The confluence of two rivers

Last year Collabforge started working with several catchment management authorities (CMAs) in Victoria to develop a more collaborative, transparent and efficient approach to developing their Regional Catchment Strategies.

CMAs “work to ensure land and water resources are protected and enhanced as well as improving the region’s social wellbeing, environmental quality and productive capacity in a sustainable manner.”

The CMA  Regional Catchment Strategies (RCS) will provide a high level guide for how the CMAs will manage one of our most valuable and increasingly scarce natural resource – water.

For these projects, our challenge was twofold: how can CMA staff and internal stakeholders develop strategies more collaboratively, and, how can they more collaboratively finalise policy with the public and the Victorian State government?

Two policy wikis have now launched to public consultation, and we welcome your input and participation:

WeConnect Goulburn Broken

JoinIn Corangamite

The rest of this post sets out the key pieces of the approach developed, and I believe, points to exciting opportunities for more holistic, systems-oriented approach to natural resource management and policy development.

1. Collaborative Policy, Wiki-Style

Making policy development more collaborative starts in-house.

A wiki is a simple website that enables users to modify its content, with permission controls. Using a wiki for policy-making eliminates document proliferation and revision nightmares. Instead of emailing around conflicting versions of a Microsoft Word document, there is a single source of truth, acting as a kind of “mecca”, attracting everyone involved in the policy creation process.

All changes are tracked in fine-grained detail, providing complete transparency of process. Linked “discussion pages” provide a place to talk about the content being developed, while not taking attention away from the content itself.

Imagine a single document floating in space, with people coming and going depending upon their needs. It also has the capability to “appear” or “disappear” on the Web, editable or not, depending upon permission settings. And finally, it provides access to a near unlimited number of editors, so long as they have a working web browser.

That’s policy, wiki-style.

2. Collaborative Consultation, Wiki-Style

By simply changing the permission scheme, the public (or any subset therein) can be granted the right to edit the wiki. This means the average (or above average) citizen can demonstrate their ideas in context, by actually editing the policy document directly. And there is no fear of losing the original version as it is safely archived in the revisions, easily reverted to at any time.

This is not to say that we advocate that the public have their way with the policy, generating their own version in parallel to government’s. To the contrary, we champion the approach of genuine collaborative drafting of the policy, on part of public and government planners throughout consultation:

1. A member of the public or a stakeholder makes a change to the strategy

2. A policy writer responds by revising, removing, or moving the contribution

3. This same policy writer briefly explains their actions to the original contributor

In this way, the policy is improved through the process while the public learns how their contribution will or won’t be addressed in the policy. And at the same time, the planners learn about the public’s interests in a grounded, applied context (streamlining the confusion of someone trying to explain their idea out of context).

Importantly, wikis are not intended to replace traditional consultation methods, but to augment them. And the process of discussing the adaptation of contributions cultivates deep appreciation on part of the public – they know they’ve been heard, and have been given the deepest opportunity to contribute.

To me, this is more than a novel means for consultation, it’s participatory democracy.

3. Cross-Organisation Collaboration

Another (and in my opinion possibly more significant) component to these projects, was the level of cross-agency collaboration that was and is continuing to be fostered. Since the platform used for both projects was open source (Drupal) the CMAs have in essence generated a shared, licence-free software asset.

This means that when one CMA makes a development to the software, it can be easily and near freely shared with the other. This also means that the barrier for participation of other CMAs to have their own wiki is significantly lowered – the hard work of designing and developing the platform being mostly done. (However, this is not to suggest that the hurdles involved in adopting new technologies and getting the fit right for a different organisation should be underestimated.)

This approach also sparked an agreement between the CMAs to freely and transparently share their knowledge and information throughout the process. This involved not just learnings and ideas for how their policy process, wikis and consultation might look, but actual strategy documents and software code.

In my experience of 50-odd collaborative innovation projects with government, I have never seen this happen.

Further, this sets up a future in which, through a common accessible format, these CMAs can share with each other the actual text and data of their strategies, with simple copy/paste commands.

This enables not only policy development efficiencies (less duplication and time spent writing those sections that every CMA will write) but it also enables automatic sharing of policy resources and collaboration between agencies on policies, without having to actually plan or manage this collaboration.

For example, say there is a set of common issues between any two CMAs (or any government agencies). By simply adapting your neighbour’s content to your own policy, you’re riding on the outcomes of their work. You of course contribute to the pool by developing your own subject-matter-specific content, which is likely relevant to other CMAs or agencies.

I have a vision of all ten CMAs eventually maintaining a network of policy wikis – providing a mosaic of aligned strategy that covers the entire catchment of Victoria. This would enable a shared pool of continuously improving content, and importantly, a shared pool of continuously more informed content developers. This community would of course include the valuable knowledge and insight that local citizens have to offer, but is as yet, largely untapped.

4. Outcomes

Here’s a quick summary of the outcomes this approach to collaborative wiki-style policy and consultation offers:

1. Increased policy harmonization across and within agencies

2. New modes for sourcing knowledge and insight

3. Greater reach in sourcing knowledge and insight (essentially global)

4. More transparent policy process

5. More genuine consultation processes and outcomes

6. More responsive and adaptive policy

7. More efficient policy development process, internally and externally

Finally, if you’re an Natural Resource Management expert with innovative new approaches to share, we hope you’ll consider making a contribution to one or both CMA wikis. You can make a self-contained contribution to the Library, or edit the RCS directly.