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EDGE Report Summary

Project ID: 263859
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Germany

Final Report Summary - EDGE (Evaluating the Delivery Of Participatory Environmental Governance using an Evidence-based Research Design)

Whether and under what circumstances participation can effectively secure environmental benefits has remained a theoretically contested issue, with empirical research and evidence on the topic being highly ambiguous and scattered. The EDGE project has drawn on a novel combination of methods to explore this evidence, and thereby address what is one of the most widely disputed questions in the field of environmental and sustainability governance. The evidence-based approach taken draws on a coherent unifying analytical framework to combine primary research (comparative case studies and field experiment) with secondary research (meta-analysis of published case studies – case survey). In this way, the project has yielded unprecedented insights into the functioning and effects of public and stakeholder participation in environmental governance.
In the largest and most comprehensive case-survey meta-analysis to date in the field of environmental governance, EDGE has assembled a major international database of published cases of participatory public environmental decision-making from Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand. This will be made available online for use by other research groups and practitioners. A sample of 308 randomly selected cases have been closely reviewed and systematically coded – each independently by three coders – according to a common analytical scheme (code book) containing over 300 unique variables. An analysis of biases in the resultant dataset revealed the data to be of generally very high quality and free from significant biases (in terms of e.g. coder learning effects and inter-coder reliability). Analysis of the dataset has yielded important insights into the central variables and causal links shaping the relationship between participation and the effectiveness and legitimacy of environmental governance. Key results show that across all cases, participation does improve environmental outcomes of decision-making. Main predictors of good environmental outcomes are power delegation to participants; intensive communication including deliberation; the participation of civic actors (as opposed to private business or individual citizens), and, above all, the representation of environmental concerns. For health-relevant issues (such as noise or air or water pollution), main predictors are power delegation to participants, the representation of citizens and the representation of health concerns.

In order to gain deeper insights into the causal mechanisms connecting participation and environmental outcomes, we have carried out primary case study research in the area of European water governance under the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which explicitly mandates public participation. Drawing on 37 in-depth expert and stakeholder interviews, and a large quantity of policy and planning documents, we conducted eight case studies in three member states (Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom), examining the design, functioning and outcomes of local-level participatory river basin management planning processes. This structured comparative research design allowed us to gain unique insights into how participation has unfolded differently within European water governance, given different interest constellations, political cultures, national policy contexts, water quality drivers and pressures, and participatory process designs. The findings indicate increasing quality of environmental policy outputs with increasing intensity of local participation. Power delegation and the representation of environmental concerns were again of primary importance. Further, the combination of different knowledge types (e.g. lay-local and expert knowledge), and facilitation are important factors leading to quality outputs. In terms of social outcomes, the case studies suggest that decision-making processes characterised by dialogue and two-way information flows are conducive to learning and acceptance among participants.

To better understand the role of participatory process design we scoped the possibility of a governance experiment in participatory planning processes under the European Floods Directive, which embodies similar procedural requirements for participation to the WFD. High-level interviews with officials responsible for flood risk management planning in ten German federal states yielded key insights into how policymakers learn about and design participatory processes. Drawing on interview responses we designed a natural experiment incorporating three cross-border flood risk areas spanning six German federal states. This natural experimental design will allow control of certain biogeophysical and cultural factors, and a focus on the role of certain political participatory ‘traits’ compared to a ‘control group’ on the other side of an administrative border. Follow-up research will build on the foundations laid in EDGE.
The mixed methods approach taken in EDGE, combining case-survey meta-analysis, comparative case studies, and natural field experimentation, has yielded insights into the functioning (key mechanisms and conditioning factors) of participatory environmental governance with unprecedented precision, rigour and richness. As such, EDGE has as much contributed to our understanding of how participatory governance works as it has contributed to methodological enhancement in governance research more broadly. Future work will need to harness the richness and the level of detail provided through the data generated in EDGE for practical use by decision-makers and consultants in environmental governance. EDGE’s contribution lies in cumulating research findings for future systematic studies, and in laying the ground for evidence-informed governance to effectively address mounting sustainability problems.

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