Assessing ‘success’ of environmental governance: How to define effectiveness, legitimacy and justice?

By Jens Newig and Ed Challies

In various projects, we come across the challenge of assessing the ‘success’ of environmental policy and governance. Regularly, we find three main aspects mentioned: effectiveness, legitimacy, and justice (alongside other, mostly related factors such as efficiency, equity, transparency, and accountability). But how can we succinctly define these evaluative criteria? Here’s our attempt, which we have already applied in one project (GOVERNECT). Our definitions are inspired by works of Adger et al. (2003); Fung (2006), and Hogl et al. (2012).

Figure 1: (At least) three dimensions of environmental governance ‘success’?

Environmental effectiveness: Strictly speaking, effectiveness of policy/governance refers to the extent to which a given goal is reached. More specifically, environmental effectiveness refers to the extent to which a policy is likely to achieve environmental improvements in the sense of sustainable use of resources, protection of ecosystems and human health, and prevention of environmental degradation. Aspects of efficiency, delivery, implementation, goal attainment, or improving environmental conditions may all contribute to effectiveness.

Legitimacy: Justified authority. Key questions are: a) Is the policy/governance instrument (likely to be) accepted by the constituency and/or addressees? b) Has it been produced through a fair, transparent process, involving the relevant stakeholder groups and affected parties (procedural fairness) – or is there an imbalanced representation of actor groups and ‘illegitimate’ influence? Legitimacy is culturally specific and may, but need not, be linked to democracy. Note that output-oriented legitimacy is often closely related to (environmental) effectiveness in the sense that a policy may be seen as legitimate if it delivers intended outcomes.

Justice: Environmental justice as a principle embodies the idea that no person or group is systematically deprived or disadvantaged in the distribution of protection from environmental and health risks,  or the enjoyment of environmental quality. Furthermore, environmental justice relates to whether people are given due recognition and treated fairly in public environmental decision-making (an aspect which overlaps with legitimacy). Key questions are: Is the policy/governance instrument likely to create/exacerbate or reduce inequalities or inequity among stakeholders / affected populations – e.g. through spatially or temporally uneven impacts of environmental change, access to resources, or other consequences of the policy/governance instrument?

So, the ‘success’ (or lack thereof) of environmental governance processes may be seen as a three-dimensional concept. There may of course be trade-offs between these dimensions. For example, a process that delivers a high level of environmental protection may be considered a failure by stakeholders who attach a lot of importance to justice, if that process was less than fair. Others, who weigh environmental effectiveness relatively highly, may consider it a success.

To complicate things further, these three dimensions or criteria are not independent, but rather overlapping and related (as mentioned above), so they interconnect in a way that is more complex than depicted in Figure 1. Our contention, though, is that it may be more fruitful to assess environmental governance processes according to these criteria, than to pursue any single definition of ‘success’ for the evaluation of governance processes.

We’d be happy for any comments or discussion on these definitional attempts!

Cited literature

Adger, W.N., K. Brown, J. Fairbrass, A. Jordan, J. Paavola, S. Rosendo and G. Seyfang (2003) ‘Governance for sustainability: Towards a ‘thick’ analysis of environmental decisionmaking.’ Environment and Planning A 35 (6): 1095-110.

Fung, A. (2006) ‘Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance.’ Public Administration Review 66 (Special Issue): 66-75.

Hogl, K., E. Kvarda, R. Nordbeck and M. Pregernig (2012) Legitimacy and effectiveness of environmental governance – concepts and perspectives, in Environmental Governance. The Challenge of Legitimacy and Effectiveness, eds. K. Hogl, E. Kvarda, R. Nordbeck and M. Pregernig. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar: 1-26.

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