copy the linklink copied!Chapter 7. Case Study 2. Digital technologies for Dutch agricultural collectives

This case study provides a practical example of how data management and transfer technologies can be used for the effective and efficient operation of collective governance mechanisms that focus on achieving environment-climate-biodiversity objectives in agriculture. These technologies and their accompanying administrative and legislative arrangements enable achievement of these objectives in a way that considers the landscape as a whole while providing spatial and temporal flexibility for participating farmers and other stakeholders.

    

copy the linklink copied!Context: The policy environment and the Dutch collective approach

The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the key legislative instrument governing payments made to Dutch farmers. Historically, national paying agencies have administered payments based on claim applications made by individual farmers. In 2014, the EU Rural Development Regulation (Regulation (EU) No. 1305/2013, Article 281) provided for agri-environment-climate payments (one type of payment under Pillar II of the CAP) to be made to groups of farmers or groups of farmers and other land-managers, in addition to paying farmers individually.

In 2016, the Dutch government introduced a new scheme such that individual applications are no longer possible in the Netherlands; all applications must be lodged by an agricultural collective (Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs, 2016[1]). The government considered that the collective approach would:

  • foster a “better-targeted and cross-farm approach”, focused on creating good habitat conditions for rare species and regional water quality protection, rather than pursuing farm-level commitments (Mulders, 2018[2]). The government considers this landscape approach is needed to address declines in farmland biodiversity (individual applications could be “detrimental to regional goals”);

  • provide “greater flexibility in terms of the content of conservation activities, their exact location and their financial compensation”;

  • be simpler and less error-prone than administration based on individual applications; leading to reduced costs and improved compliance; and

  • be consistent with the existing social structure in the Dutch agriculture sector which “has a long tradition of agri-environment co-operatives”.

In practice, this approach works as follows:2

  • The provincial government contracts with individual co-operatives for selected agri-environmental targets over a six-year period. Both national and provincial governments participate in the definition of the targets. The co-operatives are the beneficiaries of CAP subsidies. The Paying Agency undertakes official EU-required controls (administrative and financial checks), and pays the subsidy to the co-operatives.

  • The co-operatives contract with individual farmers for the provision of conservation targets, and develop guidance for individual payments and for the “distribution” of any penalties imposed on the co-operative in the event that the targets specified in the contract between the co-operative and the Paying Agency are not met. The co-operative works with farmers as well as other stakeholders such as conservation organisations to both decide on and deliver the conservation activities which will deliver on the targets. The co-operative also takes care of accounting, annual reporting (to the Paying Agency) and controls for individual contracts with farmers (e.g. on-the-spot-checks).3 The contracts with individual farmers in aggregate provide for fulfilment of EU requirements in the collective’s contracts; however they may also include additional management activities which go beyond what is required under the CAP. These additional management activities may be included, for example, to make area-based national policies more effective.

  • An umbrella organisation, BoerenNatuur, provides guidance and technical support to the 40 agri-environmental co-operatives.4 In particular, BoerenNatuur has developed digital platforms – described below – which the collectives use to administer contracts and payments, and to track the progress of individual conservation efforts that contribute towards the overall targets. This digital platform is directly linked to the digital platform of the paying agency.

copy the linklink copied!Use of digital technologies to support the effective and efficient operation of the collectives

The problems

In order to achieve the vision for the collectives, a number of technical and administrative challenges needed to be solved:

  • One important aspect of achieving flexibility is to design the administrative system and the payment rules to be able to “follow nature”. This requires rules and administrative procedures to be specified with reference to a date range or to when natural events (e.g. movement or nesting of birds) occur, rather than with reference to specific dates. In turn, this requires high resolution data on where and when the relevant natural events occur, as well as the ability to track individual actions (e.g. on-farm practices) accurately in space and time.

  • Another important aspect of achieving flexibility at the local level is to recognise that EU rules may not be similarly flexible, and therefore to design a system which allows local flexibility while still “fitting in” with EU requirements. This introduces the risk that local flexibility will not “fit in”, which in turn requires additional risk mitigation mechanisms such as buffers between the maximum payment the paying agency is allowed to pay according to EU rules and the actual payment the collective asks for.

  • To achieve the desired “cross-farm” or landscape approach, the system needs to be able to track all individual efforts and assess the aggregate effect, and enable an interactive regional planning process whereby regional objectives are set taking into account individual actions, as well as vice versa.

Conceptually, these challenges relate to addressing information gaps and creating co-ordination and risk management mechanisms between: 1) different actors who may have misaligned interests; 2) different scales which may have different levels of flexibility and over which objectives might differ; and 3) different legal frameworks which may (without these mechanisms) be inconsistent.

The solutions: SCAN-ICT—an IT system for the collectives

To address these challenges, the Dutch collectives are developing a system of digital technologies (SCAN-ICT, Mijnboerennatuur.nl, and Schouwtool). These tools interface with the digital platforms of the Dutch paying agency, for example the Dutch Land Parcel Identification System (LPIS).5

The SCAN-ICT was developed and built by SCAN (a foundation of collectives in agri-nature management, established to prepare the implementation of the collective AECM), as an assignment from the Dutch government (both Ministry and provinces).

Ownership of the digital platform lays at the 40 collectives together, working together in BoerenNatuur. It is obligatory for the collectives to make use of the SCAN-ICT. The SCAN ICT contains:

  • Administration and contracts for farmer participants.

  • Digital registration of the type of management on the land parcels of the participants (practically speaking: draw management unit on map and link to management activities or package).

  • Reporting of completed management activities from participants during the year, including notification to be made to the paying agency.

  • Preparation of the management plan on a landscape and parcel level.

  • Preparation of the collective claim for all the parcels in a habitat.

  • Preparation of payment justification for all the parcels in a habitat.

  • Payments of farmer participants.

Due to the direct link with the digital platform at the paying agency, SCAN-ICT makes it possible to change parcels and management activities on a short notice, without losing controllability requirements as a result of EU legislation. Further, it ensures that the plans, claims and justifications officially submitted to the paying agency fit with the digital information the paying agency obtains from other sources. This helps improve the quality of these products, and therefore it costs less time at the paying agency to make a decision.

How was the system built?

The Dutch government provided EUR 10 million over four years for the collectives to develop the SCAN-ICT system. Case study participants estimated the ongoing annual costs of the system to be around EUR 1-2 million.

The system was built by a “Building Team”, comprising information communication technology (ICT) suppliers, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, Dutch Provinces and BoerenNatuur. Team members worked together in an open, transparent and co-operative approach. The Building Team organises user groups and regularly consults them on their experiences using the system, collects suggestions on improvement and tests new proposals.

What does the SCAN-ICT system do?

The system is composed of three components described in turn below:

  • SCAN Office provides for administration of contracts with farmer participants. It contains relevant farmer data (e.g. contact details), digital contracts, payment specifications for each participant, email correspondence between the Collective and the farmer participants. The SCAN Office system is a pre-existing tool obtained via a licencing agreement and was customised to some extent for the collectives’ specific requirements.

  • SCAN GIS is a geographic information systems (GIS) environment used to register the management units (e.g. land parcels) for each different participant and link these to management activities (termed “management packages”). It was custom-built on the basis of a pre-existing tool. Data in SCAN GIS is exchanged regularly with the Paying Agency to ensure consistency between SCAN GIS and the Dutch LPIS. This component provides high resolution data and information in a range of GIS layers, such as parcel information, the kind of management a farmer and a collective agreed upon, and the specific requirements for such a management.

  • SCAN Financial is used for financial administration and payments to farmers. It was developed separately in part because the SCAN Office system does not have a financial component, and also to ensure maximum security for financial payments.

As of June 2018, employees of a collective have their own SCAN-ICT account and only have access to the data of their collectives’ participants. Participants themselves currently do not have access, but this functionality is envisaged.

The SCAN-ICT system operates separately to and duplicates information gathered by the Paying Agency (Netherlands Enterprise Agency, NEA) within the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS) which is relevant for the contract of the collectives. (Most important is the parcel information in the LPIS; specific information on farmers is not duplicated.) Data in SCAN GIS is exchanged and reconciled with the Paying Agency on a regular basis to ensure consistency between the two systems. At this stage, NEA does not allow direct access to its system.

While this separation entails some duplication of data, it has the following benefits, which case study participants considered far outweigh the costs of duplication:

  • The collectives use the SCAN-ICT system to collect and store more information than the Paying Agency needs to view. In particular, the SCAN-ICT system records data relevant to items in individual contracts with farmers (e.g. on-farm agri-environmental practices) which are not required by EU legislation.

  • Information available to the Paying Agency would be used in EU-level controls conducted by the Paying Agency. For example, as the contract and amount of payment to a farmer by a collective is a private law agreement, this information is not submitted to the paying agency. This makes it possible for a collective to pay more to a certain farmer for a certain activity than the maximum agreed upon in the Dutch Rural Development Programme.

The protocol for information exchange between the NEA and the SCAN system is based on web services and standard messages. The exchange of reference information such as the LPIS reference parcels (AAN – Agricultural Area Netherland) and the farmers’ fields (from farmers’ CAP application) is based on the Dutch standard message system, the EDI-CROP message, which has been incorporated into the UN/CEFACT e-CROP message standard6). For the SCAN information exchange, extensions have been developed by SCAN and NEA.

This EDI-CROP messaging protocol is widely used in the Dutch agriculture community, for all kind of purposes, for example in farm management systems, shared data hubs such as JoinedData, and Akkerwweb, and by the agriculture co-operations and service providers and software developers.

Thus, the information exchange between SCAN and NEA is fully aligned with other information exchanges in the Dutch agriculture community and is based on national (AgroConnect) and international standards (UN/CEFACT). Some of the software developers participating in the SCAN GIS system are also involved in app development for Dutch farmers. In many of these apps, sharing and using geo data from and with the NEA parcel registration system is an important functionality.

The system also includes “Quality Indicators”, which are constraints on data entry in the system to help prevent errors and to cross-check different elements to ensure consistency and ensure that management plans for individual participants (e.g. farmers, landholders) are “fit for purpose” (e.g. that practices are suitable for the land type on which they are to be applied; that they fit with regional or landscape level objectives). The addition of Quality Indicators is useful to demonstrate that the system is robust, and to help collective employees who administer the system to automate checks and reduce the risk of errors.

Further, interoperability protocols were developed to enable the SCAN-ICT system to interface with the Netherlands LPIS. This allows for automatic reconciliation between the two systems, minimising the costs of duplication and the risk of the systems becoming “out-of-sync”.

Ongoing developments

Mijnboerennatuur.nl —a digital communication platform for collectives and farmers

Mijnboerennatuur is an online platform which will “digitalise” communications between collectives and their participants. It will allow farmers to log into a separate application to view their own data in real time as well as key documents such as contracts. Once this platform is fully operational farmers wishing to have changes made to their data will be able to notify their collective within the application (in addition to existing contacts methods such as telephone or email). The collective can then either decline this notification, or approve it and send it on to the Paying Agency. This feature will make two-way communication between collectives and farmers simpler.

Schouwtool—a digital tool to manage inspections

Schouwtool will allow collectives to manage their inspections through SCAN-ICT, both the planning process as well as administering the results of the on the spot checks, done by the collectives themselves. External inspectors can log into their agenda and see when and where to go to conduct inspections, as well as what needs to be inspected. They can also administer the results into the tool. This allows for the inspection system to become more cost-effective.

copy the linklink copied!Lessons learned

Lesson 1. The SCAN-ICT system and related digital platforms assist pre-existing collective governance institutions to “go further”

The Netherlands has a long history of collective governance mechanisms in agriculture (Jongeneel and Pollman, 2014[3]). However, while previously agri-environmental collectives did help farmers to co-ordinate their conservation efforts, in practice most contracts under the CAP were still with individual farmers. The SCAN-ICT system and related digital platforms enable a landscape approach by providing a cost-effective way to track and aggregate information on individual conservation contracts and actual efforts on a landscape scale, and present information in an accessible and easy-to-understand format (e.g. by visualising data in GIS map layers) so that all stakeholders can be “on the same page”.

Also, historical individual contracts (and even early collective contracts) did not provide flexibility; conservation actions were fixed for the duration of the contract (typically 5-6 years). In contrast, the new model allows for a collective to adjust its management plans up until 14 days before a planned activity is to take place. According to Jongeneel and Pollman (2014, p. 6[3]), it is only due to the “especially developed ICT structure” of the collectives that this flexibility is made feasible.

Lesson 2. The SCAN-ICT system can pave the way for result-oriented agri-environmental policies

Many researchers have pointed out that moving towards policies which are more results-oriented (as opposed to action- or practice-oriented) has the potential to deliver gains in policy efficiency and effectiveness (Burton and Schwarz, 2013[4]).

The high level of spatial resolution of the SCAN-GIS system and the ability to add information on different aspects via different GIS layers (e.g. information on different types of environmental outcomes, such as impacts on biodiversity and water quality) could pave the way for implementing such results-oriented policies. However, effective results-oriented policies rely on having adequate information (either monitored or modelled) on results, and (depending on scheme design) the ability to link results at different scales (e.g. linking on-farm or edge-of-field results with broader outcomes such as impacts on ambient water quality). The basic principles of the collective approach are adopted in the CAP 2020-2027. However, case study participants considered that the SCAN-ICT will probably need to be adjusted depending on the focus of different new schemes.

Lesson 3. The SCAN-ICT system facilitates confidence and trust between actors and across different administrative levels

As described above, the Dutch collective model uses the institution of the collective and the system of collective contracts and individual subcontracts to re-distribute roles and responsibilities, and to provide additional flexibility to the administration of agricultural payments and agri-environmental schemes. This system of contracts, payments and (potential) sanctions entails the well-known problems of information asymmetries, risk of hold-up, transaction costs and co-ordination failure.

The SCAN-ICT contributes to solving these challenges firstly by providing a single system that delivers information to different parties according to their different needs. Note that this system is not based on principles of Open Data per se; rather, the system delivers what can be considered “targeted transparency”: for example, Paying Agencies are not able to access the system directly, and while farmers will be able to view their own data, they cannot view that of other individuals. This targeted transparency builds up the position of trust and authority of the collectives, in that the collective is the institution in the system who has the most information.

Second, the inclusion of Quality Indicators and LPIS interoperability builds confidence and trust by reducing the risk of errors or the risk of the SCAN-ICT system becoming “out of sync” with the LPIS. Again, this contributes to building the reputation of the collectives as well-managed, professional organisations.

Third, the system allows for real-time accounting for myriad of individual actions (as well as changes to planned actions), which, as noted in Lesson 1, is crucial for implementing the desired flexible and landscape-based approach of the Dutch model. Real-time tracking and aggregation allows for clear communication between different administrative levels, and across the many participating farmers, again increasing confidence and trust in the collectives as an institution, and in the system as a whole.

Lesson 4. The “Building Team” was essential to implementing well-functioning digital tools that met administrative and user requirements

ICT suppliers, the NEA, provinces and BoerenNatuur work together in a “building team” to collaboratively develop, implement and refine the SCAN-ICT systems. The building team also convenes “user groups”, in which users are asked to share their experiences using the SCAN_ICT systems with the building team, as well as their suggestions for improvements and opinions on new proposals. The building team works to continuously improve the systems.

Case study participants identified that one of the advantages of the building team was that it was quite small and physically situated nearby the builders of the paying agency, which made communication between the two groups more effective. Furthermore, the chairman of the collective in which area the builders lived, was one of the main builders and testers.

Lesson 5. The staged approach—first building SCAN-ICT and then the Mijnboerennatuur.nl and Schouwtool platforms—has worked well in the Dutch context

Case study participants identified that a staged approach to implementing the SCAN-ICT and related tools worked well in the Dutch context. In particular, this approach:

  • Allowed the building team to be kept relatively small, which contributed to the success of the building team’s collaborative approach.

  • Allowed building new tools or refinements at a later stage to improve the existing system (rather than building separate tools at the same time).

  • Made specific projects or milestones easier to achieve; participants felt that if all elements were pursued at the same time, the risk of not finishing some or all elements is much larger.

Lesson 6. A mixture of old and new tools was the most cost-effective approach in the Dutch context

The SCAN-ICT system is a mixture of pre-existing tools (SCAN Office) and new, custom-built tools (SCAN Financial). At the start of the initiative, different options were evaluated, and the mixed approach was selected. Case study participants commented that the experience of using both pre-existing and custom-built tools shows that:

  • Generally, a new system is more prone to faults than customising a pre-existing system.

  • Using pre-existing systems allows system users to learn from system providers.

  • Working with several different providers (i.e. for the different SCAN components) is not always easy but has the benefit that providers have deep, specific product knowledge.

    It is not expected the same conditions will prevail in other contexts. Therefore, the recommendation is that other countries considering implementing a similar approach should:

  • Form a clear view about the technological requirements, including whether these will appropriately reflect (existing or desired) administrative arrangements;

  • Canvass a variety of options (adapting pre-existing tools, new custom built-tools, or a hybrid of both) at the outset. This could include planning for a staged introduction of new digital tools if this is considered desirable (see also Lesson 5).

  • Plan from the beginning for the tools to be able to be adapted to new policy contexts (e.g. the introduction of more result-oriented or targeted policies).

  • Involve stakeholders in the development of new policy-options and tools.

References

[4] Burton, R. and G. Schwarz (2013), Result-oriented agri-environmental schemes in Europe and their potential for promoting behavioural change, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2012.05.002.

[5] European Court of Auditors (2016), The Land Parcel Identification System: a useful tool to determine the eligibility of agricultural land-but its management could be further improved, http://europa.eu (accessed on 23 August 2018).

[3] Jongeneel, R. and N. Pollman (2014), Farmer groups as a device to ensure the provision of green services in the Netherlands: a political economy perspective, European Association of Agricultural Economists, Ljubljana, Slovenia, https://ideas.repec.org/p/ags/eaae14/186379.html (accessed on 23 August 2018).

[2] Mulders, A. (2018), Dutch collective approach and result-based AECM, Netherlands Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, https://enrd.ec.europa.eu/sites/enrd/files/w23_performance-based-rd_mulders.pdf (accessed on 23 August 2018).

[1] Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs (2016), The cooperative approach under the new Dutch agri-environment- climate scheme Background, procedures and legal and institutional implications, https://enrd.ec.europa.eu/sites/enrd/files/w12_collective-approach_nl.pdf.

Notes

← 1. Regulation (EU) No. 1305/2013, Article 28(2): Agri-environment-climate payments shall be granted to farmers, groups of farmers or groups of farmers and other land-managers who undertake, on a voluntary basis, to carry out operations consisting of one or more agri-environment-climate commitments on agricultural land to be defined by Member States, including but not limited to the agricultural area defined under Article 2 of this Regulation. Where duly justified to achieve environmental objectives, agri-environment-climate payments may be granted to other land-managers or groups of other land-managers.

← 2. For a detailed description of roles and responsibilities, see The Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs (2016[1]).

← 3. Co-operatives are responsible for: administration of farmer participants; digital registration the type of management on the land parcels of the participants (practically speaking: draw management unit on map and link to management activities/package); reporting of completed management activities from participants during the year; inspection of realization of management activities; preparation of collective claim (to be submitted to the Paying Agency); preparation of payment justification; payments of farmer participants. See https://www.boerennatuur.nl/english/, accessed May 2018.

← 4. See https://www.boerennatuur.nl/english/, accessed May 2018.

← 5. “A Land Parcel Identification System (LPIS) is an IT system based on aerial or satellite photographs recording all agricultural parcels in the [European Union] Member States. It is a key control mechanism under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) designed to verify eligibility for area-based subsidies” (European Court of Auditors, 2016[5]). Note there is legal obligation for the LPIS to be maintained by the Paying Agency; in part, this provides motivation for the collectives to have a separate ICT system, even though this duplicates some of the LPIS data.

← 6. See https://www.wur.nl/upload_mm/6/f/9/0e55dbbc-4874-4e6c-9399-cfee01a1c27a_Presentatie%20Webinar%20FarmDigital%20Frans%20van%20Diepen.pdf, accessed September 2018.

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Chapter 7. Case Study 2. Digital technologies for Dutch agricultural collectives