The dynamics of ‘sticky’ environmental policy reform


The dynamics of ‘sticky’ environmental policy reform

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Harvard Yard

One of several imposing libraries in Harvard Yard

“What do you have to do to get a transformational policy reform accepted and, in retrospect, be judged to have been a successful reform?”

That was the challenge presented by Professor Mike Young, the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University, at the conference he convened on the Dynamics of Environmental Policy Reform at Harvard University on 28 March.

The conference was opened by Kevin Rudd, now a Visiting Professor in the Kennedy School at Harvard. Mr Rudd was asked to reflect on the same question and it was interesting to compare his perspective with those of the academics.


Kevin Rudd answering questions after his address, with Professor Mike Young (currently in the Australia chair at Harvard), Professor Quentin Grafton (ANU, back to camera) and Andrew Campbell at right.

Mr Rudd made observations across a wide range of policy areas, from Medicare and carbon pricing in Australia to ‘Obamacare’ in the US. He emphasised the importance of getting a clear mandate for reform, clarifying what the reform is about and why it is needed both in clear terms for the general public and more depth for ‘the policy elites’, being clear about the metrics, understanding distributional impacts and compensating for them where necessary, and building in formal (preferably legislated) review processes.

Mike Young, in inviting me to give the keynote paper, had asked me to reflect on landcare in Australia.

In preparation, I reflected that this talk would have been easier to give a couple of years ago.

In my view we are seeing systematic attacks on environmental policy at an unprecedented level of intensity, sophistication and comprehensiveness. As a consequence, environmental policy reform is much more difficult than hitherto, and sustaining it over decades arguably even more so.

There is a broader political narrative in Australia — exemplified by George Megalogenis in his book ‘The Australian Moment’ — that policy reform has become too difficult, that vested interests have become too powerful and governments are less bold and less able in the 24-hour media cycle to make and sustain a compelling case for reform. That contention is reasonable, but I don’t think reform is impossible, just more difficult.

This is arguably especially the case for policy reform that favours long-term conservation over short-term resource exploitation and development.

The beneficiaries of environmental protection measures are usually the general public, the environment (other species) and future generations. Two of these categories don’t vote, and for individual members of the public, the environment may not be a top-order issue, or the benefits of an individual reform may be modest or difficult to detect. Opposition to reform may be loud, fierce, well-organised and increasingly well-funded, even if only from a vocal minority. It will have its own narrative, crafted to suit its own agenda, and using evidence selectively if at all. So Ministers and their offices may perceive that they are doing something brave or controversial, notwithstanding that there may be an overwhelming (albeit silent) majority in favour of it.

Reducing the size of the public sector is seen as virtuous within the dominant political narrative in the Anglosphere, yet many environmental challenges are inherently public good issues. Few politicians suffer a backlash for sacking public servants[2]. Public sector cuts can always be dressed up as efficiency measures, savings, reducing ‘green and red tape’, rather than reducing services or undermining the public interest.

The impact of environmental cuts and lax development approval processes is usually felt well after the perpetrators have moved on. A pollutant spill, aquifer comtamination or over-allocation of resources is rarely sheeted home to the minister or government that first weakened the regulation, cut research budgets or reduced compliance staffing levels.

The world needs to undertake the biggest structural reform of the human economy ever attempted — to decarbonize and decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. But at a corporate level, with a few exceptions among high-tech start-ups, we are not seeing profound economic transformation. Rather, we see a mix of corporate greenwash and a major backlash from the fossil fuel sector. Is this just the violent death throes of dinosaur industries – the end of the fossil fuel era? Or is it the start of something new, as the corporate sector flexes real muscle as 25 years of neoclassical economics thinking has weakened nation states, and new public management has emaciated their agencies? Multinational cooperation, governance and regulation lags way behind multinational corporate capital. Corporations exercise political influence overtly through investment decisions, lobbying and political donations, and in some cases undermine the public interest more covertly (e.g. revenue shifting for tax minimization) or illegally through white-collar crime.

As a personal observation, the conservation movement and environmental NGOs have not been well prepared for, nor have they responded well to, these developments. They have relied on essentially the same advocacy tools they were using 20 years ago, and on the whole they have not inspired Gen Y and the Millennials. Outfits like Get Up have been more nimble and occasionally effective on single issues, but don’t have a coherent agenda. The recent ‘March in March’ event mobilised probably more than 100,000 people, but was so disparate and unfocused that it had negligible political impact.

The landcare case

I’ve been involved with and/or observing landcare in Australia for almost thirty years. In the early days of Landcare I helped Rick Farley of the NFF and Phillip Toyne of the ACF to draft the joint proposal for a Decade of Landcare presented to Bob Hawke in early 1989. Subsequently I was contracted as the first National Landcare Facilitator, reporting to Primary Industries Ministers John Kerin and then Simon Crean over four years and 200 tours looking at all aspects of landcare throughout Australia[3]. They were heady days, infused with optimism underpinned by the solid foundations of community enthusiasm, bipartisan support, the NFF-ACF partnership and a decade-long funding commitment.

farm planning

Andrew Campbell (with hair) speaking at a farm planning field day in 1985. John Marriott is holding the farm plan (like a wobbleboard…)

Landcare means different things to different people. For me, at its core landcare is about promoting sustainable environmental and natural resource management through collective action at a neighbourhood or district level to build social capital, change social norms, develop a shared community understanding of environmental problems and their solutions, and then to promote those solutions.

By the mid-1990s, more than one third of all Australian farm families were actively involved in one of more than 5,000 local landcare groups, and in many regions well over half the landholders were engaged. They often employed their own staff, and were supported by the National Landcare Program and a range of associated programs and agencies at State and Commonwealth level. There were programs in schools and urban areas, corporate support was strong, and there were high profile and very popular awards at state and national levels. Brand recognition for the landcare ‘caring hands’ logo among the general public was comparable to that for Coca Cola and the golden arches of McDonald’s.

In my conceptualization, the primary role of voluntary landcare groups and the professionals assisting them is not directly managing soil, vegetation, water or even farms. Those tasks are carried out by landholders in the context of their individual enterprises. Rather, the role of landcare, and the measure by which its success or otherwise should be judged, is to change social norms within rural communities (e.g. the definition of what it means to be seen as a ‘good farmer’) and to promote more sustainable land management practices. This is a subtle but important distinction. It means that within a given catchment or district, landcare could be doing a good job, yet landscapes could still be degrading, because of factors outside the control of landcare groups (e.g. climate, markets, demography).

The problem for landcare, in particular for the Australian Government-funded Decade of Landcare, was that the formal objectives of the program were expressed in biophysical terms as the reversal of land and water degradation in Australia. So when the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) evaluated landcare as a government program, it invariably found that land degradation was still occurring if not accelerating, as various State of Environment Reports and the National Land and Water Resources Audit documented in great detail. Therefore, measured against its own objectives by the ANAO, landcare was not effective.

I wrote a book on landcare while studying in Europe in 1992-94, and made a number of presentations about Landcare in Australia, notably as a keynote at the UK Government’s Partnerships for Change conference in Manchester in 1993 (the UK follow up to the first Rio conference, and attended by leaders of sixty countries). Invariably the response was that it was an amazing achievement for a country to have more than one third of farm families involved in voluntary environment groups undertaking cooperative activities at a community level. Senior officials in the UK and EU found it hard to believe that this level of community engagement could be delivered across the whole continent at a national cost of less than $30m per year.
Over the last twenty years of environmental and natural resource management programs in Australia, there have been three key developments: voluntary, community-based landcare; the evolution of a regional-scale delivery model based on catchment management organisations; and a more recent push for more evidence-based, targeted environmental investment and reporting.

These are highly complementary — at best synergistic — approaches to more sustainable management of the environment and land and water resources, and to public investment. Each is essential, but insufficient on its own, to bring about more sustainable management of Australia’s natural resources and more resilient rural and regional communities.
Community commitment is an important condition, but not a sufficient condition, to progress sustainable agriculture and resource management at a landscape scale. In the absence of technically and economically viable and adoptable land use and farming systems, no amount of community goodwill will deliver sustainable land, water and biodiversity management. Similarly, in the absence of sensible, integrative regional planning frameworks, there is an increased risk of wasting public and private investment.

Ideally, and with the benefit of hindsight, we should have implemented these three approaches in parallel, each reinforcing the others. But unfortunately they were seen as sequential, evolutionary developments, with each phase tending to displace its predecessor. There is a sense that we have ‘been there and done that’ with landcare, and to a lesser extent the regional delivery model.

Landcare is now struggling in many districts, having lacked strategic attention for more than a decade. Some of landcare’s problems and loss of momentum are symptomatic of policy neglect. The regional model for natural resource management program delivery has undermined voluntary community landcare in many regions, and we have failed to articulate how the regional framework relates to voluntarism. The network of landcare facilitators has suffered from cumbersome, stop-start funding arrangements and insufficient strategic support or direction.

In my view the tendency for NRM policy reform to displace rather than augment landcare has been a grave error. The job of community engagement at a grassroots level is essential and perpetual. There is much to be gained from taking the best elements of the landcare approaches of the nineties (reviewed by e.g. Curtis et al) and rejuvenating them for the next decade and beyond, as part of a more comprehensive re-think of agriculture, environment and natural resource management.

Principles for ‘sticky’ policy reform

Reflecting on the landcare experience and subsequent developments in NRM policy in Australia, I returned to Mike Young’s framing question:

“What do you have to do to get a transformational policy reform accepted and, in retrospect, be judged to have been a successful reform?”

My ten propositions are set out below. I finalized these well before the conference, so it surprised me how similar they were to the points made by Kevin Rudd. I’m still not sure whether to be reassured or concerned!

  1. Create a ‘burning platform’ that establishes a compelling rationale for change, then pay careful attention to timing — impact is likely to be maximised when the political planets are aligned, when people are looking for new ideas/initiatives.
  2. Marshall the evidence and facts to support your case for reform, but never assume that the facts will speak for themselves, or be sufficient. If the policy reform is perceived to threaten powerful interests, then assume that opposition will be well organized, well resourced and politically ruthless.
  3. Ensure that the ‘three lenses of knowledge and influence’ (Head 2008) are all considered, mutually reinforcing and well-aligned with the reform agenda: Political Judgement (the Minister, their office and party, and preferably the Minister’s informal advisers); Professional Practice (the relevant agencies, including central agencies and also think tanks and NGOs); and Scientific Research (policy briefs, refereed literature, professional societies, conferences, learned academies, peak groups like PMSEIC).
  4. Build a broad coalition of interests in support of the reform, and try to get engagement from as many different kinds of beneficiaries as possible so that the reform has as many parents/champions/sponsors as possible. Don’t assume that people have a sophisticated understanding of their own best interests. Try to ensure that at least one influential group is prepared to die in a ditch to protect the reform. Think about polycentric governance and leadership models, and invest heavily in identifying and resourcing leaders and champions.
  5. Analyse where opposition is likely to come from, and work hard to understand its drivers. What values or vested interests (real or perceived) feel threatened? What messages/strategies could be effective in defusing or countering opposition?
  6. Plan implementation very carefully. There is often a wide gap between policy intent and program practice. Think hard about allocating responsibility and resources at the right level to motivate successful implementation, and ensure that the right people & agencies have the necessary training, resources and instruments to do the job well, and follow through. Implementation is about relationships at multiple levels, so it is important that the operational system is both technically competent and socially rewarding for participants in policy delivery.
  7. Measure impact systematically from the outset (including impacts on ‘losers’), and adjust policy and program settings as required. Make sure you have more and better empirical data than anyone else. Understand how implementation works and how success is interpreted in terms of the dominant political mores and theories of the day. Communicate benefits as early as possible, without over-reaching or making false claims, and keep communicating and refining the narrative. Never assume that the communication task to mobilise & sustain political support has been done — it hasn’t. Reinterpret the burning platform as necessary. Assume that all wins are temporary and the case always needs to be made to claim them.
  8. Celebrate success (even modest wins) and reward champions at all levels.
  9. Be clear about the fundamental policy objectives and principles, and stay true to them, while being flexible and adaptable in implementation to respond to changing circumstances, improvising practice and tweaking the narrative so that it resonates and legitimizes practice in the current political context.
  10. Continually recruit new political champions and identify new beneficiaries (while honouring the old ones) and help them to see the importance of sustaining the policy reform, so that the policy itself is reinvented if necessary (while remaining true to its principles) and never taken for granted. Ensure that the powers that be (and the wider beneficiaries) are always aware that the costs and risks of unraveling or undermining the policy are much greater than any potential benefit from doing so.

BUT, if the evidence is clear that the policy is not working, and it is clearly not a problem of poor implementation, then analyse why and start working on the next major reform.

Another way of conceptualizing this is to imagine three threads of parallel activity and focus: the policy content (what are we going to do and why); the political process (who will be affected, how, where and when, and how will we engage and communicate with them); and the program implementation (what mix of policy instruments will be used, and how will they be delivered). If any one of these is underdone, the policy outcome is unlikely to be ‘sticky’ or durable.

One of the key differences that emerged in the policy principles proposed by subsequent speakers, notably Professor Quentin Grafton of the ANU, was that both Kevin Rudd and I omitted contestability as a key principle of good policy making. Quentin’s point is that the best policies emerge from open, public and often sustained debate, which assists governments in honing both the policy narrative and the implementation machinery, as well as in getting a good feel for ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

Had he stayed for the whole proceedings, I imagine that Kevin Rudd may have responded that his point about getting a mandate for policy reform through the democratic process necessarily implies a contest of ideas in an election campaign. Kevin Rudd emphasised that the longer a policy debate proceeds, the more time there is for opposition to marshall resources to undermine reform — “we’ll kill this thing slowly”. In part this explains why governments often seem in such a hurry to implement their agenda, and yet often delay releasing the outputs of their own inquiry processes.

From my experience as a former policy executive, I suggest that good policy process within a Westminster system necessarily ensures a contest of ideas. If cabinet is used appropriately, then all new policy proposals need to undergo a cabinet coordination process, whereby proposals from a given department must be circulated for comment by any other departments affected by the proposal, in a process coordinated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In particular, central agencies like PM&C, Finance and Treasury can exercise significant influence and impose considerable rigour in this process, even if it seems cumbersome and at times painful for the proposing agency. For difficult, complex or contentious issues, additional mechanisms such as parliamentary inquiries or referrals to the Productivity Commission can be used to explore and test policy reform proposals, seek public input, and to start new policy discussions.

Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, irrespective of the party in power, there has been a strong centralising tendency in policy development processes, with seemingly ever greater power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office. This has tended to lessen the rigour and breadth of scrutiny of new policy proposals, whether or not they are hardened by a political mandate achieved through the harsh glare of an election campaign. In particular, it is crucial that there is at least as much scrutiny of proposed implementation measures as for the policy idea itself. Even the best policy can be sadly discredited through misconceived or poor delivery.

So I agree with Quentin that contestability is important, but I don’t think that it necessarily has to be realized through sustained public debate over a long period. If proper policy development processes are followed within government and within the federal parliament and cabinet, there are sufficient checks and balances to ensure that policy objectives and program delivery is properly thought through, with ample opportunity for potential risks to be identified and mitigated.

The ideas here will be expanded into a deeper analysis of the landcare/NRM policy experience against these principles, and polished into a book chapter within a volume on the dynamics of environmental policy reform to be edited by Mike Young.

Feedback on these early thoughts is most welcome.

The slides I presented at Harvard can be found here » 


  • Campbell, Andrew (2009) It’s time to renew Landcare Agricultural Science 2/09, 30-33
  • Campbell, Andrew (1994) Landcare – communities shaping the land and the future Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
  • Curtis, Allan and Ted Lefroy (2010) Beyond threat- and asset-based approaches to natural resource management in Australia Australasian Journal of Environmental Management 17(3), 134-141
  • Head, Brian (2008) Three lenses of evidence-based policy Australian Journal of Public Administration 67(1), 1-11



[1] From my handwritten notes
[2] This is obvious in the current contrast in apparent public indifference to the loss of 12,000 public sector jobs in Canberra compared with concern about half that number of jobs being lost in car manufacturing due to the impending closure of Ford, Holden and Toyota factories.
[3] One memorable field trip in 1990 involved Rod Applegate (then NT Landcare Coordinator) lending me a well-equipped NT Conservation Commission troop carrier in Darwin, and telling me to drop it off in Alice Springs. I travelled with swag through the Victoria River District, the East Kimberley and then the Tanami and West Macdonnells, staying with and interviewing pastoralists all the way, arriving in Alice about a month later with a much deeper appreciation of landcare and NRM issues in the rangelands.