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Can We Have It All: Independence and Community Accountability
Australia as a nation was created on 1 January 1901. On this day the Commonwealth of
Australia Constitution Act Read more ... 1900 came into effect, bringing together the colonies of New
South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia in a
form of government know as a “federation”. The government structure within Australia now
comprises a Commonwealth Government, six State Governments and two territories.
The Australian Constitution endeavours to outline some forty subjects on which the
Commonwealth Government can pass legislation. These are called “concurrent” powers,
which means that the States as well as the Commonwealth can pass laws relating to them. If
there is a conflict or inconsistency between two laws, however, the Commonwealth law will
be the one that prevails. 1
As a general rule, development and management of the protected area network is a State
Government responsibility. The Commonwealth Government does provide funding
assistance to the States for the purchase of additions to the park estate. There are also national
coordinating structures that seek to achieve consistency and a national approach to the
protected area network across Australia.
In recent years, however, the role of the Commonwealth Government in environmental issues
and park management has increased significantly due to what is called its “external affairs”
power, now considered one of the most important Commonwealth powers. This power gives
the Commonwealth Government jurisdiction in areas such as human rights and the
environment where it would otherwise have none. It gains these powers by entering into
international treaties. As a consequence, where Australia has entered into international
environmental treaties, the Commonwealth Government has come to play an increasingly
important role. These are treaties such as World Heritage, Ramsar and some treaties dealing
with migratory birds.
In the State of Victoria, the protected area network is managed by an organisation called
Parks Victoria was formed in December 1996 through the amalgamation of the State’s two
park agencies – the National Parks Service, which managed parks established under the
National Park Act 1975, and Melbourne Parks and Waterways, which managed the major
urban parks in and around the city of Melbourne. Legislation formally establishing Parks
Victoria as a statutory authority with its own board of management was passed in 1998.
Parks Victoria’s management responsibilities cover the following:
3.9 million hectares of parks and reserves across the state (16% of the state’s area),
consisting of 36 National Parks, 3 Wilderness Parks, 31 State Parks, 83 Regional Parks,
11 Marine and Coastal Parks, and 2,700 conservation reserves;
recreational management of Port Phillip Bay and Westernport Bay, the Yarra and
Maribyrnong Rivers and approximately 70% of the coastal areas in Victoria;
68% of the threatened flora species and 91% of the threatened fauna species in Victoria;
8,900 registered indigenous cultural sites and 2,500 non-indigenous heritage sites.
In 2002 the National Parks Act 1995 was amended to also add to the system 13 new marine
National Parks and 11 marine sanctuaries covering some 5.3% of Victoria’s marine waters
and a new system of parks in what is termed the Box-Ironbark area of the State to protect this
highly depleted ecosystem.
Parks managed by Parks Victoria receive approximately 38 million visits per year and make a
net economic contribution to the State of some $960 million. Approximately 850 staff work
for Parks Victoria at 120 work centres across the state, 75% of which are located outside of
Melbourne in rural and regional Victoria.
The Governance Challenge
New Public Management Context
Parks Victoria was created during the rise of managerialism or what is now often termed
“new public management” which took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its arrival in
the State of Victoria accompanied the election in 1992 of a new State government which was
“liberal” or conservative in orientation, having replaced the previous Labor Party.
This rise of managerialism was reflected in the reading habits of the senior ranks of the
Victorian public service in the early 1990s, where the most popular book was Osborne and
Gaebler’s “Reinventing Government”. Osborne and Gaebler’s thesis was that the old ways of
managing public services were not working and a radical rethink was necessary. The key
elements of this rethink, as they saw it, included ideas such as steering rather than rowing,
empowering communities, funding outcomes rather than inputs, fostering competition and
concentrating on earning and not just spending. 2
The Victorian Government’s public sector reform principles at the time bore a striking
resemblance to the Osborne and Gaebler ideas. In this case there were five overarching
principles to drive public sector reform. These were:
1. Focus on clear responsibility and accountability for results
2. Empower customers
3. Minimise bureaucracy
4. A preference for market mechanisms
5. Professional and business-like management of public agencies
Competition was a key plank of the reform agenda. Victoria introduced competition into the
delivery of general government services with an active policy of outsourcing at the state level
and of compulsory competitive tendering at the local government level. The Government
implemented “contractual purchaser/provider agreements between the Government and
departments, covering the prices of services and products, the quantity to be delivered, the
delivery schedule, and the quality standards that must be achieved, under a robust
accountability structure.” 3
Based on what was regarded at the time as a successful New Zealand model, the Government
entered into agreements with departments for the outputs they were to provide and the
departments subsequently purchased those outputs from the most efficient provider, be that
private, public or voluntary.
Parks Victoria was created as one of those providers for the provision of park management
services. As with any administrative change, the motives for the creation of Parks Victoria
were mixed and included savings that were to accrue through the administrative efficiencies
gained by combining two organisations, and the redirection of monies from the rather well
funded metropolitan park system to the less well funded national parks system. From a
governance perspective, however, the intention was to create a public sector agency that
would ultimately compete with other agencies, including the private sector, for the provision
of park management services across the State.
As the Parks Victoria legislation was being drafted, however, a robust debate was taking
place at both the bureaucratic and political levels as to whether it was appropriate to use a
competitive model for the delivery of national park services. Whilst most people could
envisage some level of competition when it came to the provision of urban park management
services, where local government was already providing a number of these services, the same
could not be said for national park services.
A principal concern was that National Park management services were considered a core
government activity underpinning key elements of the environmental program. Given this
core role, many argued that:
it should be subject to direct ministerial direction to ensure the services remained
responsive to community need;
the level of expertise required to manage a protected area system would be fractured if
delivery was spread amongst a number of service providers; and
putting commercial gain as the driver to achieve efficient and effective park management
services might impact negatively on related environmental and social outcomes.
Statutory Authority Status
At this time there was also growing concern about the range of governance structures being
created across government and, in particular, statutory authorities. Within the Victorian
context, statutory authorities were not the same as Government Business Enterprises (GBEs)
although both were established under their own legislation and with their own board of
GBEs were established as business enterprises with commercial performance as the primary
focus. Statutory authorities generally relied for all or part of their funding on government and
had multiple and often conflicting objectives. At this time they were not subject to the
accountability structures that the then Department of Treasury had established for GBEs, but
neither were they part of the accountability structures that had been established for
departments of state.
A key concern with statutory authorities was the issue of risk, the key elements of which
were commercial and political risk. As a general principle, the prevailing view at the time
was that commercial risk was better borne by commercial organisations at arms length from
government. Political risk was best borne by organisations close to government and over
which it had substantial control. There was, however, a trade off between these two elements.
Structures that may reduce the government’s commercial risk may also increase its political
risk. Structures used to maximise performance (i.e. use of market forces) may also expose
government in some instances to an unacceptably high degree of political risk.
The creation of a statutory authority generally meant the establishment of a board of
management, thereby increasing transaction costs and political risks to government. The
threshold question that needed to be asked was what value would a board add to the
operations of an organisation and what were the associated risks? Did the value added
outweigh the risks?
At the time of the creation of Parks Victoria, the view, at least amongst some core elements
of the bureaucracy, was that statutory authorities were quite appropriately used where there
was a need to avoid political control because the function was quasi-judicial or regulatory in
nature or involved grants or subsidies. Such structures were also acceptable when there was a
need to discharge a specialised function involving private funds (for example trustee
They could also be used when the Minister was seeking a separate channel of advice or
policy evaluation in a clearly defined area, or in the case of research activities where the
institution concerned was seeking increased prestige associated with an eminent board of
In the case of the delivery of government services, however, the view was that the benefits of
such a structure needed to be carefully analysed. Circumstances under which a Minister
might choose a statutory authority structure were:
The policy objective the Minister was trying to achieve could be translated into clearly
specified and measurable outputs and lent themselves to delivery via a contractual
The principle purchaser of those outputs was the government; and
The organisation had a number of objectives (some of which may be commercial in
nature) but the Minister was seeking a high degree of innovation; and
There was a need to bring an outside element into the management of the activity in a
way that is not possible or practicable through a department of state; and
Performance improvement was a key objective and the increased political risks associated
with introducing a board structure and using market forces to achieve this objective could
be managed. 4
The Governance Outcome
Parks Victoria was therefore being created within a “new public management” climate but
also one where questions were being asked about whether statutory authorities were
appropriate structures for the delivery of government services and whether a competitive
model was the most appropriate to achieve performance improvement in park management
The result was a statutory authority created as a monopoly provider of park management
services. Parks Victoria was established as a statutory authority with its own board of
management at arms length from government, but no competitive pressures were introduced.
Indeed the legislation was drafted in such a manner that it prevented competition.
One private sector executive at the time described this as the worst possible outcome. As an
agency at arms length from government with its own board of management, Parks Victoria
was exempt from direct ministerial control, a situation that significantly increased political
risks. But as a monopoly provider, it was also largely removed from the stringent
accountability structures of government and not subject to the forces of the market – in other
words there was no external driver for performance improvement. 5
The Performance Outcome
Parks Victoria’s View
Generally the view of the park agency itself at the time was that the government
arrangements it found itself in, while not ideal, did ultimately result in better park
Being more independent of Government made the agency feel less constrained by what is
often termed the ”risk averse” mentality in departments of state. This resulted in a culture
more prepared to try things and more focussed on getting things done.
The Board of Management also brought a different perspective, which would otherwise not
have been available. In particular, the agency believed that the business acumen brought by
board members from the private sector improved overall organisational performance.
Parks Victoria dealt with the issue of distance from the Minister by developing a direct
relationship with the Minister’s office, allowing the Minister and his office direct access to
the CEO and agency officers at any time.
Furthermore, the agency believed it was more accountable under this model rather than less
accountable. Not only did management have a board to whom it was required to report, it also
had a second reporting responsibility through the department as the purchaser of the services.
It also had key stakeholder groups and some ministerial advisory bodies observing its
performance, in particular in the area of environmental management. Indeed, some in Parks
Victoria at this time considered that they were being over monitored.
The Department’s view on the other hand tended to be that independence significantly
increased the political risk and resulted in the agency undertaking at least some activities
which at times failed to give due regard to prevailing government policy.
The Department was also unclear as to the role of the Board in the purchaser/provider
arrangements given that the directions and services to be provided were determined by the
purchaser rather than the Board.
The Department also had concerns that the direct relationship between agency management
and the Minister, bypassing the Board, was inconsistent with good public sector governance.
As the Minister appointed the Board and the Board appointed the CEO, there was some
concern that the ministerial relationship should be with the Chair rather than the CEO.
Finally, the Department had major concerns about the degree to which it could hold the
agency to account. In the absence of competition, the Department was entirely reliant on the
agency’s own assessment of its performance, with little possibility of independent
It is not possible to be definitive about the community view at this time regarding Parks
Victoria’s performance. While general surveys were positive, there was anecdotal evidence
of some concern in parts of rural and regional Victoria. Some stakeholder groups were
expressing concern that Parks Victoria made decisions on the basis that they were the land
managers and the “experts” and failed to give due regard to local concerns.
More solid, however, was a growing concern amongst rural and regional Victorians, in
particular, that the “new public management” focus on results, competition and performance
had come at the expense of community consultation and community decision-making.
Political commentators at the time noted that this might have been a contributing factor to the
election, with the assistance of independents, of a new Labour Government late in 1999.
A New Focus on Community
While the fundamental elements of the new public management infrastructure and its
associated governance structures were retained by the new incoming Government, a
commitment to community engagement and involvement in decision-making did mark a
significant shift. This is well articulated in the blueprint the Government issued, which it
called “Growing Victoria Together”:
“Growing Victoria Together balances economic, social and environmental goals and actions.
It is clear that we need a broader measure of progress and common prosperity than economic
growth alone. That is the heart of our balanced approach – a way of thinking, a way of
working and a way of governing which starts by valuing equally our economic, social and
environmental goals.” 6
This shift to a stronger community focus is not unique to Victoria however – it was a
reflection of trends happening elsewhere in certain parts of the world.
Beyond New Public Management
Some academics are currently exploring the new trends in public sector management and
identifying a development beyond the new public management philosophy. 7 Politics in the
case of new public management has a role at the beginning of the process and at the end – the
rest for the most part is in the hands of the public sector managers such as Parks Victoria. In
the newly apparent, emerging public sector paradigm, politics in its broadest sense has a
much greater role in every aspect of the delivery of public services. The new paradigm gives
far greater legitimacy to a wide range of stakeholders in the decision-making process – not
just through the ballot box. Without losing the perceived benefits of new public management,
such as a performance culture and a commitment to accountability, the new paradigm is
suggesting a move to a much more inclusive but also complex public policy decision-making
process. It is a focus beyond just proper process and the meeting of targets – to a focus on
what is the net benefit to society of the public management actions being undertaken.
In many ways the very focus of this World Parks Congress 2003 is a reflection of this new
emerging public administration paradigm. “Benefits Beyond Boundaries” is a theme about
reaching out to new constituencies and partners, and this governance stream is about the most
appropriate structures to involve communities while remaining accountable for results.
So how well placed are the Parks Victoria governance arrangements, forged within the fires
of the new public management paradigm, to meet the challenges of the new emerging
Meeting the Challenge – Retaining Independence but Improving
Parks Victoria and its overseeing department have worked together in an effort to address
some of the perceived governance weaknesses in the monopoly statutory authority status
under which Parks Victoria continues to operate. Key to these changes has been:
Independence with Stronger Accountability Structures
Parks Victoria has been moved from being what is considered an “outer budget” to an “inner
budget” agency. As such it is now subject to the same reporting and accountability regimes as
departments of state. Its funding allocation is made transparent in the budget process and it
must publicly report on its performance against a suite of measures which are subject to
scrutiny by a parliamentary committee.
In addition, while day to day liaison between the Minister and his office and the agency
continue, formal meetings between the Minister and the CEO now also include the Board
Chair. This more appropriately positions the Board between the Minister and the agency
The Board has also spent time clarifying its role vis a vis the department and has forged a
stronger strategic focus for its activities, setting longer-term directions within which the
purchaser/provider relationship nestles.
In the absence of competition, Parks Victoria and the department have been working on
improvements in performance measures and in using benchmarking with other park
management agencies as a way of verifying performance assessments. While considerable
improvements have been made in the area of visitor services and visitor satisfaction,
acceptable performance measures in the area of environmental management remain a key
challenge and this is an issue being picked up by one of the other themes at this Congress.
Parks Victoria believes these changes have improved its governance arrangements while
retaining much of the independence which it considers essential to enable it to continue to
grow as a park management agency. Parks Victoria’s arms length status releases it from a
large part of the bureaucratic processes that occur in departments of state and can be time
consuming and resource hungry. This does enable a stronger focus on service delivery and
community responsiveness. Furthermore there is also a tendency for departments which are
very close to the political process to be conservative. Again, Parks Victoria’s arms length
status allows for a degree of risk taking that would otherwise be unlikely. That risk taking is
the source of much of the more innovative park management approaches that the agency has
Community Accountability and Responsiveness
While administrative accountability might have been strengthened in the Parks Victoria
governance arrangements, the degree to which this has been reflected in an accountability
back to the community is less clear.
Parks Victoria, along with most other parts of the public sector, has responded to the
Government policy of community engagement with a number of programs to increase
community consultation and involvement in park management issues. This has included a
suite of measures such as Bush Forums to invite community feedback on Parks Victoria
programs, the use of memorandums of understanding with key stakeholder groups to improve
cooperation, and extensive consultation and discussion in the preparation of park
management plans. Parks Victoria is also a leader within the State in the involvement of
indigenous Australians in service delivery issues.
It would be true to say, however, that some elements of the community, in particular in rural
and regional Victoria, remain sceptical. Much of the community debate over the recent
introduction of Marine National Parks and the Box Ironbark National Parks in Victoria
centred around a view that the Government had failed to demonstrate that the creation of
national parks resulted in an improvement in environmental outcomes. Indeed, some
members of the community expressed the view that the opposite was true. In their view,
inadequate funding resulted in a degradation of values once an area was declared a National
Park, and at the same time, declaration restricted access and prevented a number of human
activities which had been part of the community use of these areas for many decades.
This scepticism resulted in a recent amendment to the Victorian National Parks Act 1975
which was introduced by one of the independent members of Parliament as a prerequisite for
his support for the creation of the new Box- Ironbark National Parks. This amendment
requires reports to be prepared and tabled in Parliament in relation to management priorities
and associated funding. The intention behind the amendments was to provide greater
accountability in the implementation of National Parks and to enable Parliament to recognise
the cost of maintaining National Parks.
There is a perception amongst some members of the rural and regional community that Parks
Victoria is community responsive but only to those elements of the community whose views
align with that of the organisation. That perception extends to a view by some that the
consultation that does occur fails to give due regard to ideas that do not accord with current
It should be noted that the survey work reveals a divergence of views on these matters
between the metropolitan population and rural and regional Victoria, with the former being
more satisfied with Parks Victoria’s performance than the latter. This is perhaps a reflection
of the fact that most of the parks established under the National Parks Act are located outside
the metropolitan area and therefore rural and regional communities are the ones most affected
by changes in land management to protect environmental values.
It would also be true to say that there is still some way to go before it could state that there is
true community decision-making in relation to park management issues. While there is
extensive community input, ultimately decisions remain with the park management agency
itself, and this is likely to be the case for some time to come as the issues associated with
community decision-making are addressed.
In some ways the same arguments that were advanced to oppose competition in the provision
of park management services also exist for the introduction of community decision-making in
park management services. The wishes of local communities as to the uses and directions of
their local National Parks are not always consistent with the broader community’s views as
represented through the Government and the Minister. Similarly, the establishment of a park
management agency enables the development of professional expertise which communities
do not necessarily have access to in their decision-making process. These are issues which
will need to be addressed as we embark on the new governance paradigm for park
However, the overall trend is one of growing community involvement in natural resource
management decision-making, including park management. Some time ago, Victoria created
what are termed Catchment Management Authorities. These are community-based
organisations charged with making strategic decisions about catchment management and
environmental management on private land. This community model is now being replicated
in various forms throughout most parts of Australia. While their initial focus was on private
land, these Authorities are now indicating a desire to have some involvement in management
decisions on public land, including parks. Ecosystems are tenure blind and sensible
ecosystem management decisions must be made from a systems perspective – not a land
manager or tenure perspective. Steps in this regard are still in their very early stages however.
The statutory authority status that Parks Victoria enjoys has brought with it a degree of
independence that the agency believes has been a key element in the innovation and
performance improvement it has achieved as a park management agency.
From a departmental perspective, the political risks associated with Parks Victoria’s status as
a statutory authority and the performance challenges presented by its monopoly status are
beginning to be addressed through some of the accountability improvements that have been
introduced, and they will be further addressed into the future by better performance measures
and more sophisticated benchmarking. It nevertheless has to be said that there are some
individuals within the department who are of the view that Parks Victoria’s arms length status
carries with it some political risk and restricts the department’s capacity to make the agency
responsive to community views as expressed through government policy.
What about community responsiveness and accountability? The jury is still out on this one.
What is true is that Parks Victoria is fully aware that it will not have succeeded as a park
management agency until there is community confidence in its performance and true
community involvement in park management decision-making. That realisation in itself is a
major step towards ultimate success and perhaps has more to do with attitude than
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