By Melissa Robson
It seems simple enough to say that community values and aspirations should be central to informing government decisions that affect them. But simple things can turn out to be complex.
In particular, when research to inform land and water policy was guided by what the community valued and aspired to rather than solely technical considerations, a much broader array of desirable outcomes was considered and the limitations of what science can measure and predict were usefully exposed.
Context and process
Let me start by setting some context. In New Zealand both national regulation and regional strategies require quantitative water quality and water quantity limits to be set for each body of water – lakes, rivers, groundwater aquifers and so on.
These requirements were introduced in the last few years and I was part of a multi-disciplinary technical team which was among the first in the country to go through this ‘limit-setting’ exercise for a water catchment (a catchment is all of the land that contributes water to a water body).
A zone committee was established to decide on the limits and to support their implementation. It was made up of representatives of the community, including the Indigenous Māori community (Iwi), and government. The local government agency responsible for environmental management decided that a radical overhaul was needed in the role of the technical team to support this new committee. One of the first manifestations of this overhaul was to change how the technical team established what the project would cover and what the criteria would be for assessing future land use policy options.
A community process was used to establish what was valued locally, to determine local priority outcomes covering social, economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing and what was aspired to by the community for their catchment. This information shaped the technical assessment framework, shown in the figure below, in four major ways.
First, it was used for setting the boundaries of what the research would cover. Instead of the scope of the research being constrained by what the traditional technical team of government scientists – who were mainly from biophysical disciplines – said they could measure or model, the community said what they valued and where and when they valued it. It was then the job of the technical team to see what information they needed to generate and, therefore, what disciplines and sources of knowledge they needed to include in the technical assessment.
Second, it was used to identify the stakeholder groups within the community.
Third, it was used to build a range of scenarios of possible futures for the catchment. There were already water resource conflicts in the catchment and different parts of the community had different aspirations for the future. Instead of ‘picking a winner’, a suite of scenarios was built to explore the range of aspirations articulated by the community.
Fourth, the outcomes the community valued and aspired to were used to establish the assessment criteria against which all of the future scenarios would be tested. The key elements in the process of establishing the assessment criteria were that:
- Zone committee members described what the catchment would look like if each of the community’s priority outcomes was realised.
- Based on these descriptions, the technical team determined the relevant indicators that described these priority outcomes and what techniques (eg., models) could be used to try and predict these indicators and assess the consequent likelihood of those outcomes being met.
- The indicators were used to evaluate each of the future scenarios that the zone committee wanted to test.
The technical team found that we did not have the available techniques to predict the consequences of the future scenarios across all of the priority outcomes – some outcomes we could only partially cover and others we could not cover at all.
It was generally straightforward to predict the likelihood of priority outcomes being met under different scenarios when the community aspirations:
- were expressed as a direction of change eg., “customary fisheries are improved”
- were the subject of an absolute standard eg., “domestic drinking water meets national standards without treatment”.
There were priority outcomes that the technical team were only able to cover partially, for example “wahi tapu (sacred places) and mahinga kai (food and material gathering) are respected, understood, protected and enhanced”. In this case the technical team were able to predict the likelihood of the ‘protection and enhancement’ element of this outcome being met across different scenarios, but were not able to predict the ‘respect and understanding’ element.
There were also priority outcomes that the technical team could not predict the likelihood for being met under different scenarios. These were outcomes that were concerned with:
- the basis of management decisions (eg., “nutrient and water management is based on clear and agreed science including Matauranga (Māori knowledge and understanding)”)
- policy implementation (eg., “land managers use optimal water and nutrient practices for their land classes, soil type and farm system”).
We found an additional problem when the priority outcome and narrative description were based on a value judgement eg., “thriving and sustainable communities” as opposed to a direction of desired change or a verifiable state. In this case, population size was chosen as one of the indicators. However, it was not clear from the narrative whether “thriving and sustainable communities” were based on an increased, static or a decreased population. The technical team therefore needed to make a judgement about whether population increases or decreases best delivered the outcome.
A lesson learnt for boundary setting was that starting with what the community wants leads to a much broader array of desirable outcomes, and exposes the limitations of what can be predicted. This was useful as it helped to manage expectations about the research from the start and identify where other sources of knowledge would be required. It also required that researchers from different disciplines work together to respond to the outcomes.
Another lesson learnt was the benefit of using community values and aspirations for assessment criteria and to develop scenarios in situations where there was pressure and conflict around the use of water resources. The benefit gained was through the systematic exploration of the different aspirations of the community through scenarios and the likely consequence of these scenarios on the community values, as this allowed people to understand the consequences of their aspirations on what was valued by others.
A third lesson learnt for establishing assessment criteria and indicators was that, where the outcomes contained a value judgement, the technical team needed to work with the zone committee to identify at least a direction of desirable change. This was better than the technical team making a value judgement on its own.
Have you found similar challenges? If so, how did you manage them?
To find out more:
Robson, M. (2014). Technical report to support water quality and quantity limit setting in Selwyn Waihora catchment: Predicting consequences of future scenarios – Overview Report. Report No. R14/15. Environment Canterbury Regional Council Kaunihera Taiao ki Waitaha: Christchurch, New Zealand. (Online): http://files.ecan.govt.nz/public/lwrp/variation1/tech-report-sw-overview.pdf (PDF 3.9MB)
Wedderburn, E. and Kelly, S. (2010). Informing decision-making through deliberative approaches: A procedural guideline. Overview Report. Report produced for Environment Waikato on behalf of the “Creating Futures” project, Hamilton, August. (Online): http://www.creatingfutures.org.nz/assets/CF-Uploads/Publications/Deliberation-Matrix/Informing-decision-making-through-deliberative-approaches—a-procedural-guideline.pdf (PDF 899KB)
Biography: Melissa Robson is an environmental scientist in the Governance and Policy team at Landcare Research in Lincoln, New Zealand. She has spent the past five years leading complex co-developed or stakeholder focused research programmes to support and inform land use and water quality decision-making by local communities and policy makers.
Melissa Robson leads The Collaboration Lab project funded by Our Land and Water National Science Challenge.