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A review of community consultation

A review of community consultation


This booklet briefly examines the community consultation program that the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) coordinated in 1997-98 on the proposed interim environmental objectives for water quality and river flow. It presents a statewide perspective on what people participating in the consultation program thought of the health of their river systems, the values they place on their waterways, and the environmental issues they identified as priority concerns. It also provides an insight into what people thought of the environmental objectives presented to them for consideration, and of how the consultation program itself was conducted. (More detailed information about community comment can be found in the individual catchment booklets, Water Quality and River Flow Interim Environmental Objectives - Guidelines for River, Groundwater and Water Management Committees.)

The EPA is committed to involving the community in all aspects of environment protection, restoration and enhancement. Providing effective community consultation that gives people an opportunity to contribute their ideas and express their concerns about the environment is integral to that commitment. Examining this consultation program has therefore been an important task for the EPA. It was the largest community consultation program ever coordinated by the EPA, and presented a good opportunity to see what worked and how consultation can be improved in the future.

The EPA commissioned an independent evaluation of the consultation program to assess its effectiveness. Every participant attending a community discussion meeting was asked to fill in an evaluation form, which was independently assessed. All community input on the objectives themselves, including written submissions and transcripts recording participants' comments at the community discussion meetings, has also been independently analysed. That analysis is the basis of this report.

The community consultation program

Information briefings

In October 1997 the NSW Government released discussion papers on proposed interim environmental objectives for water quality and river flow for all catchments in NSW: Proposed Interim Environmental Objectives for NSW Waters (1997).

During November and December 1997 the Government conducted a series of more than 100 scheduled information briefings around NSW to help people understand the discussion papers and encourage them to participate in the upcoming community consultation program on water quality and river flow. The EPA also responded to requests from stakeholders, including water user groups, environment groups and peak industry organisations for special briefings.

Community discussion meetings

Members of the public were informed of the community consultation program through newspaper advertisements and direct mail. The EPA also generated media news coverage to increase the profile of the community discussion meetings.

A series of 44 community discussion meetings and 9 Aboriginal community meetings began in February 1998 (Table 1). The format of each community discussion meeting included:

Community discussion meetings

Catchment Meeting location
Macquarie-Bogan Bathurst, Dubbo, Mudgee, Warren
Castlereagh Gilgandra
Lachlan Cowra, Condobolin, Hillston
Barwon-Darling Bourke, Wilcannia, Walgett
Namoi Gunnedah
Gwydir Bingara
Border Rivers Inverell
Murrumbidgee Queanbeyan, Tumut, Wagga Wagga, Griffith, Hay
Murray (Unregulated) Holbrook
Tweed Tweed Heads
Brunswick Byron Bay
Richmond Lismore (2 meetings)
Nambucca Macksville
Bellinger Urunga
Hastings & Camden Haven Port Macquarie
Macleay Kempsey
Manning Taree
Karuah Pacific Palms
Hunter Muswellbrook, Maitland
Tuggerah Lakes & Lake Macquarie Toukley
Gosford Lagoons & Northern Beaches Lagoons Narrabeen
Sydney Harbour Kirribilli
Cooks River Campsie
Georges River Bankstown
Hacking Cronulla
Illawarra Wollongong
Jervis Bay Sussex Inlet
Clyde Batemans Bay
Moruya & Tuross Moruya
Bega Bega
Towamba Eden
Aboriginal community meetings
Region Meeting location
Far West Wilcannia
Riverina Wagga Wagga
Central West Dubbo
North West Moree
South Coast Narooma
North Coast Kempsey, Lismore
Sydney Metropolitan Parramatta
All regions Sydney

At several of the meetings, participants did not wish to break into small groups for a facilitated discussion of the proposed environmental objectives, and conducted an open-floor forum instead.

The Aboriginal community meetings followed a different format to meet community needs; involving an open-floor explanation and discussion of the water reforms and management issues, including the environmental objectives.

Between February and May 1998 more than 4000 people attended community discussion meetings across NSW. Each received a record of the information documented in their small group discussion. In response to community requests, a special community briefing was also conducted at Nyngan to discuss local concerns.

Written submissions

The community was asked to deliver written submissions to the EPA by 1 May 1998. The EPA received 810 written submissions, 640 of these from individuals, and 170 from organisations. This is the largest number submitted in an EPA-coordinated community consultation program. It is also the largest number submitted by individual citizens. (A list of submissions can be found at the back of this booklet.)

Review of draft objectives

Following the consultation program, draft interim environmental objectives were prepared taking into account the wide range of comments made at meetings and in submissions on the discussion papers. These were forwarded to key stakeholders for confirmation that they accurately reflected the community's views.

In August 1998 members of catchment management committees and river management committees were invited to comment on the first draft of the Water Quality and River Flow Interim Environmental Objectives: Guidelines for River, Groundwater and Water Management Committees for their respective catchments. An Aboriginal assessment panel, established with the assistance of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, also reviewed the proposals.

Substantial changes were made to the draft guidelines based on the committees' comments, including reformatting the guidelines to make them more user-friendly.

The guidelines on interim water quality and river flow objectives were then submitted for Government consideration.

What people thought of the interim environmental objectives

The EPA commissioned a quantitative analysis of all written submissions and transcripts from small group discussions at the community discussion meetings to identify the issues raised most often by the community. Every issue raised was identified by a differerent code, so they could be collated to provide a clear picture of the community's views. This analysis is useful for looking at community input for individual catchments, and provides a strong overall perspective, showing:

The most commonly raised issues for each of these topics, with the number of times they were referred to in the written submissions and the transcripts of the small group discussions, are shown in Table 2.
Table 3 lists the most commonly raised issues in the Aboriginal community meetings.

What people thought of the public consultation process

Most useful aspects of consultation process

The independent, quantitative analysis of the meeting evaluation sheets handed in by 1,394 participants has shown that the community wants to participate in consultation, and that people like working with other members of the community on water and environmental issues. The desire for local decision-making was a common theme to come out of the evaluation, and consultation was generally seen to help promote this.

For example, in the Comments section of the evaluation sheet:

Least useful aspects of consultation process

The analysis also showed some criticism of the process, which will help the Government to improve its community consultation programs in the future. Almost 20% of participants couldn't find any negative aspects of the consultation; however, the following comments were made:

Most commonly raised issues in the community consultation process

Issue No.of references
Important values and uses people have for the rivers  
Biodiversity, aquatic ecosystems and nature conservation 230
Swimming 181
Drinking water and town water supply 141
Aesthetic values and visual amenity 138
Fishing 137
Irrigation and industrial 124
Perceived problems affecting water quality  
Sewage, effluent and bacteria 82
Riverbank instability and erosion 79
Blue-green algae and algal blooms 68
Carp 67
Pesticides and chemicals 59
Run-off from farms and nutrients 58
Views on the water quality objectives  
Support highest water quality, sufficient for advanced human uses 253
Support water quality sufficient for secondary contact
recreation, livestock water and irrigation
Support keeping things as they are 57
Support highest water quality, with some modifications 41
Perceived advantages of implementing water quality objectives  
Increase in biodiversity / environmental health 59
Improve quality of life 48
Improve community health 41
Improve water quality 39
Increase recreational use 34
Perceived disadvantages of implementing water quality objectives  
Costs 57
Costs to community and need to share costs 46
Increased controls on river 37
Cost of fencing rivers 36
Who pays the price? 32
Perceived problems affecting river flow  
Silting and fewer water holes 86
Over-commitment of water for irrigation 71
Lower flow rates, lower low flow rates and drought 70
Excessive flows damaging infrastructure and river banks 38
Not enough flushing of pollutants 30
Views on the river flow objectives  
Support objective 2 (protect natural low flows) 116
Support objective 1 (protect pools in dry times) 114
Support objective 6 (mimic natural flow variability) 113
Support objective 4 (maintain wetland and floodplain
Support objective 3 (protect important rises in water levels) 98
Perceived advantages of implementing river flow objectives  
Better river system health 53
Environmental improvements 53
Improved water quality 50
Restoration of ecosystems 48
Improved recreation 40
Perceived disadvantages of implementing river flow objectives  
Economic hardship to area if flows are reduced 76
Reduced farm production from reduction in irrigation water 69
Costs and infrastructure costs 68
Impact on industry and loss of employment 44
Severe problems caused by further stopping of flows 42
Community recommendations for action  
More efficient sewage treatment plants and no effluent
in rivers
Need for further community education and consultation 108
Strict monitoring of irrigation licences 95
Need for objectives to be site-specific 81
Stock to be kept away from river banks 79
Need more research and public information on water quality 76

Most commonly raised issues in the Aboriginal community meetings

Aboriginal community concerns about waterways
Swimming in and drinking water is leading to ill health
There is a decline in aquatic food resources and bush tucker
Erosion, siltation, sewage pollution and livestock in streams
Lack of respect for cultural beliefs about waterways
Need more Aboriginal community involvement in waterways management
Aboriginal community views on the environmental objectives
Need to support actions to protect and improve water quality
Water should be suitable for drinking and swimming without health risks
Water should be suitable for eating uncooked shellfish and other aquatic foods
General support for proposed river flow objectives
Should reduce the amount of water taken from many rivers in periods of low flow


How participants heard about the community discussion meetings

The feedback from the community has also helped identify how people found out about the community discussion meetings. In many cases, people heard about the meetings via more than one avenue, including:

What the EPA has learned from the consultation program

This was a large-scale consultation of the community. It included a series of community discussion meetings for all catchments across NSW and coordinated across five NSW Government agencies. Many aspects of the consultation program were considered to have worked successfully, especially the small group discussions, which allowed hundreds of people to make their own contribution to the process.

The number of people who attended the community discussion meetings and the number of written submissions received were particularly pleasing.

However, the EPA also learned that some aspects of the community consultation program were problematic, and had a negative impact on the process. It has been important to identify those problems to ensure the EPA delivers effective community consultation programs in the future.

Scope and timing

Conducting extensive community consultation tailored to every individual catchment in NSW at the one time proved to be an extremely ambitious undertaking.

Communities were being asked to consider water quality and river flow objectives together at a time when they were also being presented with a range of other water reforms, including water pricing and river flow rules. It was difficult for many participants to isolate the environmental objectives for discussion, and many people wanted to express their concerns about other aspects of the water reform package during this consultation process. This limited the actual consideration of and discussion about the proposed environmental objectives.

Meeting registration

The advertising campaign for the community discussion meetings did not promote full details for the meetings, such as the venue. Instead, a registration line was advertised. The purpose of this was twofold: firstly, to help estimate interest in the meetings and determine whether additional meetings needed to be scheduled (the proposed maximum attendance for a meeting was 60 people); and secondly, to allow the EPA to send participants a copy of the discussion paper when they registered, so they could fully consider the objectives before attending the meeting. This proved to be a mistake in the process. The effect of not promoting all the meeting details made some people feel that details were being kept secret so as to avoid any negative response.

The registration line was also not as reliable as it needed to be, and added to a feeling of dissatisfaction in some people. Many had trouble calling the registration line, causing frustration when there was no operator. The details for people who did register to attend a meeting were often not properly recorded. They therefore did not receive their booklet, and their names were not included on meeting lists. This left many people unprepared to participate in discussions, and feeling discouraged about the consultation.

As a result of the difficulties caused by the registration process, several meetings were under-resourced because the number of people who attended meetings far exceeded the expected participation.

The venues and dates for several meetings were changed late in the process, often in response to strong community interest. However the community was not adequately notified of the changes, which resulted in people arriving at the venue that had originally been advertised, or on the day that had originally been advertised.

In addition, some people assumed that community discussion meetings would be held at the same location as the information briefings several months before. However many more information briefings were scheduled than community discussion meetings. This was not clearly explained at the outset of the process, and led to some frustration.

Aboriginal community representatives were pleased that Aboriginal communities were being consulted about the environmental objectives, and that they would be represented on water management committees. However there was concern that the meetings were organised without sufficient warning, and that they were held too close to the deadline for written submissions.

The discussion papers

There was widespread concern with the quantity and quality of information in the discussion papers released in October 1997. Many participants commented that the information in the discussion papers was inadequate or inaccurate, and contained insufficient data or insufficient local knowledge. Others commented that the information provided was overwhelming and difficult to absorb.

Presenting the environmental objectives and supporting information was an inherently difficult task because the consultation program was trying to attract as much community participation as possible, and yet people's knowledge of the waterways and water issues varied greatly. In particular, general community understanding of river flows and related river health was much more limited than their general understanding of water quality. The repeated calls for more research and more community education, especially with regards to river flows, reflect this concern.

Many people commented that the discussion papers did not include enough information about the economic and social costs of implementing the environmental objectives, which they saw as a key issue for discussion.

People living in coastal catchments believed the discussion papers had an "inland focus", and that they didn't adequately deal with coastal rivers, streams and estuaries, where environmental issues are often quite different.

The EPA needs to improve the mechanisms for delivering the right information to best reach all interested audiences.

Community cynicism

EPA staff and staff from Department of Land and Water Conservation, National Parks and Wildlife Service, NSW Agriculture and NSW Fisheries who worked on the community consultation process as facilitators and in other support roles often encountered cynicism about the consultation process.

There were two particular types of cynicism. Firstly, that the Government had already made up its mind and that the consultation was for appearances only. On the other hand, some people felt they have been "over-consulted" - and that it was time for action, rather than talk. Some people believed the environmental objective-setting process duplicated work already undertaken by local water committees.


The EPA will continue to endeavour to conduct open, transparent and fruitful community consultation, where stakeholders feel confident that their participation is contributing to the final outcome.


Proposed Interim Environmental Objectives for NSW Waters, 1997, NSW Environment Protection Authority.

This page was published on 23 February 2000