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The Benefits of Administrative Complexity

Early reports on Indigenous environmental management programs tended to suggest there was unresolved tension between local, regional and national objectives; and that there was widespread frustration with government duplication and complex funding and reporting processes (Putnis et al 2007:10). These two issues are related – funding and reporting requirements are tied to particular identified activities, and where these activities are inappropriate, unachievable or lacking community support, reporting and disputes over funding can indeed be onerous. Nevertheless, this present study has not found widespread concern that the ‘overburden’ of reporting (see Dwyer et al 2009) is affecting performance in the areas visited. Even in the case of FitzCam, where continued funding was withheld because the regional NRM body, Rangelands WA, was not confident FitzCam could meet explicit targets, this may have related to lack of consensus about the targets rather than lack of confidence that the group could find adequate support for financial acquittals, for instance through the KLC. It is at this level of tasks and performance targets, rather than reducing a complex funding environment, that subtle and flexible management is required.

Achieving targets has two related aspects: the ability of local management groups, such as Kowanyama land office or the Malak Malak rangers, to set local tasks that are meaningful and achievable; and the discipline of the workforce to turn up consistently and work to plan. Both of these areas can be a source of tension. Local ranger groups feel they are successful when they manage the relationship with regional, state and federal bodies in a way that leaves them the autonomy to pursue the purposes of the Traditional Owners in their areas. In general, common sense, shared purposes and flexibility ensure that this is the case. Managing the workforce, on the other hand, can be more difficult. The CDEP programs that Working on Country has replaced had mixed success in bringing together the broader society’s expectation of close correlation between work, pay and product. Working on Country and other sustainable livelihood initiatives can productively build upon the lessons learned from CDEP because the work is more congenial, the tasks are urgent for both purchaser and provider, the pay and work status is better than CDEP, and management of outcomes more easily measured.

Nevertheless, the NLC regularly reports underspend for its ranger groups because it quite firmly applies a disciplined approach. It does not simply apply the policy of ‘no work no pay’ but does require workers to nominate consistently whether they will be employed as full-time, part-time or casual employees. It balances this with policies allowing time off for cultural activities, but this is a long way from the informal mix and match settings of normal haphazard Aboriginal community life. The KLC is similarly insistent on the development of a work ethic, particularly for young participants in Working on Country ranger groups. It provides for their mentoring through Traditional Owner advisory committees (see text box on the KLC). There is a process of adaptation underway here that may take some time to bed down. It is unlikely that the desired result is a workforce of Aboriginal wage slaves, but rather a hybrid, more culturally nuanced, form of work that is nevertheless disciplined and productive.

The problem of flexibly and sensitively managing the workforce and its targets may compound difficulties in planning, reporting and financially acquitting grant funds. But simplifying administrative requirements, while this may relieve some burdens on both regional and local bodies, would not address the underlying issues and may have inherent dangers. Most of the organisations in this study are capable of meeting their administrative requirements through the employment of qualified staff and the use of adequate computer software. For these groups reducing the apparent ‘duplication’ of funding sources and programs actually presents a reduction in their local autonomy, exercise of discretion, and relative balance of power in a bargaining environment that is populated by powerful government departments and political lobby groups.

The danger of single line funding is that it imposes limited and simple tasks, can more easily be appropriated by a rival service provider, and puts an entire organisation at risk of sudden devastating policy change. The advantage of multiple, even overlapping, funding streams is that they allow economies through performing multiple tasks in a single location using the same workforce and equipment; they allow the organisation to bargain with providers from a position where it has viable alternatives; and they give to an organisation a complex service profile that makes it indispensable in its local and regional cultural economy. Complexity is good, as long as there are the skills and technical infrastructure to manage it.

Although they don’t express it in this way, adaptive experimentalist management is evident in the practice of local ranger groups, land offices, land and sea management units within regional bodies, and within government itself - at least at the lower reaches of the bureaucracy that engages directly with these organisations.

  1. Accountability and Relational Contracting

While adaptive experimentalist and process-driven organisations may be necessary because of the social and material complexity of their environments, they must still be accountable for outcomes. After all, sustainable Indigenous livelihoods depend upon the environment being managed in a sustainable manner, and this must be subject to test. Sable has acknowledged the issue of accountability and has outlined three ways that the organisations that he has studied have dealt with this. Referring to his analysis of disparate pragmatic experimentalist organisations, in public schooling, generation of nuclear power and food inspection for public health, he says:

The foregoing suggests pragmatist institutions do indeed enable the social learning needed effectively to pursue imprecisely specified ends in general and provide new public goods in particular. But if the provision of new public goods is a necessary component of solidarity in today’s democracy, provision of such goods is alone surely not sufficient to secure the legitimacy of government in any modern democracy. Experimentalist service providers and rule makers—experimentalist government in general—must be democratically accountable at least in the sense of being responsive to the (political) will of immediate stakeholders and beyond that to the public of the polity as a whole (Sabel 2004:18).

Sabel is not complacent about any inherent improved accountability in pragmatic experimentalist organisations. He believes transparency is required in their work processes, and they must be assessed against the performance of comparable organisations in comparable environments. He does believe, however, that ‘decentralisation of authority of the kind associated with the new organisations has demonstrably uprooted vested interests in ways long thought to be impossible by students of complex organisations [and] experimentalism thus seems more like a machine for disrupting potential conspiracies, especially technocratic cabals, than a scaffolding for erecting them’ (Sabel 2004:19).

Accountability can be built-in to the planning and management process in an ongoing manner that encourages reciprocal relationships of accountability between members/clients of an organisation, the organisation’s team, and funding or policy bodies. Sullivan, in an article on accountability, suggests:

If robust and trustworthy regimes of accountability can be instituted across a region, then long and costly chains of hierarchical accountability are not necessary. Identifying an accountability environment, in which responsibilities are mapped reciprocally across a region, would result in more efficient planning, implementation and evaluation. In a robust accountability environment, properly negotiated and instituted, it should only be necessary for the region to warrant through agreed processes that development is occurring, that it is fair and equitable, and that it is an efficient use of resources. The means to evaluate this are the same as the means to plan and implement it (Sullivan 2009:69 emphasis added).

Finally, accountability can also be ensured by the use of models of relational contracting. Since at least 1980 relational contracting has been proposed as a more efficient and flexible way of bringing together partners with shared objectives than punitive classical contracts (Macneil 1980). It has received a lot of attention in studies of management, with views for and against, but has been shown to be particular useful in potentially volatile situations, but where there is no ambiguity about the desired outcomes (Carson, Madhok, Wu 2008). The Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (OATSIH) has made some gains in this direction through supporting a research report by the CRC for Aboriginal Health, the Overburden Report (Dwyer et al 2009). The Overburden Report recommended trialling of relational contracting to replace the multitude of single classical contracts currently operating in Aboriginal services. It summarised the benefits in the following table:

Classical Contracting

Relational Contracting


Transaction can be specified in advance


Discrete transaction (short term contract)

More formal/more legal enforcement

Less risk sharing

Auditing is for control

Appropriate in:

Urban setting

Selective service

Private company as purchaser

Selective member as consumer

Contracting with private provider

Negotiation and collaboration

Difficult to detail transaction in advance


Long term contract

Less formal/less legal enforcement

More risk sharing

Trust - mutual benefit

Auditing is for strategic planning

Appropriate in:

Rural Setting

Wide range of services

Government as purchaser

General population as consumer

Contracting with public institution

Adapted from Dwyer et al 2009, The Overburden Report, CRCAH, p.15

A relational contracting model requires:

  • An open-ended contract stipulating mutual aims

  • The identification of relatively high-level broad targets

  • The ability to vary the contract simply and by mutual consent to accommodate changes and learning in the practical process of land and sea management

  • Six-monthly and annual reviews of progress

Based on the information gathered for this report, and the few field visits achieved, sustainable livelihoods within the three catchments are being achieved through adaptive, pragmatic experimentalist organisations, using productive and flexible alliances between regional organisations and regional outposts of government bodies. This is being achieved despite, rather than because of, the policy intentions behind multiple funding programs across multiple jurisdictions.
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