Collaborative environmental governance: Achieving collective action in social-ecological systems

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Science  18 Aug 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6352, eaan1114
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan1114

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Collaborative governance

By its nature, environmental governance requires collaboration. However, studies have shown that various types of stakeholders often lack the willingness to deliberate and contribute to jointly negotiated solutions to common environmental problems. Bodin reviews studies and cases that elucidate when, if, and how collaboration can be effective and what kind of environmental problems are most fruitfully addressed in this way. The piece provides general conclusions about the benefits and constraints of collaborative approaches to environmental management and governance and points out that there remain substantial knowledge gaps and key areas where more research is needed.

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Structured Abstract


Current and future generations are confronted with the complex task of devising sustainable solutions to environmental problems. The coming decade might determine whether humanity will be able to set a course toward a future of continued prosperity on a planet whose ecosystems will deliver the needed goods and services. A crucial piece of this puzzle is achieving effective collaboration among different public and private actors and stakeholders. Calls for solving environmental problems through collaborative governance emphasize benefits from local to global scales—from artisanal fishermen avoiding the overfishing of local fish stocks by together agreeing upon sustainable practices, to states jointly committing to implement adequate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although commonly advocated, achieving successful collaborations when confronted with complex environmental problems spanning geographical scales and jurisdictional boundaries is an area where substantial knowledge gaps remain.


A growing amount of empirical evidence shows the effectiveness of actors engaged in different collaborative governance arrangements in addressing environmental problems. However, studies also show that actors sometimes collaborate only as a means of advocating their own interests, while largely lacking a willingness to contribute towards jointly negotiated solutions to common problems. Hence, collaboration is sometimes unable to deliver any tangible outcomes, or merely produces symbolic outcomes such as aggregated wish lists where conflicts of interest are left untouched.

Clearly, no single blueprint exists for how to succeed by using collaborative approaches to solve environmental problems. One way of approaching this puzzle is through the lenses of the participating actors and the ways in which they engage in collaboration with each other. This approach entails directing attention to who the actors are, what their interests and motives are, who they collaborate with, and how the structures of such “collaborative networks” relate to the actors’ joint abilities to address different environmental problems.

Emerging insights from recent research suggest that the effectiveness of different collaborative network structures in addressing environmental problems depends on how those problems unfold with respect to the following characteristics: (i) varying levels of risk that actors free-ride on others’ efforts; (ii) varying levels of knowledge gaps, signifying different needs for social learning and deliberation among actors with different backgrounds, experiences, and interests; and (iii) whether these problems are, for all practical purposes, permanent or just temporary.

Also, long-standing research questions regarding whether governance structures that are adequately aligned with ecosystem structures and processes are more effective have recently been addressed empirically. Early results suggest several ways in which misalignments between the structure of a collaborative network and the biophysical environment reduce the ability to address environmental problems effectively.


A more nuanced understanding of whether collaborative governance is the most effective way of solving environmental problems is needed. The capacity of collaborative governance to deliver sustainable solutions for any given environmental problem ranges from highly effective to essentially worthless. Future efforts must establish which factors determine the exact location of any collaborative arrangement on this continuum.

Emerging insights suggest that where a collaborative arrangement falls on the spectrum results from a complex interplay between several factors. The characteristics of the underlying collective action problem are one factor. Others are the characteristics of the underlying biophysical system and how these align with the ways in which collaborative governance arrangements are constructed, institutionally embedded, and managed. Finally, the patterns in which actors collaborate with each other (or do not) is a factor that potentially determines the effects that the other factors have on a collaborative arrangement’s ability to solve environmental problems.

Small-scale fishermen preparing their nets.

Although collaborative approaches to environmental governance are increasingly advocated, a better understanding of if and how multiactor collaboration in interlinked social-ecological systems is able to effectively address various environmental problems is urgently needed.

Photo: Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo


Managing ecosystems is challenging because of the high number of stakeholders, the permeability of man-made political and jurisdictional demarcations in relation to the temporal and spatial extent of biophysical processes, and a limited understanding of complex ecosystem and societal dynamics. Given these conditions, collaborative governance is commonly put forward as the preferred means of addressing environmental problems. Under this paradigm, a deeper understanding of if, when, and how collaboration is effective, and when other means of addressing environmental problems are better suited, is needed. Interdisciplinary research on collaborative networks demonstrates that which actors get involved, with whom they collaborate, and in what ways they are tied to the structures of the ecosystems have profound implications on actors’ abilities to address different types of environmental problems.

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