Publications: Research reports and publications

Values, collaborative processes and indicators for freshwater planning

  • Berkett N,
  • Challenger I,
  • Sinner J,
  • and Tadaki M
1 July, 2013
Cawthron Report 2353. Prepared for Auckland Council: National Policy Statement Freshwater Management Implementation Programme.


The context of values

The National Policy Statement Freshwater Management (NPSFM) issued in 2011 directs councils to set objectives and catchment-wide limits for abstractions and discharges for all freshwater bodies in their respective regions by 2030. The NPSFM and other recent documents indicate a growing expectation that freshwater management objectives will be based on both national and local 'freshwater values'. However there is a lack of clarity about what the term 'freshwater values' means, and even less clarity about how such values should be identified, assessed and deployed in freshwater planning.

There are several meanings of 'value' and 'values' of relevance to freshwater planning, including one that conflates three other definitions. This last, conflated definition of values as "things that have value or meaning", including but not limited to what we consider "uses" of water, is the best way to understand most of the recent discourse on freshwater values but it still leaves ample room for (mis)interpretation.

Stakeholders can have constructive conversations about freshwater values without being precise about definitions, because the meaning can emerge from the context. However, if the term 'value; or 'values' is to be used in planning documents, it should be carefully defined to avoid unintended ambiguity.

Categories of 'values' are simplifications that approximate the complexity of how people value water bodies, and are often not discrete. Cultural values are not distinct from social values; social values can overlap with environmental values or economic values etc. E.g. swimming can be seen as an environmental, social and cultural value, and swimming by tourists as an economic value. Categories such as 'environmental values' and 'social values' may be useful as prompts or reminders of different aspects of how people value or find meaning in their environment, but they are not distinct enough to be used for planning purposes.

The simple act of defining categories and documenting values can privilege some uses and values over others and provoke conflict. This conflict can perhaps be reduced if values are identified, assessed and documented as part of the same planning process that determines management objectives, policies and methods so that the debate is appropriately focused on the latter rather than on what values are worthy of documenting in a regional plan.

Decisions about freshwater management objectives inevitably involve some determination of the relative significance or importance (or 'value') to be given to different aspects of freshwater systems.

Value is not always bounded (well-defined), stable and hence measurable, as certain methods based in economics tend to assume. Rather, value is often constructed in context. That is, how a person's feelings for a freshwater system or place manifest themselves depends not only on the person's experiences but also on other context-specific matters, such as how a question is asked and by whom.

Collaborative governance offers a promising way through the problem of highly contextualised values, precisely because it provides a context in which values can be jointly constructed and prioritised, leading to agreed management objectives and strategies. The enduring outcome is not the decision about the intended state (i.e. the management objectives) but rather the on-going process for managing under uncertainty, since the actual outcome will inevitably be different than intended. One of the key challenges is to be ever-mindful of the various ways that imbalances of power between different stakeholders can affect the outcomes of deliberative democracy.

Collaborative governance

'Collaborative governance' is not consultation. It involves public organisations engaging with stakeholders in collective decision-making processes in a formal, consensus-oriented and deliberative way. Collaborative processes may well offer the best approach for dealing with complex, multi-attribute wicked problems that are of long-term social, economic and environmental importance.

In establishing and implementing a collaborative process, a regional or unitary council plays many roles. It leads and sponsors the process by giving the collaborative stakeholder group (CSG) a mandate and defining the scope of its work. It provides, through staff, expert technical information and policy analysis and advice. It is also a stakeholder in the process, with interests and responsibilities of its own.

As envisaged by the Land and Water Forum (LaWF), collaboration involves a commitment by a public agency to give effect to consensus recommendations from the CSG, to the extent allowed by law. We recommend that a council give a good faith undertaking to implement consensus recommendations as long as these are consistent with higher level documents (e.g. the regional policy statement and long-term plan), the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) and other legal requirements.

The mandate for a CSG also needs to define the group's scope and outline how the process aligns with other planning processes that may be occurring concurrently (such as amendments to a regional policy statement). It is important to identify these and be clear about which issues will be dealt with in which process.

Recruitment of participants is another key aspect of designing a successful collaborative process and will depend on the nature of the issue being addressed. Membership should include not only the 'deal makers and deal breakers' but, ideally, a wide range of voices and perspectives on the issues under consideration. Methods to identify and recruit participants are available and should be considered at the design stage.

Careful consideration should also be given to the provision of technical science information to a CSG, when it will be required, and how it will be communicated during the collaborative process. This should lead to identifying, scoping and resourcing the required studies, so that information will be ready when needed. The CSG itself should also be involved in this process, so it receives information it has requested rather than information that the council thinks it should have.

Technical experts often do not participate as stakeholders but rather attend a CSG as needed to present or explain scientific information or answer questions. Technical experts need to have a trusting relationship with the members of the CSG so that they feel confident enough to engage with stakeholders in a "free and frank" manner on matters that can be contentious. Ways in which this trust can be developed should be addressed at the design stage of the process.

Monitoring and indicators

In a framework where values are prioritised through collaborative governance to identify agreed management objectives and strategies, monitoring both informs this process and provides the data for on-going evaluation of policy effectiveness.

The purpose of monitoring is to improve the system being monitored. Sustainability assessment is a useful way of understanding the task of monitoring, and can be seen as being either retrospective — measuring what has happened so as to inform future decisions — or prospective — assessing a proposed course of action for its likely effects on a system of interest. Both of these involve the use of indicators, the basic building blocks of a monitoring system, which are sometimes integrated into one or more indices that provide an overall assessment.

Indicators are often presented as fact, but they are actually social constructs and disagreements can arise regarding their meaning. To avoid this, credible methods and data need to be used when developing an indicator set, e.g. through a process of public participation. An expert-driven 'top-down' approach may have limited legitimacy within a community, while a 'bottom-up' approach can have a problem with technical credibility of the indicators, so an element of both is required. The Bellagio SusTainability Assessment and Measurement Principles provide one model for approaching this task and have been used by the OECD. The Mauri Model presented in Section 4.3.1 is an example of what a holistic and culturally derived indicator set could look like.

The hallmark of a complex adaptive system is that it cannot simply be taken to pieces to understand how it works. Indicators can contribute to understanding by measuring the different aspects of a complex system, but indicators are better seen as providing a focus around which different stakeholders can come together and discuss progress towards management objectives. In other words, management of complex adaptive systems lends itself to collaborative governance arrangements, involving the choice of objectives to be monitored, the design of indicator sets for monitoring, and the discussion and interpretation of monitoring results to assess progress and revise implementation plans.

The indicators themselves need to be adaptive and change over time as new information becomes available and policy decisions start to impact on a system, while being mindful of the need to also have continuity of some indicators to track change over time.

Integration of freshwater and coastal management

Coastal users are freshwater stakeholders, and nowhere in New Zealand is this truer than in the Auckland region, where estuaries have been adversely impacted by runoff from the multitude of small rivers, streams and stormwater channels that drain the urban, peri-urban and rural areas.

Coastal users should therefore have a key role in freshwater planning processes. Coastal ecology will be an essential component of the science required to inform freshwater planning, and any collaborative process and the wider public dialogue on the freshwater and coastal management will need to be 'joined up'.

Done well, Auckland Council has an opportunity to achieve something that no other regional authority has thus far achieved: integrated management of its freshwater and coastal environments.