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 (http://leveragepoints2019.leuphana.de/programme/). 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.

Day1

Day2

Day3

 

Food Democracy Now! The Second Networking Congress of German Food Policy Councils

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Annelie Sieveking

This blog post reports back from the second networking congress of German food policy councils, which was held this year, between 23rd and 25th of November, in Frankfurt, Hesse. This event brought together food policy council (FPC) initiatives from all Germany and its neighbor countries Austria, Luxemburg, Netherlands and Switzerland. The FPC initiatives from the German-speaking countries and regions met for the first time in 2017 (for more details see my blog on “The beginning of a new food movement in Essen” from November 2017). In the meantime, more FPCs were established, e.g. in the cities of Munich or Freiburg, and the number continues to rise. Currently we can talk about around 40 different FPC initiatives that are emerging in German-speaking countries and regions.

About 150 participants joined this event in Frankfurt with the aim of (1) exchanging experiences that they gathered in the…

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Sustainability Governance Working Group at 2018 Utrecht Earth System Governance Conference

by Stephanie Jahn and Elisa Kochskämper

Several members of our research group attained the 2018 Utrecht Earth System Governance Conference: Benedetta Cotta, Lisa Glass, Nicolas Jager, Stephanie Jahn, Elisa Kochskämper and Jens Newig. Here we would like to share some insights from the conference:

The conference is organized by the global Earth System Governance Research Alliance, representing the largest social science research network in the area of governance and global environmental change. This research alliance aims at exploring political solutions and novel, more effective governance mechanisms to cope with the current transitions in the biogeochemical systems of the planet towards sustainable and socially equitable development.

Our team had the opportunity to present the latest results and insights from different research that is all linked to this overall aim. We presented findings form the research projects Governect, MONA, EDGE and from Lisa Glass’ Phd project on Governance and the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as Elisa Kochskämper’s Phd project on Systematic Learning in Water Governance.

Organized in six overarching streams (Architectures, Agency, Accountability, Allocation, Adaptiveness and Theoretical and Methodological Foundations of Earth System Governance), the panels offered diverse views on how to tackle transformation from various disciplines. In order to gather these and further insights, the alliance launched their own journal during the conference. Papers can be submitted from now on.

Furthermore, the new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan was introduced by leading authors Sarah Burch, Aarti Gupta, Cristina Yumie Aoki Inoue, Agni Kalfagianni, Åsa Persson to guide further research within the community: „Our vision is to understand, imagine and help realize just and sustainable futures by stimulating a pluralistic, vibrant and relevant research community.“

The new Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan can be downloaded here.

The conference organization also opened-up space for visibility of and information on researchers participating, which was a welcomed initiative not that frequently used at academic conferences. Our group members Elisa and Stephanie were interviewed by the conference media team:

Other interviews of participants of Earth System Governace Conference i.e. Ortwin Renn, Oran Young, etc. can be watched on the Earth System Governance Youtube Channel.

 

Workshop on “Rethinking the governance of European Water protection” 

By Nadine Schröder

When:  January 8th-9th 2019

Where: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig

Organizers:

Nadine Schröder  (Leuphana University Lüneburg)

Barbara Schröter (Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF))

Frank Hüesker (UFZ Leipzig)

Content:

During this workshop we want to discuss on European Water governance and to address frameworks/ lenses/ concepts/ theories and methods to research water governance: Which factors, levels and scales do they focus on? Which roles play participation, sector integration and basin approaches? We draw conclusions how the governance might be improved in favor of better performance: Which factors may influence local, regional and national success or failure? Are best-practice examples identifiable empirically? Additionally, we critically reflect how the chosen frameworks and methods predetermine the findings of regulating parameters. We aim for joint products as results of the workshop, like e.g. a special issue, a book, joint conference panels, seeding joint projects, work on the science-policy interface, a manifest and so on, which is open to be discussed and depends on the interest of the participants.

You can have a look at the abstract and preliminary program here:

Preliminary Program

Abstract

 

Report

Job opening: Post-doc on public policy and institutions / environmental and sustainability governance

Our research group at Leuphana University Lüneburg is looking to employ a post-doc to support existing activities and to explore new research directions.

Tasks and responsibilities: Research in environmental and sustainability governance, contributing to the international visibility of the research group. Innovative topics and approaches are particularly welcome. Potential research themes and methods include:

  • Institutional change towards sustainability, potentially linking sustainability transitions research with institutionalist approaches
  • Elite networks for the production of public goods
  • Participatory and collaborative governance, from the local to global commons, with a potential focus on the global South
  • Knowledge, (adaptive) learning and experimentation in policy-formation and governance
  • Systems perspectives on governance and institutional design, e.g. leverage points for sustainability
  • Innovative methods for the cumulation of evidence: meta-analytical methods and the potential role of “big data” in governance research
  • Field experimentation on governance interventions.

Further tasks include:

  • Developing and collaborating in writing articles for international journals;
  • Supporting teaching activities on governance-related topics in environmental, sustainability and/or political science study programmes, with a teaching duty of four teaching hours per week during the semester;
  • Assisting with day-to-day aspects of facilitating smooth collaboration within the research group;
  • Preparation of a cumulative ‘habilitation thesis’ (or equivalent qualification) on a topic agreed with Prof. Dr. Newig.

Selection criteria:

  • Completed university degree (Masters or equivalent) with above-average grades in the social sciences, e.g. political science, public administration, law, planning, human geography, environmental or sustainability science, as well as a completed PhD in one of these areas;
  • Very good English language communication skills (written and oral);
  • Academic publication experience;
  • Experience in empirical research, and training in statistics, QCA or other formal comparative methods would be an additional asset;
  • Ability and willingness to teach relevant classes; some teaching experience would be an asset.

For questions, please contact Prof. Dr. Jens Newig (newig@uni.leuphana.de).

Deadline for applications is August 15, 2018.

To apply, please visit the university’s website here.

Call for papers: Leverage points for sustainability transformation – Re-structuring institutions

Leuphana University will host the Leverage Points 2019 international conference on sustainability research and transformation, 6-8 February 2019.

Inspired by the work of Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system”, this conference will explore the deep leverage points that can lead to sustainability transformations, asking: how do we transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions and our societies for a better future?

One conference theme will be on Re-structuring institutions for sustainability transformation.

Institutional arrangements are deeply rooted structures that shape the rules of a system and, thus, have the power to advance systems change. Social structures, embedded in formal institutions (rules, regulations, and policies) enable, constrain, and guide human action, and thus shape sustainability transformations.

In this theme, we will explore the potentials of systemic, institutional change as a leverage point for sustainability transformation. Existing research often lacks a systems-oriented view, and pays only scare attention to processes of institutional failure and decline, and even less to potentially productive functions of such phenomena.

In particular, we invite contributions that address this gap and that (1) employ a perspective that goes beyond single institutions but take a complex-systems oriented lens; and (2) that pay close attention to phenomena of failure and decline of institutions and the extent to which these can serve as leverage points for sustainability.

This includes, but may not be limited to, issues and topics, such as

  • The role of institutions for sustainability transformations from various theoretical perspectives;
  • Crises as triggers for adaptation towards sustainability;
  • Deliberate dismantling of unsustainable institutions;
  • The active management of declining institutions;
  • The identification and unlocking of path-dependency and system traps;
  • Analysis of institutional coherence, redundancies, and lacunae;
  • Perspectives on the interplay and integration between different institutions;
  • Democratic implications of transformation processes;
  • Methodological challenges in analyzing and understanding institutional change.

The conference is premised on three principles: 1) The importance of searching for places where interventions can lead to transformative change; 2) Open inquiry, exchange and co-learning across multiple theoretical, methodological and empirical research approaches; and 3) The need for reflection on modes of research and processes in sustainability research.

Abstracts with a maximum of 300 words should be submitted by 30 June 2018 via the conference website: http://leveragepoints2019.leuphana.de/call-for-abstracts/.

For more information please visit: http://leveragepoints2019.leuphana.de

For any specific enquiries about abstract submission please contact: Leveragepoints2019@leuphana.de

LP2019_Conference_flyer