Blog #6 The Management Cycle

This installment addresses the first of the simplifying frameworks - the Management Cycle.  The cycle was developed by the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) as the conceptual framework for what evolved into the Center’s four-week international training courses on the “theory and practice of coastal management.”  After fifteen years of engagement in US-style coastal zone management and four years working in Latin America and Southeast Asia we felt ready to share what we were learning.  We had many ideas, sackfuls of experience, but no unifying conceptual framework.  Many elements of the US CZM program were relevant but certainly not the model to be replicated anywhere.  This was in 1989, four years before the UN Rio “Earth Summit” Conference gave currency to the term Integrated Coastal Management in 1993.

CRC contracted with a professional trainer in international public health, well versed in adult learning methods, to guide us in designing the course.  She became exasperated and warned that if we did not settle on a unifying framework our course would confuse and frustrate.  Finally, she demanded “What is all this essentially about?”  I remember saying with some embarrassment “it’s really all about learning.”  Indeed this was our experience - learning to identify and rank the issues in a place, learning what may be do-able and not-doable in a five year period, learning what the people in the place think is important, learning how responses to those problems and opportunities might be grafted into the institutions involved.  “Okay, if that’s really it” said our coach, “then organize what you want to teach by the phases in the learning cycle.”

What is the learning cycle?  There are many versions, but in essence they all convey that learning is a repetitive process, sustained over time with three distinct phases.  These are (1) concrete experience, (2) reflection to extract knowledge and concepts from that experience and (3) further action that builds upon the results of the Phase 2 reflection.  Then the cycle repeats.  In ecosystem management and governance, cycles of learning that are occurring simultaneously at different scales of space and time should inform each other and result in a collective body of knowledge that shapes the advance of the program.

Our experience in the US had underscored the criticality of linking the Phase 2 reflection with the next round of concrete experience.  In a public policy process this means making the transition from planning to implementation.  The national CZM program in the US was structured to underscore that an initial process of information compilation, goal setting and planning had to transition to program implementation.  In fact, planning was funded separately from implementation, and if the transition to program implementation failed, federal funding ended and the state had no federally approved CZM program.  Our experience in developing nations was there are an abundance of coastal studies, policies and plans, but a scarcity of implementation.  The transition from planning to implementation was seldom successful.  How to prevent this from happening became a central theme of our training.  We therefore added a distinct intermediate step named “formal approval” and developed materials and case studies to demonstrate that this phase has its own dynamic.  Obtaining formal approval requires gaining a place on the policy agenda of the nation and competing for attention and resources with other national programs and political priorities in order to secure the resources and the authorities required to implement a coastal management program successfully.  If planning is not designed from the beginning to win governmental commitment, then the likelihood of formal approval and then reaping the benefits of coastal management would be small.

We also concluded that the planning phase became clearer when it was broken down into two distinct phases.  The first focuses upon defining the purpose and scale of the effort.  The second is the protracted process - usually five or more years - of information compilation, consultation, negotiation, and planning that produces a set of policies and a course of action.  Here again these initial two phases have distinctly different dynamics.  The result of our adaptation of the three phase learning cycle was a five-phase coastal management cycle.

Figure 1: Management Cycle

Figure 1: Management Cycle

Over the years that followed we refined the short list of what we found to be the most essential actions associated with each of the five phases.  The key message of all training has been that each phase has its own dynamic and that any application in a specific place will be shaped by its context - the unique combinations of ecology, human activities and impacts, the existing governance system and the actors and culture of the place.  A successful team does not operate by checklists and the mechanical transfer of techniques and technologies that may have been useful in other places.  The practice demands leadership, creativity, experimentation and at times a dose of risk-taking.

After a long debate, the five-phase management cycle was endorsed by an international panel of senior marine scientists (GESAMP, 1996) as a framework for organizing an ICM initiative and defining the different roles and contributions of the sciences to each phase.  Our five-phase management cycle has been criticized as “too simple.”  Many other versions of a “step-by-step” process have been developed and used for training and to guide project and program designs.  Most of these have more steps or phases and give greater detail on what actions, in what sequence, should be taken.  The International Oceanographic Commission, for example, put forward a ten-step process for marine spatial planning in 2009.  For me the risk of greater detail is that it suggests a “paint by the numbers” mentality that is inappropriate for an inherently creative process that must be adaptive and very rarely follows a prescribed path. 

A version of the cycle put forward by the PEMSEA Program in South Asia adds an initial phase termed “preparing” for the effort that concerns defining the purpose of a coastal management initiative, securing of an initial budget and assembling a staff.  This is the often challenging stage of convincing the powers that be that an action is needed.  This pre-commitment phase is of course essential.  One school of psychology that has had considerable success in overcoming destructive behaviors (such as alcoholism, smoking and over-eating) places a major emphasis on “pre-contemplation” (Prochaska and DiClemente, 1983).  This is the period when a person or group does not recognize that there is a problem that deserves a response.  The five-phase cycle begins after that critical decision has been made. 

The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) organizes its initiatives by a “Transboundary Diagnostic Assessment” followed by a “Strategic Action Plan” that parallel Phases 1 through 3 of the management cycle.  Since program implementation is viewed as the responsibility of the national governments involved, Phase 4 is not emphasized. 

An attempt to complete the five phases of an ecosystem governance initiative at a significant scale can be considered as a “generation” of a program.  Much can be learned by examining former experience and summarizing how far it progressed and what it accomplished in the terms of the five phases.  Very often we see multiple attempts, often extending back over several decades, with each not progressing beyond Phases 1 and 2.  Attempts to regulate fishing and protect a small endemic cetacean in the upper Gulf of California, for example, progressed through no less than three distinct generations before a measure of meaningful implementation of a management plan was achieved.  Such experience reinforces the fact that making the transition from planning and analysis to implementation is the biggest hurdle.  The widening “implementation gap” so apparent in many regions is, I believe,  due to a lack of appreciation for the dynamics of successfully making the transition from planning to implementation and thereby assembling the preconditions within and outside government that have to be in place if program