Blog # 7: The Orders of Outcomes

This post addresses the Orders of Outcomes, the second of the simplifying frameworks put forward in blog #4. 

As the 1990s drew to a close I became increasingly concerned that the swelling number of coastal and marine management projects and programs - particularly in the developing world - were having little lasting impact.  Few could make the transition from studies, plans and proposed policies to sustained implementation of a plan of action.  It was the familiar problem of the transition from Phases 1 -3 of the Management Cycle to Phase 4.  Many initiatives were doing a fine job of completing the actions identified by the initial planning stages of the management cycle but they were not creating the conditions within their focal area that implementing a plan of action requires.  Could I put forward another simplifying heuristic that would define the sequence of outcomes of ecosystem governance to complement the processes described by the management cycle? 

A concentration on the outcomes of ecosystem governance switches the focus from the internal workings of a project or program to its impacts upon its area of focus.  The challenges were to (1) identify a small number of generic, easily recognizable “bundles” of outcomes that trace the maturation of ecosystem governance and (2) select the indicators that would signal the degree of progress achieved within each bundle.  In outline form, the Orders framework began to emerge as a sequence of four bundles of outcomes as suggested by this diagram:

Let’s consider these bundles one-by-one.  I examined a number of long-term, large-scale coastal and marine governance programs to identify what socio-political conditions are most critical to making a successful transition to the effective implementation of a plan of action.  These would signal that the enabling conditions for implementation were present within the relevant institutions and affected human population in the area of focus.  At the time, there were few well documented long-term and successful marine and coastal management programs to draw from.  But programs such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Chesapeake Bay Program suggested strongly that the 1st Order the enabling conditions most critical to a successful transition to implementation are: 

  • A core group of well informed and supportive constituencies composed of stakeholders in both the private sector and the relevant government agencies actively support the program,
  • Sufficient initial capacity is present within the institutions responsible for the program to carry out its policies and plan of action, 
  • Formal governmental commitment to the policies of a program has been expressed by the delegation of the necessary authorities and the allocation of the financial resources required for long-term program implementation, and 
  • Goals that address both societal and the environmental conditions have been adopted against which the efforts of the program can be measured.


Through collaboration with the UNEP/GPA Program in 2006, I put forward parsimonious sets of indicators framed as questions for assessing the degree to which these four pre-conditions are present.  For example, assess the strength of supportive constituencies, on a 0 to 4 scale, by asking: 

  • the degree to which user groups affected by the program understand and support its goals and strategies, 
  • the degree to which the institutions that will assist in implementing the program understand and support its goals and strategies, and 
  • the degree to which there is public support for the program.

Such questions, when applied by a skillful analyst, are effective when assessing the strength of each enabling condition.  The reasons given for a rating are often more revealing than the rating itself.

The 2nd Order gauges the impacts of implementation (Phase 4 of the Cycle).  This can be gauged by evidence of new forms of collaborative action among institutions, shifts in patterns of investment and changes in the behavioral of some resource users.  Program implementation may also be expressed, for example, as enforcement actions on pollution discharges or illegal fishing, securing of long-term financing for the program, or the cessation of construction in hazardous coastal areas.  Here too, 0 to 4 ratings can be applied to gauge the strength of each indicator.

The 3rd Order marks the achievement of the environmental and societal conditions that the sustained practice of 2nd Order changes in human behavior have generated.  Water quality improves, there are more fish, income levels rise, conflicts are reduced.  These outcomes are specific to each initiative.  In ecosystem governance such goals should define both the societal and environmental conditions that the program intends to achieve – not one or the other.  

The 4th Order defines the ultimate conditions to which an ecosystem governance system wishes to contribute.  The 4th Order is the "north arrow" that points in the direction of desired change.  As discussed in the excellent Costanza et al. Comment in Nature, and in Blog # 5, the 4th Order may be defined as sustained economic growth measured as GDP, or by such indicators as the genuine progress indicator (GPI) that factors in various measures of human well-being including wealth distribution.  In ecosystem governance, the 4th Order cannot be brushed aside as an irrelevant abstraction.  When the 4th Order is defined as sustained economic growth as measured by GDP, the governance system will set a course that is often distinctly different from defining the 4th Order as sustainable forms of development.  These differences become evident when the necessary 2nd and 3rd Order outcomes are selected.    

The Orders framework is particularly useful when it reveals the consequences of how the 4th Order is defined.  A major attribute of this framework is that can be applied to analyze the short and long term outcomes of any ecosystem governance system - both those that emphasize conservation, equity and stewardship and those that call for rapid no-holes barred exploitation - or combinations of the two.  For example, I spent the better part of a decade working in Ecuador at the time when the farmed shrimp industry had its initial boom.  Every estuary was re-engineered and swaths of the coastline where bulldozed, reshaped and flooded, with dramatic impacts on both the environment and coastal people.  The result was dramatic ecosystem change and the generation of a sophisticated supporting governance system.  The industry did a superb job of assembling and maintaining the 1st Order enabling conditions critical to the conduct of its activities.  In terms of goal definition, the industry’s spokespeople were unapologetic in stating that the 3rd Order Goal was to maximize profits.  They argued that this was “development” and that ultimately it would bring benefits to all.  The industry maintained strong Commitmentwithin government - from the President on down - despite tensions when the government attempted to tax the industry and capture a share of the profits.  Soon shrimp farming was second only to petroleum as a contributor to Ecuadorian GDP and this won applause and support in national and international institutions.  In terms of Constituencies, the industry cultivated a support among the public that counterbalanced the pain and protests of the rural communities it displaced.  In terms of technical Capacity, the industry was highly skillful in importing technical knowhow and research capability when it needed it.  

By maintaining these 1st Order enabling conditions, the shrimp industry built up the institutions, collaborative behavior and financial flows that, as expressions of the 2nd Order, sustained the industry as the primary driver of ecosystem change along a nearly 1000 km coastline.  If the 4th Order goal is individual profit and contributions to GDP, the industry is a roaring success.  But the transformed coastline is less sustainable, less resilient and more vulnerable to climate change than it was before the industry boomed.  The Orders framework can reveal just how skillful the industry was in achieving 1st, 2nd and 3rd Order outcomes.  It’s a rich and complex story with important lessons on the dynamics of ecosystem governance and the crucial importance of how the 4th Order goal is defined.