Case Study – Department of Environment and Atlas of Living Australia

Case study for MERIT: a quantum leap forward in environmental data management and recordkeeping

Summary

The Biodiversity Conservation Division converted to digital practices using their MERIT system to report outcomes for supported projects. Benefits include standardising information collected in an accessible data repository; more publicly accessible data; and multiple efficiencies in productivity and business processes.

Agency overview

The Department of the Environment designs and implements the Australian Government's policies and programmes to protect and conserve the environment, water and heritage and promote climate action.

The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), an NCRIS facility housed in CSIRO, is a specialist IT infrastructure for national biodiversity information aggregation. It is a collaborative, national project that aggregates biodiversity data on all the known species in Australia from multiple sources and makes it available and usable online.

Introduction

This project is the outcome of a very successful collaboration between Department of the Environment (DoE) and Atlas of Living Australia (ALA). Within DoE, the Biodiversity Conservation Division (BCD) manages a suite of grants programmes to assist community groups, government, and non-government organisations protect and enhance environmental and heritage assets, and improve environmental and agricultural sustainability.

Timely availability of quality data is critical to understanding the condition of environmental assets and designing effective policies and programmes that enable investment in the right projects to achieve strong environmental and public good outcomes. Concise data recording, management, and communication mechanisms are essential for partnerships and the effective monitoring of investment outputs and outcomes.

Project objectives

Federal government initiatives supporting projects which enhance environmental assets and improve environmental and agricultural sustainability have operated for over 30 years. The requirements for projects, funded by the Commonwealth, to report on outputs and outcomes in a consistent way has gradually improved, culminating with implementation of the robust MERI (Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement) framework in 2009.

Historically the MERI process has been challenged in ensuring the outcomes of Natural Resource Management (NRM) investments are measured, captured, understood and reported publicly; and that data and information generated through MERI is used to inform and influence future investment programmes.

Previously BCD managed records on largely paper based systems, with little electronic data capture, storage or access to information. This caused significant variation in reporting between projects and programmes, making it difficult to collate information for analysis of the impact of investment. Collation of such information was extremely labour-intensive and costly, and reports were often outdated by the time they were released.

Lacking an adequate electronic system to underpin the MERI process has been a fundamental limitation on the capacity to undertake MERI for NRM programmes and to deliver meaningful programme outcomes in line with recommendations in Section 4 of the Auditor-General Audit Report No.21 2007–08 (Australian National Audit Office, 2008).

Project execution

As a first step towards addressing this, BCD reviewed several existing database systems in DoE and in major national environmental data and information initiatives.

The ALA was identified as the preferred option to deliver a solution, building on efficiencies to be achieved through the Commonwealth's existing investment of over $40 million in the Atlas' infrastructure.

In 2013, BCD partnered with the ALA to develop the Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement Tool (MERIT); a comprehensive electronic system capable of implementing MERI consistently for all BCD managed programmes. It also allows departmental staff and grant recipients to effectively and transparently collaborate in the MERI process (including the Department of Agriculture administered component of the National Landcare Programme).

The MERIT project was built from scratch in six months, delivered on time, and within budget – an impressive accomplishment; made possible by a tight collaboration between DoE and the ALA.

Project outcomes

Since MERIT launched in December 2013, 1300 projects have been transitioned into the system which allows us to:

  • Collect standardised project and activity-based NRM information across Australia and store it in a reliable, rapidly accessible, data repository;
  • Properly account for and promote the outcomes and achievements being made to improve biodiversity and the condition of natural assets through the investment of public funds across Australia;
  • Easily provide user, organisation and spatially contextualised views of the same information used for programme-based reporting;
  • Publicly share information on funds expenditure – in line with Australian Government open data policies;
  • Provide more comprehensive and standardised inputs into a wide range of portfolio areas including state of environment reporting;
  • Facilitate partnerships in new research opportunities by providing more publically accessible, comprehensive, consistent and standardised data which links activity and event based information on biodiversity and NRM outcomes to social participation data and management/intervention actions. Previous data associations have been costly and difficult to obtain, often sparse and never in a standardised format (particularly at landscape scales); and
  • Improve the collaborative relationships between grant recipients and DoE.

In addition to the information sharing benefits and contributions towards open government, MERIT has already produced significant enhancements and efficiencies in productivity and business processes, examples include:

  • reduction in the time and effort required to produce project and programme summaries – MERIT can provide reports in minutes where previously they took weeks to compile;
  • reduction in grant managers running personal shadow systems to track and manage their project portfolios;
  • "one-stop-shop" tool for grant managers and recipients to document the full implementation history of projects, which was not previously possible (the cost in retrieving and compiling records data for case preparation was significant). This has resulted in a shift in culture and appreciation toward the efficiencies and possibilities associated with effectively managing information in a digital environment;
  • pre-loading of project MERI plans and customised reporting templates provides significant efficiency gains; and
  • utilising MERIT as a primary negotiation tool for over $250 million of investment.

Project impact

The MERIT reporting format is simple, consistent, tailored to individual projects and only requires reporting on achievements. For some programmes the system allows for real time reporting through use of tablet based field apps linked to MERIT.

Live information generated through reports is publicly available via our fully searchable programme level dashboard. This dashboard updates in real-time as new data is entered and allows anyone to see what NRM investments are happening near them and what is being achieved.

Each project has a unique home page which can be customised by the funding recipient. This functionality allows sharing of events, stories as well as uploading of rich/new media and documents related to their project.

For more information visit: www.ala.org.au

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017