Blog #4 Simplifying Frameworks to Guide the Practice

Practicing ecosystem governance is difficult.  It’s easy to lose your way.  As in medicine, broadly applicable principles and good practices will take you some distance, but in places where the problems are both multiple and significant, a thorough diagnosis followed by the skillful execution of a plan of action over the long term are necessary.  Rarely is the practice a “paint by the numbers” rote process.  For example, if overfishing is an issue, we can confidently say that fishing pressure should be reduced. Good, this most probably is correct.  But how?  What mixture of actions will be effective in reducing fishing pressure: greater involvement of the fishers in shaping the rules?  Targeted enforcement?  Education of the judges that mete out punishments to those who break the rules?  These are some of the many options.  Since we are engaged in ecosystem governance, choosing which approach to take will have to be made while simultaneously acting on other goals -  perhaps to reduce poverty, conserve biodiversity, create new sources of livelihood or integrate a wind farm in a focal area already crowded with human activities.  Traditional sector-by-sector management can and should be applied to address the individual goals for a focal area.  The additional layer of ecosystem governance will address the interactions and interdependencies among these various sectors and will work to integrate their more narrowly focused actions into a coherent whole.

The comprehensive nature of ecosystem governance has layers of complexity:

  • It requires a long term view - both looking back to discern the patterns of social and environmental change that suggest to the practitioner how they system as a whole may respond to challenges and looking forward several decades because the outcomes of the various options will emerge over time.  A snapshot of current conditions and immediate issues may obscure these bigger patterns.  
  • The features, trends and issues of both the ecosystem (people and environment) and the governance system in the place must be understood in the context of at least the next bigger spatial scale.
  • Governance, by definition, is about world views, goal setting and the values associated with these attributes of the practice and how they shape what is or is not possible to do in a given focal area at a given time. 

When working to navigate such complexity, simplifying frameworks are needed that guide the practitioner in visualizing the sequence in which actions should be taken and to distinguish between what is important or essential from what is merely interesting and potentially useful.  Simplifying frameworks, also known as heuristics, guide the practitioner in situations when it is impossible to examine all the potentially relevant social and environmental issues and trends, information is imperfect and it is not feasible to consider all the options.  Heuristics are useful when they help a group focus and make informed, strategic decisions more quickly, when they enable people to learn together and when they shape discussion and decision-making.  Heuristics get in the way when they stifle creativity, when they take on the attributes of a dogma and impede learning and adaption rather than encourage it.  Effective heuristics therefore do not say “do it this way” but rather draw attention to the sequences by which initiatives evolve.  They identify what appear to be the most essential actions in each phase of an ecosystem governance initiative.  They keep the big picture in view and help practitioners avoid getting bogged down in the minutia.  Heuristics or frameworks are testable and should be refined or supplanted as experience is analyzed and wisdom accumulates.

I have found a several simplifying frameworks to be consistently useful.  Their usefulness lies in good measure in helping gauge the likely consequences of deviating from the ideal and logical progression that the framework calls for.  Often such deviations are a necessity - but they usually come at a cost to efficiency, effectiveness or both.  We will briefly consider four that I and a number of fellow aspiring practitioners are finding helpful.  These are:

  • The five phase management cycle
  • The Orders of Outcomes
  • Timelines for tracing ecosystem change
  • The three principle sources of governance
  • A framework for assessing complexity 

The application of these five simplifying frameworks will not, in itself, produce a successful ecosystem governance project or program.  Their value lies in how they guide those undertaking an initiative to think through what they can reasonably hope to accomplish in a specific place with the time and resources available to them.  The biggest source of failure is initiatives that are not appropriately scaled to the place where they are executed.  The practice of ecosystem governance has to succeed in places where the major drivers are usually pushing away from more sustainable forms of human activity rather than towards that goal. If they are to succeed, ecosystem governance initiatives must be highly strategic and grounded upon a well-informed appraisal of what is possible.  Subsequent entries in this blog will explore these five simplifying frameworks one-by-one.