Vertical Life takes a look at the new formed Grampians/Gariwerd Stakeholder Reference Group and tries to understand the process of stakeholder engagement and whether it has value or not
Parks Victoria is undertaking stakeholder engagement as part of the formulation of a new Landscape Management Plan – there has been a change in the nomenclature away from ‘Park Management Plan’ (as it was previously known). This includes a Stakeholder Reference Group (SRG) and a series of community meetings both in Melbourne and the Grampians.
The SRG is comprised of 15 members drawn from multiple areas of interest and expertise and is led by an independent chair from Deloitte, Mark Dingle. Mr Dingle is the former chair of Outdoors Victoria and his resume includes working with Aboriginal groups.
The SRG members are drawn from the following areas: environment and conservation; cultural heritage; recreational use (including bushwalking, rockclimbing, 4WDing); tourism; education; neighbouring community; emergency and fire management; and community and civic participation. The selection of who gets to sit at the table is of importance. At present climbers are being represented by Paula Toal, the president of the Victorian Climbing Club though Paula is noted in the minutes as representing the newly-formed Rock-Climbing Founding Council.
The SRG will meet five times (on a quarterly basis) over the development of the plan in Halls Gap. The first meeting was held on 21 August. There will be two main phases of consultation; the first (which we are currently in) is described as the beginning of the Plan development. A second will be held in mid to late 2020 to seek feedback on the draft Plan.
The SRG is supposedly being conducted under Chatham House Rules although the minutes of the first meeting have been made public here.
What the bloody hell is ‘stakeholder engagement’?
Stakeholder engagement is the process by which an organisation involves people who may be affected by the decisions it makes or can influence the implementation of its decisions. They may support or oppose the decisions, be influential in the organisation or within the community in which it operates, hold relevant official positions or be affected by a policy in the long term.
Climbers are right in the slot for being considered stakeholders in the formation of the coming Grampians Landscape Management Plan.
In terms of the ‘policy cycle’, consultation should occur after policy analysis but before decision making.
Is it worthwhile?
Stakeholder engagement exists on a spectrum, with researchers identifying four main levels: being told about decisions (evidence of this level can be seen in the first Licensed Tour Operator meeting with PV); being heard before decisions are made; being afforded some influence on decision making; and contributing to decisions.
At one end of the spectrum, a government entity or business has already made all the pertinent decisions and then they run through a series of community engagement programs, host a few town hall meetings, put on a couple of morning teas, all the while listening politely and nodding, using empty words like ‘committed to’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘roadmap’. They put a big check mark beside the ‘Community Consultation’ box and do exactly what they wanted to do in the first place, paying no heed to anything any of the stakeholders said. This process is shit.
On the other end, the community come together to contribute first to outlining what exactly is the problem to be addressed and then collaboratively work through solutions to that problem that seek to meet the needs of all. This process is not shit.
The question is, is PV’s stakeholder engagement a policy forming mechanism or a public relations mechanism? One process is meaningful, the other is a sham.
How is Parks Victoria selling it?
A Park’s spokesperson says PV have charged the SRG to:
- represent the views and aspirations of key stakeholder interests in the development of the Plan;
- obtain and share local input and knowledge from the communities and groups they represent;
- help identify emerging issues and opportunities associated with the development of the Plan;
- participate in discussions around options, issues and opportunities;
- foster stakeholder awareness and understanding of the project.
We tried to talk to PV staff who will be involved in the formation of the Management Plan and in an ill portent for transparency we were shuffled off to PR strategists, those very well versed in ‘talking loud and saying nothing’. Messages are made to be massaged.
We asked PV if the SRG is a ‘checkbox exercise or will there be demonstrable SRG input into the final management Plan’? PV’s response: ‘Alongside other research and the legislative requirements, the SRG and community input will be used to help shape a draft Landscape Management Plan. Community workshops have also been announced, providing an opportunity for hundreds of community members to contribute their thoughts about future management of the landscape.’
Pushed further on ‘any examples of where an SRG’s suggestion has been incorporated into a Management Plan’? The PV Spokesperson responded, ‘Advisory groups, of various names and formats, are often established to support the implementation of park management plans. The 2003 Grampians National Park Management Plan was developed with a Grampians Advisory Group.’ Not super helpful.
We may well ask if PV has adequately explained why public views are being sought and what difference they might make to the final document? In response there are some motherhood statements of good intention but little by way of concrete assertions, nor are they able to point to explicit examples in the 2003 GNP Management Plan where stakeholder input directly influenced the final document.
Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Any engagement of the public should include mechanisms to determine the success of that engagement.
A PV spokesperson commented, ‘Parks Victoria is engaging in line with the Victoria Auditor General Offices – Public Participation in Government Decision-making: better practice guide. Evaluation feedback is sought at community workshops and after the Stakeholder Reference Group meetings.’
In trying to ascertain PV’s capability to undertake effective stakeholder engagement we found the Victorian Auditor-General’s Report ‘Public Participation in Government Decision-Making’ assessment. The Auditor-General found that ‘…DELWP have not yet developed a comprehensive public participation policy or framework. Consequently, these agencies have no documented expectations for their public participation activities. We found that this contributed to these agencies only partially fulfilling their public participation purpose.’ (see here.)
What are the opportunities for climbing?
We don’t want stakeholder engagement to be a sham and despite our cynicism here are the opportunities for climbers in the consultation process;
- Help to frame the issue/question
- Contribute expert knowledge on climbing, its impacts, educate land managers on how climbing is actually practiced (including challenging false assumptions)
- Contribute practical management strategies for climbing in the GNP
- Convey the values of the climbing community and the importance of the GNP to climbers both in Australia and worldwide
- Normalise climbing as an appropriate activity
- Better understand the position of land managers
- Better understand the positions of other stakeholders
- Increase reciprocal trust between climbers and land managers, which has been soured by mistruths and animosity
- Formalise communication channels with land managers
- Open channels of dialogue with other stakeholders
- Refute incorrect statements made by PV in an open public forum
Whilst there is considerable benefit to be gained from a genuine collaborative relationship, even in the event of PV’s stakeholder engagement being a sham (or in the least somewhat ‘shamy’) the truth is that it is worth climbers being involved.
Trust me, I’m a land manager
When Parks Victoria instituted bans in the Grampians/Gariwerd, it framed climbing in the Park as evil-doing, destructive, disrespectful, vandalising and desecrating. It did not need to be like this – this was a choice that PV made (whether it was a strategy or the product of incompetence is open to debate). Faced with push back, PV elected to double down on its negative characterisation of climbers. Though it is notable that in recent months PV has been making no public comment so perhaps the lies and mistruths will be stopped, this characterisation of climbers by PV has eroded trust.
Trust between climbers and PV is a massive issue. Bringing in an external, independent chair of the SRG is a natural and obvious attempt to claim the process of stakeholder engagement is independent and free of PV bias. The role of the chair is that of honest information broker, but it must be said that PV have done absolutely nothing to warrant the trust of the climbing community, in fact its actions have achieved exactly the opposite, and they are poor grounds for going into what is supposed to be a collaborative process.
It is hard to set our expectations for the process, we are but one stakeholder amongst many and the process of engagement itself may be flawed. It may be the community engagement is purely designed to mitigate dissatisfaction with the final outcome by having people feel like they were involved and listened to – seeking to disarm opposition to a preordained result.
Stakeholder input into policy formation can be a funny thing. When an oil company is too heavily involved in drafting energy policy or bankers banking policy we cry corruption. When it comes to policies determining public land management we want climbers to be in the thick of it, to have an active role in the formation of policy that determines our ability to use public land. The difference is that the oil company has a financial interest, climbers do not. We are not lobbying government to fill our coffers with money, we are trying to involve ourselves for what we believe is a common good – that climbing is inherently good, for the mind, the body, the soul, the community.
Where does this cynicism leave us? We are operating on the assumption that having a seat at the table, being visible and responsible and included, is better than not having one, even if the process is at best problematic and at worst flawed. Given the ill feeling towards PV amongst many climbers, if the community meetings deteriorate into fools shouting at one another that will not help the process of effectively collaborating. It is possible our cynicism is misplaced, that the independent chair of the stakeholder reference group will ensure the voices of the public are not only listened to but go some way to informing the Landscape Management Plan. We hope that PV’s stakeholder engagement is policy formation rather than public relations.