Are box-ticking, scorecards and listing really a foundation for good environmental policy?

Peter Bridgewater

Adjunct Professor in Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Governance Institute of Applied Ecology and Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis

The ACT has recently released its 2015 State of the Environment Report[1], the Federal State of the Environment Report is currently in preparation and one of the last acts by Federal Environment Minister was to add 49 threatened species to the list maintained under the behemothic Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.   The box ticking and score-carding State of the Environment (SoE) reports arose from the rather positive atmosphere engendered globally after the World Conference on Environment and Development (aka Rio Conference) in 1992.  That Rio Conference spawned considerable activity in many countries, as well as accelerating work on environmental indicators under the OECD. 

Australia, at federal level, followed the global movement for a State of the Environment reporting process in 1992, in the process of introducing the oxymoronic term of Ecological Sustainable Development (ESD).  Unfortunately, ESD, rather the globally accepted and understood term of Sustainable Development, has been parroted at State, Territory and Federal level ever since.  While a State of the Environment report was included in the ESD strategy approved by COAG in 1992 it was not legislated for until the EPBC Act in 1999. The first Federal SoE was produced in 1996 and at 5-yearly intervals thereafter.  These reports tend to voluminous, not especially user-friendly, yet illustrated with many colour pictures of “wild” Australia.  The ACT had separate legislation passed in 1993 – the ACT Commissioner for the Environment Act, which mandated the Commissioner for the Environment to produce a 4-yearly report.

Both of these reports use the OECD’s DPSIR (Drivers-Pressures-State-Impact-Response) framework, and depend on presenting responses to a range of indicators through a system of colour-coded scorecards.  Successive reports have developed more elaborate scorecards to indicate the state of play for a range of key environmental trends.  True, the ACT SoE has recommendations to which the ACT Government should respond, but these are not of the innovative kind we need to tackle current and emerging issues.  None of the 10 recommendations in the 2015 report really help set guidelines for innovative policy.  Instead they deal mainly with mundane or opaque issues such as “the impact of pollution from domestic wood heaters in greenfield developments” and that “the ACT Government … reduce and manage cumulative and cross-sectoral impacts on the environment, and take opportunities to improve sustainability outcomes”. 

Indicators used in SoE reports are generally derived from the industry-based SMART (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic Time-related) system, and are often not well tuned to producing evidence or information that can help influence new public policy direction.  Several years ago I wrote about the need for indicator and target setting that used CUTE indicators – Comprehensive, Understandable, Time-bound and Enabling[2].  It is this latter quality that seems missing from SoE reports in general – they are simply reports, not the agents for change they should be.

The 2015 ACT SoE report identifies three challenges for the future:

  • finding better ways of seeking out the goods and services that can be delivered in the most footprint-efficient way.
  • seeking out alternatives to consuming products, including cultural, community, sporting groups and volunteer groups such as ParkCare and Landcare.
  • supporting a community focus on a range of activities for all age groups that will make it attractive to spend time in activities rather than money on goods.

The problem with these three challenges is that they could be seen as challenges for the local community in terms of cohesion and social design rather than polices to manage and monitor the environment in a better way.  There are key sections on climate change that rather refer to existing ACT government policies on renewable energy, than provide independent observations or guidance, yet it’s the effects of climate change that are already with us that need responsive and malleable policies.

Biodiversity has over 100 definitions according to a reference in the ACT SoE report[3], but the Convention on Biological Diversity has just one[4], and that should be the standard used.  Biodiversity conservation is dealt with in the ACT SoE, but mainly in a mechanistic way.  For example, “The ACT Nature Conservation Strategy stated that monitoring and reporting would occur through the State of the Environment Report; however, it is yet to be determined how the indicators, when developed, will relate to the existing state of the environment indicator set.”  And this is 23 years after the promulgation of the Act! There is also a recommendation that “the ACT Government formalise biodiversity conservation data collection and storage protocols and procedures, to integrate reports commissioned by different agencies with existing government data”.  Lack of coordination in the shaping and indicator sets for a plethora of strategies and reports comes through, and this represents a real failing of the SoE process.

Regardless of the definition of biodiversity, the ACT SoE observes that “The extent and abundance of threatened flora and fauna species provide a measure of biodiversity”.  Without detailed comment on that over-egged assertion, it brings us back to listing of threatened species.  The Federal Ministerial press release on Threatened Species, ABC news on 6 May had “scientists and environmentalists say(ing) this is a potentially positive sign for those species”, despite the additions being a 20% increase in species on the list.  

Listing happen for all jurisdictions across Australia creating patchwork of information and perspective.  But critical is that listing itself does very little.  It may set off possibilities to create recovery plans, but of those that have been completed, few get to implementation state.  Thus listing, as with the global IUCN Red listing process, is simply documenting decline and disappearance[5].  And none of this flows to the development of innovative polices to manage our landscapes in a more agile way under weather conditions rarely experienced by land and sea managers.

Despite the Author of the ACT SoE now having ‘Sustainability’ in her title the report has little on sustainability as an issue.  Recommendation 6 in part notes “That the ACT Government (should) take opportunities to improve sustainability outcomes.”  But there is little on how this can occur, or on policy development to secure those “outcomes”.  This is especially disappointing given the framework now provided by the 2030 agenda for sustainability, and the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by the UN last year.  That particular exercise created 17 goals, over a hundred targets within the goals and separately a set of indicators.  Silvia Monotoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, has it right when she recently blogged[6] that while the case for good data is clear, indicators will need to change to be more responsive, rather than those used for the past few decades (as in Australian SoE’s).  Indicators need to be more than simple percentage achievements or vacuous comment.  While she is talking about global reach, the same applies at federal state or territory level in Australia. 

It is time we drew together the numerous strategies and approaches used in the past few decades and consolidated around the SDGs.  Listing and box-ticking need to give way to altogether more sophisticated approaches, ones which target the public with more useful (and incidentally less doom-ridden) information, and ones which help policy makers develop and drive responsive and flexible policies.  And where those policies become ossified in law, being prepared to change such laws rapidly where new information demands it.  In short, we need a more responsive and flexible Knowledge-Policy-Law interface which responds rapidly to feedback, and SoE reports should be a major part of that feedback.  This is the only way we can hope to manage effectively our environment in the ACT, in Australia and globally, in this ever-more dynamic century.


[2] P. Bridgewater. 2011. SMART or CUTE– what makes a good target? Bot. J. Linn. Soc.  166. 240 -249

[3] D. Lindenmeyer. 2011. What makes a good farm for wildlife? CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.


[5] P. Bridgewater. 2016. The Anthropocene biosphere: do threatened species, Red Lists, and protected areas have a future role in nature conservation? Biodiversity and Conservation.  DOI 10.1007/s10531-016-1062-5



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