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Being SMART with NRM Performance Goals

By Caroline Mitchell

Natural resource management targets in Victoria and NSW are not specific, measurable or time-bound – and that’s not very smart.

It seems obvious that any organisation’s performance goals should be based on achievable outcomes, but planning experts go further and suggest that, to be meaningful, an organisation’s goals should be tangible and doable. To this end they need to be SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

This sounds like common sense, but how many organisations operating in the natural resource management (NRM) sector actually use SMART targets in their planning? Geoff Park, an experienced knowledge broker working in the NRM space in Victoria, and colleagues recently did a stocktake of NRM targets to test their SMARTness. What they found was disturbing.

“We looked at a specific set of targets set by catchment management authorities (CMA) in Victoria and New South Wales,” Park says. “We examined these targets through several planning cycles commencing in 1997, and our focus was on targets relating to biodiversity, water and community engagement. We ended up examining hundreds of targets documented in over 50 regional plans. And it’s worth noting these plans weren’t done in isolation; they had all been endorsed by governments at different times across the two states.”

The investigation focused on three of the five SMART categories, evaluating whether stated goals were Specific, Measurable and Time-bound. It was judged that the criteria of Attainable and Relevant required significant local knowledge and technical expertise that would be difficult to obtain for all regions in a comparable manner. Furthermore, if the targets failed on the other criteria (SM&T), the notion of “attainability” and “relevance” is a bit academic.

“Overall, we found that the quality of the targets was poor,” Park says. “Less than 30% of the targets we reviewed met all three criteria. Some targets met one or two of the criteria, but few satisfied all three.

“What’s more, the proportion of targets that are Specific, Measurable and Time-bound has not increased over time, and in New South Wales it has declined.”

To illustrate a non-SMART target, here is one from an Australian government program: “To increase the opportunities for short-term members or visitors to contribute to and partake in the protection and management of natural resources”. Clearly it falls short on all the three criteria – it is non-specific, it is unquantifiable and no time frame is specified.

The team’s research is in line with the findings of the Australian National Audit Office (Auditor General, 2008) when it reviewed the regional natural resource management system. The ANAO also looked at a sample of targets and they found that around half were not measurable or time-bound.

In addition, the ANAO provided some insights into the “achievable” and “relevant” criteria. They noted that there was little evidence to indicate whether targets were achievable, and that where there was evidence, the targets clearly were not achievable. “Where the impact on resource condition is identified by regional bodies, the expected results were often low (frequently less than one per cent of the longer term resource condition target).” They also observed that there was “little information” about whether targets represented value-for-money outcomes – which might be viewed as a reasonable basis for judging whether they were relevant.

“We think there are three main reasons for the low quality of targets we observed,” says Prof David Pannell, a co-author of the research. “First there’s a lack of appropriate standards and guidelines from governments to guide target setting; then there’s a lack of realism about the costs and feasibility of ambitious environmental targets; and finally, there’s a lack of adequate focus on outcomes by both CMAs and governments.

“Addressing these issues is a major challenge. A good place to start, however, would be if governments made sure that all the targets of their own agencies followed SMART principles.

“There’s also a need to be more realistic about what is actually achievable, as well as some form of positive feedback that rewarded regional bodies for adopting SMART targets.

“The only way we’ll see a general improvement is if government agencies provide guidance and training, send strong signals that improvements are needed, and reward regional bodies that do practice outcome-focused accountability.”

Caroline Mitchell is a member of the Environmental Decisions Group. She is based at the University of Western Australia.