools to complement the more traditional face-to-face approaches.

Senator SIEWERT—Can we go back? I would like to go to the consultation process, and then I have got some broader questions. So you are going to do some targeted face-to-face consultations. How do you select who you are going to do face-to-face with?

Mr Thompson—The details of that have not all been finalised but, as I said, the sorts of things we would envisage would be face-to-face with groups like regional bodies and face-to-face with national environmental organisations. State agencies have indicated they would like to have some discussions with us. We would go with industry groups. To some extent, it depends on what sort of feedback we get early on in the consultation process and who are really interested in throwing up ideas that we need to explore further.

Senator SIEWERT—So when do you—sorry, every time you make a comment I have got more questions, but I still have not asked my other questions. In terms of the time frame, submissions close in May. When do you envisage then having the report—I presume you are reporting to the ministerial board?

Mr Thompson—Yes, there will be a final report going to ministers.

Senator SIEWERT—And when does that happen?

Mr Thompson—We envisage that would happen early in the new financial year, something like July/August.

Senator SIEWERT—I know what your answer is going to be, but I have to ask this anyway so it is on the record. Will that report be publicly released?

Mr Thompson—That would be a matter for ministers at the time—

Senator SIEWERT—And this is where you say, ‘That is up to the board,’ but—

Mr Thompson—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—There will be a lot of people wanting to know. That is why I need to ask.

Mr Thompson—Yes, we understand that.

Senator SIEWERT—So let’s go back to the consultation process. Between May and July is a relatively short space of time to carry out consultations. So when you say you will look at the consultation process once you have got some initial feedback on the review—

Mr Thompson—What I meant by that is we would expect to get initial feedback on the review via phone calls and emails quite quickly over the next few weeks, and then would develop a more formalised consultation process. The period between May and July would be when the department would be pulling together information to prepare a report.

Senator SIEWERT—Having used to run an NGO and having had stacks of submissions, I look at your submission date and think, ‘I do not actually need to get the submission in until May, and I have got a whole stack of other things,’ and then I ring you on 20 May and say, ‘Can I get my submission in late, please?’ That is the reality out there. So what are you doing to let people know that, in fact, they need to be giving early feedback so that they can be part of the consultation process?

Mr Thompson—We have circulated quite a lot of material on an informal basis. There is a lot of expectation about the review happening, so people are well aware of it, and we have been receiving emails already from people saying, ‘Hey, I want you to look at this,’ or, ‘I think this is important.’ I believe the web-based process that we are adopting, which provides ongoing and immediate input—people do not have to write a full submission—will actually start to float up some of the ideas, so we will start to get a bit of a picture of how broad the canvas is and who are the people discussing some of the issues. The web-based process will be transparent to everybody, so people will see what other people are throwing up as issues for discussion. We have got a couple of people who will be monitoring that and who will be—I am not sure of the term but it is like facilitating or interjecting from time to time.

Senator SIEWERT—Moderating.

Mr Thompson—Yes, moderating. In a sense, it is like an ongoing public meeting which starts fairly shortly.

Senator SIEWERT—Obviously, you have sent this out to all the 56 NRM groups?

Mr Thompson—Yes, 56 NRM groups, and the material will go out, through various email lists, to some thousands of Landcare groups and the equivalent environment groups. I think we will be sending out a note to all recipients of Caring for our Country funding, so there are another 3½ thousand addresses.

Senator SIEWERT—So basically it is a ‘watch this space’ in terms of where consultations will be, but is there a commitment that you will be going to each state? And who is ‘we’?

Mr Thompson—We will certainly be holding some sort of face-to-face meeting in each state, and the ‘we’ will be at least some senior executives from the two departments.

Senator SIEWERT—So that gets me to this point: who signs off on the review? This is an internal review, as I understand it. That is correct, is it not?

Mr Thompson—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—Have you got an advisory panel?

Mr Thompson—We do not have an external advisory panel for this process.

Senator SIEWERT—Will the submissions be public? Are you going to put them on the website?

Mr Thompson—My understanding is the submissions will be public, yes.

Senator SIEWERT—Can I get that confirmed? It is your understanding.

Ms Lauder—I can confirm that. In the discussion paper, we say that all submissions will be made public unless the person that puts a submission in identifies that they want it to remain off the record.

Senator SIEWERT—Okay. Given that you released it at 3.30 I have not had a chance to read the discussion paper.

Ms Lauder—Of course.

Senator SIEWERT—Can we go back a step? Why was the decision made to make it a departmental review, rather than getting at least an external advisory panel?

Mr Thompson—There was a range of options to be considered for conducting a review. As this was a midterm review, a conclusion was reached that if a review were done in a fully consultative and open and transparent manner an outcome could be achieved via this process similar to what would be done via an external panel.

Senator SIEWERT—I have got some questions now going on to: where to from here with existing grants and the business development of the next business plan, but I am wondering if

Senator Macdonald had any questions around the discussion paper.

Senator IAN MACDONALD—Is this the first time the review has been wholly internally conducted?

Mr Thompson—This is the first review of Caring for our Country. There had been previous reviews of other similar programs undertaken via a range of mechanisms, sometimes using external panels, sometimes entirely departmental and sometimes being a mixture of external consultants and departmental. We may well be using external consultants to undertake part of this review. That has not been settled at this stage.

Senator SIEWERT—I am sorry, Senator Macdonald. That is the first time I understood that you may be using external consultants as well.

Senator IAN MACDONALD—That seems to be different to the answer you gave to Senator Siewert earlier.

Mr Thompson—Not quite, Senator. What I said is that the review is being managed internally, and there is not an external panel. The process of undertaking assessments of various parts of the program or whatever may well involve getting in external expertise. So it is an addition to that. I was not saying it was different; it was just a bit more detail about how it is done.

Senator IAN MACDONALD—So who are the external consultants?

Mr Thompson—They have not been appointed as yet. We are still going through looking at: on what issues do we have internal expertise and on what issues would an external consultant add value? So I cannot give an answer at this stage.

Senator IAN MACDONALD—I missed the first part of Senator Siewert’s questions and I am just trying to look it up on the website. When is the review process likely to be completed?

Mr Thompson—I said earlier we are expecting to report to ministers in late July.

Senator IAN MACDONALD—So the internal review process will continue through February, March, April, May—

Mr Thompson—February, March, April, May and June.

Senator IAN MACDONALD—And then the external—

Mr Thompson—We may be using some external consultants to do some work during the period March, April, May.

Senator IAN MACDONALD—What sort of external consultants do you use? Would they be accountant type people?

Mr Thompson—There could be a range of things. We might use external consultants to assess the effectiveness of area programs or look at the performance of regional bodies, community groups or industry groups. One element that we have already agreed will inform part of the review is that the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU is conducting a research based exercise, which will involve both research and some public input, looking at challenges for regional services and integrated natural resource management. So that is one example that we do know about at this stage.

Senator SIEWERT—Is that external to what you are doing? Have you commissioned that?

Mr Thompson—We have not commissioned it. The Fenner school had some funding to do work in this area of collaborative delivery of various programs, and we have had discussions with them saying, ‘Perhaps as one of your case studies you could look at natural resource management and so do an academic literature review of experience and opportunities,’ and so we would collaborate with them on that. So in a sense they are retaining their academic independence, but we would see that, in the timing, as being quite useful to feed into this review because there is quite a lot of academic and research literature around about regional delivery and integrated natural resource management that we did want to take on board, and it is something that would be better done through an external process than an internal one.

Senator SIEWERT—Can we get back to this issue of use of external consultants? Have you thought about using them for the consultation process? I am not trying to get up the department but, as you know, there is a lot of criticism about Caring for our Country. Do you think people are going to be open and honest if the department is carrying out the consultation around their own discussion paper and then are running the consultation process as well, or as forthcoming as they might be if they had an independent consultant running the process?

Mr Thompson—We see no reason why people would not be forthcoming. In fact, they are quite frank and forthcoming about the program now. If we did observe that it was a problem and they were concerned either about whether we would be taking their views on board or whether we had assessed them properly, the use of someone external to either assist with the consultation or perhaps act as an independent observer about the process and ensure that the material being brought forward was being fed into the review properly would be something we could consider.

Senator SIEWERT—If people had expressed concerns, did you say, sorry?

Mr Thompson—Yes. We have not had any concerns raised with us to date about us doing a departmental type consultation.

Senator SIEWERT—I should get the people who have been talking to me to talk to you, in that case.

Senator IAN MACDONALD—Rather than relying on the department and external consultants, I know you have spoken to those who are actually involved—the stakeholders. Many of them are very genuine people. I have had a fair bit of experience. Again, as we all know, there has been a lot of criticism. There has been a couple of Senate inquiries into it; it comes up every estimates. But to your credit, Mr Thompson, I have to say that the message I am getting through now is that the department has at last realised that they were heading in the wrong direction, and there seems to be a willingness to return to an involvement where the stakeholders were able to have more local control and in that way not be competing against each other in their own local community for various grants.

So a lot of the collaboration that was the hallmark of this program in its earlier days and in its previous name that had disappeared might be coming back. But I am just wondering: is the review and the external consultation process essential or are the consultations you have had so far with the stakeholders, where it seems to be that everyone is now heading in the right direction, sufficient? Perhaps we should just get on and do it rather than waiting another six months to fiddle around the edges.

Mr Thompson—We have received a wide range of views on the program and there has been some endorsement for some of the approaches and changes that have been made, but, equally, there are people who want to make bigger changes. Some people have spoken to us and put those forward and others have not. I think we do need to give everyone an opportunity to express their views. At the stakeholder forum that was held in November last year there was quite a high degree of divergence of view around things like the role of regional bodies versus the role of community bodies, small grants versus large grants and those sorts of things, which I think we do need to explore a bit more with people.

Senator SIEWERT—National issues versus state/local issues?

Mr Thompson—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—It is a big issue in WA. What is the process for making decisions about whether you will go to external consultants? Do you as the department managing the review make that decision or do you need to go to the minister?

Mr Thompson—On very major issues we would possibly go to ministers, but quite a few of them we would be able to make internally. We certainly would not be taking any significant directional changes or major changes in process without informing the minister and providing the opportunity for ministerial input.

Senator SIEWERT—Sorry, I may not have framed that right. I do not mean in terms of making the changes to the program; I mean in terms of the review.

Mr Thompson—As an internal review the overall management would be one that would be the responsibility of the department. Most of the decisions about it can be made by the department but, if some particular element were likely to be very sensitive or perhaps there was a divergence of views, those are the sorts of things that ministers are engaged with so that, in a sense, there are no surprises coming out of the process.

Senator SIEWERT—Is there a budget allocation for the review?

Mr Thompson—There is not a separate budget allocation. We will be drawing on resources from things like the monitoring and evaluation budget and the resources that we use for business planning. We have reallocated some resources within the division.

Senator SIEWERT—What is the reallocation? What is the amount you have reallocated?

Mr Thompson—It is really on a needs basis. We have formed a small team who are dedicated to it. I do not have the exact numbers here. We could calculate what their cost is as the minimum. If more work is necessary we will have to draw on other resources from inside the division. For example, one of the bits that feeds into the review in a significant way is a monitoring and evaluation report, which we are already staffed to do and which is already planned in as part of the normal process.

Senator SIEWERT—How many are in the small team?

Ms Lauder—Six full-time people. We are also accessing staff from across the division to provide advice and guidance—some are putting in a day a week. But there are six full-time people on this.

Senator SIEWERT—Presumably that team is going to have to go around and carry out the consultation. Is that budgeted separately or is that contained within the—

Mr Thompson—The team will be managing the consultation process. Probably one or two people from that team will go to all the consultations, but we will also be drawing on senior managers from across the division to assist with that consultation—both to allow them to receive the direct feedback and to ensure we have enough people to do the job. But we will just draw, for the travel and whatever, on our divisional resources.

Senator SIEWERT—Moving on to the business plan for 2011-12, what is your time line for the next round of funding?

Mr Thompson—The business plan for 2011-12 is currently in its final stages of consideration. We expect to release it shortly. This review will not affect the business plan for 2011-12. It probably could inform the business plan for 2012-13, the last year of the current round of Caring for our Country.

Senator SIEWERT—What real impact will that have for the last year when this forward estimate is made? I know we always have this tricky conversation about how much from each of the projects is in forward estimates, but obviously each project that is approved that is beyond a year has an impact on the subsequent forward estimates. How much realistically is going to be available if you decide major changes are going to be made? How much is realistically going to be available—because you are saying they are basically one-year projects?

Mr Thompson—Caring for our Country is an ongoing program and there are forward estimates beyond 2012-13. Under the normal budgetary processes, even though it is an ongoing program, one would not normally be able to enter into contracts beyond the current forward estimates period—which ends in 2013— without government approval. A review that was finished in time to inform the 2012-13 budget may enable decisions by government that draw upon the forward estimates which already exist for Caring for our Country. But that would be a matter for the government in next year’s budget.

Senator SIEWERT—It is a question that I think you are going to get lots of NRM groups asking, because funding a one-year project is very different, as you are aware, from funding a more comprehensive project. So they will be asking that question.

Mr Thompson—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—You said the current business plan will be developed shortly. How soon is ‘shortly’?

Mr Thompson—‘Shortly’ would be within the next three or four weeks, I would expect.

Senator SIEWERT—Then the next funding round will open?

Mr Thompson—The next funding round will then open and we would aim to be in a position to announce projects early next financial year.

Senator SIEWERT—That is on the existing—other than slight amendments—parameters of the project?

Mr Thompson—That is on the existing parameters of the program though, as has been the case with previous years’ business plans, modifications are made to the business plan to take into account how far we have tracked towards achieving targets or modifications to targets or modifications to eligibility on the basis of experience from the previous years. So we are not looking at a revolutionary change in the business plan, but we have been able to address some issues that had been a concern to some people and we will be able to pick up some issues which have changed over the passage of time.

Senator SIEWERT—Going back to the monitoring and evaluation project that you mentioned—the one you have already started but which is going to be included in the review process. Is that a new project or is that one of the ongoing monitoring and evaluation projects?

Mr Thompson—It is one of the ongoing monitoring and evaluation projects. We have a monitoring and evaluation strategy and, as part of that strategy, assessments are made of each of the theme areas that we are working on or of special cross-cutting issues. Data is collected on how we are progressing against those and on the efficiency and effectiveness of those projects. So that monitoring and evaluation project is really looking at the delivery of the program in that quite quantitative sense.

Senator SIEWERT—Will that monitoring and evaluation project be finalised by the time you undertake or finalise the review? It is an ongoing project?

Mr Thompson—It is an ongoing project, but there will be an evaluation report on the project under the monitoring and evaluation strategy to the extent that data available to date enables it. It will not be for the whole program. This is, in a sense, a mid-term review not an end-of-term review, but it will pull together what information we do have.



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