Policy and integrated management Environment

Posted March 1996

Policy Management for Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development (SARD)

by Michael Carley,
Centre for Human Ecology,
University of Edinburgh

extracted from "Policy management systems and methods of analysis for sustainable agriculture and rural development" (FAO, 1994)

See also: Environment Specials
  • Global climate maps
  • Organic agriculture
  • Integrated coastal area management
  • Biodiversity in agriculture
  • Earth Summit+5
  • Agroclimatic concepts
  • Remote sensing
  • Maps of the World Food Summit
  • Sea-level rise and agriculture
  • The term "policy management system" implies considerably more than a government bureaucracy acting in isolation. It is a strategic and participative process in which a core management group develops an institutional framework linking national, regional and local initiatives, as well as government departments, private and research sectors, and community-level organizations. This "action-centred" network provides a framework for the necessary management and mediation processes.

    Sustainability as a task of national governance

    Sustainable development is a continuing process of making productive trade-offs between economic, social and biophysical objectives. This trade-off process implicit in sustainable development is intensely political and cultural, it is most effectively guided at the level of the nation state, encompassing and reinforcing efforts at the level of the agro-ecological zone, bio-region and the community. There are no "off the shelf" solutions to sustainable development, except in terms of applying the best practices and scientific knowledge. What is sustainable for a country or a culture cannot be dictated from outside, nor can the process be undertaken by expatriate personnel. The desired objectives will be realized only from a steady accumulation of the effects of good policy decisions. Good decisions are, in turn, dependent on the human resources available.

    Policy failure is a major constraint on sustainability, responsible for much of the current environmental damage in the agricultural sector (FAO, 1991a). It is therefore essential to examine the quality of the national policy framework - the interactions and coherence between policy sectors, which is "horizontal integration", and institutional capacity and positive reward structures for sustainable action. For maximum efficiency and coherence in an individual country, SARD should unfold within the context of a national sustainable development strategy (NSDS), which is "an essential tool for improved governance" (Banuri and Holmberg, 1992).

    The NSDS provides the broad goals and policies which give an overall coherence and reinforcement to efforts for sustainability at each geographic level and sector of society.

    The four essential components of NSDS are (IIED/IUCN, 1994):

    Strategic role of government and innovation in the public sector

    The NSDS is, however, only the first step in the sustainable development process. It is equally important to build capacity for innovation in the public sector by improvements in policy management systems, and by developing an "organizational culture" which encourages and rewards innovation.

    A focus on the quality of management systems, although common in the private sector, is rare in government, which accounts in part for policy failure. Baker (1989) analyses the interests of delegates at a large inter-governmental environment conference:

    "The administrations...made fairly sure that their national position papers presented their actions in the best possible light, rarely looking at the public management system per se. There was rarely, if ever, any explicit discussion of policy and management issues for the public sector, and certainly no criticism of existing policy."
    The NSDS and improved policy management systems taken together define the strategic role of government with regard to sustainable development. By looking at different scenarios, the NSDS is proactive rather than simply a response to the technological and economic imperatives of the marketplace. It begins with some sense of future possibilities, a development path, and uses this to initiate sub-processes of innovation: an agenda of the future - what kind of society might be had; the steps required; and commitment to implementation based on desire to realise this future. Governments must communicate such strategic vision to society.

    A strategic focus in government is important because:

    In this sense, issues of governance and management are addressed simultaneously in an on-going process of what can be called "action learning". Organizations become, in effect, learning systems, a path to innovation in both the private and public sectors (Merritt and Merritt, 1985; Carley and Christie, 1992). Action learning has a research component, called "action research" or "participatory inquiry", taken up again shortly.

    Diversity of policy responses

    Within a policy management system, complexity is best addressed by the equivalent of biodiversity: a mosaic of good policies and programmes all pulling towards the same broad goals. Conversely, pinning hopes for sustainable development on one area of policy or initiative, say irrigated agriculture or a big dam, poses grave risks that the problems of complexity and the poverty of prediction will undermine the initiative.

    In other words, it is never appropriate to put all a country's policy eggs in one basket. The challenge for sustainability analysis is to help identify an appropriate range of relevant initiatives, and for management systems to coordinate and monitor their implementation.

    Participation in the context of subsidiarity

    Many policies, which appear reasonable, fail because of a lack of understanding between the policy levels of government and small-scale producers or resource users working at the farm or community level, who may generate substantial, cumulative environmental impacts. Similarly, in many countries, a gap exists between the organizational culture of government, and that of the private or production sector.

    A good relationship among stakeholders from government, business and producer/community sectors is fundamental for operational sustainability. The top-down guidance and coherence of policy, and the national and bio-regional analysis of problems and opportunities needs to be complemented by participatory action at the local community, farm and family levels "where there is knowledge, concern, involvement and the capacity to act" (Sandbrook et al, 1992).

    Coherence in the national policy framework, leadership from above, devolution of power and enabling local initiative, is the meaning of the term subsidiarity. The type of integration implied is a "nesting" of levels of analysis, policy and action: the family, the farm, the community, the bio-region and the nation. Coordinated activity at all levels is fundamental to sustainable development; no one level is more important than another, action at each has a role to play. Realizing vertical integration is a challenge for governments imbued with a top-down organizational culture, but is complementary with moves to more open economies.

    Adaptive management and information systems

    Policy-makers often operate with poor information about events and trends in the socio-economic and biophysical (policy) environment. Given this uncertainty and the unlikelihood that the right policy for sustainable development will be selected, there is a need to institutionalise feedback loops and reward "learning-by-doing". Participants will find that management skills and understanding of the SARD task will improve over time, and that strategy and policy can be more productive. This adaptive management is an area where public organizations can learn from the private sector. Skills in adaptive management need to be enhanced in every manner: a good manager can address a range of difficult issues, many of which are as yet unanticipated.

    An important component of adaptive management is the use of three types of analysis: baseline analysis which gives the "start-up" picture in the policy environment; regular monitoring of quantitative and qualitative changes in baseline information to refine policy and implementation; and the evaluation of programmes and projects to determine their impact in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. In adaptive management, the use of feedback is a fundamental component for improving the management process.

    It is worth noting that baseline analysis and monitoring should be undertaken as in-house activities to derive full benefit from learning about the policy environment being managed, and to ensure that monitoring is constructive and non-threatening to policy managers. Eight types of monitoring relevant to environmental management are described in Carley, 1986.

    Evaluation, on the other hand, is usually carried out by a neutral third party who can make a detailed assessment of the success or failures of policy initiatives. Taken together over time, these three types of analysis can be built into a management information system.

    Good management information systems should have the following characteristics:

    In other words, good management information systems are fashioned to suit local needs. Their construction and institutionalisation are important and challenging aspects of the sustainability task.

    However, constructing a management information system is of little use if the "organizational culture" does not reward learning from experience. This is an obvious point and yet it is seldom an in-built characteristic of traditional bureaucracies, where there is little motivation to learn from experience and even less to admit to and analyse past mistakes. Raking over past failure is often considered "bad form" and anti-social, and brings no career benefit. But accepting the need for such learning is essential for adaptive management, because information is a crucial resource:

    "If project evaluation is to contribute effectively to the process of learning from experience, then a new focus is required. It will be necessary to move from the cosy ground of formal structures and procedures...to the task of analysing learning processes within and between agencies involved in development initiatives. It will recognise that the lessons of experience are not neutral data, but a strategic resource" (Hulme, 1989, emphasis added).

    Role of analysis in policy management systems

    This last section brings within the policy-making framework the concept of adaptive management, with a focus on analysis and re-analysis of pressing issues (monitoring) for the purpose of more effective action.

    The simple diagram above shows an iterative, continuous policy cycle. Many of these cycles occur simultaneously in government, in and out of the SARD sector. The circularity of the diagram differentiates it from the more common linear models which have dominated perceptions of policy processes. The linear model (problem - analysis - policy - implementation), when applied to non-routine challenges, such as SARD, have failed to deliver results, often simply displacing problems from one policy sector to another.

    The key is to close the cycle. Any problem or issue requires, in the first instance, information and analysis which give an improved understanding of its nature. The quality of this "problem definition" phase is crucial, for it structures the remainder of the cycle. And yet policy is often formulated and based on faulty understanding of the true dimensions of the problem.

    The information generated by analysis and consultation should be used for policy and strategy formulation. Also, if the process of problem definition has been participatory, some bounding of the problem and a consensus will begin to emerge, which can lead to action. Without this, the problem cycle continues uninterrupted.

    Policy and strategy give rise to direct and indirect action. Direct action includes programme implementation, new laws, and improved institutional frameworks. Indirect action focuses on: first, enhancing the capacity of the management system by building problem awareness and, thus, elements of responsibility and stewardship, for example, environmental education; and second, enhancing skills among participants.

    At this point in the cycle, participants will have hoped for a beneficial outcome, for example, more productive farm systems, according to the national goals and objectives formalised in the policy sector. But it cannot be a certainty: the original knowledge may have been faulty or incomplete due to limitations of bias in the analysis; the policies may have been inappropriate to the problem; implementation may have failed because of lack of knowledge of local conditions; or intervening variables beyond national control may have sabotaged well-laid plans.

    Failure should not be surprising - it simply reflects the complexity of the task. The response is to use monitoring and evaluation to generate new knowledge and opportunities for incremental improvement of policy and the management process itself.


    Baker, R., 1989. "Institutional innovation, development and environmental management: the ministrative trap revisited", in "Public Administration and Development", v9: 29-47

    Banuri, T. and Holmberg, J., 1992. "Governance for Sustainable Development: A Southern Perspective", IIED.

    Carley, M., 1986. "Rational Techniques in Policy Analysis, Heinemann.

    Carley, M. and Christie, I., 1992. "Managing Sustainable Development", Earthscan.

    FAO and Government of Netherlands, 1991. Main documents presented at FAO/Netherlands Conference on Agriculture and the Environment (s'-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, 14-19 April 1991).

    Hulme, D., 1989. "Learning and not learning from experience in rural project planning", in "Public Administration and Development", v9: 1-16

    IIED/IUCN, 1994. "Strategies for National Sustainable Development: a Handbook on their Preparation and Implementation", Earthscan

    Merritt, R.L. and Merritt, A.J., 1985. "Innovation in the Public Sector", Sage.

    Sandbrook, R., Dalal-Clayton, B., Bass, S. and Holmberg, J., 1992. "Some Implications of UNCED for the DAC and Some Suggested Actions", IIED.

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