There is a common refrain that environmental NGOs should work better together.  I agree, we should – we have much more to do to ensure we punch above our collective weight. 

What is often missing from any critiques is…

…the acknowledgement of what we are already are doing together and therefore how we can build on what we have

…the importance of broader collaboration beyond just environmental NGOs, to include the state, business and other NGOs. 

Andy Hay's image of pink-footed geese (rspb-images.com)

Over the past twenty years, I have been involved in many great collaborations which have achieved some impressive results such as …

Wildlife and Countryside Link’s successful campaigns for wildlife law reform in the late 1990s and marine conservation in the 2000s

Stop Climate Chaos/The Climate Coalition helping to shape public attitudes towards climate change, secure groundbreaking climate change legislation, argue for an end to dirty coal and ensure the UK played its part in securing a fair and binding climate change deal in Paris in 2015

Greener UK working to ensure the UK vote to leave the EU helps rather than hinders government ambitions to restore nature in a generation

State of Nature partnership providing a common evidence base/compelling story about what is happening to our wildlife across the UK

Rethink Nature finding new ways to increase action for species for example through the HLF funded Back from the Brink project

BirdLife International developing a global network of over 120 grassroots organisations with ten million supporters world-wide responsible for many effective multi-national collaborations such as the Albatross Task Force.

I feel I have a good grasp of what works, what doesn’t work and how we can all up our game.

In recent years, the RSPB's Chief Executive Mike Clarke has encouraged us to use a framework developed by two academics, John Kania and Mark Kramer which provides five tests against which to judge the effectiveness of coalitions.  They argue for

...a common agenda or shared vision for how to achieve change

…shared measurement systems to judge success of the collaboration

…mutually reinforcing activities which ensures each partner works in a way that supports and is coordinated with the actions of others.

…continuous communication to develop trust, understanding and ultimately solidarity

…backbone support to provide the infrastructure to support the work of the collaboration

I have observed collaborations stutter or fail when any of the above elements are missing.  

National plans to drive nature’s recovery in the four countries of the UK have, in recent years, categorically failed to respect these principles. I believe this is the reason why we have collectively underperformed and is, in part, why nature remains in such a critical state.

Yet, I am old enough to remember a time when we did have an effective partnership between the state, business and NGOs – it was called the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which was…

…owned and supported (at least initially) by the three sectors

…a target-led approach to driving habitat and species recovery which led, for example, to the massive expansion of reedbeds and the recovery of the bittern population

…clear about roles and responsibilities, with the state ultimately accountable for performance, business champions investing resource, and NGOs and agencies mobilising action for species and habitats respectively

…supported by regular meetings, bulletins, conferences, information exchanges etc

…driven by the UK Government

Today, many of these are either missing, or partial at best.  There is not the same sense of shared purpose that links us nationally let alone locally, we have no consistent approach to measuring success, the state appears to have reneged on its responsibility to be held to account, and the infrastructure designed to keep us together (especially communication) has eroded.  It is no wonder that the UK Government’s own biodiversity indicators continue to decline.

Despite this depressing critique, we have, in England at least, the most positive commitments since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 spawned a flurry of biodiversity strategies which galvanised action.

The 25 Year Environment Plan and its pledge to restore nature in a generation, the promise of a new nature strategy for England and the imminent consultation on the Westminster Environment Bill are all welcome interventions.  Not only do we need to get the content right, we need to think afresh about how we work together to achieve great results.

We can do much better still and the Environment Bill is an opportunity to enshrine a way of working that would establish a long-standing joint enterprise to restore our natural environment – to set targets that are neither ‘achievable’ or ‘ambitious’ but that are ‘genuine’, reflecting what must happen if we are to avoid passing on a depoverished environment to the next generation, targets that will give people in all sectors purpose and faith.  And more still than this, that we could create not just the shallow waters of consultative ‘buy-in’ but the fruitful fields of ‘joint ownership’ derived from fully functional ‘joint leadership’.

So, dear Defra (and indeed to colleagues in the devolved administrations), please spend time thinking about how you ensure NGOs and business genuinely share your vision, make sure we have clear metrics of success (ideally enshrined in law to withstand political upheaval), be clear about the role of the state, of business, and of NGOs both nationally and locally by harnessing the power of Local Nature Partnerships, encourage an environment of constant communication, and make sure that there is capacity to knit this all together.  In short, plan to create an unstoppable network of organisations that together will have a massive impact for nature.

We are up for it.

Are you?

Colin Wilkinson's image of a starling murmuration over RSPB Otmoor (rspb-images.com)

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