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Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation

The biodiversity conservation community is tackling large, complex, and urgent environmental problems where the stakes are high. People around the world are counting on us; they trust us, they work alongside us, and they are giving us significant resources to act effectively to save the planet. But we have a problem – we don’t have a fully functional system to assess the effectiveness of our actions. While many inspiring advances have been made, few conservation organizations can say consistently what is working, what could be improved, and what approaches need to be changed.

Without more rigorous measurement of effectiveness and disciplined recording of our efforts, how will we know if we are progressing as rapidly as needed to achieve our conservation goals? How will we become more efficient? How will we learn from one another? And how will we be able to demonstrate our achievements so that we can build public and political will and thus expand our resources to truly meet the challenges we face?

The conservation community urgently needs robust systems for results-based project planning, management, and monitoring. Moreover, it needs to practice adaptive management based on the systematic evaluation of results and use this information to learn from one another about what works and what does not work. Collectively, this approach will help the conservation community build public will to expand available resources.

To meet these needs, the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) has worked over the past decade to combine principles and best practices in adaptive management and results-based management from conservation and other fields to create the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation (Open Standards or Standards, hereafter). The Open Standards bring together common concepts, approaches, and terminology in conservation project design, management, and monitoring in order to help practitioners improve the practice of conservation. We have developed these Open Standards so that they can be applied at any geographic, temporal, or programmatic scale.

CMP is committed to the vision that global conservation efforts will be more efficient and effective as we increasingly know how to leverage or replicate what works and not repeat what doesn’t based upon credible measurement of our effectiveness and the open sharing of the lessons we learn. To realize this vision, our respective organizations aspire to:

  • State our desired results in terms of conservation outcomes, not actions. Effort alone is not sufficient to succeed. We will specify measurable desired results both for the shortterm (e.g., funds raised, laws enacted) and long-term (e.g., threats abated, species status improved).
  • State how our efforts will lead to our desired results. Just as a scientist states a clear hypothesis before designing an experiment to test it, we will articulate and share the “theories of change” behind our actions before implementing them.
  • Track our progress toward achieving desired results. We will not wait until the end of an action to evaluate it. Instead, we will systematically assess short and long-term indicators to track the effectiveness of our actions, investing in measures appropriate to the risks we are managing.
  • Adapt our strategies based on what we have learned. Simply measuring effectiveness does not fix anything. We will use our data and analyses to guide us toward doing more of what works and less of what does not work.
  • Share our results respectfully, honestly, and transparently to facilitate learning. We are not going to succeed every time, but if we are honest in our appraisals of our efforts, we will learn every time. And if we openly share our assessments with each other and with the public, we will increase learning and transparency and advance the work of the biodiversity conservation community as a whole.

The Open Standards are organized into a five-step project management cycle:
STEP 1 Conceptualize the Project Vision and Context
STEP 2 Plan Actions and Monitoring
STEP 3 Implement Actions and Monitoring
STEP 4 Analyze Data, Use the Results, and Adapt
STEP 5 Capture and Share Learning.

The Open Standards are meant to describe the general process necessary for the successful implementation of conservation projects. They are not a recipe that must be followed exactly. Rather, they are meant primarily to guide programmatic decisions in project management (i.e., determining the best interventions for conservation success). Also, they are not designed to fully address administrative processes and functions related to, for example, budgets, contracts, and human resource management.

We expect these Standards primarily will be used once it is clear where or on what theme a team will work and what it wants to conserve. Complementary tools will assist projects in geographic prioritization. The Open Standards are not intended to compete with these tools. Once the broad decision of where and on what to work has been made, the Open Standards provide a framework to achieve effective conservation of those priorities – whether they be local sites, networks of sites, landscapes, ecosystems, species across their range, or national or global policy and thematic issues such as markets.

These Open Standards are designed to provide our colleagues in our respective organizations and across the conservation landscape – with a clear roadmap to help them maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of their projects. In addition, these standards help clarify what we need to do in order to achieve quality project management, thus providing a transparent basis for a structured approach to the evaluation (both internal and external) of our actions. Finally, we hope that these standards will promote and facilitate greater collaboration among conservation organizations – an essential ingredient if we are to be successful in achieving our goals and objectives.