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Environmental Management

, Volume 62, Issue 1, pp 70–81 | Cite as

Avoiding Implementation Failure in Catchment Landscapes: A Case Study in Governance of the Great Barrier Reef

  • Allan P. Dale
  • Karen Vella
  • Margaret Gooch
  • Ruth Potts
  • Robert L. Pressey
  • Jon Brodie
  • Rachel Eberhard
Article

Abstract

Water quality outcomes affecting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) are governed by multi-level and multi-party decision-making that influences forested and agricultural landscapes. With international concern about the GBR’s declining ecological health, this paper identifies and focuses on implementation failure (primarily at catchment scale) as a systemic risk within the overall GBR governance system. There has been limited integrated analysis of the full suite of governance subdomains that often envelop defined policies, programs and delivery activities that influence water quality in the GBR. We consider how the implementation of separate purpose-specific policies and programs at catchment scale operate against well-known, robust design concepts for integrated catchment governance. We find design concerns within ten important governance subdomains that operate within GBR catchments. At a whole-of-GBR scale, we find a weak policy focus on strengthening these delivery-oriented subdomains and on effort integration across these subdomains within catchments. These governance problems when combined may contribute to failure in the implementation of major national, state and local government policies focused on improving water quality in the GBR, a lesson relevant to landscapes globally.

Keywords

Governance systems Catchment management Water quality Implementation failure 

Introduction

The need to better reconcile socio-economic development with environmental management has led to escalating support for landscape-scale approaches to resolve competing demands on land and water use (Brussaard et al. 2010). The international literature, however, increasingly recognizes that landscape-wide and cross-realm natural resource governance is a complex, multi-level venture (Hooghe and Marks 2001; Peters and Pierre 2001; Jessop 2004; Biermann 2007; Ostrom 2010). It is well understood that water catchments tend to lie at the heart of these complex governance systems, particularly when policies and plans are seeking to achieve water quality outcomes to improve the resilience of fragile marine environments (Smith and Porter 2009; Benson et al. 2012). Catchments (or watersheds) represent “functional geographical areas that integrate a variety of environmental processes and human impacts on landscapes” (Aspinall and Pearson 2000), a definition that enables consideration of their receiving marine environments. At catchment scale, the implementation of national, state and local government policies, plans and programs related to water quality begins to have practical meaning. There is often a challenge, however, in translating policy goals (e.g. water quality targets) into tangible outcomes (e.g., the health of coral reefs or seagrass affected by runoff). Researchers have increasingly identified such problems as an ‘implementation dilemma’, an emerging and relatively intractable issue across many complex governance systems (Cline 2000; Offiong 2011; Baroudi 2011).

Prior to the recognition of the concept of an implementation dilemma, integrated catchment management (ICM) concepts were already emerging in recognition of the need for effective planning and effort coordination at that scale (Holzwarth 2002; Hirsch 2006). ICM initially focused on the need for multi-sector integration, holistic analysis and strategy development when addressing catchment problems (Bolitho and Coffey 2014). This suggests the outcomes from catchment scale decision-making are a cumulative reflection of several important but often fragmented governance subdomains that are focused on different management problems within catchments (e.g., water allocation, land-use planning, farm-scale planning). Hence, reform at catchment scale must apply known governance concepts and principles to the design of these individual governance subdomains, as well as to the overarching system of governance enabling catchment scale integration.

To explore the risk of implementation failure at catchment scale, we consider the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) context in north eastern Australia because of its international profile with respect to the links between catchment health considerations and the achievement of specific marine ecosystem outcomes (Waterhouse et al. 2016).

Design Concepts and Principles for Catchment Governance

Explicit analysis of governance in complex landscapes is a precursor for supporting transformational change, or at least, informing continuous improvement. Transformational change, for example, might mean the establishment of new institutions to build consensus about integrated catchment scale actions needed to improve water quality. Continuous improvement, for example, might relate to the application of new science about farming practices to improve nutrient retention on farm. Fortunately, the literature on systemic frameworks for governance design and analysis is considerable. Here, we apply a societal-wide view of governance as the “intentional shaping of the flow of events so as to realize desired public good” (Parker and Braithwaite 2003, p 199). This definition suggests that governance is fundamentally about power relationships that reflect a wider set of processes of bargaining and negotiation among differing interests in the society (Dorcey 1986; Dovers 2000; Emerson et al. 2011; Young 2013). Hence, based substantively on the previous theoretical and empirical work of Dale et al. (2013a, b), we frame our analytical approach around analyzing key common design features that are needed to build a genuinely system-wide understanding of governance operating at catchment scale.

While Dale et al. (2013a) explore the theory to support the analysis of complex governance systems, in Dale et al. (2013b) we consider that within any such system influencing landscape scale outcomes, many specialist subdomains of governance can often be identified (e.g. land-use planning, river management, and agricultural development), and that these subdomains are usually polycentric in that they operate across a range of spatial and temporal scales (e.g. see Ostrom 2008; Morrison 2017). With this in mind, the overall health of the whole governance system in operation at a catchment scale reflects the health of multiple governance subdomains influencing social, economic and environmental outcomes at that scale (Duda and El-Ashry 2000). Despite this complex and systemic reality, much empirical governance analysis hones in on the operation of individual governance subdomains operating within landscapes in isolation from each other (e.g. see Manzungu and Kujinga 2002; Tippett 2001). Hence, in defined water catchments, sound governance analysis needs to pay detailed attention to substantially different (and often overlapping) governance subdomains.

Governance subdomains operating within catchments tend to represent distinct natural resource management-related activities (e.g. coastal research, coastal management, and river improvement). Each subdomain often draws on particular sets of expertise and distinct communities of interest. Subdomains can also operate in a defined period of space and time to achieve specific, often narrow, outcomes. Consequently, institutional structures operating within particular subdomains have a tendency to form their own cultures (Eldridge and Crombie 1974; Heller 2009), and eventually they may start to operate as silos of isolated activities within the wider catchment system, leading to perverse impacts on other related subdomains and contributing to overall system dysfunction. Indeed, the importance of the need to integrate governance activities at any particular scale and the consideration of inter-dependencies between scales has been drawn out in the adaptive management literature since the mid-1980s (Bulkeley 2005; Cash et al. 2006). These authors suggest that governance systems at any spatial scale are influenced by, and in turn influence, consequent system outcomes at other scales, often requiring analytical focus on key governance efforts at the national, state, catchment, local, and property scales.

These understandings inform the need to analyze integration across scales within different subdomains and across subdomains within the catchment scale. Great focus can then be given to analyzing the structural and functional health of the individual governance subdomains within catchments. The concept of structure offers an account of a governance subdomain’s key components: a configuration of purpose-oriented activities or a collection of inter-related services (Pullan and Bhedeshia 2000) that comprise the overall subdomain. Structural concepts relate well to, but are broader than, Biermann’s (2007) concept of the architecture of earth systems governance. To facilitate the analysis of different governance subdomains, we refer to structural aspects of subdomain governance as the key activities within the decision-making cycle generally deemed to be universally important (Dale et al. 2013a). For this reason, we focus on the holistic consideration of activities typically referred to in standard policy (e.g., Althaus et al. 2007), planning or action learning cycles (e.g. vision and objective setting, research and analysis, strategy development, implementation and monitoring, evaluation and review). We stress that assuming that any one institution controls a linear form of structured activity within governance systems constrains thinking about adaptive effort and networked decision-making. This encourages the analysts not to be too deterministic about “who should be doing what” in any given governance subdomain, so long as the basic structural components of good decision-making are functioning (see Dale et al. 2013a).

Apart from ensuring that the key structural elements of our governance systems are in place (i.e., the things that need to be done), we also stress that it is equally important to consider how well things are working or functioning within and across the structural elements of governance of particular subdomains. Great integration of effort in vision/objective setting structures, for example, can be undone by poor integration of effort within and across strategy development and implementation structures. This provides a focus for analyzing how the system works (i.e., its functionality), against all the key structural elements of the system. Dale and Bellamy (1998) suggest that there are three cornerstone functional elements of healthy governance systems, including (i) knowledge application to improve governance systems, (ii) securing connected or integrated effort within governance systems (see also Margerum 1995; Huppe et al. 2012; Jedd and Bixler 2015), and improving the decision-making capacity of the system participants (see also Dorcey 1986; Biermann 2007).

With a clear framing of the structure and functional aspects of catchment governance systems and their constituent subdomains, consistent evaluative criteria can be applied to characterize system health. Based on the synthesis of work of multiple governance analysts (e.g. Barrett 2003; Graham et al. 2003; OECD 2004; UNDP 1997; Biermann 2007; Young 2013), we use a common set of eight core evaluative criteria. These criteria are designed to measure the health of structural and functional aspects of governance systems (via holistic analysis of the health of constituent subdomains). Hence, in analyzing an overall system and its subdomains, we consistently explore the system (i) sustainability, (ii) equity, (iii) accountability, (iv) adequacy, (v) effectiveness, (vi) efficiency, (vii) adaptability, and (viii) subsidiarity (see Dale et al. 2013b for definitional details).

Methods

Based on the above system design concepts, to analyze the wider governance/decision-making system’s ability to deliver ecological and socio-economic outcomes in the GBR, we applied the Governance Systems Analysis (GSA) approach developed by Dale et al. (2013a, b). We do so as GSA represents a theoretically informed framework for analyzing complex governance systems (e.g. see the application of key GSA concepts in Dutra et al. 2016). Consistent with the design concepts and evaluative criteria outlined above, GSA identifies the various governance themes, domains and subdomains most likely to influence environmental and socio-economic outcomes in complex socio-ecological systems. It then describes and evaluates their governance characteristics. Our GBR-focused application of GSA enabled us to identify 40 governance subdomains that present high, medium, or low risk to achieve desired outcomes in the GBR (Dale et al. 2016).

For the 40 relevant governance subdomains identified by GSA, we analyzed each (spatially and temporally) by considering the integrity of each subdomain’s key structural elements (i.e., from vision setting to monitoring and evaluation) as well as their functional elements (i.e., actor capacities, connectivity between actors, and the use of various knowledges). The evaluative criteria used to describe the integrity of each subdomain (i.e., its ability to deliver on its intended outcomes) then referred back to both the critical structural and functional characteristics of the governance system and its key operational activities. Catchment-scale delivery mechanisms are essential for the successful implementation of (centrally devised) regulatory, incentive or education-based delivery policies and programs for improving water quality outcomes (Kroon et al. 2016). Consequently, within this context, we identified 10 critical subdomains that are key to effective delivery or implementation (planning and management) of actions for improving water quality and the ecological health in GBR catchments (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Diagram (adapted from Vella et al. 1999) of different governance subdomains, which, when combined, represent the key governance activities influencing the implementation of policies and programs that can improve water quality outcomes at the catchment scale in typical GBR catchments

To analyze each of the 10 identified priority subdomains against the design fundamentals and evaluative principles outlined above, we undertook the key methodological steps outlined in Table 1. These steps were run sequentially between June and September 2015, but were then iteratively refined until August 2016 to fill identified data gaps. Our analysis was a deliberative and transdisciplinary one, bringing together an interactive dialog among GBR researchers and practitioners via focus group and individual discussion. Additionally, our research team included recognized skills in landscape-scale, marine, and terrestrial governance and planning.
Table 1

Steps in governance analysis of catchment-focused subdomains

Step

Task

Key Research Methods Applied

1

Determine the key catchment-focused subdomains affecting GBR outcomes

A legislative and literature review and targeted discussions with GBR policymakers, managers and experts to identify and describe catchment-focused subdomains of significance in implementing and achieving GBR water quality outcomes. We targeted participants across Australian, Queensland and local governments and industry, conservation and Indigenous sectors. This step reduced our research attention down from 40 to 10 priority subdomains.

2

Evaluate catchment-focused governance subdomains against key evaluative criteria

A literature review and targeted individual discussions (10) and focus groups (5) involving 60 GBR policymakers, managers and governance experts to interpret the 10 identified priority subdomains and participant perceptions related to governance system health at the catchment scale (i.e. how both structural and functional characteristics of the system operate against key evaluative criteria). Detailed results from this wider analysis are collated and synthesized into tables viewable at http://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/43934/6/43934_Dale_2016.pdf.

3

Consider wider implications for catchment scale governance for the GBR and other coastal and marine contexts

By applying the GSA framework and associated principles for governance system and associated subdomain design and by analyzing governance strengths and weaknesses within the 10 priority catchment-focused subdomains, the research team could explore wider implications for overall GBR governance. We related these learnings to the business of improving catchment scale governance to deliver coastal and marine outcomes in other important catchment scale and cross-realm natural resource management (NRM) challenges across the globe.

The results emerging from these steps are outlined below.

Results

The research focused our attention on 10 key governance subdomains of significance in facilitating the implementation of water quality outcomes in GBR catchments (see Fig. 1). The following details the contextual and analytical findings with respect to each of these significant catchment subdomains.

Pastoral and Agricultural Farming Systems Subdomain

This subdomain includes all activities related to planning and continuous improvement in pastoral and agricultural practices in the GBR. From the 1980s, farm-scale planning became regularized as a flexible regulatory mechanism, increasing industry engagement in the allied Property Management Planning (PMP) and Best Management Practices (BMP) space and setting voluntary industry standards to address pollution issues (Drewry et al. 2008; Schroeder et al. 2008; Vella and Dale 2014). PMP/BMP approaches have the potential to represent the point where expectations of farmers and the state can be resolved through negotiation.

This subdomain has complex origins, resulting in multiple and fragmented approaches and drivers, but there is little clarity regarding its divergent regulatory, stewardship building, and profitability-enhancing roles. Consequently, these is no policy and operational focus around delivering water quality outcomes in the GBR. Reform is critical as this subdomain represents the space where farmers, governments, and markets can reach a shared understanding of actions required to achieve resource stewardship, farm profitability, and water quality.

River Improvement and Drainage Management Subdomain

Cohesive aquatic ecosystem (drains, gullies, rivers, and wetlands) and estuarine repair are increasingly recognized as part of the long-term solution to resolving water quality issues and the general ecological health of the GBR (Waterhouse et al. 2016). This subdomain encompasses activities and opportunities that include (i) the significant contribution of gully and stream bank erosion to sediment loads (Kroon et al. 2016), (ii) the nutrient-stripping roles of vegetated drainage, riparian zones, and wetlands (Davis and Moore 2015), and (iii) the significant role that biologically healthy waterways and wetlands play in contributing directly to GBR’s productivity and biological health (Waterhouse et al. 2016). Its legislative foundations include the Queensland River Improvement Trust Act (with a focus on limiting property damage) and the Queensland Water Act. Formalized River Trusts and local Drainage Boards deliver these efforts with limited and diminishing State resources with local Council support.

Queensland has a weak river and floodplain governance system (Dale et al. 2016), including (i) little strategic attention to floodplain planning and management, (ii) limited coordination among key floodplain management stakeholders, and (iii) no stable basis for the long-term resourcing and monitoring of works. There are many poorly connected actors, and in the GBR key institutions (River Trusts and Drainage Boards) have a history steeped in facilitating fast drainage to enable land development and to mitigate flood damage. Drainage regulations are outdated, with limited consideration of catchment health outcomes. This legislative framework has generally led to a culture of hard engineering for floodplain management. Recent legislative foundations for River Improvement Trusts, however, and some strong features of the existing legislative framework do provide the foundations for some critically important future system reforms (e.g., the declaration river bank assets).

Conservation Estate Planning and Best Management Subdomain

Within GBR catchments, the conservation estate is largely represented through formal national parks administered under Queensland legislation, and, in places like the Wet Tropics in far north Queensland, this layer is overlain with additional Commonwealth World Heritage protection mechanisms. Consequently, this subdomain is predominantly managed under a public service-based Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service. With the transition of many conservation areas to Indigenous tenures in recent years, joint management approaches are beginning to emerge, inclusive of the building of stronger Indigenous ranger groups.

Planning and management effort, guided by regionally or locally focused parks management plans, is focused on managing biodiversity, recreation assets, and pests. Consequently, water quality issues are marginalized, even though (i) the estate often encompasses both upper catchment and wetland areas; and (ii) can contribute significant sediment-based pollution loads arising from road networks, fire, grazing, and wild pig damage. Effort is generally confined within estate boundaries rather than at wider landscape scales. There is no clear best management practices framework in existence that is focused on water quality in the conservation estate. Prioritization of the acquisition of new parks has also not been focused generally on securing water quality outcomes in catchments with priority sedimentation and nutrient reduction issues.

Water Allocation and Management Subdomain

Under Australia’s constitutional arrangements, the Queensland Government controls the state’s water assets, while the Australian Government provides overarching leadership on water policy issues of national significance (via a National Water Initiative). Queensland accounts for 20% of Australia’s water use, the majority from surface water supplies in coastal catchments (National Water Commission 2011). In-stream catchment health is a strong determinant of overall ecosystem health in the GBR; so ensuring the protection of environmental flows is a paramount governance activity. Water allocation planning and management is coordinated at the state level through clear legislative arrangements and Water Resource Plans.

There is a strong delivery framework for planning for the division of environmental, consumptive, and cultural flows at the catchment scale in Queensland (Department of the Environment 2013b). Once allocated, these flows are then well managed and monitored via a standing administrative capacity in the state. The process has a strong science foundation, is well engaged, and is generally adaptive (via review). While the subdomain is mature, resources allocated to local management can often be inadequate, and more effort is required to fully integrate the process of planning for water quantity and quality outcomes at the catchment scale.

Urban Water Management Subdomain

Urban communities and land users have significant sediment, nutrient, and water quantity implications for the GBR (Brodie et al. 2012; Waltham and Sheaves 2015). Local governments generally have the primary planning and infrastructure management responsibilities for improving social, economic, and environmental outcomes from land and water management. Over the last decade, some progress has been made in improving urban water design to be more water sensitive and more significant progress has been made on upgrading sewage discharge treatment into the GBR. While this work is generally the responsibility of local governments, much of it has been funded under various Queensland and Commonwealth Government programs.

While some limited progress has been made in diffuse source urban pollution through storm water management, this now needs more consideration (Joint Steering Committee for Water Sensitive Cities 2009). Such effort could result in key initiatives such as (i) integration of the protection of aquatic ecosystems in urban land-use and development control planning, (ii) the innovative use of offset measures and developer contributions to local/regional waterway management, (iii) locating urban development carefully in relation to key sediment stores to prevent sediment unlocking, mobilization, and transfer (iv) water-sensitive urban design in new development areas, and (v) retro-fitting and softening and hardening existing urban development, drainage, and riparian systems. Much can be done in this space and there may be value in the state and local governments, NRM bodies, and the research sector forming partnerships and an agreed practices framework around these agenda, resulting in more consistency being built into an agreed state-level policy framework.

Port and Estuarine Planning and Management Subdomain

A number of recent reforms related to the management of ports have significance for the GBR, including the Sustainable Ports Development Act 2015 restricting significant port development, new dredge spoil dumping at sea and requiring the development of a master plan in priority ports. For all ports, however, the opportunity already exists for effective estuarine management through required Environmental Management Plans. A new proactive focus on improving the health of estuarine areas associated with each port, however, could become enabled through the master planning process, including more thinking about what efforts ports might make to help reduce sedimentation through catchment scale action rather than simply maintaining port capacity through dredging and dumping. In particular, Hockings et al. (2014) suggest improved and more comprehensive port monitoring would also act to provide indications of new or emerging threats to the GBR region, such as any significant deterioration in water quality or the incidence of invasive marine species.

This shift in management emphasis towards the environmental asset management in ports would require a re-tasking of port environmental planning to focus on continuous improvement in the environmental health of estuarine conditions. This could be facilitated through strongly adaptive approaches that (i) improve impact assessment for new port development work (Grech et al. 2013), (ii) explore reform options and the opportunity for ports to play a stronger and proactive role in estuary management, (iii) bring stronger community engagement into the ports’ environmental planning process to ensure an adaptive relationship with the local community, and (iv) are focused on establishing long-term and localized science coordination and reporting to achieve adaptive planning and delivery. Engagement and science coordination and monitoring requirements articulated for the required master planning are not clearly articulated. Much work also remains in developing and fine tuning effective marine impact assessment processes and offset regimes (Dutson et al. 2015).

Indigenous Country-Based Planning Subdomain

Indigenous peoples across the GBR hold property rights and responsibilities for managing both catchments and sea country resources. Traditional lore governs use by Indigenous communities of catchment and coastal resources of GBR significance (e.g., hunting of dugong and turtles). In Queensland, there is also commonly a strong alignment between the boundaries of Indigenous estates and catchments. Since the mid-1990s, there have been a number of structured approaches to support the negotiation of Indigenous interests in sea country (Sea Forum Working Group 1999).

Following the continuing resolution of native title and other rights, most Indigenous groups have been building land and sea management institutions at clan, tribal, or even cross-tribal scale. However, despite several piecemeal government-funded developments in supporting the capacities of these institutions (e.g., GBRMPA 2010), Indigenous people continue to be marginalized in wider GBR planning and delivery processes, and they are looking to play a stronger, longer-term, and more active role in catchment planning, the delivery of major catchment works, and estuarine management/compliance across the GBR catchments.

Land-Use Planning and Major Project Coordination Subdomain

Decision-making about major land-use change (for development or conservation) in GBR catchments is contestable at the national level, with existing but weak regional land-use planning frameworks. There is limited use of sophisticated and well-engaged spatial models (Álvarez-Romero et al. 2015b; 2011) that influence land-use design for marine outcomes. Major development proposals frequently spark national conflicts because of this landscape contestability (e.g. agricultural expansion into sensitive water catchments), creating investment risks for development interests and uncertainties for the environment and communities. Commonwealth staff operating under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 have increasingly become pinch-points in the approval system where policies and directions for major approvals are often inconsistently negotiated (Dale et al. 2013a). There is currently not a strong institutional culture aimed at facilitating development proponents through a complex regulatory system to get both the best economic and environmental outcomes. With frequently shifting Commonwealth, state and local government policies driving vastly different land-use directions (e.g., World Heritage listing vs. development in Cape York Peninsula), GBR regions experience unstable policy environments for development and environmental protection (Dale 2014b; Potts et al 2015).

In highly contested GBR regions (e.g., Cape York Peninsula), with bipartisan support, the Commonwealth, State and local governments could reach trilateral agreement regarding long-term, stable, adaptive, and collaborative frameworks for regional and local land-use and infrastructure planning. Such planning could focus on giving greater certainty to prospective areas for economic development, manage cumulative impact, and facilitate agreement about areas for future protection. Long-term, stable and collaborative regional planning alliances need to be established (particularly including Indigenous, industry, and conservation interests) to ensure full regional ownership of the planning processes used, outcomes, and reviews. Negotiated (rather than simply consultative) approaches should be supported by dynamic third party brokerage arrangements. Strong and stable evidence-based economic assessment and science integration frameworks could support these processes and monitor social, economic, and environmental outcomes. Endemic regional planning and delivery institutions (economic, NRM and social) could also be supported in parallel (via long-term investment agreements) to progress strategies (Dale 2014b). GBR catchments do not have a strong, place-oriented, and independent institution seeking to both support major development investors to negotiate their way through critical approval processes and to secure the best regional social, economic, and environmental outcomes from development.

Integrated Regulatory Frameworks Subdomain

Most of the necessary regulatory foundations for natural resource management are now in place across GBR catchments. Key state components of the system include the Vegetation Management Act 1999, the Water Act 2000, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the Land Act 1994, the Reef Protection Act 2010, the GBRMPA Act (see Brodie and Pearson 2016), and various related pieces of Commonwealth and State legislation (Vella and Dale 2014). Each piece of legislation, however, tends to operate in isolation, making it hard for landholders to be fully aware of the legislative expectations placed upon them at the property scale, while making it difficult for governments to manage effectiveness and the social justice impacts associated with natural resource and environmental regulation.

This subdomain is typified by low levels of target and objective-setting at catchment scale with poor coordination and fragmentation across various regulatory efforts. Each legislative effort generally has limited extension or strategic compliance capabilities, limiting the effectiveness of the key regulatory messages. Existing legislation is not always implemented (e.g. the GBR Marine Park Act can be used in regulating land management practices but has rarely been used in this way; Brodie and Pearson 2016). A lack of structured engagement and a limited focus on continuous improvement build landholder resentment to regulation. Given the critical role of these legislative instruments in setting the limits for resource use, a cost-neutral opportunity exists to redesign the model for regulatory implementation at catchment scale in the GBR.

Regional NRM Planning and Delivery Subdomain

This subdomain concerns those governance activities centered on progressing community-based and integrated approaches to planning and delivering on NRM priorities at the regional scale (matching large or combining several small catchment boundaries and effectively representing a regionalized form of ICM). In the GBR, regional NRM bodies are key players in this subdomain, but it also encompasses the role of the Australian, Queensland, and local governments, industry, Indigenous and conservation groups, Landcare and catchment groups, and the wider community (see Dale et al. 2014 and Curtis and Lockwood 2000 for a historical overview of this subdomain). From 2001, regional NRM bodies were established through bilateral (state/Commonwealth) agreement across the GBR to develop and maintain regional NRM plans (Paton et al. 2004). This planning aimed to secure regional consensus on (nationally-guided) resource condition targets and investment and engagement to motivate land managers to improve practices.

Programs and projects auspiced under these arrangements were and are delivered by partners such as Landcare, Indigenous, industry and environment groups, councils, or consultants. Despite greater centralization of decision-making, and the move away from government bilateral agreements (between the Commonwealth and the States) from 2007 onwards, the governance system in Queensland retained these core features, albeit in a more limited form. While some southern states (e.g., Victoria and New South Wales) originally delivered bilateral NRM through pre-existing statutory catchment management institutions (Ryan et al. 2010), Queensland established non-government institutions, leaving the State more exposed to a decline in Commonwealth commitment. Regional NRM planning in the GBR has also been impeded by lack of environmental inventories, maps, monitoring systems, asset identification or knowledge of ecosystem function (Dale et al. 2014).

While the emergence and refinement of the regional NRM framework was a governance innovation, regional NRM governance capacity has been uneven geographically in the GBR region, where institutional capacities slowed the engagement of Indigenous, industry and conservation interests. Similarly, blunt bilateral negotiations saw some parts of the GBR landscape under-resourced for implementation for many years (e.g., the Wet Tropics and Cape York Peninsula). On the whole, however, landholders across the GBR, for the first time, were able to become a part of a predictable NRM process via extension, training and, incentive-based activities. Collaborative projects were encouraged and stable implementation resources became available. This success, and the high levels of cooperation among regional NRMs across Queensland, was the key to the formation of the Reef Alliance (among regional NRM, industry and conservation partners) and consequent Commonwealth-funded water quality improvement programs. While these programs originally retained the concepts of integrated regionalism established under early Commonwealth-state bilateral agreements and investment frameworks, the slow demise of the regional NRM system since 2007 has weakened the role of regional NRM planning, effort alignment and delivery coordination (Vella et al. 2015), compromising the tractability of water quality improvement efforts at catchment scale. Emerging weaknesses include (i) the demise of accredited regional NRM plans and inconsistencies in the commissioning and implementation of Water Quality Improvement plans, (ii) a weakening of the capacity of both governments to purchase key planning and integrative outcomes, and (iii) a weakening in the legitimacy of regional NRM bodies in facilitating collaborative agreement about strategic efforts at catchment scale and to monitor regional performance against targets.

System Performance Against Key Design Principles

We found several significant deficiencies in the catchment-based and implementation-focused governance of the 10 subdomains identified as being key to GBR water quality outcomes. To highlight this finding, Table 2 shows where we consider each subdomain struggles the most to meet identified governance design principles.
Table 2

Subdomain performance against key design principles

Subdomain

Sustainability

Equity

Accountability

Adequacy

Effectiveness

Efficiency

Adaptability

Subsidiarity

Pastoral and agricultural farming systems

L

M

M

L

L

L

M

L

River improvement and drainage management

L

M

H

L

L

M

L

M

Conservation estate planning and best management

M

M

H

L

L

M

L

L

Water allocation and management

H

H

H

M

H

H

M

M

Urban water management

M

M

M

M

M

M

L

M

Port and estuarine planning and management

H

H

H

M

M

M

H

H

Indigenous country-based planning

L

L

M

L

L

M

L

L

Land-use planning and major project coordination

H

M

M

H

M

H

L

L

Integrated regulatory frameworks

M

L

M

L

M

H

L

L

Regional NRM planning and delivery

L

M

H

L

M

M

M

M

NB: Subdomain has high (H), medium (M), and low (L) adherence to the governance principle articulated

With such governance limitations, no matter how good higher level policy and planning is at the wider GBR scale, or how many resources are rallied to the cause, deficiencies in policy and program implementation could mean that water quality problems may remain intractable and that the effective use of government resources may be limited. We also find that, despite this risk, the key 10 subdomains identified as being important for policy implementation at the catchment scale are not being cohesively strengthened through targeted whole-of-GBR policy improvement mechanisms. Poor integration between policy and delivery within those 10 subdomains points to a consistent problem across the much wider GBR governance system. As in other complex governance systems (e.g. Mitchell 2002), this risks systemic “implementation” failure.

Based on the above, we consider that the delivery of AUD $230 million of Commonwealth/state investment over the next four financial years (starting mid-2016) are likely to experience deep inefficiencies. Changing this will require strong, adaptive trilateral (national, state, local) commitment to the governance design and reform partnerships required to secure the systems for delivery of agreed water quality targets. Previously, in broader governance systems affecting the GBR, a common failure in refining catchment scale delivery of Australian and Queensland government reef actions has already been identified (Dale et al. 2013b; Hockings et al. 2014). The Queensland Audit Office (2015) also found a notable lack of cohesion in program delivery at catchment and property scale. These findings are significant as delivery or implementation focused actions for improving water quality in the GBR are almost universally taken within catchments (from water-shed to paddock levels).

Discussion and Conclusions: Implications for Landscape Scale Governance in the GBR and other Cross-Realm Systems

With a focus on the GBR, this paper illustrates the need to address catchment scale governance in securing water quality improvements between important coastal and inshore coral reef ecosystems. The lessons drawn from the GBR, however, are relevant to any cross-realm NRM context, whether in Australia or internationally. We explore these issues because of an increasingly clear recognition of the ‘implementation dilemma’ now emerging internationally in the landscape governance literature (Sayer et al. 2014). We contend that implementation of national and state water quality improvement policies will remain less efficient without substantive, integrated reform of the key delivery-oriented governance subdomains that can secure coordinated on-the-ground actions within catchments. Integrated catchment management has frequently been listed as the key solution, but this governance activity only represents one among many often interacting subdomains within catchments.

Despite the importance of the catchment scale, discussion in the governance literature tends to focus on the integrative concept of “whole of catchment management”, rather than dropping into detail about the desirable design fundamentals and performance of other critical catchment-focused governance subdomains. These subdomains collectively contribute to the overall system of catchment-scale governance, and hence ultimately to social, economic, and environmental outcomes both in freshwater, estuarine, and associated coastal marine ecosystems. We contend that there has been greater focus in the literature on improving governance of the “integrative whole” at catchment scale, and less focus on taking a “whole of catchment” look at collectively reforming and better designing all key governance subdomain operating within catchments. We consider the concept of breaking down our understanding of the governance of catchments into their component subdomains is a critically important new development in governance analysis, while stressing the need to retain and strengthen a strategic overview of the integration of subdomain efforts across catchments. In the Australian and GBR context, it is the Regional NRM Planning and Delivery Subdomain that could be best identified as the one critical integrative subdomain focused on maintaining both holistic and synoptic views of catchment governance (i.e. it facilitates ICM).

Implications for Water Quality Outcomes in the GBR

While our analytical approach has identified strengths and weaknesses in individual subdomains of governance contributing to water quality outcomes in GBR catchments, we want to synthesize conclusions regarding their combined influence on these outcomes. While it can be difficult to establish a specific measure of the impacts these governance characteristics have on the achievement of water quality policy targets and program expenditure, from our analysis, the most significant detrimental impacts on policy outcomes can be described, and at least include:
  • Some governance subdomains increasing rather than reducing pollution (e.g., older-style engineering approaches to river management in the River Improvement and Drainage Management Subdomain);

  • Fragmented resourcing among Queensland, Federal, and local agencies without an investment prioritization plan across different subdomains, resulting in less alignment around the most strategic water quality improvement actions possible (see Brodie and Pearson 2016);

  • Regular policy and program changes across subdomains, causing significant stop–start effort and a regularized loss of catchment-scale corporate knowledge vs. longer term, more tractable efforts;

  • Poorly engaged regulatory/compliance actions (e.g. in the Integrated Regulatory Frameworks Subdomain) reducing landholder participation in stewardship actions aimed at improving water quality; and

  • Insufficient target setting, strategy prioritization, and the alignment of strategic effort at the catchment scale due to weaknesses in bilateral commitment to the Regional NRM Planning and Delivery Subdomain (effectively the most relevant subdomain acting as a proxy for ICM).

It is important to stress that the combined influence of these governance problems can (i) substantively reduce the efficiency and effectiveness of national/state program expenditure; (ii) reduce community commitment to improve water quality because of a lack of transparency in decision making; (iii) disempower catchment-based decision makers from taking simple actions that might deliver immediate outcomes; and (iv) create real inequities (e.g. between land managers and conservation interests), reducing political support for ongoing resource investment. Given the significance of these problems in delivering water quality, social and economic outcomes in catchments, in our experience, if carried out in strong partnership with key policy makers and catchment stakeholders, this approach to analysis of the health of catchment governance systems can build consensus for reformation or improvement.

Implications for Other Landscapes and Catchments

The design concepts and evaluative principles used in this paper have been developed to be readily adapted to the specific governance context of any complex landscape. Applying them well, however, will require the application of dynamic and deliberative GSA-style analysis and opening up a more inclusive dialog about each nation’s/state’s governance system affecting water quality outcomes at the catchment scale. Hence, we hope that this GBR-focused discussion provides a solid methodological approach and an empirical example from which to build analytical effort in other catchments, but also the appropriate adaptation of these approaches to the local political context.

In many countries, both in the developed and developing world, the existence of similar institutional arrangements (e.g., regional catchment authorities, local councils, industry bodies, Indigenous groupings, and voluntary non-government organizations) will mean the implementation problems experienced in the GBR will often be well recognized. In other nations with less-formalized governance systems, the strengthening of state and local government regulatory and community-based NRM frameworks will be key, but it will also be likely that Indigenous and local institutions will increasingly be at the heart of governance impacting on water quality. The approaches used here can help build catchment-based institutional capacities in the absence of a formal state.

We anticipate that, in the context of building strong national, state, and catchment governance systems aimed at delivering catchment-focused water quality outcomes, this paper will provide a ready point of reference for analyzing both the diversity of subdomains needed for effective catchment-scale delivery, and a more nuanced understanding of the overall design concepts needed for the operation and integration of these subdomains.

Notes

Acknowledgements

Funding was provided by the Australian Government’s National Environment Research Program Tropical Water Quality Hub (via the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre), the Australian Government’s Northern Futures Collaborative Research Network (CRN), and the Australian Research Council Linkage Project 130100933. Many thanks also for the contribution of Katrina Keith, Jennifer McHugh, and our participating actors/experts.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Allan P. Dale
    • 1
  • Karen Vella
    • 2
  • Margaret Gooch
    • 1
  • Ruth Potts
    • 2
  • Robert L. Pressey
    • 3
  • Jon Brodie
    • 4
  • Rachel Eberhard
    • 2
  1. 1.The Cairns InstituteJames Cook University (JCU)CairnsAustralia
  2. 2.School of Civil Engineering and Built EnvironmentScience and Engineering Faculty, QUTBrisbaneAustralia
  3. 3.Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, JCUTownsvilleAustralia
  4. 4.Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, JCUTownsvilleAustralia

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