How do you solve a problem like 10 billion rabbits? ANZSOG alum Dr Andrew Woolnough put community consultation, people management and public policy at the centre of his work, and not only did he see results, he was also recognised with an international reward.
Dr Woolnough, a member of the 2014 Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) alumni has been part of a team awarded a United Nations 2019 Public Service Award for ground-breaking work in tackling Australia’s invasive rabbit population.
Dr Woolnough, Senior Adviser, Office of the Victorian Lead Scientist, travelled to Baku, Azerbaijan earlier this year with his Agriculture Victoria and community colleagues to accept the award for creating the Victorian Rabbit Action Network (VRAN), a community led and driven approach to fighting the species which is alien to Australia.
VRAN’s focus on placing the local community at the centre of the problem, a major change from state-led regulation and enforcement, earned the UN accolade for ‘’delivering inclusive and equitable services to leave no one behind’’.
“The award is recognition of the process we went through focusing on community involvement in the program. It’s a change in the way government has worked,” Dr Woolnough said.
Being celebrated with the UN award on United Nations Public Service Day was a “mind-blowing experience’’ according to Dr Woolnough.
“It was really interesting to see the reactions from some of the other countries, particularly the developing countries who said, “why don’t you just eat the rabbits?”’’ Dr Woolnough said.
Created five years ago as a partnership between the Victorian Government and the former Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, VRAN works by coordinating multi-disciplinary knowledge and expertise and putting the power in the hands of local citizens to create and implement solutions.
VRAN’s Leaps and Bounds Learning Network is one example, where knowledge is shared and expertise improved between land managers such as local council pest management program managers and farmers.
VRAN has reached more than 6000 people, covering 2.4 million hectares of affected land and is expected to reach 10,000 people by the end of 2019.
“The UN Award was pretty good in talking about the rabbits as the vehicle and it being about people management and public policy,” Dr Woolnough said.
“It was personal and professional recognition of the people that I worked with on the project. It was validation of the work we did, the outcomes we achieved.’’
Rabbits were introduced in 1859 by colonial pastoralist Thomas Austin on his Barwon Park Estate near Geelong in Victoria, to breed as game for shooting parties.
Today the European pest populates 70 per cent of Australia, decimating native vegetation and degrading land, endangering around 300 threatened species, costing rural economies more than $240 million per year and damaging Indigenous cultural heritage sites and country.
When conceiving the VRAN initiative alongside his colleagues Dr Lisa Adams and Michael Reid, Dr Woolnough was completing the ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration and sharing his learnings with his team, including concepts of policy entrepreneurship and wicked problems’.
“One of the pieces of reading provided early in the EMPA, “Tackling wicked problems: A public policy perspective from the Australia Public Service Commission”, had a significant impact on a number of people,” Dr Woolnough said.
The concepts of public value, the strategic triangle, systems mapping and policy entrepreneurship came together at the right time to inform the project. “The EMPA provided me with additional tools in my armoury. I was already doing policy work but it gave me a broader context and changed the way I was thinking,’’ he said.
“Policy entrepreneurship was an influence and part of that was protecting my colleague to get on and take a risk, so I acted as buffer between management and this person to try new things. The ability to try new things is not common in the public service, and that is where the entrepreneurship comes into it,” Dr Woolnough said.
“The approach we have taken has a few risks. It’s had a ripple effect – you influence one person, they influence another person, and so on.”
Meanwhile his colleagues were influenced by Penn State University’s Professor Ted Alter’s work on systems thinking. As a result, VRAN began with a big-picture approach, ensuring all the elements linked to managing rabbits, including the different stakeholders, were involved.
Previously rabbit management was the responsibility of individual land managers and regulated by government, with heavy fines and legal action common.
“As a result of VRAN we’ve gone from being really compliance-heavy in Victoria on this issue to one that is more community driven, more distributed power and the community are taking a more active role,” Dr Woolnough said.
“We have changed the mindset from a regulation and compliance approach to one where we invite the community to come up with the programs themselves. We provide the tools and support to enable them to best control rabbits. A key part is bringing them together to learn about it and getting younger people involved in rabbit management”,” he said.
“It’s a generational shift and a major paradigm shift. Going from a command and control approach to changing the way things are done in the department has been quite revolutionary.
“The community is at the centre of the work rather than government, so the community need to tell the stories. Government enables this to happen.”
On the back of VRAN’s success in combating rabbits, the Australian Government has since invested $4m to expand the initiative to address weeds, specifically targeting serrated tussock, blackberry and gorse.
To find out more about VRAN: www.rabbitaction.com.
To find out more about ANZSOG's Executive Master of Public Administration, visit the ANZSOG webpage.