Collaborative Approaches to Environmental Decision-Making: A State Agency’s Guide to Effective Dialogue and Stakeholder Engagement

Sara Cohen
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Environmental agencies often need to take action under circumstances in which one or more of the following factors make the case particularly challenging:
  •  Technical complexity 
  •   Scientific uncertainty 
  •   Multiple stakeholders 
  •   Multiple jurisdictions 
  •   Interrelated administrative processes 
  •   Several levels of government 
  •   Public stakeholders that are increasingly informed and involved 
  •   Environmental justice issues, disproportionate burdens, and power dynamics that impact who has a voice in decision-making 

Any of these factors can confound regulatory decisions, policy development, and agency responses to new conditions (such as directives from new leadership; changes in environmental conditions; updates in technology; new scientific studies). Failing to engage stakeholders under these circumstances can quickly raise questions about practicality, effectiveness, and legitimacy. However, even when agencies do engage with outside entities in these decisions, their actions often still raise these questions. 

In an effort to address the issue of effective engagement, the Consensus Building Institute, in collaboration with the Program On Negotiation at Harvard Law School and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program have produced Collaborative Approaches to Environmental Decision-Making: A State Agency’s Guide to Effective Dialogue and Stakeholder Engagement, written by Sara Cohen, CBI Fellow.

This guide is intended for state environmental and natural resource agencies that are trying to use more collaborative approaches to have more effective conversations, make better decisions, and enjoy broader support for those decisions.  The guide presents twelve case studies that illustrate goals that environmental agencies in New England have been able to achieve through facilitated, collaborative processes.  

Understanding some of the dynamics and decisions that contributed to these successes should help those undertaking collaborative processes to move past some of the above common pitfalls. This guide highlights cases where we believe good process design, effective facilitation, and strategic project management were at least in part responsible for the successes achieved. While there are many more successes than the case studies featured in this guide, those featured here will demonstrate collaborations that served to:

  •   Shape and justify ongoing action 
  •   Break through longstanding conflict and deadlock 
  •   Distill technical complexities and scientific uncertainty into manageable options and solutions that could be adapted over time
  •   Increase legitimacy of the process and support for the outcome 
  •   Mobilize effective, coordinated action when time was of the essence 
  •   Integrate action across levels of government or multiple jurisdictions
  •   Engage stakeholder groups that were historically hard to reach 

Download report PDF at top right.