Engaging Voices: Stakeholders and the Development of National Environmental Indicators
Case Studies from the Sustainable Roundtables, EPA, and the Heinz Center
Discussion Paper 2006-4, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Environment and Natural Resources
Environmental policy is one of the most polarized and contested areas in American politics, and much of that contestation is driven by a lack of agreement regarding a national set of environmental indicators. While national economic policy is guided by a credible and well-respected set of economic indicators monitoring the state of the economy, Congress, the President, and federal, state, and local agencies are making critical decisions regarding natural resources without similar knowledge about the environment. Interest groups from across the spectrum continuously contest these decisions as disconnected from good science and reality, and often they are correct.
The $600 million worth of environmental data collection and analysis that is conducted is spread across the federal government in a myriad of separate and unconnected agencies. A comprehensive and integrated presentation of the important results from these programs is not available, and efforts to coordinate and reduce costly overlap among them are limited.
Several initiatives are currently underway to correct these problems, but unless relevant stakeholder groups are effectively engaged and supportive, these attempts will most likely fail to successfully influence and improve policy-making. Robust strategies and mechanisms to involve the public may indeed be critical to the successful development of national environmental indicators. A key question, therefore, is what strategies and mechanisms most effectively engage stakeholders in this process?
Research recently conducted on six case studies of environmental indicator initiatives, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Draft Report on the Environment, the Heinz Center’s State of the Nation’s Ecosystems Report, and the four inter-agency Sustainable Roundtables, provides several important insights on designing stakeholder participation processes. First of all, in thinking about the most effective ways to engage stakeholders, the primary goal of engagement is assumed to be increasing the overall effectiveness and likelihood of success of the indicator development process. The analysis presented in this paper, which is based on extensive document review, meeting observation, 40 participant interviews and over 100 online survey responses, suggests several key findings related to this goal. Specifically, stakeholder participation processes that are more likely to be effective incorporate the following design choices:
• Educative and deliberative forums: Such forums enable participants to learn about each other’s perspectives, encourage open and serious deliberation between participants, and build trust and respect among diverse interest groups.
• Advisory pathways: Participants are able to openly and directly express their opinions to decision-making authorities. • Problem-solving opportunities: Stakeholders are encouraged to work with federal agency staff in actively selecting, improving, and populating the indicators.
• Decision-making authority: Important decisions about the composition and nature of the indicators are delegated to participatory processes.
• Strong and diverse funding support: Finances from a broad range of public and private sources are sufficient to cover meeting expenses and participant travel costs, hire staff support, and pay for project overhead.
• Diverse, balanced and representative participants: A balanced set of stakeholders come from a wide spectrum of sectors and organizations with diverse interests.
• Iterative and remote participation: Participants meet many times, and continue interacting and collaborating with each other outside of face-to-face meetings.
• High-status leadership: The leaders of the process are well-known and knowledgeable in their sector, and catalyze the participation of other stakeholders.
• Independent facilitation: Facilitators and organizers are perceived as neutral and not biased against any particular group or interest. This research measured effectiveness using surrogate criteria of relevance, legitimacy, and credibility, and found that both complementarities and tensions can exist among these criteria. Managers therefore should be aware of the potential tradeoffs in designing their stakeholder processes. For example, providing interpretation of data in an indicator report may increase the relevance of the report, but decrease its credibility and legitimacy.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
The paper discusses these findings in the context of stakeholder engagement in general, the specific contexts of the six case studies, and the national context of environmental policy-making. The following are preliminary conclusions regarding design choices that may most effectively increase the success of stakeholder engagement initiatives.
• Adoption of a Tiered Approach to Stakeholder Engagement: The four functions of communication and trust-building, advisory comment, problem-solving, and decision-making are all important aspects of involving stakeholders, and each can have different and often conflicting effects on the effectiveness, relevance, legitimacy, and credibility of participatory processes. Open forums, for example, while enhancing relevance and legitimacy, may reduce a program’s credibility. Stakeholder involvement initiatives should therefore seek to incorporate all of these functions in a tiered organizational structure that keeps them separate operationally but connected institutionally. Such an approach can minimize the negative effects of each function while maximizing their benefits.
• Promotion of Transparency of Decision-Making Structures and Processes: High levels of transparency can increase the legitimacy and credibility of an indicator development process, and reduce accusations of bias and lack of accountability.
• Recruitment of a Diversity of High Status Leaders and Participants: A stakeholder process that is led by respected individuals in their fields and engages a representative group of stakeholders can be perceived as more legitimate, credible and relevant to the public. A four sector co-chair structure (government, industry, non-profit, academia) that has a rotating executive chair position and an operating culture of consensus-oriented decision-making may therefore be an important design option.
• Adoption of an Integrated, Broad-Based Approach: Such a strategy can increase the relevance, legitimacy and credibility of the process by ensuring that relevant perspectives, issues and valuable synergies are not ignored.
• Engagement of an Independent Facilitator: Whether the facilitator is an individual or part of a larger organization, their perceived independence and neutrality may be a critical determinant of the legitimacy and credibility of a process.
The paper also discusses these conclusions in the context of both the six case studies and the possible institutionalization of a national system of environmental indicators. Several ideas relating to a National Bureau of Environmental Statistics that might adopt the same tiered, multi-functional structure suggested above, and include a multi-stakeholder Board of Directors, Environmental Indicators Advisory Committee, Technical Commission on Environmental Indicators, and an Annual Forum on the State of the Nation’s Environment. Creation of such a bureau could also be linked to a 100th Anniversary celebration of Theodore Roosevelt’s White House Governors’ Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, which would provide the President with a platform to promote his vision of sound environmental management and stewardship of our nation’s natural resources and heritage.
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Document Length: 39 pp.