Records of engagement and decision making for environmental and socio-ecological challenges

Abstract

We propose creating and maintaining records of engagement and decision-making (RoED) to help us and our communities better understand ourselves, our goals, our decisions, and the dynamic systems in which we all live. The purpose of RoED is to go well beyond noting that dialogue occurred or a decision was reached. The records should, in ways appropriate to the context and participants, document interactions and note biases, beliefs, emotions, behaviors, norms, and values. These crucial aspects are generally absent in academic papers and formal reports, yet they always play a role in decision-making processes. While not a panacea for addressing critical biophysical and social challenges, we propose that a comprehensive framework for promoting realistic, legitimate and inclusive engagement could enhance trust, establish institutional memory, and when and where appropriate, ensure greater transparency. The aim is to create and maintain RoED to collect significant information and share insights from multi-stakeholder decision-making processes from diverse institutions, contexts, and disciplinary domains. In the long-term RoED could promote more effective adaptive management or governance approaches. This paper describes an exploratory phase intended to catalyze collaborative efforts worldwide.

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Acknowledgements

Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government. The authors thank Kimberly Quach and Leah Kaplan both with the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, Arizona State University, for their assistance in coordinating the February 2019 meeting. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their feedback as well as helpful reviews from Kim Dumont (William T. Grant Foundation), Chauncey Anderson (USGS) and Natalie Latysh (USGS). The manuscript is much stronger for their input.

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Appendix

Appendix

RoED and trade-offs, threatened species, competition for resources, and cultural identities in the Klamath River basin (OR)

Doremus and Tarlock (2008) provide a riveting account of connections among threatened species, resource competition, and cultural identities in their book, Water War in the Klamath Basin: Macho Law, Combat Biology, and Dirty Politics. The genesis of the issues can be traced back to at least 1906 when the Bureau of Reclamation helped farmers in the Upper Klamath basin by installing dams and an irrigation system. The Bureau did not meaningfully consult with the five Native American tribes living in the basin as they did not have any legal water rights at the time nor did the Bureau consider the cultural identities and values of the Native American tribes in the area associated with the river and its fish. Further, the effects of dams and irrigation diversions on fish were also not considered or were discounted. Issues came to a head in 2001—although environmental problems started occurring well before. Salmonid migration had already declined substantially in the river. Native sucker species had also declined in the upper basin, including in Upper Klamath Lake which had experienced hypoxic conditions and harmful algal blooms. After an extreme drought, the Bureau of Reclamation, for the first time in its history, closed the headgates in 2001 to one of its irrigation projects for the purpose of preserving ecological flows for salmon migration. Farmers in the upper basin saw their livelihood immediately threatened and revolted. Water allocation restrictions were rescinded in the face of protests by the local agricultural community. In summer 2002, a massive fish kill occurred in the lower basin (Lynch and Risley 2003) caused by insufficient ecological flows stressed by water allocations to farmers in the upper basin, which resulted in warm water temperatures and infection of fish by pathogens. A major effort was made to bring together important constituencies in the basin to determine their needs and create a management plan to best meet those needs. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA, see the agreement and other documents at https://klamathrestoration.gov/), and the related Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, were carefully negotiated and the tribes, farmers, and PacifiCorp signed them in 2010. However, the KBRA ultimately failed to pass through Congress, scuttling (at least temporarily) implementation.

How might RoED have made a difference? First, it might have sought to highlight who was, or was not, represented in all decisions and information brought forward. Second, it might have brought greater transparency and accountability to decisions made, explaining the basis for the decisions in terms of known evidence and science as well as social values (Horangic et al. 2016). Information and power asymmetries might have been reduced. A formal record might have either helped decision-making involve a broader set of constituencies (including possibly the salmonids and the suckers) or it might have brought discussions and conflict to an earlier resolution, through consensus or not. Finally, the RoED would be available to more effectively inform gathering and improving available scientific information, social values, and processes used for future decision making, either in the basin, or elsewhere. An RoED could have been or could be of great help to implement adaptive management governance in the Klamath basin (Chaffin et al. 2015, 2016, 2018). Four of the six dams on the Klamath River are slated for removal in 2021. This could impact the socio-ecological system represented by the basin and its stakeholders (including the fish). What methods will be used to track the changes?

Using the ideas presented in Tables 2 and 3, the authors can suggest rationales for why RoED could benefit the Klamath case:

Table 2 When may RoED be most warranted?
Table 3 When may RoED not be warranted?
  • wicked problem, adaptive management, BBHV elicitation, knowledge seeking, poor innate responses, transparency expectations, trust/learning generation, and fairness and representation.

Conditions and characteristics why RoED may not be warranted include:

  • power asymmetry, and unestablished trust.

Those involved in the decision-making process would undoubtedly have different perspectives on the pros and cons of the process and the decisions made.

RoED and environmental health governance: hierarchical or participatory?

Michigan is located in the heart of the Great Lakes Region of North America. The Great Lakes provide more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. Michigan and its surrounding waters have provided bountiful resources and transportation routes. Industry in Michigan prospered through technological advances, hierarchical structures and markets. However, in Michigan as elsewhere, managing complex social and biophysical systems as if they were simple scientific endeavors has resulted in a mixture of intellectual and economic triumph and socio-ecological peril (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993; Ravetz 1996). The industrial era boom left Michigan with failing infrastructures and well over 10,000 sites of environmental contamination, negative externalities of the economic boom. Michigan tackled this resource contamination with the help of programs such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known also as CERCLA or Superfund. The broad authorities of laws such as CERCLA (including “polluter pay” aspects), combined with the decline in economic prosperity, and the perception of government impingement on economic growth and private property rights resulted in a backlash against environmental laws and regulation. Such conflicts are indicative of simplistic approaches to complex system problems, and disputed values. Societal governance of these predicaments often result in policy fixes that fail (Meadows 2008).

Michigan’s cleanup and redevelopment program brought a new approach to tackling legacy environmental issues under Governor Snyder in 2011. Governance shifted from a hierarchical command and control culture and structure to one that was more participatory, polycentric and networked based (Rhodes 2000; Kjaer 2009; McKay et al. 2017, 2019, in press). This newer governance structure and culture relied on systemic thinking, trust, transparency, diplomacy and reciprocity with multiple levels of authority designed to work in harmony with those with a stake in the matter for improved insights and socio-ecological outcomes. This approach revealed significant improvement as the barriers to progress softened. Environmental health was restored at rates not witnessed in recent history as was public trust in the program and its desired outcomes. The rate of change and achievement of program goals and improved socio-ecological program outcomes far exceeded normal rates of innovation, diffusion, and adoption. While not perfect, this process and program reinvention outcomes are documented for program and scholarly review and are under further study (McKay et al. 2017, 2019).

On the other hand, hierarchical and siloed governance approaches have illustrated some of their problems through Michigan’s Flint Water Crisis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flint_water_crisis). There seems to have been a system governance failure, where lead contamination in municipal drinking water impacted human health and deepened distrust between the community and government authorities and shocked the nation. Checks and balances and necessary accountability in the governance system were lost or were not present when the state-appointed emergency manager made key decisions that contributed to the water crisis and human exposure to lead. The water crisis was precipitated by a decision to switch the source of public water supply for the city of Flint, Michigan from treated water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to a less costly—but chemically different—source of water from the Flint River. Due to insufficient water treatment and corrosivity of the Flint River water lead leached from water pipes into the drinking water and exposed more than 100,000 residents to elevated lead levels. Other problems followed that related to governance and communication of the ensuing consequences. The hierarchical governance approach present in the Flint water crisis differed significantly from the participatory, polycentric, network-based approach that the State had engaged previously to meet its environmental issues. Governor Snyder himself is quoted in the U.S. House Joint Committee Report (2016) as saying “Let me be blunt…[Flint] was a failure of government at all levels—we failed the families of Flint.” What did work was the courageous role and agency of Flint’s engaged citizens, other bold individuals who challenged governmental leadership, and investigative reporting by members of the press (Flint-Advisory-Task-Force 2016). These persistent efforts helped uncover and illuminate the environmental and public health issues so that corrective measures could begin.

Society faces many unprecedented socio-ecological systems (SES) issues and challenges. Suitable governance approaches are essential in society’s ability to tackle the challenges. RoED can increase transparency and accountability in facing society’s challenges, can help engage stakeholders and different constituencies, and could provide “lessons learned” to other communities, or to future communities. Could RoED efficiently bring together evidence-based diagnostics and decisions and knowledge of social values to improve credibility, legitimacy, and saliency in the management of and improved outcomes for SES issues? Could RoED allow all stakeholders to share their narratives, to contribute to system diagnostics and management, while supporting an evolving body of evidence and understanding?

Using ideas presented in Tables 2 and 3, the authors can suggest rationales for why RoED could benefit the Flint case:

  • wicked problem, adaptive management, BBHV elicitation, poor innate responses.

Conditions and characteristics that are currently problematic, but could potentially eventually be favorable to RoED creation and use are:

  • knowledge seeking, transparency expectations, trust/learning generation, fairness and representation.

Conditions and characteristics currently suggesting that RoED creation and use may not be warranted:

  • unimprovable divides, unestablished trust, and general unusability.

Conditions may change, however, through the efforts like participatory modeling workshops (https://participatorymodeling.org/flint-michigan-and-participatory-modeling/).

Those involved in the decision-making process would undoubtedly have different perspectives on the pros and cons of the process and the decisions made.

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Cockerill, K., Glynn, P., Chabay, I. et al. Records of engagement and decision making for environmental and socio-ecological challenges. EURO J Decis Process 7, 243–265 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40070-019-00104-6

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Keywords

  • Engagement
  • Decision-making
  • Socio-ecological systems
  • Knowledge brokers
  • Systems intelligence
  • Behavioural operational research
  • Adaptive management
  • Adaptive governance

Mathematics Subject Classification

  • 90Bxx
  • 91Cxx