The Project Prioritisation Protocol

A tool for allocating funds to threatened species 

By Liana Joseph and Hugh Possingham (University of Queensland) 

Late in 2013 the NSW Government adopted a version of ‘conservation triage’ that is based on our cost effectiveness approach – the Project Prioritisation Protocol or PPP. The NSW Government called their program Saving our Species and it provides a coherent framework for the conservation of threatened species.

Saving our Species will help rationally allocate millions of dollars of government funds to improve the plight of threatened species. The approach combines information about the benefit, cost and probability of success of a conservation project. It enables the government to identify a suite of actions that saves as many species as possible.

A rational approach 

PPP was developed by EDG researchers at the University of Queensland back in 2008, in close association with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. It’s a tool to help optimise threatened species management. Its successful application in New Zealand has given other states and countries the confidence to consider a rational approach to funding threatened species.

So what do we mean by ‘rational’? In our case it means a transparent and robust method for deciding between multiple options available to government when it comes to allocating a very limited budget to save as many endangered species as possible. Possibly the best way to appreciate what it means is by considering the alternative which in times gone by has been the traditional way governments have decided to allocate money to endangered species. This traditional approach has involved departments giving out money on a species by species basis without consideration of how one decision affects another (often referred to as an ad hoc allocation). It frequently involved ministers pledging support to a species that was about to go extinct rather than a consideration of where the best return on investment might be found. It usually involved decisions that were ‘opaque’ in that the logic behind the allocation was not revealed, making it impossible to learn.

In practice, a rational approach pays major dividends. Rational prioritization in New Zealand, for example, has meant that more than twice as many species can be secured as compared with the previous ad hoc allocation process.

PPP decision scientists

Decision scientist Liana Joseph (centre) with conservation policy makers from the New Zealand Department of Conservation (Shaun O’Connor on the left and Richard Maloney). It was this partnership of decision science and conservation policy development that saw the creation of the Project Prioritisation Protocol (PPP).

Prosecuting the case 

Our consistent and persuasive arguments about rational conservation asset prioritisation, and EDG’s ongoing engagement with multiple conservation agencies (governmental and NGOs) is creating tectonic shifts in the way conservation managers distribute their resources. In 2013 an open letter to the US Secretary of the Interior from the Ecological Society of America demanded that the USA’s Endangered Species Act – arguably the most important piece of conservation legislation on the planet – be enacted according to a PPP-style algorithm. This cited the application of PPP in New Zealand as World’s best practice. The approaches developed in PPP are now underpinning the way several state governments in Australia approach conservation triage, most recently in NSW with their Save our Species plan announced late in 2013.

The Project Prioritisation Protocol concept has influenced the 2012 senate inquiry into the “Effectiveness of threatened species and ecological communities’ protection in Australia” (pages viii, xi, 77, 143-4, 159) and the 2009 Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (page 130). 

Current and future developments 

The PPP approach relies on the fundamentals of structured decision-making, a framework that EDG champions. The EDG is now working to refine and extend the basic framework. CEED postdoctoral researchers, Ayesha Tulloch, Martina Di Fonzo, Will Probert and Joseph Bennett, worked throughout 2013 with Liana Joseph and Hugh Possingham to advance the protocol and associated software. These advances include dealing with more complex weightings to account for the phylogenetic distinctiveness of species, considering risk and uncertainty, and looking at the possibility of partially funding some species.

Funding sources 

The initial research was funded by a Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities grant, ARC grants and The University of Queensland. Direct funding from the New Zealand Department of Conservation and then the NSW state government tailored the approach to their circumstances. Recent funding has been from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and the National Environmental Research Program (Commonwealth Department of the Environment).

More info: Liana Joseph 

Look to our past issues for more info on PPP:

Dial PPP for robust allocation – Choosing management priorities for threatened species. Issue #29

The history of an ‘outcome’ – How conservation triage became a policy. Issue #76

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