Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Adaptive Management

Most environmental advocates and planning professionals know that every effort to manage natural resources or deal with threats to public health and environmental sustainability ought to proceed on a step-by-step basis.  The systems involved are so complex that most efforts to "solve problems" are likely to have unanticipated results. Policy-makers act like they "understand the problem fully" and "know the best solution" when they pass legislation or adopt new regulations. Those of us most knowledgeable about the human-ecological systems involved, however,  realize that the complexity of these systems makes it impossible to anticipate what's going to happen with much certainly. There are just too many factors and too many interactions we don't understand.  So, an adaptive management approach is what is called for.  That is: take one modest step at a time; make a best approximation of what's causing the problem, choose an initial response that seems like it might help, monitor everything to determine what the impacts of the initial move are, and then make adjustments and try again. Plan on doing this repeatedly until everyone involved learns enough about the system involved to approximate the desired solution.

Of course, for an adaptive management approach to work, all the relevant parties (especially those with the most at stake) need to be involved -- helping to diagnose the scope of the problem, assisting in the selection of the initial actions to take, specifying what can and should be learned from the monitoring efforts, reviewing the real-time output of whatever monitoring is done, interpreting the findings together with the others involved, and sharing responsibility for making successive rounds of adjustments.  Adaptive management requires ongoing consensus building.  Unless all the relevant parties agree on what to do at each step and what's happening along the way, policy-makers and experts will just zig-zag from one strongly held view to another depending on who has the most money and energy to invest in lobbying.  It would make so much more sense if all the parties committed ahead of time to a process of shared learning through jointly managed experimentation.  Such efforts are best facilitated by professional neutrals.  They have to be designed collaboratively from the outset.

Consider the case of the recently released report of the special court created to review the claims that childhood vaccines cause autism.  The three "special masters" determined that there was insufficient scientific evidence to substantiate the claims in the law suits that motivated this review.  In the end, though,  the people who were upset in the first place were not convinced by the special court's conclusions.  Instead, why not invite representatives of all the groups involved to work together to formulate whatever analyses of existing data (or the design of a new study) everyone agrees would be dispositive? Why not involve all the relevant stakeholders in selecting a panel of experts to guide such studies or such a review?  Why not subject the preliminary findings produced by the jointly selected experts to review before the panel makes its findings public?  We might even have approached the current effort to formulate a Stimulus Package in this way.  The economy is too complex to know what will and won't work.  So, why not talk about first steps (rather than what will "solve the problem," what will be measured and how, what benchmarks all "sides" agree to use to gauge progress, and what the membership of a bipartisan panel should be to monitor preliminary results and suggest the next round of adjustments? In the Consensus Building Handbook (Sage, 1999) my colleagues and I outline what we consider to be best practices when it comes to joint fact finding and a consensus building approach to adaptive management. 


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