Governance of NERP TE 2011-2014: Processes to ensure maximum research impact

Within a funding structure such as NERP TE, 'governance' is often described within the narrow framework of program roles and responsibilities. However there are benefits of considering the broader system of governance that such programs sit in, and in ensuring that each phase within the program cycle contributes to good governance outcomes. This broader idea of governance represents "the way society gets things done". Governance frameworks provide an opportunity for science programs and project to play a legitimate role, enabling society to create efficient processes to achieve agreed societal goals.

Hence, within NERP TE the goal of program governance is to maximise research impact and get the best possible outcomes from investment in science research for the environment and society.

With this wider view in mind, governance systems can be described as an interconnected set of decision making domains. In Australian natural resource governance, for example, we can consider water allocation as one distinct decision making domain. Getting good outcomes within one domain within the overall governance system, however, relies on identifying the critical linkages with other domains.

Prof. Allan Dale of James Cook University is an expert in analysing governance systems and supporting continuous improvement. In doing so, he often explores both structural and functional aspects of governance systems and identifies areas of governance risk[1]. In structural terms, for example, he often finds that good policy objectives are often not effectively implemented. In functional terms, for example, he also often finds that there is a lack of integration between the biophysical, social and economic science disciplines. This routinely undermines good natural resource decision making and the effective development of science projects.

He said the approach used in NERP TE pays a lot of attention to the role of regional science within this wider system of science. In doing so, it pays increased attention to improving both the structural and functional elements of the governance of environmental decision making in northern Queensland. In particular, the NERP TE has enabled a much higher investment in stakeholder engagement to prioritise the research approach and budget. It has also included evaluation and communication components to help ensure effective knowledge transfer. Clear processes and structures have been used to determine the research priorities and the projects funded as part of NERP tropical Ecosystems. These are described in the NERP TE Multi Year Research Plan.

NERP TE has also itself directly invested in research into governance systems. There has been a particular focus on the GBR (Project 12.4) and in an attempt to reduce future governance risk[2], ensuring that a cycle of continuous improvement in governance of the GBR. In particular developing and implementing processes that will engage stakeholders throughout the life of the projects was seen as an area to improve. Stakeholders expressed an interest in moving towards using Participatory Action Research (PAR)[3] methods and suggested some funding could be allocated to enable communication between stakeholders so they can articulate research questions.

In effect, the NERP process and research focus has applied some very sound structural and functional aspects of healthy governance systems, leading to some of its key research successes. There was strong collaborativism in the design of the program. There were also clear structures in place to monitor and review implementation of the program. Effective research project partnerships were seen to be critical to the successful conduct of the research and in maximising research impact.

1. JPAG E: Journal of Public Administration and Governance, Vol. 1, No. 1 July (2011). Journal of Public Administration and Governance 2011, 1.

2. Dale A, Vella K, Pressey R, Brodie J, Yorkston H, Potts R: A method for risk analysis across governance systems: a Great Barrier Reef case study. Environmental Research Letters 2013, 8:015037.

3. Mackenzie J, Tan P-L, Hoverman S, Baldwin C: The value and limitations of Participatory Action Research methodology [Internet]. Journal of Hydrology 2012, 474:11-21.