Poster Presentation: The challenge of consensus: Exploring participation in environmental governance

Over the past three decades, the concept of consensus-oriented environmental governance has received increasing attention by researchers, environmental managers, and decision makers (Joss & Durant, 1995; Oppenheimer, 2018; Rice, 2016). Many have promoted governance practices that involve relevant stakeholders and citizens because it is believed that such participation will improve public decision making and, ultimately, environmental outcomes (Chilvers & Kearnes, 2016). However, adoption of this governance model has been challenging and compounded by the seemingly incompatible goal of including diverse stakeholder and citizen voices and multiple forms of knowledge (Montana, 2017). Questions arise regarding the credibility and trustworthiness of the information and evidence brought to bear when many participants contribute to decision-making processes (Macnaghten & Chilvers, 2014; Nowotny, Scott, & Gibbons, 2001; Rowe & Frewer, 2005). This situtation begs the question: if decision-making is to become more open to stakeholders and the public generally, how can it be made more effective? To illustrate the challenges of consensus-orientated environmental governance as well as to suggest solutions, this session will present the results of three recent case studies that offer perspectives from local to national to international levels. 
 As decision-makers become more interested in the advantages of consensus-building governance, environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) are able to exercise greater influence over policy decisions (Blasiak et al., 2017; Fuller, Schleit, Grant, & Arnold, 2016; Guston, 2001). Because of their ability to build capacity in policy development, and increase the uptake of information, both scientific and non-scientific, in decision-making, ENGOs and other non-state actors have become increasingly important for governance at national and international scales (Gustafsson & Lidskog, 2018; Miller, 2001). In this case study about the involvement of ENGOs in decision-making processes for marine protected areas on the eastern and western coasts of Canada, the importance of ENGOs as boundary organizations between government, stakeholders, and the public is evident (Bodin, 2018). ENGOs fulfilled various roles in facilitating the flow of information and evidence in decision processes. A question remains, however, of whether ENGOs can maintain the credibility of a politically independent organization, while also working to influence policy from the inside of the political system (Evans & Wellstead, 2017).
Social media are increasingly powerful tools for providing citizens with information that they require to participate in consensus-oriented environmental governance. However, science communication via social media can be challenging (Alperin, Gomez, & Haustein, 2018). It is difficult to encourage two-way conversations between science communicators and members of the public, and it can be challenging for citizens to determine what information is credible on social media. As this second case study about the social media strategies of individual and NGO science communicators shows, the application of interpersonal strategies in social media interactions can help science communicators to establish relationships with their audiences, encourage two-way conversations, and build trust/credibility in information, resulting in effective science communication.
Governments often employ consultation processes to reach consensus regarding environmental conservation and sustainability (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 2004; Montana, 2017). In this third case study, about the establishment of a coastal marine protected area (MPA) in Atlantic Canada, stakeholder involvement is particularly important due to the potential impact of the MPA on the coastal communities. Through analysis of the information activity of the diverse members of a government-established advisory committee – their preferences for information sources, the channels by which they receive information, how they reconcile conflicting information or misinformation, and their criteria for identifying trustworthy information – this study highlights how government departments and agencies can maintain credibility while simultaneously increasing transparency and collaboration in an environmental decision-making process.
Together, these three case studies offer numerous insights about negotiating evidence. They highlight challenges in presenting credible environmental information to a diversity of stakeholders who should and want to be included in decision processes. They also underline the importance of reciprocal learning, and the necessity of drawing on multiple forms of knowledge to address complex environmental issues (Arsenault, Diver, McGregor, Witham, & Bourassa, 2018). While recognizing the significance of the challenges occurring at the science-policy interface, by uncovering extensive details of examples of decision activities, the results of this research presents evidence to help to resolve hurdles in consensus-oriented environmental governance.


  • Hali Moreland, Graduate Student, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada