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.

Citizens’ Councils for Promoting the Global Common Good

By Okka Lou Mathis

Prioritise climate protection, promote sustainable food production, increase funds for development cooperation, and create a sustainability ministry: These are just four of the 32 proposals from the citizens’ council on “Germany’s Role in the World”, consisting of 154 randomly selected citizens. The Bundestag will receive the final report on 19 March. The citizens’ council is an instrument of innovative citizen participation that has been used in many countries and at various political levels.

Citizens’ councils promise to reduce disenchantment with politics and to promote courageous solutions to socially controversial issues. The trick is that certain people come together by lot, ideally representing the socio-economic composition of society, in a so-called “mini-public”. The council is therefore much more inclusive and diverse than, for example, the Bundestag. Moreover, the councillors have neither voters, nor a party line, or lobby interests breathing down their necks. The idea is that this allows them to discuss political issues more impartially and at eye level. In addition to learning together, an appreciative, personal and yet fact-oriented exchange of experiences and views can take place according to the principle of “deliberation”: In the end, the best argument for the common good should actually be convincing, not just the loudest voice or the best-organised interest. For this reason alone, citizens’ councils are a useful addition to our democracy. In concrete terms, citizens’ councils can provide valuable impulses in terms of content, as the political recommendations on sustainability from the citizens’ council “Germany’s Role in the World” show.

The citizens examined this broad topic from five perspectives in working groups: sustainable development, peace and security, democracy and the rule of law, economy and trade, and the EU. The topics were selected in advance through a participatory process, and it is gratifying that sustainable development was considered very important. A small drop of bitterness, however, is that sustainable development was not, by its very nature, considered as a cross-cutting basic principle everywhere. Be that as it may, both the agreed guidelines and the concrete recommendations of the sustainable development group showed that the randomly chosen citizens were serious about wanting to anchor sustainability as an overarching guiding principle in German politics. For example, at their final meeting on 20 February, they agreed that Germany should “promote sustainability, climate protection, the right to clean water and the fight against world hunger as a global cross-sectional task (…) and place them at the centre of its political action so that future generations can also live well”. They proposed “enshrining sustainability in the Basic Law” and the “establishment of a sustainability ministry that coordinates, controls and monitors other ministries and ensures transparency”. They also found clear words for prioritising climate protection and for Germany to show “courage to embrace a reorientation towards the common good and end the continuous growth paradigm”. In addition, funds for “development aid” should be increased to 2% of gross national income (currently the rate is 0.6%). In addition, food production should become sustainable worldwide – “even if food prices in Germany rise as a result.”

If we think of the international agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, sustainability and the reduction of greenhouse gases are central and overarching political goals, and are not exactly new. What is new and encouraging, however, is that the international community’s existing goals, and their consequences for us in Germany seem to enjoy support among the general population, at least when citizens are given the opportunity to discuss them in an informed way. This could increase both the pressure on politicians for the ambitious implementation of these goals and the social legitimacy of sustainability measures in Germany. Despite all the euphoria, however, questions remain about the citizens’ council as an instrument, for example how to strengthen its political weight and how to attract broader public attention to the discussions and conclusions.

The citizens’ council “Germany’s Role in the World” shows the instrument’s potential for searching for solutions oriented towards the common good – both at national and global level. This makes the format directly relevant for international (development) cooperation, because the global common good is the very rationale behind the climate and sustainability agendas. The institutionalisation of citizens’ councils in Germany, especially on sustainability issues, would therefore be a promising way of exerting pressure for the implementation of these international targets. Incidentally, this is also a recommendation of the panel itself: “Germany should (…) use and account for citizen-based, political forums (e.g., citizens’ assemblies) on a permanent basis”. The next citizens’ council that could work for the global common good is already in the starting blocks – the topic: climate.

This post first appeared as The Current Column (2021), Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik / German Development Institute (DIE) on 18 March 2021.

What it takes to exercise adaptive planning

By Shirin Malekpour and Jens Newig

This research was a collaboration between Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), and the Research Group Governance and Sustainability, Leuphana University (Germany). Dr Shirin Malekpour (Monash) is the recipient of the Green Talents award, which enabled her to undertake a research sabbatical at Leuphana in 2019, conducting this study in collaboration with Prof. Jens Newig.

Adaptive planning is an approach to long-term strategic planning when confronted with significant uncertainties that dwarf any seemingly robust forecast (think Covid-19 pandemic). It is a shift from the conventional ‘predict-and-act’ approach, which assumes that we can anticipate the most likely future scenarios, and optimise our strategies accordingly. When uncertainties are profound and we have no good grasp of what can happen in the future, adaptive planning posits that decision makers should not even dream of an optimal strategy that can work in the long term. Instead, they need to adopt strategies that are flexible, and a planning approach that remains open to adaptation over time, in order to proactively respond to changing circumstances.

In today’s world overwhelmed by unprecedented events and profound shocks, adopting an adaptive approach to long-term strategic planning might sound like a no-brainer. There are, in fact, a range of tools for adaptive planning available to decision makers, such as those developed by the Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty (DMDU) community. However, reactive planning and over-reliance on narrow projections still appear to prevail.

Some scholars have argued that the poor usage of adaptive planning is not due to a lack of appreciation of adaptive planning, but because of unfavourable governance processes, institutional frameworks and organisational arrangements within which adaptive planning should take place. Some of these issues impacting adaptive planning have been discussed in individual case studies, but there has been no larger scale comparison across various cases to provide a comprehensive picture of what it takes to put adaptive planning into practice.  

In our recent publication, we present a meta-analysis of 40 cases of adaptive planning applications. The cases were from diverse geographies (i.e. all continents), sectors (e.g. water, transport, etc.) and implementation scales (i.e. local to national). We assessed: 1) to what extent those applications adhered to the principles of adaptive planning – in other words, how adaptive were those adaptive planning applications, and 2) what enablers and barriers they faced in the broader governance and institutional arrangements.

So, what did we find?

Figure 1: Adaptive planning in different geographies. The data has been sorted (left to right) based on the number of reported cases of adaptive planning. Check the publication for further details on how we calculated average adaptiveness.

Figure 2: Adaptive planning in different sectors. The data has been sorted (left to right) based on the reported number of cases of adaptive planning. Check the publication for further details on how we calculated average adaptiveness.

We found that in the studied cases, adaptive planning applications are far from ideal. The main challenge is in setting up a monitoring regime that can identify early signals, and a systematic process that can assist with activating contingency plans when needed. The principal barrier to this is the lack of long-term investment strategies that go beyond short-term budgetary cycles for individual projects. There is a need for a redefinition of planning priorities and success indicators, from efficient delivery and implementation (i.e. a quick fix), to long-term outcomes achieved through experimentation, learning and adaptation.

Another challenge has been in using a wide range of future scenarios as the basis for decision making, which is another principle of adaptive planning, in addition to monitoring and keeping options open. The implicit assumption that future conditions could be estimated from existing trends was identified as a significant barrier to using a wide range of scenarios. This confirms earlier observations in the literature that, despite encountering major uncertainties, decision makers still rely on forecasts and a limited number of future scenarios to plan for the future. Another barrier is decision makers’ risk aversion and reluctance to acknowledging that ‘they do not know’. They prefer to squeeze future scenarios into a manageable set that is easier to grasp and communicate with stakeholders and the broader public.

On the other hand, there are a range of enablers that can facilitate adaptive planning. When strategic planning takes place in a transdisciplinary environment through effective and uninterrupted science-policy exchange, it is easier to avoid a reductionist approach to decision making.

Furthermore, adaptive planning is better enabled when there is a dedicated governance body that takes on the coordination role for adaptive planning activities. This would avoid situations where adaptive planning is taken on as an add-on to ongoing activities of a strategy team, with little to no dedicated resources for effective implementation. A coordinating body is not meant to drive all activities in a top-down approach, but rather to broker and negotiate activities across different stakeholders, and to absorb some of the transaction costs for adaptive planning.

The findings of our study shed light on some of the ingredients of a governance framework for enacting adaptive planning. They indicate what enablers should be harnessed, and what barriers should be overcome in an adaptive planning endeavour. Future research could extend the findings of this study to fully articulate how adaptive planning could be operationalised: who should be involved, what structures should be set up, what resources would be needed, and what practices would need to be put in place to successfully exercise adaptive planning.

Malekpour, S. and J. Newig (2020) ‘Putting adaptive planning into practice: A meta-analysis of current applications.’ Cities 106: 102866.

Critical scholars, transformationists, and cumulators – How the environmental governance research community engages the issue of policy relevance, and why we argue for a stronger role of knowledge cumulation

By Jens Newig & Michael Rose

Environmental governance research seems to struggle with its own position towards the science-society interface. For example, the issue of policy-relevance was intensively discussed during a panel at the Earth System Governance Conference in November 2018 on “How can the Earth System Governance community effectively contribute to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals?” At the panel, one group of participants – let’s call them the ‘critical scholars’ – suggested that in our diverse community, scholars may reject an instrumental view of science helping to “implement” the SDGs. In contrast, a second group – let’s call them the ‘transformationists’ – supported an activist view in which researchers should become agents of change towards sustainability (which is what has occasionally been termed transformative sustainability science).

A third group – let’s call them the ‘cumulators’ – argued that it is mainly through providing robust evidence on “what works where and how” that social-science research can support change towards sustainability. According to this view, environmental governance scholars should hold up their high (inner-)scientific standards but at the same time build knowledge that can inform policymaking and thereby facilitate sustainability. Some in the room voiced their frustration that policymakers hardly listen to environmental governance research, but rather to natural science research – even though the latter might be less policy-relevant. It was found that while policymakers are looking for evidence, social scientists are often either reluctant to even speak of evidence, or unable to produce it.

The panel in Utrecht seemed like a microcosm of environmental social-science research, with critical researchers, transformationists and cumulators voicing reasonable and legitimate positions and arguments. While we acknowledge and appreciate the community’s diversity of approaches and methods, we also see the fragmentation and incoherence of the field being a barrier when it comes to producing cumulative knowledge. Any scientific field that shows ‘progress’ in the sense of becoming better and better at understanding and explaining natural or social dynamics needs to be cumulative: new theories and empirical findings need to build on existing ones – either by challenging (‘falsifying’) existing research, by confirming it, or by adding nuances. By and large, environmental governance research appears to be hardly cumulating. And therefore, it seems to produce little reliable and knowledge on how and why what forms of governance help to achieve environmental sustainability.

And indeed, quite recently in the broader community of sustainability research, there appears a renewed, growing interest into how science and scholarship can produce cumulative knowledge (Pauliuk 2020); how research results – including qualitative data – can be synthesized to contribute to sustainability policy (Alexander et al. 2020); and how cumulative knowledge production in the field of environmental governance can be fostered through common research protocols (Cox et al. 2020).

In a new paper, we join these voices and venture to suggest a research reform agenda for environmental governance research (Newig and Rose 2020, open access). We discuss what knowledge cumulation means for environmental governance research, and what challenges it faces. We propose three concrete areas for reform:

  • First, we make a case for an agreed canon of concepts and definitions shared within the community, while being open to reinterpretations and novel concepts. This could ideally be realized, among others, through wiki-supported common dictionaries.
  • Second, we advocate the stronger use of comparative research approaches and meta-analytical methods such as the case survey methodology, or systematic reviews, to cumulate (published) case-based evidence – drawing on both ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ cases.
  • Third, we argue for a systematic recognition of the institutional, political, and social context of governance interventions. This becomes increasingly important to the extent that meta-analyses reveal general patterns and trends that nonetheless vary with context. Here, we elaborate on what constitutes a ‘case’ of a governance intervention as opposed to its ‘context’, and discuss challenges and opportunities of integrating published case-based insights with knowledge on the respective context (which is currently seldom done).

However, this seems only the beginning of what could be a decade-long journey which may take many different paths. We would therefore love to see a broad discussion on the ideas put forward here. Whether from critical scholars, transformationists, cumulators or any other colleagues in the field – any comments, critique and ideas on how to move forward are more than appreciated!

Cited literature

New European research network on sustainable water governance

*** Deadline for applications to PhD positions has been extended to May 24 ***

By Jens Newig

Ensuring access to clean water and the protection of healthy water ecosystems remain among the greatest challenges humankind is facing. The United Nation’s (2006) dictum that “the world water crisis is a crisis of governance – not one of scarcity” has become a modern proverb. Countless paradigms and approaches to water governance have been developed and (more or less fully) implemented across the globe (Huitema et al. 2009; Biswas and Tortajada 2010; Newig and Challies 2014). But have “Adaptive Water Governance”, “Integrated Water Resources Management” (IWRM) or “River Basin Governance” in fact been instrumental in furthering sustainable water management? Will we need new paradigms or merely better implementation of those existing ones? Or will water governance approaches just have to be better tailored to their respective biogeophysical, cultural and institutional contexts?

Such questions, among others, are at the heart of the European research network ‘NEWAVE (Next Water Governance)’ that has been launched early this year. NEWAVE is funded as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network (ITN) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme and brings together around a dozen European research groups plus international partners, together hosting 15 PhD projects that are to start later this year. The NEWAVE project, which is co-ordinated by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Prof. Jampel Dell’Angelo and Prof. Dave Huitema) “aims to point the way forward in the global debate about water governance. It does so by developing research and training for a new generation of future water governance leaders, and by equipping them with the transdisciplinary skills to better tackle water challenges” (NEWAVE website).

While the project will address a variety of different perspectives on water governance – such as water scarcity, the management of urban water demand, European water policy, participatory water governance, or the role of consultancy firms – it introduces a common heuristic framework, following the “3 Ps” logic of problématiques, paradigms and patterns of governance.

Problématiques: Rather than starting out with what governance does (or doesn’t), NEWAVE pursues a problem-oriented logic and begins by diagnosing and assessing the nature of existing and emerging water-related problems. This serves “to develop an understanding of the socio-hydrological conditions in which paradigms are diffused and governance approaches are tried out” (NEWAVE website). Water-related problématiques range from unresolved local pollution to globalized and “telecoupled” issues (which we address in the project GOVERNECT) such as virtual water trade. Here, governance has to cope with spatially and socially distant causes of local problems, for which there are often no governance approaches, let alone concrete rules and measures, available.

Paradigms: Given the current and emerging water-related problématiques, NEWAVE will study the grand discourses on how water governance should be designed, as manifested in certain water governance paradigms. This “allows to engage with the ideational underpinnings of water governance, making it possible to understand why proponents of certain approaches have come to accept and embrace them, why they propagate them, and how the global circulation of ideas about governance works” (NEWAVE website). The project will assess whether and to what extent paradigms (such as the ones listed above) have shaped concrete water governance arrangements, or whether they have remained largely symbolic.

Patterns of water governance: Ultimately, it is the governance arrangements, the concrete institutionalization of governance in its instruments and measures that is expected to yield more sustainable water management outcomes, addressing lurking, acute and imminent problems of scarcity and health of ecosystems. NEWAVE studies such patterns of governance to understand how they emerge and whether and how they deliver in terms of social and ecological sustainability. Which modes of governance have proven most effective in what contexts?

Through this common framework, NEWAVE aims at cumulative knowledge development. “NEWAVE will consistently advance state of the art procedures, produce actionable water governance science for sustainable development, and contribute to scientific excellence.” (NEWAVE website).

One PhD researcher (“ESR = early-stage researcher”) will be hosted by our research group at Leuphana University (see the job description here). She or he will contribute to generating both conceptual advances and robust empirical evidence on which approaches work in which contexts towards achieving sustainable water governance. To this end, the project will first review the literature on existing empirical studies on ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of water governance approaches (objective 1). Building on this, the project will seek to analytically dissect existing water governance institutions into ‘building blocks’ (objective 2). Ideally, all water governance institutions can be split up into a finite number of such building blocks. The further empirical analysis (objective 3) will then assess the performance of water governance institutions in selected countries by drawing on existing academic literature, document analysis and key expert interviews. Governance institutions will be analysed according to the building blocks they consist of, allowing to assess which combination of building blocks leads to sustainable outcomes (or not). Results will be discussed with leading experts and practitioners in the field in order to enhance usability and robustness of the research (objective 4).

Cited literature

Biswas, A.K. and C. Tortajada (2010) ‘Future Water Governance: Problems and Perspectives.’ International Journal of Water Resources Development 26 (2): 129-39.

Huitema, D., E. Mostert, W. Egas, S. Moellenkamp, C. Pahl-Wostl and R. Yalcin (2009) ‘Adaptive water governance: Assessing the institutional prescriptions of adaptive (co-)management from a governance perspective and defining a research agenda.’ Ecology and Society 14 (1).

Newig, J. and E. Challies (2014) Water, rivers and wetlands, in Routledge Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, ed. P.G. Harris. London, New York: Routledge: 439-52.


Fully-funded PhD position on comparative water governance

We are now seeking to fill a 100% PhD position on “Assessing the sustainability of water governance systems in global comparison” within the Marie-Skłodowska-Curie ETN Graduate School ‘NEWAVE – New Water Governance’, starting between 1 May and 1 September 2020, for a duration of 36 months.

Deadline for applications (which originally was April 5) has been extended due to COVID-19 related delays to 24 May 2020!

Further information here, or visit the NEWAVE website.


What is ‘environmental governance’? A working definition

By Edward Challies and Jens Newig

As researchers, we are fully aware that ‘governance’ (like many similar concepts) is multi-facetted, ambiguous and subject to changing interpretation over time. Yet in practice we tend to assume we know what we mean when we employ the term – at least in our research team.

As university teachers, however, we cannot rely on this implicit shared understanding, and need to be more explicit. For teaching purposes, the two of us have therefore developed our own working definition of environmental governance – drawing on previous work by scholars of governance, and of environmental governance in particular.

‘Governance’ has emerged as a prominent topic in disciplines across the social sciences at large. Since the mid-1990s, cross-disciplinary governance research has increasingly grappled with shifting roles of and interactions among societal and political actors engaged in efforts to govern all facets of social life. While the term is ubiquitous, its usage varies and many definitions exist. In the political science tradition, discussion of governance has tended to be rather state-centric, concerned with “change in the pattern and exercise of state authority from government to governance” (Bevir and Rhodes 2011, p. 203). Governance, in this context, refers to a bundle of (new) governing practices and structures characterised increasingly by market mechanisms and network forms, as opposed to primarily by hierarchical state-based modes of governing (see Rhodes 1997; Stoker 1998; Pierre and Peters 2000). The main challenge for states then becomes one of retaining legitimacy and effectiveness in steering relatively ‘autonomous self-governing networks of actors’ (Stoker 1998), or ‘self-organising inter-organisational networks’ (Rhodes 1997).

Despite the importance of various combinations of network and market relations for contemporary governance, and their significant implications for the role and meaning of the state, we adopt here a rather broader conceptualisation of governance (following Kooiman 1993, 2003), which encompasses a wide spectrum of interactions among societal actors (within and across the public and private sectors, civil society and the citizenry) aimed at securing collective interests. According to Kooiman, governance – as ‘social political interaction’ – comprises  “the totality of interactions in which public as well as private actors participate, aimed at solving societal problems or creating societal opportunities; attending to the institutions as contexts for these governing interactions; and establishing a normative foundation for all those activities” (2003, p. 4).

In specifying governance arrangements in the environmental context, Lemos and Agrawal (2006, p. 298) identify as relevant the full range of “regulatory processes, mechanisms and organizations through which political actors influence environmental actions and outcomes”. They stress that while governance is distinct from government, it does encompass the actions of the state, alongside diverse non-state actors (ibid.).

Such definitions allow for consideration of a range of ‘new’ modes of environmental governance (see Driessen et al. 2012), combining aspects of network and market relations without neglecting the (still important) activities of governments, and provide for engagement with the widely invoked ‘shift from government to governance’ (Rhodes 1996; Peters and Pierre 1998) as a contingent tendency rather than a clean break with the past.

On the basis of this perspective on governance, we can define environmental governance as

the totality of interactions among societal actors aimed at coordinating, steering and regulating human access to, use of, and impacts on the environment, through collectively binding decisions. Environmental governance arrangements may be directed towards a range of causes – including conservation and environmental protection, spatial and land use planning, (sustainable) management of natural resources, and the protection of human health – and operate across scales to address local and global environmental problems.

Within this we seek to acknowledge a variety of motives for environmental governance. These may range from rather more ecocentric motivations to conserve and protect the environment for its intrinsic value, to instrumental rationales for the sustainable management of resources for human benefit, to the mitigation of immediate or long-term hazards and risks to human health and wellbeing. We also try to capture the implications of intensifying global interconnectivity, and the way in which this increasingly forces governing actors to confront problems that escape their immediate reach and jurisdiction.

As an analytical field, environmental governance research describes scientific and scholarly endeavour to understand and explain these relationships. As a normative project, environmental governance seeks to achieve some degree of balance between collective social interests and environmental protection. This can be thought of, again following Kooiman (2003), as solving social-environmental problems and/or realising social-environmental opportunities, however these might be defined in a given context.


Cited literature

Bevir, M. and R.A.W. Rhodes (2011) The Stateless State, in The SAGE Handbook of Governance, ed. M. Bevir. London: Sage: 203-17.

Driessen, P.P.J., C. Dieperink, F. van Laerhoven, H.A.C. Runhaar and W.J.V. Vermeulen (2012) ‘Towards a Conceptual Framework for The Study of Shifts in Modes of Environmental Governance – Experiences From The Netherlands.’ Environmental Policy and Governance 22 (3): 143-60.

Kooiman, J. (1993) Social-Political Governance: Introduction, in Modern Governance: New Government-Society Interactions, ed. J. Kooiman. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage: 1-8.

Kooiman, J. (2003) Governing as Governance (London: Sage).

Lemos, M.C. and A. Agrawal (2006) ‘Environmental Governance.’ Annual Review of Environment and Resources 31: 297-325.

Peters, B.G. and J. Pierre (1998) ‘Governance without Government? Rethinking Public Administration.’ Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8 (2): 223-43.

Pierre, J. and B.G. Peters (2000) Governance, Politics and the State (New York: St. Martin’s Press).

Rhodes, R.A.W. (1996) ‘The New Governance: Governing without Government.’ Political Studies 44 (4): 652-67.

Rhodes, R.A.W. (1997) Understanding Governance. Policy Networks, Governance, Reflexivity and Accountability (Buckingham: Open University Press).

Stoker, G. (1998) ‘Governance as Theory: Five Propositions.’ International Social Science Journal 50 (155): 17-28.

Towards Sustainability in EU-Brazil Trade Negotiations

By Jens Newig, Benedetta Cotta, Johanna Coenen, Andrea Lenschow, Edward Challies and Almut Schilling-Vacaflor

While European countries and EU policies have made some progress in enhancing domestic sustainability, we are pretty much failing when it comes to taking responsibility for the far-away consequences of our way of living. Chemical pollution and loss of native forests are two striking examples of such distant effects of our local meat production that relies on Brazilian soy imports as protein-rich animal feed. We call such distant effects “global telecoupling”. Labels for sustainable production standards developed by private industry and non-governmental organizations (such as by the Round Table for Responsible Soy) have not proven overly effective. Governmental bodies in Europe should therefore stronger than they did previously take up their responsibility to pass effective policies. In our team, we are currently studying the  governance responses to unsustainable global telecoupling, in the DFG-funded project “GOVERNECT”, and the EU-ITN “COUPLED”.

With a view to current EU-Brazil trade negotiations, an open letter was published yesterday in Science, with co-signatories including 602 scientists from every country in the EU and two Brazilian Indigenous organizations, which together represent over 300 Brazilian Indigenous groups. The letter calls to prioritize human rights and the environment in EU trade talks with Brazil.

Participatory and collaborative environmental governance – just symbolic exercises to sustain unsustainability?

By Jens Newig

No matter if it’s about siting new landlines, declaring protected areas or developing water management plans: Citizen panels, stakeholder roundtables and deliberative decision-making have become commonplace in Western democracies. While great hopes have been placed in such participatory and collaborative forms of governance to advance environmental sustainability, the debate is now more nuanced and partly skeptical as concerns both their democratic and their sustainability-oriented benefits. Ingolfur Blühdorn and Michael Deflorian from WU Vienna add an interesting facet to this debate, building strongly on Ingolfur Blühdorn’s earlier work on simulative politics and democracy. Their thought-provoking article entitled “The Collaborative Management of Sustained Unsustainability: On the Performance of Participatory Forms of Environmental Governance” was published just two weeks ago in Sustainability.

What makes this an interesting read is its broader sociological perspective. Rather than asking how governance does or should function to achieve normative goals, the article investigates why participatory and collaborative forms of governance are proliferating and which societal functions are served through these. The authors start out by arguing that collaborative and participatory forms of governance are neither (1) particularly democratic nor (2) likely to be effective in the sense of their transformative potential towards sustainability. This, they argue is because (1) collaborative and participatory forms of governance are typically coopting citizens or selectively empowering only some actors who do not have a clear democratic mandate, and (2) because “their proliferation has, as yet, not taken modern consumer societies much closer to the great socio-ecological transformation”. This, the authors speculate, is “perhaps because the prevailing forms of decentralized and collaborative governance are explicitly designed not to disrupt the established order and are, therefore, structurally unable to deliver the kind of change that scientists and environmental movements demand.” If this is so, then why are collaborative and participatory decision-making processes becoming so prevalent?

The key to understanding this apparent puzzle, the authors argue, lies in the performative aspect of governance. Referring to the title of our 2018 paper on conceptualizing the “performance of participatory and collaborative governance”, the authors re-interpret the notion of ‘performance’. In a nutshell, they distinguish

  • performance as delivery of outputs – both in a “democratic” and in a substantive (“systemic”) sense – from
  • performance as theatrical display, enactment or illusion in the sense of symbolic or simulative politics.

It is this second perspective that the article focuses on, proposing “that these new modes of environmental governance have become so prominent because they actually correspond very closely to the particular dilemmas, preferences, and needs of contemporary consumer societies—notably the desire to sustain particular lifestyles and understandings of freedom and self-realization, which are known to be socially and ecologically destructive (unsustainable)”. Hence, new modes of environmental governance, “if assessed from the perspective of these contemporary dilemmas, preferences, and needs, they do actually perform exceptionally well. More specifically, they provide contemporary consumer societies with a practical policy mechanism that helps them to reconcile the widely perceived seriousness and urgency of socio-environmental problems with their ever more visible inability and unwillingness to deviate from their established societal order, patterns of self-realization and logic of development.” Put simply, while we cannot achieve sustainability and at the same time continue the established logic of consumption, participatory governance helps us to at least symbolically resolve this apparent contradiction. ‘Symbolic’ stems from the Greek term symballein, meaning to ‘throw together’ – here otherwise irreconcilable aims (I’ve written earlier about symbolic politics and legislation, as it happens in a special issue edited by Ingolfur Blühdorn). Hence, ‘performing’ collaborative governance gives us the feeling of teaming up for sustainability, while at the same time we do not give up on our unsustainable lifestyles. As a consequence, these collaborative practices contribute to stabilizing (rather than transforming) current systems of unsustainability – thus the argument of the authors.

While I find these lines of arguments illuminating, my main point of criticism concerns the lacking empirical grounding. The authors illustrate their points by three empirical cases, but these of course cannot be representative. We should be aware, therefore, that the performative functions identified here may apply to some cases of participatory and collaborative governance, but not to others.

Assuming we do strive for environmental sustainability, and assuming further that governance (by whatever mode) can play a vital, if not indispensable role in this – what insights do we gain from this article? In terms of normative guidance, this paper may leave us with a fatalistic impression that not much can actually be done, because – and so long as – societies embrace the “notions of freedom, self-determination, self-realization”, which are “firmly based on the principle of sustained unsustainability”. Having said that, I see three productive lessons we may take from the article:

  • First, the paper is enlightening for all those of us who either adhere to rationalist and instrumentalist models of decision-making, or who see decision-making through the lens of power-play (in which big business tends to ‘win’). Having read this paper, one can no longer claim not to have heard of the potential dangers of participatory and collaborative governance – not just because it may be ineffective but also because in a subtle, hidden, yet striking way it may serve to obscure its symbolic functions which result in sustaining unsustainability.
  • Second, these insights by no means imply an empirically grounded verdict! Despite its three examples, this is not an empirical paper. In fact, the jury is still out on how participatory and collaborative environmental governance actually delivers (to avoid the term ‘performs’) in both a democratic and a sustainability-oriented sense. What is required, more than ever, is solid empirical evidence of which modes of governance ‘deliver’ und under what circumstances.
  • Third, from a governance perspective, it is one thing to be aware about the potential deficiencies and misleading hopes of participation; it is another to ask: What is the alternative? Should we go “back” to strong state-based decision-making? Is there just too much governance and too little government? Arguably, we not only don’t know enough about the delivery of participatory and collaborative governance, but also we lack robust evidence on the role of expert-led decisions, the role of administrative capacities and of elite-networks in shaping decisions for environmental sustainability.

All in all, I highly recommend this enlightening article – not least for use in teaching sustainability governance courses, confronting students with sobering insights on the functions of participatory and collaborative governance, and triggering discussions about ways to effectively govern towards sustainability – including or not collaborative forms.

Starting today: Leverage Points 2019

Today, day 0 of “Leverage Points 2019 – International conference on sustainability research and transformation” is starting. If you haven’t made it to the conference, please check out the programme here ( Throughout the next days, many from our research group will present their research on the governance of sustainability transformation, institutional change, the productive functions of institutional failure and decline, and on the effectiveness of different modes of research.