Top-down and bottom-up management approaches:
a paper arguing for a blend of both.

Strategies deliver promise; people deliver outcomes.

Jon Nevill (with thanks to Mary Maher and Robin Saunders)           September 2004

The world is an immensely complex place.  In order to understand and manage their environment, humans draw boundaries around areas and issues.  National, State and local governments work within the confines of geographic boundaries.  Legal powers usually end at these boundaries, and, as you might expect, the interest of public employees (planners or resource managers, for example) in what is going on past the boundaries also declines dramatically.  However, through these boundaries move air, water, humans, plants, animals and micro-organisms. 

Concerning organisational structure, there is no satisfactory structure that will ensure success by itself. If we organise around one attribute (eg. location), we fail to give other attributes full value.  Similar comments apply to functional approaches: a fisheries manager is only peripherally interested in the protection of historic shipwrecks, for example. Traditionally, private companies, like government organisations have struggled to simultaneously meet the requirements of different functions (engineering, sales, administration, R & D etc.) and at the same time of location (company businesses or plants in different places).  Ocean and coastal management has traditionally been undertaken by government agencies organised on a sectoral basis (fisheries, conservation, mining, transport and communications, pollution management, quarantine…).

Solutions involving flat structures, and semi-autonomous working groups have been tried. Ultimately people in organisations must make the effort to make whatever structure is in place work, by net-working beyond the organisational boundaries.

The Australia Government Oceans Policy 1998 places emphasis on the need to integrate the activities of sectoral agencies, share information and resources, and resolve problems caused by overlapping or underlapping jurisdictions. Regional marine plans are being prepared by the National Oceans Office in consultation with stakeholders, recognising the key role played by the physical and ecological qualities of the ocean.  As is the case, say, with catchment management on land, different functional (sectoral) agencies manage different aspects of natural resource management. 

The Oceans Policy established important advisory and communications groups and procedures in an effort to achieve integrated and cohesive ocean management, recognising that each functional area is linked to other functional areas, in direct and indirect ways.  Pollution control, fisheries management, and the conservation of the ocean’s natural values are all linked. 

To make matters more complicated, the coastal zone, sandwiched between the ocean and the continent, is influenced by catchment management in the hinterland, local development along the coastline and within estuaries, and ocean management.  It should come as no surprise to see many estuaries degraded by sediment, litter and other pollutants transported by rivers to estuaries and ultimately to the oceans.

We face major issues in dealing with these links - in developing management programs which achieve their objectives without causing detrimental effects in other areas.  The engineer charged with placing a road across a tidal mudflat wishes to build a low-cost embankment, while the fisheries biologist charged with promoting healthy fish stocks and maintaining nursery areas wishes to see a high-cost elevated road built which will not interfere with the movement of tidal water.

Top-down and bottom-up approaches:

There are those that advocate a top-down approach, those that advocate a bottom-up approach, and those that see the two approaches as complimentary rather than competing.

A bottom-up advocate will say: "Without a bottom-up approach, you'll lose the grass-roots support you need to implement any strategy.  Without the support of those who actually have to run the program, operational components will not be implemented, or will be implemented only in a slow and inefficient manner.  The knowledge of local people must not be underestimated, and to undervalue it is courting disaster."

All this is correct.

A top-down advocate will say: "Programs to spend public money must be designed to achieve results efficiently and effectively.  They must also be transparent and accountable.  A top-down approach must be used to achieve these goals within a consistent framework.  Top-down approaches save time by providing establishing program objectives, and providing guidelines, planning and funding processes, and information.  A bottom-up approach will inevitably waste resources on re-inventing wheels which could be supplied in an informed and cohesive way by a top-down structure."

All this is correct.

An analogy can be drawn between the use of these approaches, and the task of making maps.  Imagine that a number of groups have been asked to prepare floor-plans of different stores in a large city.  But first they must find their stores.  They have the address, but no map.  Each group could roam the city, constructing street maps as they go.  Eventually they will find their stores, and prepare their detailed plans.  It would, however, save much time if each group is given a map showing the street layout of the city.  This map only needs to be prepared once, at the "top" and then distributed.

The city street map, in this analogy, represents the National and State policy frameworks within which each community planning group operates.  Provision of a national framework, with State and catchment planning frameworks nested within, saves each group from re-inventing the wheel.  Apart from simple efficiency of process, national frameworks also provide consistency of approach, ensuring that critical issues are addressed and not forgotten, and key links are considered.  The collection of compatible reporting data is an important aspect of consistency. Guidelines (in which many general problems have already been worked through) can save grass-roots groups much time and energy.  Accountability is strengthened by providing consistent reporting frameworks.

While top-down advocates may underestimate  the importance of local knowledge and commitment, bottom-up advocates may misunderstand the complexity of existing management processes.  To fully understand the framework of the National Water Quality Management Strategy, for example, requires many hours, if not days, of study.  To fully understand the complex legislative frameworks covering river management in most Australian States would take weeks or months of study (perhaps years at a high level of detail).  While it is not necessary for each regional manager to obtain this level of knowledge, it is important that management processes be built to make best use of existing arrangements and resources.  This knowledge can be built into national and State frameworks and guidelines.

It is important that feedback channels be established so that the "map" can evolve in the light of bottom-up experience and knowledge.  If this is not done, the "map" supplied through the top-down structure will become out of date, and as time passes, completely wrong.

It is our view that both top-down and bottom-up approaches are complimentary, and should be judiciously used to support each other.  In Australia, ocean, coastal and catchment management will always be intertwined, and so there will always be communication and jurisdictional problems created by the mix of Australian, State and local government sectoral agencies involved.  It seems safe to suggest that there is no “ideal” management structure for managing coastal and ocean issues.  It also seems safe to say that the presence of a tiered structure (of plans and managers) through national, state, local government and catchment levels is not, in itself, a guarantee of success.  However, we suggest that the presence of a carefully thought-out hierarchical structure will make success more likely, and will make it's achievement more efficient – provided effective communication links can be established across sectors and jurisdictions, and provided ways are found to engage stakeholders at the appropriate level.  Such a structure, however, must be amalgamated with bottom-up commitment and enthusiasm.  Without this ingredient, any management process is almost certain to fail.

To sum up: while carefully constructed tiered organisational structures and plans can assist the development of effective and efficient planning and management, they are not a guarantee of success. Bottom-up support is crucial.  Achieving the "top-down bottom-up" balance must extend beyond structure. It is also about a guiding philosophy which says that if we rely on either side alone, we will inevitably get an unsatisfactory result – maybe even a disaster. We need to integrate both approaches continually, at every intellectual level.