Environmental Management

, 48:825

Who’s in Charge: Role Clarity in a Midwestern Watershed Group


    • College of Natural ResourcesUniversity of Wisconsin–Stevens Point
  • Linda Stalker Prokopy
    • Department of Forestry and Natural ResourcesPurdue University
  • Janet Ayres
    • Department of Agricultural EconomicsPurdue University

DOI: 10.1007/s00267-011-9724-2

Cite this article as:
Floress, K., Prokopy, L.S. & Ayres, J. Environmental Management (2011) 48: 825. doi:10.1007/s00267-011-9724-2


Studies of collaborative watershed groups show that effective leadership is an important factor for success. This research uses data from in-depth interviews and meeting observation to qualitatively examine leadership in a Midwestern collaborative watershed group operating with government funding. One major finding was a lack of role definition for volunteer steering-committee members. Lack of role clarity and decision-making processes led to confusion regarding project management authority among the group, paid project staff members, and agency personnel. Given the important role of government grants for funding projects to protect water quality, this study offers insight into leadership issues that groups with Clean Water Act Section 319 (h) funds may face and suggestions on how to resolve them.


AuthorityCollaborationCollaborative leadershipPrincipal–agent problemSection 319(h)Watershed managementWatershed groups


The Clean Water Act Section 319(h) provides federal funds from the United States Environmental Protection Agency to state environmental-management agencies. State agencies then often distribute these funds for watershed projects focused on the management of nonpoint source pollution (NPS). Although states have various criteria for the distribution of 319(h) funds, the most common recipients are nonprofit watershed groups with 501(c)3 status, conservation districts, extension offices, and municipalities (Hardy and Koontz 2008). Collaborative watershed groups are increasingly used to address water quality and quantity issues in the United States. Often comprised of local, state, and sometimes regional stakeholders, groups have fulfilled a variety of roles in watershed management, including planning, monitoring, fundraising, and engaging in education and outreach activities (Selin and others 2000). Although leadership is frequently discussed as a factor that contributes to successful collaborations, it is rarely used as the grounding framework for research with watershed groups. Without effective leadership, groups may struggle to achieve milestones that have been found to contribute to successful collaborative groups, such as determining a decision-making process and developing a shared vision. Heifetz and others’ (2004, p. 24) definition of leadership as “… the activity of mobilizing people to tackle the toughest problems and do the adaptive work necessary to achieve progress” was used in this research.

Through the lens of the principal–agent problem from the economics, political science, and nonprofit management literatures, this article examines leadership and authority in a collaborative watershed group and provides insights about limits groups face due to hierarchical funding and agency structures. We also discuss the limits such structures may place on the leadership potential of group members and agency personnel in developing collaborative solutions to the difficult problems inherent in watershed management. Perceptions about the degree of decision-making and oversight authority held by group members, compared with that allowed by formal authority, negatively impacted group function and created conflict. Implications and recommendations for understanding and applying the lessons from this case are provided.

Literature Review

A review of the expanding literature on collaborative watershed groups and other collaborative initiatives shows that effective leadership is an important indicator of and contributor to successful group and on-the-ground outcomes (see, for example, Dakins and others 2005; Selin and others 2000; Griffin 1999). However, few venture outside of the watershed group literature to explicitly use leadership theories as the grounding framework for research [but see Danter and others (2000), Ryan (2001), Gray and others (2005) for exceptions]. Studies of collaborative resource–management groups discuss the importance of establishing decision rules (Dakins and others 2005; Griffin 1999) and identifying the degree of decision-making authority groups will have. A great deal of research has been conducted regarding the purpose and accomplishments of watershed groups, and investigations have identified important “organizational challenges” (Born and Genskow 2001), such as composition of the group and the scale within which the group functions (Bonnell and Koontz 2007). Bidwell and Ryan (2006) note the variation in purposes and outcomes of watershed groups with different compositions of agency participants and other stakeholders, and Margerum (2008) classifies watershed groups as being action, organizational, or policy oriented and identifies factors common to each type. Regardless of the composition or problem orientation, it is recommended that groups develop clear roles for participants, often including a set of decision rules, but the formality of the decision-making process varies (Dakins and others 2005; Conley and Moote 2003; Schuett and others 2001). In cases where a set of formal rules have been adopted in agency–stakeholder groups, the nonprofit management literature can lend insight to the responsibilities and decision-making authority of the group.

Much of the literature on nonprofit management focuses on organizational structure and board governance (Brooks 2002). Obviously, there are differences between single-organization function and a public policy context, but Brooks (2002) notes that there are unclear hierarchies in both public and nonprofit management, whereby boards, which are often comprised of volunteers, are responsible for many different functions of the organization aside from oversight. Such functions range from oversight and policy to operational tasks often associated with agents, and Inglis and others (2003) note that there is a need to understand roles of boards as organizations with effective boards are better able to achieve positive outcomes.

Written as an answer to the questions raised by Behn (1995) regarding how to improve public management, Brooks (2002) posits that public management is an extension of the principal–agent problem. The principal–agent problem is an economic theory of organization often used to assess compensation and contracts and has been extended to nonprofit board governance. It assumes that there is some type of information asymmetry between the principals and the agents. It puts forth the notion that there are basic messages communicated by principals, i.e., those in charge, to agents, i.e., those who carry out the principals’ orders. The implicit assumption of the theory is that there is a traditional, hierarchical, and authoritarian leader–follower relation between the principals and the agents (Moe 1984). For there to be a “problem,” there must be some difference between what the principals want and what and the agents want. In the political science literature, the theory is often applied to bureaucracies where the agent is the expert and the principal has formal authority (Miller 2005). In this scenario, bureaucrats are at an advantage over their principals, i.e., elected officials because the information asymmetry favors them (Ringquist 1995). However, the principal–agent problem has been revised and used in a variety of political science settings, including control of Congress, based on incentive structures (Weingast and Moran 1983) and how mobilizing interest groups can change the hierarchy of Congress’s control of administrative agencies (Cook and Wood 1989). In each of these examples from political science, the relation most often of interest is that between elected officials and administrative agencies.

The principal–agent problem is usually overcome by extrinsic incentives, such as payment, and the principal has some degree of control over the actions of the agent through the incentive system (Coleman 1990). Incentives can be provided for either the specific actions an agent takes on behalf of the principal or for desired outcomes from the actions, or a system of monitoring agent behavior can be developed to ensure that the principal’s goals are met (Braun and Guston 2003).

However, these control structures may be more difficult to enforce in cases where the authority and incentive structures are less clear. In terms of nonprofit boards, board members are principals, and staff members are agents. The principals have clear authority associated with their leadership position. In contrast to the hierarchical, leader–follower assumptions of the principal–agent problem, the collaborative-leadership model developed by Chrislip and Larson (1994) rests on the assumption that those with formal decision-making power have the ability and are willing to accept the recommendations of a group, essentially sharing the authority inherent in their principal positions with stakeholders. The collaborative-leadership model focuses on bringing together stakeholders to develop implementable policy solutions for “type III problems,” i.e., those for which both problem definition and solutions are not easily defined (Heifetz and Sinder 1988). The most important contribution of the collaborative leadership model, as well as Heifetz and others’ (2004) discussion of leadership, is the differentiation between leadership as that which comes from authority and leadership as the ability to effect change through the collaborative process. In cases where formal authorities share decision-making authority with stakeholders, they are acting both as formal leaders with authority and also helping to effect change through collaboration. In collaborative management, an alternative to incentives and monitoring as a means of overcoming principal–agent problems could be to align the interests of the principal and the agent (Coleman 1990).

Huxham and Vangen (2000) discuss collaborative projects that consist of representatives from different organizations, and watershed groups are often comprised of some mix of agency personnel and citizens at large (Moore and Koontz 2003). Sometimes agency representatives participate in an official capacity, whereas other times their participation is informal, as was the case with the successful watershed-management initiative undertaken by the Darby Partners in Ohio where the group itself was simply a forum for the exchange of ideas and information (Korfmacher 2000). Moreover, either the funding agency or local agencies housing grants may occasionally be called the “leader” (e.g., Grigg 1999), with little focus on the actual functions of leadership or the people involved (Huxham and Vangen 2000). Often grants and other funding received to support a collaborative watershed group are housed with one organization. It may not be clear in these instances where leadership lies: the organization (or an individual from the organization) that sought and received the funding or someone else who has the capacity and desire to lead the change (Huxham and Vangen 2000). When agencies do lead efforts, people may decide to participate “… based on their perceptions of the agency as a fair, competent convener” (Cheng and Mattor 2006 [emphasis in original]). Being perceived as fair may be challenging for agencies if conflicts arise between agency objectives and group purpose.

Regardless of potential problems, collaboration can be a promising tool when there are many agencies and/or people who have interests in an issue that is not controlled by a central authority (Chrislip and Larson 1994). Grigg (1999) states that there is confusion regarding issues of leadership in watersheds because the roles of different agencies are not clear. Occasionally, there may be a central agency with control, but collaboration is chosen to develop decisions and policies acceptable to all stakeholders (Ryan 2001). Ryan (2001) and Wondolleck as well as Ryan (2001) found that agencies are often alternating between being a leader, facilitator, partner, and stakeholder in collaborations, with facilitating being the least successful role. In the case of watershed groups that are addressing NPS, both agency personnel and residents are often involved, and the agency has little regulatory control over pollution remediation. In addition, Dakins and others (2005) state that groups initiated by agency personnel often have deadlines to meet and may be more efficient than other groups because of increased financial capacity. Alternatively, Bidwell and Ryan (2006) reported that watershed groups affiliated with agencies may find it difficult to establish new norms of decision-making.

This study contributes to the study of leadership in collaborative watershed groups in several ways. First, there is a general lack of literature on leadership issues in the context of natural-resources management, although many studies of watershed groups find that effective leadership is an integral factor for success. Several articles examining leadership issues (e.g., Wondolleck and Ryan 1999; Ryan 2001) pertain to the role of the agency in leading a specific regulatory effort where conflict may exist. Gray and others (2005) raise the issue of leadership in natural-resources management but did not conduct empirical research. In addition, the nature of managing watersheds funded by federal and state grants introduces a new layer of complexity to the study of leadership in collaborative watershed groups due to the limited time frame within which projects go through planning and implementation stages. Specifically, this research sought to determine how collaborative watershed groups associated with government agencies may be affected by the clarity of roles and decision-making authority and how the principal–agent problem can be used to understand differences in participant perceptions of roles and authority.

Methods and Study Area

To examine role clarity and decision-making in a collaborative watershed group, a single case in the Midwestern United States was selected. Qualitative case study research has several limitations, namely that it is not generalizable beyond the case studied, and inferences to the population cannot be made. However, in exchange for the breadth of information achieved in larger quantitative studies, depth of understanding regarding a case can be achieved through qualitative methods. Case studies and qualitative research are employed to explain phenomena, such as watershed group decision rules, when contextual variables are likely to be important (Yin 2009; Strauss and Corbin 1998). Strauss and Corbin (1998) state that qualitative research is useful for both developing new theory and building on existing theory. This study builds on existing theory by extending the principal–agent problem, traditionally used to explain behavior in single organizations, to the context of collaborative watershed management. The design of this study is longitudinal in that interviews were conducted with group members at two different periods during 2006 to 2008 at least one year apart; meeting observations also took place during this time period (Yin 2009). Note that this was not a panel study: Although every effort was made to interview the same participants at each data collection point, changing group membership was not conducive to a panel study. The purpose of the longitudinal design was twofold: to observe changes in the group as they occurred and to triangulate sources of data and the findings.

Data Collection

The data for this study come from 17 in-depth, semistructured interviews conducted with watershed group members and paid staff members in a Midwestern watershed, meeting observation notes, and group documents, such as bylaws, meeting minutes, agendas, and the watershed plan. The exact location of the project is being kept confidential (see Prokopy 2008). Interview questions are listed in Table 1 and were informed by the Social Capital Assessment Tool (World Bank 2006). The interview guide was pretested with two watershed group members who were not part of the group studied, and the research methodology received Institutional Review Board approval. The pool of potential interviewees included all participants of the collaborative watershed group and the paid staff members. The watershed group had a paid coordinator who contacted members of the group to ask permission to release participant contact information to the first investigator to schedule interviews. Twelve steering-committee members were contacted who had informed the coordinator they would be willing to participate in the interviews (of the 14 total members). The 12 potential participants were also those who were regular participants on the steering committee. In year one, 10 steering-committee members and the 2 paid staff members were interviewed. In year two, 2 staff members and 3 steering-committee members participated in interviews: the decrease in participation will be discussed later in the text.
Table 1

Interview Questions

1. Tell me a bit about your watershed. What are the impairments? What kinds of activities does the group hold?

2. How long has this watershed group been in existence?

 How long have you been involved?

 What is your role in the group?

3. How did the group form? Who was responsible for its creation?

4. Has the group developed a set of objectives? How was this process performed?

5. How does the group make decisions? Can you please describe the process? Has it been an effective method? What problems, if any, have arisen from decision-making? What have been the positive aspects?

6. Regarding the individuals involved in the group, how did most become involved? Did you approach them?

7. In your opinion, why do people join the group? What do you think the benefits of participating in the group are? Have you had a consistent membership?

8. Do you think that active members of the group are also active in other organizations? In what ways does this contribute to their group roles?

9. Has the group composition changed while you have been involved? If so, how?

10. What issues has the group addressed since your involvement? Before your involvement?

11. Do you feel the group has been successful in addressing these issues? How?

12. As the group developed, what sort of help has it received from outside sources, such as agencies or nongovernmental organizations? Has it received advice, funding, information from government sources? How about nongovernment sources? How did the group obtain this support? Who initiated it? What benefits has the group gotten from this support? Limitations?

13. Do people in the group generally trust each other to obtain tasks completed? How about with decision-making? Providing and sharing information?

14. How has the level of trust changed during the last few years?

15. In your opinion, is the group generally peaceful or conflictive?

16. How would you characterize the participants in the group in terms of:


 Diversity or heterogeneity?

 Skills they bring to the group?

17. How would you characterize the leadership of the group in terms of:


 Diversity or heterogeneity of leadership?

 Skills of leadership?

 Relation to others in the group?

18. How would you characterize the quality of participation in the group in terms of:

 Meeting attendance

 Participating in decision-making

 Communicating with others in the group

 Dissemination of relevant information before a decision?

 Dissemination of decision results?

19. Are there certain people that you work more closely with within the group? Who are they? For what purposes do you work closely with them?

19. How would you characterize the group, in terms of:

 Carrying out activities?

 Reacting to changing circumstances?

20. How would you characterize the group’s relation with other organizations? Have you felt the need to establish links with other groups in the community?

21. Do you feel informed about other organizations’ programs and activities? What are your sources of information?

22. Have you attempted to work with other organizations other than those already involved? Are there ones that you would like to work with that you do not currently?

23. In general, how do you assess your organization’s influence on water quality? Adoption of water-quality improvement practices? Decision-making about group activities or direction? What contributes to influencing these things?

Watershed Case Description

In the case considered in this research, a local governmental unit, the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), in the watershed applied for and received a 319(h) grant to develop a watershed-management plan. The SWCD also housed and administrated the grant. Like many other areas, the SWCD in this case was colocated with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Agency. All three agencies administer programs to assist landowners in conserving land and water resources. There are various conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Wetlands Reserve Program, which all have criteria for landowner participation. That is, the local agencies must operate within the confines of each program, including certain criteria, such as minimum acreage and priorities for enrollment. These confines become important in the context of the findings.

A consultant was hired by the SWCD to develop the watershed plan and oversee the project. This consultant was housed at the SWCD office and served as a staff member for the watershed project. The watershed project advertised a series of public meetings and individuals from various sectors in the community who attended eventually became the watershed group. This means that the group is comprised of self-selected individuals rather than people representing different organizations or interests. Although the granting agency requires that there be stakeholder involvement in funded projects and that partnerships exist, there was no requirement to form an official advisory group. After completing the watershed-management plan, the SWCD applied for and received an implementation grant, which designates funds for cost-share projects that will improve water quality and provides applicants ≤75% of the cost to implement the project. The focus of the watershed project was to mitigate water-quality impairments resulting from agricultural activities, although the watershed itself is comprised of both urban and agricultural land uses. The main goals of the project were to educate watershed residents and increase adoption of agricultural and urban land-management practices to improve water quality, so although a major portion of the funds for the project were designated for cost-share on agricultural lands, other projects were also supported. For example, other projects included outreach activities at and for schools, management-practice demonstrations on public and private sites, water-quality monitoring training, and rain-barrel workshops.

The implementation grant funded 2 staff members who again were contracted by and housed at the SWCD. A somewhat constant group of 10–12 self-selected individuals comprised the watershed group until the final year of observation for this research, when participation had dwindled to 5 individuals. The participants represented a variety of stakeholders, including agriculture, education, and town government, but because of the specificity of some of the participants’ backgrounds, detailed information is not provided here. It is important to note that only 2–3 of these members were “official” representatives of any organization or interest (a local children’s museum and agriculture), but each was dedicated to improving water quality. The group met monthly at different locations in the watershed and mainly made decisions about cost-share projects to fund and education and outreach activities. Over time, participation in the group decreased, but the interests and backgrounds of group members remained diverse. It is quite important to note that those with formal decision-making authority regarding best-management practices at the NRCS did not participate regularly in the group.

Data Analysis

Interviews were recorded and transcribed, and Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) grounded-theory procedures were used for analysis. Sentences or paragraphs from interviews were initially assigned open codes representing phenomena or themes. Axial coding was then performed, whereby related open codes were organized into categories and subcategories. Finally, theory for this case was developed through the process of identifying central categories that tie together the range of findings through the process of selective coding. Negative case analysis was also performed, whereby the data were examined to find instances where they contradicted or otherwise did not support our findings. Documents, such as meeting observation notes and agendas, were used for triangulation purposes. When incidents were discussed by participants, agendas and notes were consulted to determine what had occurred during meetings. Formal coding of these documents using the grounded-theory process was not undertaken.


The overarching, central category that emerged from the grounded-theory data analysis process was decision making conflict driven by issues related to role clarity: authority regarding project activities. A discussion of how these findings relate to the principal–agent problem follows.

Role Clarity: Authority Regarding Project Activities

Bylaws and Governance

During the planning phase of the project, the group, along with the paid staff member, developed a set of bylaws to establish the functions and roles of the group and staff members. The decision-making authority of the group set by the bylaws set the stage for many of the issues that arose and also for what staff members termed the subsequent “cleanup” or repair of relations that would need to take place. The bylaws state that, “The committee has been established as the governing committee of the [watershed project].” Individuals interviewed perceived this as the explicit formal authority to make decisions, and a review of meeting minutes shows that this was certainly the case for some decisions. The staff members responsible for managing the grant, according to the group bylaws, do not have any voting power and should only attend group meetings when requested to do so by members. In reality, the staff members attended all meetings and set the agenda, although agency personnel, aside from the contracted staff members working on the project, only occasionally participated in meetings.

It became clear throughout the interview process that there was a significant lack of clarity regarding the group’s role as the “governing committee.” Although the staff members were consultants for the SWCD, participants believed, at least to some degree, that the staff members fell under the authority of the steering committee. As one participant stated:

There were no checks and balances for the committee members to know what the staff was doing other than what they told us. We had no proof of how much money was spent on this project and that project. And maybe that’s not what our priority or reason for being there [was], but we thought that’s what it was. The steering committee: We thought that’s why we were there—to help guide the staff as to what the public, the group, wanted taken care of.

The previous comment demonstrates the confusion that at least some of the group members felt about the authority over the project held by the group. The bylaws, however, do state that the group was responsible for the “guidance and direction of the [watershed project]. This includes the establishment of policies and programs for completion of the [management plan] and mission statement.” Negative case analysis showed that two steering committee members did not mention any type of conflict or confusion regarding their role.
One issue mentioned repeatedly in interviews and deemed an “authoritarian act” on the part of the agencies by some steering-committee members caused conflict. The issue was the funding of an implementation project that was located outside of the watershed but in a visible and public area that ideally would raise awareness of the watershed project in the community. According to a group member

We had one particular project that was quite expensive that was actually located outside of the watershed. It was approved at the state level through [the funding agency]: They approved using cost-share funds to implement this demonstration project because it was in an area that was highly visible to the public and would be easy to hold training or educational programs at. It was on publically owned property so there wouldn’t be any future issues of access, but it was located out of the watershed, and it was expensive. Our part was about $20,000 in cash, not counting personnel time, matching contributions from community members, etc. Several people were angry about that project being approved and steamrolled through. They didn’t feel like they’d been given ample time for input, and although they strongly objected, they don’t feel like they were listened to.

The researchers attended a group meeting after the project was implemented and where the staff members introduced to the group engineering issues that had become apparent with this cost-share project. The group needed to decide whether or not to pay the consulting firm that had performed the work. All members of the group seemed willing to participate and did not outwardly appear to harbor any ill feelings about the project, which several of them showed in later interviews. A review of the minutes from the meeting when the project was first discussed did not provide much insight regarding the degree of disagreement regarding the cost-share. The minutes merely note that “several members disagree…” Only during the confidential interviews did the degree of conflict become apparent.
One staff member noted:

That [cost-share project] caused a real division of the people. After that—you know, they just kind of worked that out—but they weren’t happy with the leadership that was being provided. They didn’t feel like they were being listened to, and in all honesty they weren’t being listened to. Because if they were being listened to, it [the cost-share project] wouldn’t be in.

It is important to note that the negative case–analysis process shows that not all committee members viewed this incident in such a negative light. For instance, one person said, “I know that there were some issues [with the cost-share project] that actually wasn’t in the watershed… Some people weren’t happy about it, and some people thought it was great.”

Perceptions of Formal Authority and Decision Motivations

Conflict regarding decision-making continued as a result of unclear roles, and staff members were somewhat perplexed by the group’s perception of their formal authority. At one observed meeting the committee was discussing a cost-share project that was to be voted on. The staff member in charge of communicating with individuals in the watershed that applied for cost-share funds was frustrated with the group: The watershed project’s cost-share amount (and the amount he had communicated to the landowner) was 75%. When the group discussed the project, they wanted to lower the percentage of cost-share that the watershed project would contribute based on the amount of land that was within the watershed boundaries and some group members’ perception that the applicant was not ideal. As the staff member noted in an interview:

We did all of those things [objectively ranked the application according to the management-plan objectives] and we get to a point where we must make a decision and we start speculating about what is the true intent of the application from the farmer rather than talk about the objective process.

Another staff member noted:

There have been some more clean-up efforts with some of the cost-share projects that certain individuals didn’t think should have been funded because of the people that received the money… they felt that they were just in it for the money and not really using the funds the ways they were supposed to be used.

However, this same staff member also said that the cost-share program is driven by the requirements of the NRCS more than those of the group:

We’re still required to follow those [NRCS guidelines], so it only makes sense to use them as a technical resource. So I rely more heavily on them for the technical end of it. And then steering committee kinda comes into play, which initially I don’t believe their role was really as well defined as it should’ve been. That’s something maybe [which can be worked on] in the future, is getting into the defined role and real power, real decision-making power.

A newer staff member stated:

I think that one thing that probably must be changed is the manner in which the cost-share has been dealt with… looking back in the minutes and seeing how long they would spend on those things is of real concern. At least in the technical realm, it’s really hard to give them [the committee] that control when we know they don’t have that expertise. I wouldn’t want to be approving a cost-share program if I don’t have a technically sound—They should have power, but the power should be just shifted into two realms: whether it’s technical or otherwise.

A review of meeting minutes shows several opportunities for confusion regarding the group’s authority aside from the potential for experts in the agency to override group decisions. The group was given explicit authority by project staff member to decide. A review of all agendas and meeting minutes show that the group was asked by project staff member to make multiple decisions for the project. Early in the implementation phase, the group developed a ranking sheet for cost-share applications, set caps on the cost-share amount for different projects dependent on whether they were single practices or systems level (for instance, some projects might be a single practice, such as an urban rain garden, whereas others may be systems level, such as agricultural-nutrient management) and included with these decision items the importance of these decisions as they, “will help [staff] know where to direct his time and energy.” Eventually a subcommittee was formed to review cost-share applications, and 5 months later the group discussed the possibility of technical advisors from NRCS attending subcommittee reviews of the cost-share applications.

At the time this research concluded, staff members were attempting to overcome some of the issues through organizing and providing group members with documents pertaining to the group and their role, decision criteria, and bylaws. They also contacted all current and past members of the committee to review the cost-share project decision criteria and revise them based on their feedback. A significant effort was being made by the staff members to overcome the problems they perceived had led to the decreased participation during the last several months of the research process.


Huxham and Vangen (2000) discussed that the person responsible for leadership can be unclear in collaborative groups. This is consistent with what Ryan (2001) and Wondolleck and Ryan (1999) found: Agency folks wear different “hats” in collaborative groups, and some functions are more appropriate than others. This research is also consistent with Floress and others. (2009), who found that both agency personnel and members had differing perceptions regarding who was responsible for leading a collaborative watershed group.

An important theme in the collaborative watershed-management literature is the need to define decision rules and group roles (Dakins and others 2005; Schuett and others 2001; Griffin 1999). It seems that bylaws, such as those developed by the group in this research, would establish such rules and roles, and in our case the group was often given authority to make decisions. The conflict arose as a result of their authority being usurped by agency personnel who had final decision-making power. It was not made clear to group members that they did not in fact have this power.

The principal–agent problem puts forth that there is some type of information asymmetry or desire to change the relation between the principals and agents (Caers and others 2006) which causes conflict. In addition, conflict arises because the agent does not carry out the principal’s directives: Instead, the agent pursues their own goals to the potential detriment of the principal. Sharing power—stressed in collaborative watershed management literature—may influence watershed coordinators to be inclined to promote such to nonagency members. In fact, this is one means of overcoming the principal–agent problem, i.e., through the alignment of interests as discussed by Coleman (1990). However, this is quite different from the solutions traditionally proposed by investigations of the principal–agent problem, which mainly address providing some sort of control structure either with incentives or oversight.

In our case, conflict occurred because watershed group members perceived their role to be the governing body, or principals, of the watershed-steering committee and the agency personnel as the agents who would carry out their decisions. However, the watershed project itself was dependent on local agencies, whose employees are agents for their own organizations. The roles of principals and agents are naturally muddled in collaborative watershed groups where funding is supplied by and received by governmental agencies and whose agents must adhere to policy decisions set forth by their principals. Therefore, nonagency stakeholders and the coordinators who are independent contractors for the agency that received the funding struggled to establish the appropriate roles. Chrislip and Larson (1994) also state that those with formal decision-making authority must have the ability and be willing to accept the recommendations of a group. In our case, there was not the ability to extend this authority to the group for all cost-share decisions because the criteria were predetermined by the hierarchical principal-agent structure of the agencies involved, and the district conservationist had the ability to approve projects regardless of group decisions.

Whereas in a traditional nonprofit the board’s responsibility is to govern one organization, this watershed project involved a variety of community stakeholders working under the umbrella of one group. Members of the collaborative watershed group in our study believed they were the governing body of the watershed project, not fully recognizing the need to operate within the boundaries of the agencies involved.

Organizational changes that support authentic collaboration—stakeholder involvement where participants are not just there to approve agency actions—must occur within local agencies and organizations charged with distributing and managing 319(h) funding; otherwise some decisions may be better left to those with formal authority. Local agencies thinking about sponsoring collaborative watershed groups would benefit from evaluating their capacity to change organizational procedures (such as moving toward sharing power and avoiding issuing edicts) before initiating a watershed project to avoid potential analysis. Danter and others (2000) suggested a similar evaluation of federal agencies as they move toward ecosystem management.

In this case study, there was minimal participation by agency personnel other than contracted project staff members at group meetings, thus causing opportunity for confusion due to lack of role clarity. Chess and others (2000, p 251) state that, “The role played by an agency can have a significant impact on the success of watershed planning and implementation.” Agencies that house 319(h) grant contracts, such as the NRCS or SWCD, should have representation in collaborative watershed groups, preferably by formal authorities.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The watershed project would benefit from rewriting the bylaws of the steering committee, keeping in mind the limits of the grant-housing agency and the needs of the committee members. Watershed groups formed with the assistance of 319(h) funds sought by agencies may be quite different from other types of collaborative groups that arise in communities, and the groups may serve only in an advisory capacity for some decisions. Responsibilities given to government agencies and government-funded projects, and agencies cannot abdicate that authority. Groups may struggle with defining authority as a result of organizational culture, by how authority has been prescribed by law, or both. It would be beneficial for agencies initiating or participating in watershed groups to discuss this with group members. Roles must be clarified in the current case because the members perceive the role of the group as the governing body of the project, similar to the board of a nonprofit, although the staff members view them in more of an advisory role for some cost-share decisions.

One important lesson from this research is that committees may be able to take on more of a “principal” type of role during direction-setting, problem identification, and mission development, but as projects move into implementation phases dependent on governmental funding and agencies, committees may be better suited to acting as “agents,” i.e., carrying out the mission through tasks, such as education, outreach, and fundraising, instead of reviewing cost-share applications.

Agencies should examine how the objectives of the 319(h) program and collaboration are in accordance or conflict with their own objectives. There is a necessary departure from traditional principal-agent decision-making hierarchy when receiving 319(h) funding and initiating a collaborative process for watershed management. State agencies distributing 319(h) funding could assist local agencies in developing a decision-making process that meets the guidelines of all organizations involved as well as the local participants’ interests. A simple worksheet or similar tool that identifies typical grant recipients and areas where local agency decision-making criteria may differ from those of group participants and other organizations in the 319 hierarchy would be of use. The tool could then be used to openly address these issues in initial stages of collaboration and to decide the best ways of addressing decision-making conflicts that are born of agency procedures.

Most importantly, though, is the need for change at all levels in the framing of programs, such as the 319(h), intended to foster local management of natural resources. Local management implies some degree of local control. However, requirements of local agencies to fund cost-share projects that meet the criteria of specific state and federal cost-share programs may supersede the decisions made by groups, thus causing conflict between local agencies and local group participants. It may be that the role for collaborative watershed groups funded through 319(h) and similar programs is identifying problems in the watershed and planning activities during the planning phases and acting as agents of change through outreach activities with other community members during implementation phases. Leadership training for local project staff members should focus on helping staff members understand the boundaries of the group and the roles they will play in fostering a successful collaborative process.


Funding for this study was provided in part by the Indiana Department of Environ Management, the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, the Midwest Crossroads Alliance for Graduate Education, and the Professoriate at Purdue University. We are thankful for the helpful feedback and suggestions of Melissa Baker, Aaron Thompson, and four anonymous reviewers.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011