‘I put myself in their shoes’: how working closely with diverse stakeholders helps Sustainability Commissioner Gillian Sparkes achieve impact

By David Donaldson

Monday February 17, 2020

Dr Gillian Sparkes

Victoria’s sustainability commissioner on why it’s important to measure the economic value of biodiversity, how she got where she is, and her approach to stakeholder engagement.

Dr Gillian Sparkes was immensely proud — and a little surprised — to be named an IPAA national fellow late last year.

As someone who started out as an industrial chemist, and worked for a long time at mining and waste companies before moving into government, she’s not exactly a career public servant, Sparkes tells The Mandarin.

Yet this unconventional and broad experience has proven useful in her work as Victoria’s commissioner for environmental sustainability.

The job is a mix of adviser and science reporter, producing documents such as the five-yearly State of the Environment report.

To make sense of the scientific data and lead change, the commissioner does a lot of stakeholder engagement.

“For me, whether it’s a Treasury or an environmental NGO stakeholder, my default position is to put myself in their shoes and think about the pressures on them and what they are thinking about, not just what I’m thinking about,” Sparkes explains.

“The science gives us the evidence, but our empathy for all stakeholders also helps us deliver impact for the environment.”

Having industry experience in this area makes that job easier.

“I’ve run a Cleanaway branch. I had to meet budget targets and make the money to pay the payroll.”

The commissioner’s reference group has an array of diverse stakeholders, including representatives from Environment Victoria, Trust for Nature, Victorian National Parks Association, the Wilderness Society, Victorian Farmers’ Federation, Municipal Association of Victoria, Local Jobs First Commissioner, catchment management authorities, Landcare and water corporations.

Inevitably, they don’t always see eye-to-eye — but drawing out their points of difference is useful.

“For the ‘State of’ reports released by the commissioner in March last year, there were at times groups of stakeholders who we found we couldn’t really get to the point of understanding each other’s perspectives at the regular meetings, so we took the time to invite them back in and listen a bit more intently. Understanding where people are coming from, listening to what their debate is has been an important part of our approach. It’s not about convincing everyone, it’s about listening.”

It’s important to make that effort, even if sometimes difficult, she thinks — resulting in a more relevant document strengthened by debate.

The commissioner engages heavily with stakeholders during the initial part of a report, which involves developing the science, and then works independently “and totally in isolation” to develop recommendations.

Engagement means stakeholders will “have trust in the work and the way we’ve thought about it, because it won’t just come out after five years, and no-one knew what was going on”, she explains.

“You don’t want the work to sit unused. So you need to take people with you.”

After the report and its recommendations are published, the government provides a response. The official response to the State of the Environment report is due soon.

The high-engagement approach Sparkes has taken since her appointment in 2014 has been informed by her many years working on environmental issues at the interface of industry, government and community.

It’s delivering results, she believes.

“It’s a bit of a slow burn with this work, but it has the potential to have a high impact.”

State of the environment

A large amount of the commissioner’s work centres on the State of the Environment and other ‘State of’ reports, which are helping establish a trove of high quality scientific baselines across a range of areas.

For the non-specialists, appraisals are also presented in a report card style — poor, fair, good or unknown — along with the trend direction and quality of the evidence.

“The evidence shows we’re doing well in some areas, but not in others. The good news is we’ve got a baseline science report now. We can monitor trends from now on much better than we ever could,” Sparkes says.

“My view is the big story out of the 2018 State of the Environment report is biodiversity. There are 35 indicators of biodiversity, and three-quarters are either unknown in their status or deteriorating. There’s some work to do there but, since 2017, Victoria has a 20 year biodiversity plan in place.”

An update on biodiversity will now need to be done following this summer’s devastating bushfires.

Waste and climate change impacts comprise the other two big environmental challenges for Victoria in the commissioner’s top three issues.

While there remains plenty to do, she is confident Victoria is on the right track — and probably leading the nation — with “a lot of work” happening across biodiversity, water, forestry, marine and coastal, and climate change.

“The environment is under stress in some areas, but we have policy settings in place in Victoria, and if you’ve worked in government you know that to just get policy settings in place takes a lot of time.”

The environment is a real passion of Sparkes’. She often thinks about what the environment will look like for her grandchildren, and spends as much time as possible working out how to protect it through improving the state’s capability to know about, predict and respond to events quickly.

But the state’s natural assets provide ecosystem services that also have immense economic value, she notes — even if it’s not always well recognised.

For example, in 2016 the commissioner released a report on the health of Port Phillip Bay and Westernport, which found that apart from a few indicators, they were doing well.

This is perhaps surprising given that Port Phillip bay is home to Australia’s busiest working port — yet in spite of the potential hazards generated by traffic, trading and storm water, the seagrasses are healthy and the ecosystem is able to replenish.

A varied carpetshark enjoying some ecosystem services in Port Phillip bay. Source: Rick Stuart-Smith on Wikimedia Commons.

“We take it for granted,” Sparkes comments.

“But if it wasn’t very good we’d have to put in treatment plants and other things. How can you explain to the treasurer the economic value of that ecosystem?

“With science we can demonstrate the economic value of the services that seagrass ecosystem provides — as a water filter and fish nursery — and demonstrate that maintaining or restoring that ecosystem is worth billions to you and is much less expensive than having to artificially produce those services.”

Parts of the Victorian government, led by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, are working out how to do that better. DELWP has a strategy in place to develop the use of the United Nations system of environmental-economic accounting, which enables the valuation of environmental assets using accounting techniques.

This should make it easier to give a clear value to clean water, for example, and improve decision making.

“When we do recommendations, and we say we think you should invest in this, it’s also handy to say the economic value of the asset is X, so what we’re asking for is a drop in the ocean compared to the value of that asset.”

The commissioner is a strong advocate for developing the state’s system of environmental-economic accounts.

“We think the SEEA is a critical capability we need to invest in for dealing with the pressures we face. We need to be able to talk to Treasury as well as we do to the community and environment portfolios.”

Commitment and curiosity

Unsurprisingly for someone who has enjoyed such a varied career, Sparkes is a big advocate of trying new things.

“People ask me, how do I become the commissioner, what have I got to do? And all I say is, the opportunities usually come to you, in the sense that you can’t just map a career that says I’m going to do this, this and this. The opportunities become available when they become available,” she argues.

A few times she’s made a move into an area outside her previous experience, which hasn’t always been understood by those around her.

“I was on contract to the Australian Public Service, and I wanted to get a job in the Victorian Public Service. I’d been known for working in the environment space. I saw a job come up at the Department of Sustainability and Environment, a corporate and business role, leading corporate, including health and safety reforms.

“So many people said to me, why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you do something else? And I said, I wanted to join the department, that’s what the vacancy was, and that’s what they needed fixed at the time. It’s in the portfolio that I wanted to gradually learn more about. And before I knew it, I was back working in environment as chair of the board of Sustainability Victoria, all these things because people recognise you might be able to help on this or that.

“So if people think you can do things and want you to help, if you have the capacity, help. And be a bit adaptable in taking the job that might not look like the perfect role right now, but it ticks a lot of boxes and would be great experience.”

She’s been “opportunistic” about moving into new roles, but did have some rules.

For the first part of her career, her children were an important consideration.

“I didn’t want to move my children around my career. So my children were brought up in a seaside village and they never moved during their school years. Giving them stability, a sense of belonging to a ‘place called home’ was a high priority for me in deciding what roles I could take. I managed my career so they didn’t have to travel around.”

Underpinning these shifts, all the way from industrial chemistry to being named an IPAA fellow, is curiosity.

“I’m a very curious person by nature. Curiosity is one of the great assets I think. I wouldn’t have known this, but I’ve now realised that being curious has really defined my life actually, in all sorts of ways.”

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