Roadshow 4.1 Stakeholder engagement overview

Stakeholder engagement overview – process and key findings 

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My name is Justine Lacey and I work at the CSIRO. In the next few minutes, I'm going to show the work we did with the department over the last four years, examining the role of user panels in the GBA Program. What I want to leave you with today is a clear sense of the tangible benefits arising from the decision to include early stakeholder engagement in the form of these user panels. The inclusion of a structured panel process in each of the three regions was a commitment to responding transparently to how regional stakeholders and communities understand and think about the potential impacts of unconventional gas development. It was also a deliberate decision by the department to create forums for targeted and early key stakeholder engagement and dialogue that would be sustained throughout the life of the program.

As you can see on the slide, the department embedded the user panels into the formal governance structure of the GBA Program. And the design of these panels was based on meeting face to face in the regions under assessment twice a year, with the main objectives of including user panels, being to provide stakeholder advice and guidance as the scientific assessments were being developed in each region, to inform and develop those scientific assessments so that they would be addressing the questions and concerns of regional stakeholders, to strengthen connections and understanding between the program and the regions under assessment, and to build confidence and trust in the program design, its science and its objectives.

So who are in the user panels? Well, the user panels are a broadly representative group and they may include local land owners and water users, indigenous groups and traditional owners, local government, state and federal agencies, NRM bodies, regulators, tight and shale gas companies, particularly those with exploration tenements in the regions under assessment and other industry groups and peak bodies. The most critical aspect is that the membership represents the important regional interests and activities. In terms of providing a brief overview of our research process, on the right hand side of this slide, you can see the four major reports that were generated over the course of our work. From the outset, CSIRO worked closely with the department to co-design a set of best practice guidelines for user panel engagement and this was really about taking the overarching objectives of the panels that have been developed by the department and operationalizing them in ways that we could track. And that was supported by a four year monitoring and evaluation plan.

So the main points of data collection occurred when we conducted interviews with a cross section of community, industry and government panel members, at two time points over the program. And this was about understanding the expectations and experiences of those who were engaged in the panel forums. The first set of interviews was conducted in 2019 with 21 members of the Cooper and Beetaloo user panels. At this time, the Isa panel was operating, but its membership was still forming and it was too early to start data collection with them. We then conducted a second set of interviews in late 2020, early '21. By this time, the world had changed significantly. COVID-19 meant that face to face meetings were a thing of the past and the Isa assessment had been formally concluded at the end of stage two.

So this meant there were only two operating panels in the GBA Program. So in this round, we conducted 30 interviews with members of the Cooper and Beetaloo user panels again, but we extended our data collection to include 13 agency staff from the department, CSIRO and Geoscience Australia. And while these staff were not members of the panels, they had attended, presented and been closely involved in the running of the panels at the time. And in the next two slides, what I want to do is give you a brief insight into the high level trends that emerged from those two sets of interviews. So you can see how the panels were starting to identify the value that those forums were bringing. So in the first set of interviews, what we found was three major themes and they coalesced around understanding impacts on water, representing diverse perspectives at the table or in the forum and having an opportunity to inform government process.

So that first thing around understanding the potential environmental impacts of any proposed gas development is probably unsurprising, given the focus of the GBA Program. But we always found that this was focused really, really closely on understanding any potential impact to water resources. As you can see by this quote, "We need to be across what an expansion into production might mean for our region, for other land users in our region and what it means longer term for our resources, especially the surface and groundwater impacts." The second theme there highlighted the panel members tended to see the value of being part of the panel largely at first, because it provided them with an opportunity to represent their own interests in discussion or those of their constituents and with a range of stakeholders that they may not always have direct access to. For example, "We don't often get to sit down with people from regulators to scientists and industry and directly convey some of our concerns." And the third thing that we found at this time was seeing the panels as a really important way of having an opportunity to inform government process.

"We can't move forward and formulate good policy if we don't get together first, understand what the issues are, what the science is and try and work that out together." So in short, there was a real focus on both understanding environmental impacts, but also a lot of understanding the people connections that were starting to form around the panels. So some of the social aspects of the assessments. At the second time point, the high level themes were starting to shift a little. And we were now seeing the role of the panel processes located within a broader network of activities. For example, the panels were recognised as a critical first step for engaging key stakeholder interests around the major issue of regional importance. It was also recognised that this level of initial key stakeholder engagement would provide a foundation for any subsequent community engagement on issues of gas development, whether by government or industry.

It was also recognised that the panels enhanced the alignment of multiple processes. And this had been especially the case in the Beetaloo region, following the Pepper inquiry into hydraulic fracturing, the Northern Territory government was implementing a strategic regional environmental and baseline assessment. So for all state and territory governments, the panels played an important role in not only navigating the stakeholder ecosystem, but often complementing state and territory government processes that were underway. In the latter part of the program, panel members also identified the value of independent, credible science. Many spoke of the value of being able to talk directly with scientists, interrogate the scientific process and their findings and develop a level of confidence that the science underpinning the GBA and its recommendations was robust. And finally, a theme that had been evident from the beginning that developed over time was the importance of developing assessments that were relevant to and informed by place. This applied to both scientists being able to get out into the regions to conduct their research and for panel members recognising the importance of the engagement of GBA being conducted in their region.

One of my favourite quotes that really demonstrates this sentiment would have to be this one. "My number one gripe for the last 20 years is that major policies and recommendations are being formulated remotely." So what does this add up to? Well, this has been a necessarily brief snapshot into the work that we did with user panels over four years. We were able to identify five key benefits arising from the inclusion of user panels in the GBA Program. The first benefit was that the input of panel members was used to shape the scientific assessments that were developed for each region. This method, the objective of developing assessments that were regionally relevant, fit for purpose and informed by the priorities and concerns of regional stakeholders were successful. The two stand out examples of this are often cited as the decision to undertake the LiDAR survey over the Cooper, to better understand the movement of surface water, especially during flooding and the focused investigations on potential risks to groundwater systems in the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer in the Beetaloo in response to local concerns and priorities that were raised in the panel meetings.

The second benefit was the importance of how increased understanding of the physical aspects and scale of the regions informed both science and decision making. For regional members, this was about departmental staff and scientists coming into the region to better understand the place about which decisions would subsequently be made and having an understanding of the activities already underway in those places. For agency staff, it was also about the importance of getting into the field to understand the place they were assessing. The third benefit related to the increased awareness and understanding among all stakeholders was a broad range of knowledge and perspectives generated by the panels. In my view, one of the strongest aspects of the panel function and design related to the fact that panels were structured so that they never had to reach consensus on any particular issue and they could hold quite diverse issues in those panels.

In fact, broad ranging discussion on many issues was encouraged and by placing diverse stakeholders with diverse views in conversation together, they really allowed different conversations to happen and take place and a better appreciation of those other key points to emerge over time. And finally, in the latter parts of the program, we also found evidence of trust being established. It's related to trust in the program and its objectives and trust in the science that was underpinning the program. Thank you.

Additional information

About the presenter 

Dr Justine Lacey 


Justine is a Principal Research Scientist, specialising in community and stakeholder engagement on environmental and natural resource management issues. She has researched the social aspects of resource development industries in Australia for over a decade and brings experience in the monitoring and evaluation of engagement programs to the GBA Program.

Last updated:
15 November 2021