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.

Now published: Disentangling the causal mechanisms that link participation and collaboration to environmental outcomes

By Jens Newig

Many agree that participation and collaboration is relevant, if not indispensable, for environmentally sustainable governance outcomes. Others maintain that public government is best equipped to effectively address environmental problems. In our new paper from the ‘EDGE’ project we try to move the debate forward by looking precisely at the causal mechanisms through which participatory and collaborative forms of governance may improve (or deteriorate) environmental outcomes of public decision-making processes.

The paper is rather analytical in that we disentangle:

  1. different dimensions of participation: Who participates? What decision-making power is delegated to participants? How do participants communicate and interact?
  2. different dimensions of outcomes: Outputs on paper (plans, agreements, policies, etc.) versus the support of outputs and their actual implementation
  3. the different mechanisms through which participation and collaboration likely work towards (or against) environmental outcomes,
  4. different contextual factors such as the capacity of stakeholders, problem complexity or the degree of conflict (we call these ‘conditioning variables’).

This analytical ‘disentangling’, we believe, helps us to identify trade-offs: For example, a collaborative process involving local resource users may lead to a conservation plan with less environmental aspiration as envisaged by a nature-protection agency (because local users do not strictly favour conservation). But at the same time, this plan may be more accepted by local communities and better implementable.

Mechanisms

This figure shows an overview of the causal mechanisms we identified, organised in five thematic clusters. Plus signs (+) denote reinforcing relationships, minus signs (–) denote weakening relationships. For example, the top left arrow combines mechanisms M I.1a (positive influence of “opening up” on representation of environmental concerns) and M I.1b (negative influence).

We hope that this framework of causal mechanisms will futher stimulate debate on the functions of participation, and ultimately be useful for guiding empirical research. To this end, we will draw on this framework to organise our empirical findings from the EDGE case survey meta analysis.

You can find the paper, which is published Open Access in the Policy Studies Journal (early view), here:

Newig, J. / Challies, E. / Jager, N.W. / Kochskaemper, E. / Adzersen, A. (2017). The Environmental Performance of Participatory and Collaborative Governance: A Framework of Causal Mechanisms. Policy Studies Journal (early view).

Collaboration – a panacea!?

For several years now, more collaboration between different types of stakeholders has been suggested as a contribution to solving various environmental and sustainability problems. Recently, this trend of pointing out that more collaboration would make things better has increased, at least in my perception: In many of the presentations I heard at the 12th IFSA Symposium at Harper Adams University, UK it was suggested that people need to collaborate to solve this and that problem. Just now, I read yet another article arguing that farmers need to collaborate to find common ground for land stewardship and, based on this, discuss future redesign of agri-environmental schemes (Raymond et al. 2016) – aside from countless other publications putting forward similar arguments. To exacerbate this, I myself am deeply involved with collaboration: In my PhD, I myself have used the collaboration argument (Velten et al. 2015) and am working on finding out what makes collaboration for sustainable agriculture successful. Additionally, in the project MULTAGRI, of which I’m part, we seek alternative governance approaches that enable farmer collaboration for more meaningful biodiversity management in agricultural landscapes.

Having said that, I have my doubts about the power of collaboration to solve seemingly all (environmental and sustainability) problems that there are and I’ve become a bit frustrated with this concept. There are (at least) three sides to these doubts and frustrations: First, collaboration does not automatically lead to sustainable outcomes. I recently heard an example of farmers with neighbouring fields who collaborated to get rid of the strips of natural vegetation separating their fields: They agreed on an alternating ownership of these strips so that in one year one farmer would be allowed to plough under the strip and add it to his field, in the next year the other farmer would be allowed to do the same. Thus, in this case collaboration did not foster sustainable land management, which would preserve or even enhance biodiversity, but rather served the self-interests of the farmers. One could say that this happened because only farmers and with that only one type of interests were involved in this collaboration. And indeed, there is evidence that if stakeholders who are inherently interested in the preservation of ecological assets are involved in collaborative decision-making processes, the generated outcomes are of better environmental quality (Brody 2003). However, involving ENGOs, for instance, is not a guarantee for sustainable outcomes because groups representing environmental interests may be co-opted while collaborating with groups dominated by other interests (Kochskämper et al. 2016). Thus, even bringing together different types of stakeholders does not necessarily prevent collaborative decision-making processes from bringing about outcomes that contribute little to overall sustainability.

Second, collaboration is easy to suggest but hard to do. While collaboration certainly has great potential to help identify common ground, complement resources, increase innovation potential, improve social capital etc. it also is very time and energy-intensive. If we all followed the suggestions for more collaboration that have been made, we literally would not be doing anything else than sitting in different groups of people and discussing what we would like to do in our neighbourhood, in our children’s schools, about the forest next to our city, about infrastructure in our city, about water management, about the agriculture and food system in our region, about energy generation in our community etc. Furthermore, finding common ground and agreeing on goals, plans, and measures with people whose mental frames and dominant values are very different from one’s own can be very stressful and sometimes impossible. So, what I am saying here is that collaboration may be one way to find solutions but people’s restricted time and other resources set a limit to it.

Third, making the point for more collaboration seems to be very fashionable at the moment. Thus, if we just argue in our publications that collaboration can help solve the issues we identify and address in our research, this seems to be good enough as a conclusion. Of course, that does not really prevent us from thinking more thoroughly and deeply about other solutions. Yet, having the ‘obvious solution’ of collaboration at hand already, we have little incentive to look into different directions. Maybe it is just my personal impression, but I cannot lose the feeling that we are missing out on something as most of our attention is drawn towards collaboration.

Despite my doubts and frustrations with collaboration, I still think that having different, relevant actors solve a problem together can be very useful to tackle certain environmental and sustainability problems. However, in dealing with the concept and the practice of collaboration we should keep some things in mind in order to address the above-mentioned issues:

First, all collaborative efforts need an explicit normative framework that defines their purpose and overall goals, thus guiding the decisions and actions of the involved actors. Of course, we can hardly prevent the occurrence of merely self-interested or even malevolent collaborations. But at least for the collaborations that are established in order to foster sustainable outcomes, this purpose should be made clear to the involved actors. Thus, there is a chance that the outcome of the example of the collaborating farmers above would have been different if from the outset the explicit goal of this collaboration had been to bring preservation of biodiversity into accordance with agricultural production.

Second, we should generally not be too quick to present collaboration as the wondrous cure to whatever the problem may be. Rather, for each problem we should thoroughly weigh all kinds of (marginal) costs against all types of (marginal) benefits of a collaborative approach as well as all possible risks against all likely gains. And only if we come to the conclusion that collaboration could be worth the effort, we should go for it.

Linked to this is, third, that we should try to look beyond collaboration and think of different, maybe new solutions. At the moment, I do not know what these ‘different, maybe new solutions’ could be. But so it is even the more important that we keep our eyes and minds open for them.

References

Brody, S.D., 2003. Measuring the Effects of Stakeholder Participation on the Quality of Local Plans Based on the Principles of Collaborative Ecosystem Management. Journal of Planning Education and Research 22 (4), 407–419.

Kochskämper, E., Challies, E., Newig, J., Jager, N.W., 2016. Participation for effective environmental governance? Evidence from Water Framework Directive implementation in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. Journal of environmental management 181, 737–748.

Raymond, C.M., Reed, M., Bieling, C., Robinson, G.M., Plieninger, T., 2016. Integrating different understandings of landscape stewardship into the design of agri-environmental schemes. Envir. Conserv., 1–9.

Velten, S., Leventon, J., Jager, N.W., Newig, J., 2015. What is sustainable agriculture? – A systematic review. Sustainability 7 (6), 7833–7865.

The perils of technocratism: Will environmentalists learn from Brexit?

 

Excellent thoughts by colleagues from Seattle, highlighting the role of justice and participation in sustainability transformation.

The GOVERNANCE blog

By Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash.  What do the Brexit vote, the rise of Trump and Sanders, and apathy towards climate change mitigation have in common? The perils of relying on technocratism to justify policy choices.

Much will be written on why the British have voted for Brexit. There are already dire predictions about the future of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the world economy. Mainstream newspapers are puzzled as to why the British voted for the exit even though it might hurt them. They blame populism, the rise of the far right, fears about immigration, economic globalization and so on.

While this is true, the mainstream media has not seriously engaged with the source of voter dissatisfaction with the EU. More broadly, we ought to ask: why are voters less willing to take marching orders from the economic and scientific elites? Why are they willing to…

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New doctoral programme “Democracy under Stress” – 7 PhD positions

Leuphana’s Center for the Study of Democracy has been awarded a major grant for funding a total of 14 PhD scholars. The first 7 scholarships are advertised now.

The doc­to­ral pro­gram in­ves­ti­ga­tes how the new po­li­ti­cal, eco­no­mic, eco­lo­gi­cal, and cultural chal­len­ges (‘stress fac­tors’) that mo­dern de­mo­cra­cies en­coun­ter are per­cei­ved, dealt with, and sol­ved in view of the exis­ting ten­si­on bet­ween po­li­ti­cal le­gi­ti­ma­cy and re­stric­ted per­for­mance. It will fur­ther look into the im­pli­ca­ti­ons that dif­fe­rent mo­des of pro­blem-hand­ling have for the ‘sur­vi­val chan­ces’ of de­mo­cra­cy. This two­fold re­se­arch agen­da will be ana­ly­zed in three fiel­ds of stu­dy that re­pre­sent the core func­tions of de­mo­cra­cies: par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on, re­pre­sen­ta­ti­on, and in­clu­si­on.

The first field of stu­dy is con­cer­ned with how ci­ti­zens in de­mo­cra­tic so­cie­ties per­cei­ve cur­rent so­cie­tal – e.g. environmental or sustainability-related – chal­len­ges in light of in­cre­a­sing ’eman­ci­pa­ti­ve’ va­lue ori­en­ta­ti­ons and how the­se per­cep­ti­ons are trans­la­ted into po­li­ti­cal be­ha­viour (participatory democracy).

In the frame­work of the se­cond field of stu­dy, the re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve ca­pa­ci­ty of po­li­ti­cal in­ter­me­di­a­ry or­ga­niza­t­i­ons as well as po­li­ti­cal in­sti­tu­ti­ons wi­t­hin and outs­ide the na­ti­on sta­te will be ana­ly­zed (representative democracy).

By me­ans of selec­ted po­li­cy fiel­ds (e. g. en­vi­ron­men­tal, cli­ma­te, sci­ence and me­dia po­li­cy) the third field of stu­dy looks into the is­sue of how new forms of po­li­ti­cal par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on in­ter­act with tra­di­tio­nal in­sti­tu­ti­ons, ac­tors, and pro­ces­ses of re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve de­mo­cra­cy (inclusive democracy).

Deadline for submission of applications is 12 June, 2016.

For more information, please see http://www.leuphana.de/en/research-centers/zdemo-english/doctoral-program-democracy-under-stress.html

Participation and collaboration for sustainable flood risk management?

By Ed Challies

Floods are the most frequently occurring natural disaster globally, and flood damages are expected to increase drastically over the coming decades due to climate change, demographic trends, and on-going development on flood plains. This will play out differently and pose unique challenges in different regions, and Europe is no exception. Floods in Europe inflict greater economic losses more frequently than any other natural hazard, with trillions of Euros worth of assets and millions of people exposed (see Jongman et al. 2012). A recent study reported by the Europe Joint Research Centre predicts annual damages to rise from EUR 5.6 to 40 billion by 2050, and the number of people affected to rise from 200 thousand to over half a million over the same period.

With projections such as these, it is no wonder that the challenge of better managing (and reducing) flood risk is high on the political agenda in Europe. The recurrence of severe floods, like those on the Elbe and Danube rivers in 2013, and the 2015-16 floods in Britain and Ireland, only serve to heighten the sense of urgency among citizens and officials. In some ways this serves to increase awareness and engagement and provide impetus for action at multiple levels – from households and municipalities right up to member states and the European Union. On the other hand, the high stakes and direct threat that floods pose to human wellbeing, present challenges for flood risk management planning. This is particularly so in light of the current policy shift away from the previously dominant paradigm of flood protection and defence, and towards a more integrated flood risk management approach. Most importantly, this entails the management of risk (as opposed to the management of floods), and implies the negotiation of socially acceptable levels of exposure and risk – an issue that is inevitably sensitive and often controversial.

Flood 2013Photo: Flooding in Passau (Inn/Danube), Germany, 2013. Licence CC BY-SA 2.0; Stefan Penninger.

Flood risk is commonly defined as comprising (1) the magnitude of flood hazard (frequency and severity), (2) the exposure of human activities, and (3) the vulnerability of exposed elements. There are, therefore, multiple points for intervention to address and mitigate flood risk, ranging from information and awareness-raising campaigns and early warning systems, to flood protection measures, land-use planning and ‘ecological’ measures such as wetland restoration and afforestation. In this sense, efforts to confront flooding touch on a wide range of activities, policy fields and stakeholders within river basins. No wonder, then, that flood risk management is typically characterised by high stakes, competing interests, and conflict!

With the aim of improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of flood risk management, participatory and collaborative approaches are increasingly advocated, which should bring stakeholders and the affected public on-board in planning and decision-making. One prominent development in this direction in the European context is the 2007 Floods Directive, which aims to reduce the effects of flooding through an explicitly participatory approach to cyclical planning. Under the Directive, member states are legally obliged to encourage the active involvement of all interested parties in the planning process. Because every country and responsible authority is starting from a different baseline in terms of flood risk management and participatory governance, however, an array of approaches are currently unfolding across the EU. The rationale behind this ‘mandated participatory planning’ approach (Newig & Koontz 2014) is very much an instrumental one: The European Commission expects that it will produce better plans, more widely accepted and implementable measures, and more effective flood risk management.

Precisely because so much stock is put in participatory approaches to deliver improved and effective planning and management, there is a need to examine how participatory public decision-making is playing out in the field of flood risk management, and to consider what potential participation holds. Participatory and collaborative approaches in environmental planning and management more widely have certainly had mixed success in terms of achieving legitimacy and effectiveness. What about the field of flood risk management poses particular challenges for participatory planning and implementation? What potential do participatory approaches hold for fostering sustainable and just flood risk management? These questions motivate a recent special issue of Environmental Science and Policy jointly edited by members of our research group here at Leuphana University, and drawing together twelve contributions from leading scholars in the field. The collection examines, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, some of the key issues around justice and power, acceptance and legitimacy, social learning, multi-level governance and policy integration, and governance learning in flood risk management.

With climate change and developmental pressures continuing to exacerbate multiple drivers of flood risk, it will be crucial for research to focus on how policy and governance responses perform in mitigating this risk. As authorities like the EU increasingly advocate participatory approaches, but recurring flood events continually trigger calls to revert to expert-led planning and engineered flood protection solutions, researchers must also critically examine collaborative planning. This should ideally be done in partnership with authorities and practitioners in ways that can support transdisciplinary learning and adaptation – not only about effective measures for sustainable flood risk management, but also about how to conduct effective and legitimate participatory planning towards this end.

Special Issue: Check out the special issue in Environmental Science and Policy: Participatory and Collaborative Governance for Sustainable Flood Risk Management: An emerging research agenda (Edited by Ed Challies, Jens Newig, Thomas Thaler, Elisa Kochskämper, and Meike Levin-Keitel).

References

  • Jongman, B., Ward, P. J., & Aerts, J. C. J. H. (2012). Global exposure to river and coastal flooding: Long term trends and changes. Global Environmental Change, 22(4), 823-835.
  • Newig, J., & Koontz, T. M. (2014). Multi-level governance, policy implementation and participation: The EU’s mandated participatory planning approach to implementing environmental policy. Journal of European Public Policy, 21(2), 248-267.