Posted: December 2, 2022

Addressing Wicked Environmental Problems through Engaging Stakeholders

Credit: the Ispot: Sam Falconer

Credit: the Ispot: Sam Falconer

Complex environmental problems --such as climate change, excess nutrients in waterways, and droughts and wildfires--are often described as "wicked" problems. They have multiple causes; their solutions require coordination among groups of people who may have differing views of the problem; and there are often multiple and overlapping lines of authority for implementing solutions. The science, too, may be unsettled, and the relationship between science and policy may be fraught with difficult decisions and trade-offs.

Top-down or agency-led approaches have been unable to solve these issues, and increasingly, policy makers, activists, and scientists have advocated for more collaborative approaches that seek to engage multiple stakeholders in defining and addressing the causes and consequences of wicked issues. These approaches are intended to move beyond the basic requirements of public comment toward approaches that explicitly invite stakeholders to become involved in shaping programs and policies that affect their lives, livelihoods, and families.

What is Stakeholder Engagement?

Stakeholder engagement refers broadly to processes that enable stakeholders' involvement in making decisions. These approaches have been increasingly embraced as ways to more effectively solve complex environmental issues by integrating the ideas, knowledge, and resources of the people who manage the resource most directly, such as farmers and forest landowners, hunters and fishers, volunteers in watershed organizations, technical service providers, and others.

Stakeholder engagement in managing natural resources is being embraced for three reasons:

It's the right thing to do: involving people in the decisions that affect them is seen as a morally good choice.

It works: people who feel their voices and concerns are incorporated into the decision-making processes are more likely to support and implement those decisions.

It furthers the democratic process: involving stakeholders in the process lets them see inside the machinery of policy making and builds their skills, knowledge, and capacity for future participation.

But Does Stakeholder Engagement Actually Make a Difference?

Can stakeholder engagement achieve environmental changes, such as decreased emissions or improved water quality? Does it lead to more effective and successful policies and programs? Does it succeed in increasing the diversity and participation of stakeholders and more equitable approaches to governing resources?

A growing body of research says, yes, stakeholder engagement can achieve social and environmental changes. The Water for Agriculture project--a multi-institutional project supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture--Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) that aims to better understand how stakeholders are and can be more effectively engaged in the decisions and programs that affect water quality and quantity related to agriculture--conducted research on this very question. Penn State faculty and staff, along with our partners at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Arizona State, worked with stakeholder groups in five locations in Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Arizona to identify environmental needs and a plan of action. At each site, the groups leveraged the relationships, networks, and shared knowledge they created to acquire funding, develop projects, and influence public policy. Specific projects included the development of an invasive species resiliency fund; collaborative, farm-based research projects and field trials; a local food branding project; water quantity and quality assessment and sampling projects; and a wide range of educational programs, publications, and workshops.

Likewise, the Water for Agriculture team created an online Stakeholder Engagement in Natural Resources Guidebook to help those seeking to develop a community-led, stakeholder-engaged approach to addressing issues in natural resource and community settings. The free guidebook provides practitioners, researchers, and agency or organizational leaders with a user-friendly empirical and practical grounding in developing, implementing, and evaluating stakeholder engagement initiatives.

Stakeholder engagement is increasingly advocated as a means to solve some of the stickiest environmental issues we face. Through our Water for Agriculture research and our online guidebook, my colleagues and I hope to provide the resources communities need to achieve their water quality and quantity goals.

Kathryn J. Brasier is a professor of rural sociology and the project director and lead principal investigator for Water for Agriculture.