Making general surveillance work


There is an increasing expectation that all Australians will play a greater role in supporting Australia’s biosecurity system. The IGAB National Surveillance and Diagnostics Framework along with other key strategic reports (Craik, 2017; CoAg, 2012; Beale et al, 2008) highlight surveillance as a key opportunity for citizen support.

Traditionally, biosecurity surveillance has been carried out by government and to some extent industry, often in a fully structured way, such as according to formal protocols. This is referred to as active or specific surveillance. However, there is an increasing interest to harness opportunities to capture surveillance data and information from a wider range of sources including elements of flexibility. This is referred to as general surveillance.

While general surveillance is making a valuable contribution, it remains seen as an ‘untapped resource’ (2015 Marine Biosecurity Review) and it is still seen as an area where industry and the community can increase ownership and participation (Craik, 2017). General surveillance programs are known to be challenging to instigate and maintain (Crall et al. 2012).

To date general surveillance in Australia has been plagued by fragmentation. On-ground efforts are initiated in different jurisdictions and by different sectors (animal, plant, marine and environmental biosecurity) with limited sharing of lessons learned between them.

While there is a growing body of literature, much of it focuses on certain components of general surveillance. For example, some papers report on the contribution that fortuitous detections make to a country’s biosecurity system; others report on aspects of specific campaigns to gain and maintain volunteer support; while others focus on new data collection technologies or data management approaches. What is lacking is systems thinking to deepen understanding about the key components of general surveillance initiatives and the interactions between them.


The project has three objectives.

  • To explore, learn about and gain a high-level understanding of the structural components of general surveillance, i.e. the linkages and feedbacks within and across structural components, at various scales and within various sectors, using a systems-based approach.
  • Provide generic holistic guidance and considerations about planning, implementing and monitoring general surveillance initiatives, recognising that programs need to be fit for purpose.
  • Explore if there is value in the establishment of a community of practice to facilitate cross-learning and economies of scale between general surveillance initiatives and how such community of practice may function.


This project will apply Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS) thinking by considering the structural components of an innovation system (Hekkert et al., 2011). The AIS approach highlights the components of a system that are relevant to understanding what constrains or enables innovation, which in this case is cost effective, sustainable general surveillance initiatives. These components are the actors involved and their relationships, infrastructure, institutions (formal and informal rules) and the biophysical aspects of the pests, weeds or diseases. AIS thinking conceptualises innovation as requiring change across the system comprising co-evolving social, institutional, organisational and technological change in order to achieve on-ground progress. This stands in contrast with prevailing approaches to innovation that often focuses on the development of technologies that need to be adopted by end-users elsewhere, but that often suffers low adoption (Klerkx et al., 2012). These components will be explored with a range of contexts in mind.


The project involves three phases (timeframes are indicative):

Phase 1 (November 2018 – November 2019)

Phase 2 (March 2020 – June 2021)

  • Profile eight to ten general surveillance case studies in different contexts to refine the framework. The case studies will be selected in consultation with the steering committee and other key stakeholders.
  • Draft high level guidelines for general surveillance based on the findings from the literature review and the case studies.

Phase 3 (July 2021 – December 2021)

  • Conduct a stakeholder workshop to verify and refine the guidelines. This workshop will also be used to explore the value of a community of practice to facilitate cross-learning and economies of scale between general surveillance initiatives and how such community of practice may function.
  • Finalise guidelines and promote among key stakeholders.


The final product will be a set of guidelines for policy-makers and practitioners to support the design, planning and implementation of general surveillance programs. The project may also contribute to the instigation of a community of practice about general surveillance.

Literature review

Understanding general surveillance for biosecurity as a system

Published: 25 June 2020.

General surveillance is increasingly seen as a cost-effective way to obtain monitoring data about pest and disease status. Different forms of general surveillance are already making a considerable contribution to Australia’s biosecurity system. However general surveillance can be challenging to instigate and maintain due to interrelated social, institutional, organisational, ecological and infrastructure factors, and the fact that general surveillance is plagued by fragmentation. This report explores general surveillance from a broad perspective, compiling lessons learned from recent literature to capture key considerations for the different components of general surveillance and the dynamics between them.

Key Issues

This report offers insights about the different components of general surveillance initiatives comprising (i) actors and their relationships; (ii) infrastructure (physical, knowledge and financial systems); (iii) institutions (formal and informal rules); and (iv) the biophysical components. It illustrates how the interactions within components, among them and with the broader context are important considerations for planning and running general surveillance initiatives. Changes or weaknesses within one component are likely to have implications elsewhere in a general surveillance initiative. These implications could be easily overlooked and they may be sources of significant transaction costs in terms of time, effort and expenditure.


Last reviewed: 8 October 2020
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