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Marine and Freshwater Research. Skip to Main Content. Making management decisions in the face of uncertainty: a case study using the Burdekin catchment in the Great Barrier Reef Description. Select Print. Loading citation data This meant that the epistemological uncertainties arose because of an honest lack of knowledge, rather than deliberate construction of uncertainty through secrecy Smithson A number of other uncertainties that arose during the relicensing involved unknown external parameters, such as when it would rain, when FERC would make a decision on an unresolved question, or whether a nearby relicensing would go into a study dispute, parameters about which no one in the room, and in some cases no one save the rain gods, had information.

For these ontological uncertainties, gathering more information would not resolve them. From a collective action perspective, these uncertainties should be harder to resolve through collaboration because they involve unknowns that are external to the core group of actors York and Schoon However, stakeholders still turned to collaborative approaches to address these more unresolvable uncertainties. This process team had a representative from the utility, the consulting team, all major participating government agencies, and a coordinator from the consortium of participating nonprofits.

At its meetings, the team would assess the status of current negotiations and reprioritize what it thought would be the best direction to move forward. The process team meetings served as a critical tool for stakeholders to triage around uncertainties and ensure that nothing was forgotten, even if the right information or personnel were not available to make an immediate decision.

Process team meetings were also the first point of entry for triaging with other relicensing processes. Second, in full stakeholder meetings, the group members discussed uncertainties and talked explicitly about their process. When there was an outstanding permit or an unpredictable weather pattern, the group members talked about it and made a plan so that they would be ready to act as soon as the conditions were right.

Can we put in on an agenda? Especially the methodology to track sediment movement? In both of these approaches, collaboration helped by getting diverse sets of people in the room talking to one another. Talking openly about uncertainty with the full stakeholder group created a setting that enabled more thoughtful and efficient handling of uncertainty. With a diverse group in the room, stakeholders could both identify uncertainties quickly and consider many different ways to work around them.

When a series of fish surveys failed to find any fish because an ongoing drought made river temperatures too high, the biologists in the room could quickly think through what the low counts meant for making inferences about the health of the river and what other methods they could use. Although collaboration helped stakeholders move forward and work with uncertainty, it is important to note that collaboration sometimes increased uncertainty over the short term.

As stakeholders would discuss each new uncertainty, they would raise questions, e. Each question thus begat one or more new uncertainties, which stakeholders had to either answer or manage around. Without diverse stakeholders in the rooms, i. In other words, collaboration made unknown unknowns visible to the full group. Many interviewees felt that uncertainty helped to facilitate collaboration because it brought stakeholders together to solve a problem. As one consultant described,.

The consultant felt that by collaborating, the stakeholders could make lawsuits less likely. However, lawsuits occur frequently in FERC relicensing processes, even highly collaborative ones Ulibarri b. Likewise, a big concern for many stakeholders was not knowing how FERC would rule on the management recommendations the group put forward. As a representative of the utility, the group with the most to gain or lose from the relicensing, said,. When FERC, regulatory agencies, or the legislature was making a decision that would directly affect the group, stakeholders turned deliberately to working toward unanimous consent-based decisions.

Uncertainty was motivating people to work toward a single shared decision, a fairly undeniable example of uncertainty driving collaboration. However, very few other uncertainties resulted immediately in collaborative dialogue among the full stakeholder group. Instead, when confronted with a new uncertainty, stakeholders would often request a short caucus without the utility and its consulting team present.

In these breakout sessions, representatives of the government agencies and NGOs would discuss their individual interests as they related to the uncertainty and develop a unified narrative or response to share with the utility. Only after they had worked through their individual concerns and hesitations would they discuss the uncertainty with the utility. In these instances, uncertainty did lead individuals to collaborate, but only a constrained group of stakeholders, i.

Although these stakeholders had diverse interests and mandates, they were less diverse than the full group, including the hydropower utility. For example, if asked when they would be ready to discuss in-stream flow requirements in the downstream section of river, the agencies called a caucus with the NGOs.

The caucus consisted of updates about an internal GIS analysis that the U. Fish and Wildlife Service was conducting, debates about whether and how the agency staff needed to bring their bosses into the discussion, and what to do about the fact that a key regulatory agency was missing.

After discussing these outstanding questions, the group returned to announce that it was not ready to discuss the downstream section until the GIS analysis was complete. In this case, the agencies and NGOs were essentially prioritizing which uncertainties they felt mattered most for triaging the discussion. To do this prioritization, they raised all of the open questions about the topic, which increased the diversity of options, and therefore the uncertainty of outcomes, for a short time; however, the agencies and NGOs chose to do this without the utility, the organization with the most distinct interests, in the room.

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Caucuses were also called after questions about how to change the modeled hydrology to address changing upstream flows and whether certain flow recession rates would improve riparian habitat. Stakeholders appeared unwilling to speak up about these disagreements with the full group but would break to raise it with more like-minded people. Once they had an internal narrative about why it was an uncertainty and how it mattered for decision making, they would return to the full group.

In these instances, the caucuses increased ambiguity Brugnach et al. Finally, it is important to note that all caucuses did not follow an uncertainty, because some were called when the utility asked the group for a firm decision. They followed questions such as: How should we stock fish?

What requirements do we want for a monitoring group? Should we remove the temperature loggers yet? I explored the interrelationship between uncertainty and collaborative governance in the context of a multistakeholder hydropower licensing process. Numerous types of uncertainties arose during the 4 years of negotiation, and these uncertainties often interacted in messy and hard-to-predict ways.

Collaboration was an important tool for stakeholders to handle the uncertainties that arose. In some cases, collaboration helped move information through the network, helping resolve uncertainties more quickly; in other cases, collaboration helped stakeholders triage around uncertainties that could not be resolved by gathering more information. In addition, many stakeholders talked about uncertainty as a motivating factor in why they chose to collaborate.

At the same time, the link between uncertainty and collaboration was sometimes blurred, as stakeholders opted to address some uncertainties in a two-stage process, with internal collaboration to handle the initial messiness and then full-group collaboration to work through bigger picture implications. The first implication of this work is that many types of uncertainty arise in environmental governance, not just the scientific or substantive uncertainty that environmental scholars often consider e.

How can you plan for the unknown?

This included strategic uncertainties about the goals and actions of individuals and organizations Koppenjan and Klijn , Abbott and surprise events that fundamentally reshaped the decision-making context Balint et al. Some of the uncertainties arose from within the stakeholder group, e. The group developed tools to plan around these uncertainties in a collaborative manner, yet the uncertainties themselves made environmental problem solving and negotiation more challenging.

Importantly, my study is not the first to acknowledge the diversity or complexity of uncertainty for solving environmental problems Abbott , Bijlsma et al. This research also reveals several new observations about the nature of uncertainty in environmental management. First, existing typologies of uncertainty often consider different types of uncertainty in isolation Koppenjan and Klijn , Abbott , Brugnach et al. In this research, uncertainties rarely arose individually but instead interacted and compounded. In the sediment example, the resolution of just a physical or administrative uncertainty alone, e.

Second, other than accounting for large-scale stochastic events, existing typologies tend to neglect the way that external factors affect what happens in a given decision-making forum. The exception is Abbott , whose external uncertainty, i. Although large-scale external changes certainly created, and sometimes resolved, uncertainties, the FERC relicensing also had a number of external uncertainties that were tightly linked to the planning process.

In particular, there was a closely interlinked set of policy or planning venues, including other relicensings and watershed forums, with the same set of actors engaged in numerous venues across the region Lubell et al.

Law and the Environment

Decisions in one venue, from setting a meeting date to negotiating an interagency memorandum of agreement or a new set of flow requirements, had cascading effects on uncertainty throughout the network. This type of external uncertainty has not previously been described. As for the interaction between collaboration and uncertainty, this work supports the common supposition in the literature that collaboration is well suited to address uncertainty Koppenjan and Klijn , Balint et al. For epistemological uncertainties, having diverse stakeholders in the room expanded the suite of knowledge and expertise they had available, so they could efficiently find answers to outstanding questions.

Process mattered in that talking openly about uncertainty with the full stakeholder group created a setting that enabled more thoughtful and efficient handling of uncertainty, particularly through triaging so the decisions could keep moving forward. Both of these approaches benefited from the structure of regular meetings and time to build trust-based working relationships Emerson and Nabatchi , which highlights the need for full collaboration, i.

Although some scholars have argued that collaboration can make the handling of uncertainty less effective Zandvoort et al.

Four Steps for Making Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty - Christian Muntean - Vantage Consulting

Uncertainty, however, was both a driver of and barrier to collaboration. Interviewees felt that uncertainty helped bring stakeholders to the table Ansell and Gash , Emerson et al. Unfortunately, the data do not reveal why the resource agencies and NGOs opted to use so many caucuses, but there are several plausible explanations. First, the participants could be strategically capitalizing on the uncertainty as an opportunity to frame the debate in a way that is most favorable to them.

In negotiation theory, how an offer is framed and when it is presented affects the types of substantive outcomes that result Fisher et al. Conversely, stakeholders could be fearful of the uncertainty and feel that they maintain a greater sense of control if they are able to handle it in a more constrained group. Ideas of psychological safety suggest that when people feel insecure they seek their comfort zone Edmondson and Lei , Frazier et al. Dialogue within that constrained group would give people a sense of control over the uncertainty, helping them feel secure enough to return to the full group.

If this second explanation is correct, the likely mechanism driving collaboration is trust in the process: Despite their experience, stakeholders do not believe that principled engagement will serve to manage the uncertainties effectively. What is particularly interesting about this pattern of two-stage negotiations is that the risk of being wrong about the uncertainty most often fell to the utility, not to the stakeholders calling the caucus. The utility, which bankrolls the entire relicensing, risks paying more money in consulting fees and study costs in the case of delays; in the case of a miscalculated uncertainty that leads to infrastructure failure, it might lose reputation, be sued, face bankruptcy, or lose its license.

Although a wildlife protection agency does face some risk of endorsing a decision that leads to species decline, the overall risks they bear from the relicensing are minimal. One would expect that the organization bearing risk more directly would be most likely to have a need for psychological safety, but this did not appear to be the case. As a single case study, a key outstanding question is how similar uncertainties would have played out in other settings. Although careful attention to uncertainty was necessary for moving the dialogue forward in this case, in a less collaborative setting, not discussing uncertainties as a group could lead stakeholders to feel that they were not being addressed adequately and therefore drive participants away from the table.

In a context where organizations are already choosing to allocate their scarce time, staff, and resources to one collaborative group at the expense of others Lubell et al. Additionally, although stakeholders grappled with diverse and interacting uncertainties, the uncertainties in this case were perhaps more constrained than might exist in other collaborative settings. In contrast to many grassroots collaborations that arise in the environmental space, FERC relicensing has a relatively narrow set of issues that is up for negotiation and a single, fixed goal: develop a new operating license.

Thus, this case might represent a lower bound on the types of uncertainty stakeholders face; increasing the number and types of uncertainties faced may make collaboration less effective as it creates more individual components to triage. In conclusion, I argue for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between collaboration and uncertainty in the management of environmental problems.

Careful consideration of how collaboration and uncertainty interact can help conveners and participants in collaborative governance processes optimize their interactions, which ultimately results in better outcomes for the environment and the people who rely on it Scott , Ulibarri b.

This paper benefited from numerous sets of feedback from colleagues near and far. Abbott, J. Understanding and managing the unknown: the nature of uncertainty in planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research 24 3 Ansell, C. Collaborative governance in theory and practice. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 18 4 Arnstein, S. A ladder of citizen participation.

Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35 4 Balint, P. Stewart, A. Desai, and L. Wicked environmental problems: managing uncertainty and conflict. Island, Washington, D. Barrett, S. Sensitivity of collective action to uncertainty about climate tipping points.

3 Ways to Take Action in the Face of Uncertainty

Nature Climate Change Berardo, R. Bridging and bonding capital in two-mode collaboration networks. Policy Studies Journal 42 2 Bijlsma, R. Bots, H. Wolters, and A. Ecology and Society 16 1 Bonnell, J.

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Ecology and Society 13 2 Corbin, J. Basics of qualitative research: techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Third edition. Cravens, A. Environmental Management 57 2 Douglas, M. Risk and culture: an essay on the selection of technological and environmental dangers. Dudney, J. Hobbs, R. Heilmayr, J. Battles, and K. Navigating novelty and risk in resilience management. Duncan, R. Opening new institutional spaces for grappling with uncertainty: a constructivist perspective.

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