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.

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

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).

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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Joining cutting-edge research on environmental politics and governance: Impressions from the Richard Wesley Conference

Participants - Foto from official conference website

 

 

 

By Elisa Kochskämper

This May, the Richard Wesley Conference on Environmental Politics and Governance was convened for the first time by the Center for Environmental Politics of the University of Washington, and with the financial aid of Richard B. Wesley and Virginia Sly. This new conference set two ambitious goals: to showcase the best and most innovative scholarship on environmental politics and governance; and start to build a new research community for this research field. The need to better demarcate the field of Environmental Politics and Governance (EPG) stems, according to the conference convenors of the conference, Aseem Prakash and Peter May (University of Washington, Seattle), from a current paradox: although the importance of analyzing present environmental challenges and required solutions is widely recognized by society and academia, EPG remains an understudied area in the social sciences. They identify a ‘silo approach’ as a major reason for this, as EPG scholarship is scattered among various subfields and sub-disciplines without sharing knowledge or results and therefore without building a firm common ground.

With these aims in mind the conference was organized from the 14th to the 16th of May in Seattle. After an initial welcome session on the first evening, eight panels were distributed over the following two days. Furthermore, post-dinner conversations that reflected on the intended community-building process took place every evening. Yet, did this conference meet its aims and differ from other conferences on EPG? It did. Below I offer some reflections on the reasons.

 

  1. Small group size

A group of 45 scholars was gathered by Aseem and Peter in a small center for environmental education on Bainbridge Island, around 16km from Seattle, amidst the lush forests of Washington State. I mention the location because it was one of the factors that created the exceptional, original and inspiring atmosphere the conference transmitted during its whole course.

The small group size, resulting from a selection process out of 290 abstracts, involving contributions of over 400 scholars from 40 countries, was another factor. We met for breakfast, lunch and dinner, attended all paper presentations, as there were no parallel panels, and participated in all post-dinner conversations. Discussions on current or recent research projects, home university, common difficulties for publications but also on hobbies or personal backgrounds, emerged completely naturally and by the end of the second day, all participants knew each other. Professional – and personal – knowledge exchange and input was therefore high (inside and outside the panels) and extremely valuable. Whether such a small group size would be viable for future conferences was one of the more controversial discussion topics in the post-dinner conversations

 

  1. High quality of papers

A defining feature of the conference was the consistently high quality of the papers presented. 32 papers addressed topics ranging from global, national and local issues, or analyses of scale (global institutions, networks, and interactions; policy approaches and outcomes: cross-national comparisons; city-level environmental politics and governance), to behavioral aspects and conflicts of distribution (opinions, attitudes, and environmental communication; conflict and cooperation in subnational governance), to pertinent substantive environmental issues (emissions, decarbonization, and climate change; environmental inequalities; corporate environmentalism and greenwashing). Presenters hailed from many of the leading institutes and universities engaging with environmental policy and governance around the world, such as Stanford and Princeton University, University of California, Australian National University, University of Essex, ETH Zürich or the Potsdam Institute.

 

  1. Interdisciplinarity

The aim to reach out to diverse subfields of EPG and foster interdisciplinarity was also met, albeit to a lesser extent. Regarding disciplines, political science predominated, although this homogeneity was extensively discussed during the post-dinner conversations. Apart from representation of a larger diversity of disciplines from the social sciences, calls were also made to reach out more to natural scientists. For us, coming from a group with the background of geography, environmental law and political science in EDGE, it was rather surprising that papers with more than two authors, which additionally come from different fields, were difficult to find. But this, again, might be due to the strong focus on political science coming from the Anglo-Saxon context. Geographically, representation from other western countries was rather low, let alone representation of developing countries. Finally, regarding group composition and coverage of topics, we were somewhat surprised that the whole resilience and earth-system governance scholarship was not present.

 

  1. Cutting-edge methods

One effect of the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon political science bias might be the emphasis on quantitative methods – only 4 out of 32 papers worked with qualitative methods. Quantitative methods were highly sophisticated and it was in particular methodologically instructive to see experimental designs on the rise. Yet, the low representation of qualitative approaches and absence of mixed methods seemed to undermine to a certain degree the intention to bring one research field comprehensively together and achieve sound theoretical insights. This, however, was also mentioned in one evening discussion session.

 

  1. Outlook

Nonetheless, these were rather formal or organizational points, which seem to be quite normal for a first conference, which is intended to mark a starting point for the gradual definition of a potential new or stronger field. The conference is planned to continue in a rotating, self-organizing manner, and the next conference is set to be held in Gerzensee, Switzerland, so many of the points raised above can be easily addressed already in the second Richard Wesley Conference on Environmental Politics and Governance. In case you are now more interested in the conference and emerging research community, you can sign up to the listserver, which was set up to provide information on, and facilitate knowledge sharing within the research community. Abstracts for the second conference are due soon, by November 3, 2015; do not miss the opportunity, we are still amazed by our outstanding stay on Bainbridge Island.

See our presentation in EDGE – Presentations.