New book: Evidence for causal mechanisms linking participation with environmental governance outcomes

By Jens Newig

In the EDGE project, we have been researching intensively the link between participation in decision-making and environmental governance outcomes. Our new book, lead-edited by Elisa Kochskämper, examines these links through eight qualitative case studies. We employ a causal-mechanism approach, which helps us identify the precise mechanisms through which participatory governance forms lead (or don’t lead) to improved environmental governance outcomes. So although our approach is highly qualitative in nature, we use it to rigorously trace causal hypotheses.

Our empirical field of study is participatory processes that were set up to implement the European Water Framework Directive in Germany, Spain, and the UK. The Directive mandates participatory river basin management planning across the European Union, with the expectation (among European policymakers and the European Commission) that participation will deliver better policy outputs and implementation.

Here are two examples of how our approach works.

The first shows how broad participation in Cantabria (Spain) does generate social learning, empowerment and acceptance by participants – even though the results of the participatory process were ultimately ignored by the authorities and not taken up in further planning (see figure below). However, the fact that the collected measures were not actually incorporated into the river basin management plan, and had not been implemented, did not diminish participants’ satisfaction with the process. The environmental NGO representative put it as follows (page 77 in the book):

Although I don’t know whether they recognised our proposals for the final measures, I think the participatory process was very good per se. […] I think this was an activity that left everyone very satisfied for the mere fact of participating […]. That we were sitting face-to-face with different officials and that we could give our opinion in public, and being taken seriously from the beginning (MC:ENGO).

Participatory planning process in the Miera and Campiazo basins. Dashed lines indicate no clear connection. Crossed out lines indicate a disconnect

The second example is a local participatory forum in Schleswig-Holstein (Germany). This case is revealing regarding the hypothesized mechanism that increased representation of environmental concerns in a decision-making process either: (a) fosters environmental advocacy, impacting positively on the environmental quality of the output; or – quite the contrary – (b) weakens the position of environmental groups vis-à-vis other actors, impacting negatively on the environmental quality of the output. The case shows how both sub-mechanisms can be found within one single case: On the one hand, environmental NGOs were particularly active in addressing river connectivity, and this was clearly reflected in the agreed list of actions, thus supporting (a). On the other hand, the pressing issue of nutrient pollution from agriculture was left out of discussions and therefore not addressed in the output. A likely explanation lies in the trustful setting that developed over several years of on-going interaction in the working group. In this setting, environmental interests, too, went along in the general spirit of proposing feasible and readily implementable measures, leaving aside the more conflictive – but nonetheless highly pressing – issue of agricultural nutrient pollution. We conclude, therefore, that ENGOs have been co-opted to a certain degree, which supports (b).

The comprehensive structured comparative approach has produced new insights into the link between participation and environmental outputs and impacts. The overall picture is telling: we observed increasing quality of policy outputs with increasing ‘intensity’ of participation. However, the details are more nuanced, as the two above examples may suggest. Ultimately, we observed a trade-off between ambitious environmental planning and actual implementability of measures. Our analysis revealed that processes either produced measures of a high environmental standard, addressing the main water problems, but that were overly ambitious and not implementable, or they produced feasible measures that were subsequently implemented, but were generally of a lower environmental standard. This hints to important questions of environmental policy implementation that go beyond claims of participation.


Kochskämper, Elisa; Challies, Edward; Jager, Nicolas W.; Newig, Jens (eds.) (2018): Participation for Effective Environmental Governance: Evidence from European Water Framework Directive Implementation. Earthscan Studies in Water Resource Management series. London: Earthscan / Routledge.


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