Assessing institutional progress towards sustainability

Vella, Karen Juanita (2004). Assessing institutional progress towards sustainability PhD Thesis, School of Geography, Planning and Architecture, The University of Queensland.

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Author Vella, Karen Juanita
Thesis Title Assessing institutional progress towards sustainability
School, Centre or Institute School of Geography, Planning and Architecture
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2004
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Geoff McDonald
Malcolm Wegener
Andrew Johnson
Total pages 340
Collection year 2004
Language eng
Subjects L
300903 Sustainable Development
770805 Integrated (ecosystem) assessment and management
Formatted abstract
Institutional arrangements shape the way individuals and collectives behave and interact and are a necessary prerequisite to the sustainable use and management of resources. However, in recent years, institutional arrangements have been highly criticised for their failure to deliver sustainable development. Sustainable development has called into question the efficacy of many existing institutional arrangements, the appropriateness of current distributions of power and equity, and the adequacy of decision-making processes. Sustainability problems pose particular challenges for governance. Uncertainty, cumulative impacts, long-time scales, biophysical and jurisdictional boundaries, and the difficulty of measuring human impacts on the environment are examples of such challenges. Existing regimes have complex structures involving rights, roles, and responsibilities for sustainability, rapidly increasing arrangements to plan and manage resource use, and trans-boundary issues stemming from uncoordinated and disintegrated approaches to management and there is no doubt that ecological problems have provided new challenges to the rationality of bureaucratic organisation and decision-making.

While there is a huge literature and booming practice in evaluating agencies, programs, policies, plans and projects, few have evaluated the aggregate effect of federal, state and local programs (the environmental planning system) to achieve desired environmental outcomes for a region. This would seem to be quite an important question. The evaluation of institutional arrangements, particularly institutional systems, is an important part of the adaptive management of resources, however methodologies to facilitate the evaluation of institutional systems require development, particularly in the context of natural resource management. While the evaluation of an individual policy may conclude that it is efficiently achieving its objectives and that those objectives are desirable, this policy will not be the only one affecting a particular environmental issue (eg water pollution). There may be substantial gaps in the system, duplication, even contradictory components that need to be understood.

To address this need for diagnostic institutional analysis, this thesis develops and tests a framework for evaluating institutional systems to determine their suitability for delivering desirable outcomes for sustainability. Set in the context of the Sugar Industry, the thesis develops the Environmental Management Systems (EMS) Framework (ISO14001) into a framework for the analysis of institutional systems. There is no preconceived ideal structure for governance or preconceived requirements for governance processes using the EMS framework, however following development in the governance context, it provides a rigorous framework to assess institutions to diagnose whether they are operating effectively and in cases where institutional failure is occurring to identify the reasons why. The research found the EMS framework to be a powerful diagnostic evaluation tool to support adaptive management and institutional adjustment. The approach offers tremendous scope to determine whether environmental planning systems are effective in delivering sustainability outcomes. It clearly reveals gaps in the scope of plans and assesses implementation, monitoring, and adaptive management.

As major users and suppliers of environmental goods and services, the Australian Sugar Industry has an important bearing on ecological sustainability. Although the sugar cane industry has, over the past century, been one of the most socially and economically robust rural industries in Australia, unprecedented ecological, economic and social factors have seriously challenged the industry's ability to remain viable, and its ability to persist. Decision-making and resource management in the sugar industry is guided via a complex institutional system at multiple jurisdictional levels. However, existing resource governance appears to be cultivating unsustainable practices in the sugar industry. Policies, plans, and legislation have been criticised for promoting the development of marginal lands, the destruction of wetlands, riparian vegetation, natural habitat and the Great Barrier Reef, for damaging water courses, fisheries habitat and fish migration, and encouraging intensive practices and poor soil and nutrient management.

The application of the modified evaluation framework to sugar industry resource governance found that despite the wealth of governance arrangements available to encourage resource governance, grave deficiencies are evident in current practices and arrangements when they are viewed against core planning elements and measures of effectiveness. Sustainable resource governance in Queensland is hindered by insufficient systemic attention to incorporating the management of diverse sustainability values and natural resources into a coherent, integrated management framework. The thesis found that resource governance is also hindered by complex, competing and overlapping agency mandates and jurisdictions across different levels of government is responsible for insufficient coordination of agency programs, activities and functions. There is a lack of programmatic coordination is accompanied by insufficient attention to responding to diverse planning problems at multiple scales, and agency capacity and capability to manage natural resources for sustainability is, after a period of substantial change to societal values and expectations in relation to environmental management, is insufficient in some circumstances. In addition, communication, participation and representation processes are insufficient to facilitate equitable negotiations among regional stakeholders, and stakeholder self-organisation processes are inadequate to formulate clear and consistent aims, objectives and strategies for resource governance, share information and implement arrangements. There is also an absence of a commitment to ongoing improvement of resource governance arrangements and an absence of commitment to ongoing improvement is linked to limited commitment to measuring and evaluating system performance, eg: environmental condition monitoring and environmental performance of government agencies is limited and not linked back to governance arrangements.

The thesis concludes that the ISO analysis provides a rigorous approach to assess the major components of governance systems. The approach, while rationalist puts the spotlight on what the governance system is actually doing. The purpose is analytical and diagnostic rather than prescriptive. The outcome is an analysis that assesses whether the current aggregate system is delivering the required outcomes and it provides information for the adaptive management of institutions.
Keyword Sustainable development

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
Citation counts: Google Scholar Search Google Scholar
Created: Fri, 24 Aug 2007, 18:22:07 EST