Due to the long term character of the policy issue, the associated uncertainties and the large variety of affected stakeholders, adapting densely populated delta areas to the impacts of climate change is an important governance challenge and a wicked problem. In this paper, we analyse adaptive delta management (ADM), a policy development approach that relies on adaptation tipping points and adaptation pathways, used by the Dutch Delta Programme to climate proof the Dutch delta. ADM operationalizes adaptive management ideas for the long term governance of river deltas. Taking a governance perspective, we assess the potential of ADM to contribute to each of the five governance capabilities required to deal with wicked problems: reflexivity, responsiveness, resilience, revitalization and rescaling. We conclude that ADM can contribute substantially to the governance capabilities of resilience (through robustness and flexibility) and rescaling (through addressing the time scale mismatch). ADM has the potential to contribute to the governance capabilities of reflexivity and responsiveness, but also has some characteristics that could result in non-reflexivity and non-responsiveness. Enabling ADM as a policy development approach for long term issues requires a long term commitment to iterative policy revision, flexibility and learning in the broader governance system.

INTRODUCTION

Water in delta areas represents a vital resource and a serious challenge at the same time. Due to the concentration of human activities in river deltas, they are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but the timing and severity of these impacts are to a large degree uncertain (Dessai et al. 2007). The long term character of the policy issue, the associated uncertainties and the large variety of affected stakeholders, turns adaptation to the impacts of climate change into an important governance challenge and even a wicked problem (Termeer et al. 2013b). Wicked problems are ‘a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’ (Churchmen 1967). These kind of problems defy traditional governance approaches based on issuing policies, specifying procedures and consulting stakeholders. In this paper, we will analyse ‘adaptive delta management’ (Deltaprogramma 2011; Rhee 2012; Brugge et al. 2012), a policy development approach based on adaptive management ideas (Gunderson 1999; Pahl-Wostl 2007; Walker et al. 2010) and adopted by the Dutch Delta Programme to address the long term and uncertain challenge to make the Dutch delta climate proof. Taking a governance perspective, we assess the potential of adaptive delta management (ADM) to contribute to each of the five governance capabilities required to deal with wicked problems: reflexivity, responsiveness, resilience, revitalization and rescaling (Termeer et al. 2013a; Termeer & Dewulf 2014). As we will explain below, these governance capabilities address different characteristics of wicked problems by drawing on different strands of literature, and together allow for a comprehensive analysis.

Climate change adaptation is a policy issue that only makes sense when considering environmental change processes that are, from a human perspective, very dispersed, slow and long term. Without long term records or advanced models, climate change would most likely escape human attention (Termeer et al. 2011). Long term meteorological records are crucial in identifying current impacts of global climate change, and a batch of climate models projects possible developments into the future. As these projections reach further into the future, often decades or centuries ahead, the number of unknowns in terms of climate change and socio-economic developments increases (Dessai et al. 2007). Therefore, adapting river deltas to current and expected impacts of climate change means facing deep uncertainties (Kwakkel et al. 2010): plausible scenarios can be enumerated, but the odds of the different scenarios are very difficult to establish. Climate change is not the only relevant factor causing uncertainty for managing deltas. Variations in socio-economic developments such as demographic trends, economic growth or crises, or construction in flood-prone areas add to the level of uncertainty. In deltas with elaborate infrastructure for flood or drought protection, the long term character of the policy issue of delta management is further complicated by the extended lifetime of dikes, reservoirs or other hydraulic structures. This means that the flexibility needed to adapt to uncertain future developments is very hard to achieve, because of the high sunk costs of infrastructure, the high cost of implementing changes, and the substantial time needed to plan and build new infrastructure. Infrastructural measures are long term investments that need to be taken with great uncertainty on how the situation will change during the lifetime of the investment.

Most governance arrangements, with their established rules, processes, and instruments, are ill equipped to take forward-looking decisions, because these require the anticipation of future developments, the consideration of deep uncertainty about future scenarios, and the possibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Accounting for long-term developments in short-term decision making is often hindered by short-term political decision-making cycles, fragmentation across sectors, the inability to overcome path dependencies, or the lack of consideration of ‘unknown unknowns’ (Dewulf et al. 2005; Lazarus 2008; Peters et al. 2008; Termeer & Brink 2013).

Theories like adaptive management (Gunderson 1999; Pahl-Wostl 2007), adaptive policy making (Walker et al. 2010), or adaptive governance (Folke et al. 2005) have proposed ways of understanding and dealing with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity in coupled social-ecological systems. One of the main goals is to make social-ecological systems resilient to largely unpredictable slow and abrupt changes, such that they can withstand shocks, adapt to changing circumstances or radically transform when the existing system is no longer viable (Walker et al. 2004). Robustness – taking measures that are functional under the full range of plausible future scenarios – and flexibility – taking and adapting measures as needed, when needed – can be seen as two alternative paths to resilience of the social-ecological system. ADM (Rhee 2012), the approach that we will focus on in this article, is rooted in this tradition and aims to achieve robustness of a map of pathways through the built-in flexibility to adapt and switch pathways, as we will try to show. As a policy development method adopted by the Dutch Delta Programme, ADM constitutes a comprehensive and detailed operationalization of the adaptive approach to addressing long term issues. However, in this article we take a broader governance perspective on the potential of ADM. We will assess the potential of ADM to contribute to each of five complementary governance capabilities, one of which is oriented at ensuring resilience. It is to this theoretical framework of governance capabilities underlying our analysis that we now turn.

A theoretical framework of five governance capabilities

For our analysis, we will rely on a framework of five governance capabilities for coping with wicked problems: reflexivity, responsiveness, resilience, revitalization and rescaling (Termeer et al. 2013a; Termeer & Dewulf 2014). In the governance capabilities framework, various strands of literature and research relevant to coping with wicked problems have been synthesized and structured into a set of five governance capabilities. These governance capabilities have little to do with the capability for corporate governance or good governance, domains in which the term is sometimes used as well. Rather, we are talking about governance capabilities as ‘the ability of policy makers to observe wicked problems and to act accordingly, and the ability of the governance system to enable such observing and acting’ (Termeer et al. 2013a). This involves particular ways of observing and understanding a problem, different action strategies to cope with it, and the institutional conditions that enable these observations and strategies. Because of the multifaceted nature of wicked problems, the assumption is that a single governance capability is not sufficient. Each governance capability addresses a different aspect of wicked problems: reflexivity is about dealing with frame conflicts; resilience is about dealing with unpredictable disturbances; responsiveness is about dealing with changing agendas; revitalization is about dealing with policy deadlocks; and rescaling is about dealing with scale mismatches.

The first governance capability is reflexivity (Schon & Rein 1994; Koppenjan & Klijn 2004; Hendriks & Grin 2007; Dewulf et al. 2009; Termeer et al. 2013a). Rather than as a single problem, a wicked problem presents itself as a confusing mess of interrelated problems. Depending on how one looks at a situation, different aspects appear to be triggers, root causes, effects, priorities, side effects, or leverages for intervention. When there is no agreement on what the problem exactly is because of conflicting frames, it is essential to deal with this variety of possible perspectives on wicked problems and to prevent both tunnel vision and intractable controversies.

The second governance capability is resilience (Walker et al. 2004,  2010; Folke et al. 2005; Pahl-Wostl 2007; Termeer et al. 2013a). Due to the inherently incomplete understanding of problems, every action can have unpredictable consequences. Therefore, surprises, fluctuating conditions, sudden changes, and irreducible uncertainties are fundamental aspects of wicked problems. Here, resilience refers to the capability of the governance system to ensure that the social-ecological system is able adapt to unpredictable, changing circumstances without losing its identity and reliability.

The third governance capability is responsiveness (Kingdon 1995; Jones & Baumgartner 2004; Nisbet & Huge 2007; Termeer et al. 2013a). Wicked problems are changing, redefined, or reproduced in different ways, but there is no final solution for them. The number of issues that call for attention and the speed with which these follow upon each other have been increasing. Policy makers try to respond to these non-stop changing flows of problems, solutions, and public demands, and run the risk of making promises that are far beyond their ability to deliver. Hence, there is the need to develop a governance capability to respond wisely to continuously changing demands.

The fourth governance capability is revitalization (Weick 2005; Termeer & Kessener 2007; Termeer et al. 2013a). The messiness, uncertainties, interconnectivities, and endlessness associated with wicked problems can be overwhelming, frustrating and stressful, leading actors to revert to defensive and counterproductive strategies. When people are no longer able to critically reflect upon their actions, policy deadlocks arise. Revitalization refers to the capability of actors in a governance system to recognize and unblock counterproductive patterns in policy processes, and thus to reanimate actors and to enhance processes of innovation needed to cope with wicked problems.

The fifth governance capability is rescaling (Gibson et al. 2000; Borgström & Elmqvist 2006; Cash et al. 2006; Termeer & Dewulf 2014), which is the capability to observe and address cross-scale and cross-level issues. The archetypical cross-scale issue is the mismatch between the scale of a problem and the scale at which it is governed. But understanding and addressing cross-level issues, e.g. vertical interplay between different levels of governance is also key to the governance capability of rescaling.

In the next sections, we expand on the different governance capabilities and assess the potential of ADM in the light of each of these governance capabilities. Although these governance capabilities are probably not the only way to synthesize insights on how to cope with wicked problems – governance capabilities could be added, amended or reformulated – taken together these five governance capabilities allow for a much more comprehensive approach than a governance analysis based on just one or two of the underlying theoretical approaches (Table 1).

Table 1

Framework of five governance capabilities to deal with wicked problems.

Governance capability Definition Aspect of the wicked problem domain to be addressed Effects of deficit 
Reflexivity The capability to appreciate and deal with unstructured problems and multiple realities Multiple perspectives, frame conflicts Risk of tunnel vision or intractable controversies 
Resilience The capability to flexibly adapt one's course in response to frequent and uncertain ­changes without losing identity Unpredictable disturbances, uncertain consequences of action, non-linear change Risk of failure to keep fulfilling basic functions 
Responsiveness The capability to respond legitimately to unlimited demands and concerns Changing agendas, unlimited number of issues and demands Risk of under- and overreacting, losing citizens’ trust and legitimacy 
Revitalization The capability to unblock stagnations and reanimate policy processes Stagnating and unproductive interaction patterns, policy deadlocks Risk of more of the same and of regression 
Rescaling The capability to observe mismatches and to reorganize connections across different levels and scales Cross-level and cross-scale interactions, scale mismatches Risk of cross-level problems and scale mismatches 
Governance capability Definition Aspect of the wicked problem domain to be addressed Effects of deficit 
Reflexivity The capability to appreciate and deal with unstructured problems and multiple realities Multiple perspectives, frame conflicts Risk of tunnel vision or intractable controversies 
Resilience The capability to flexibly adapt one's course in response to frequent and uncertain ­changes without losing identity Unpredictable disturbances, uncertain consequences of action, non-linear change Risk of failure to keep fulfilling basic functions 
Responsiveness The capability to respond legitimately to unlimited demands and concerns Changing agendas, unlimited number of issues and demands Risk of under- and overreacting, losing citizens’ trust and legitimacy 
Revitalization The capability to unblock stagnations and reanimate policy processes Stagnating and unproductive interaction patterns, policy deadlocks Risk of more of the same and of regression 
Rescaling The capability to observe mismatches and to reorganize connections across different levels and scales Cross-level and cross-scale interactions, scale mismatches Risk of cross-level problems and scale mismatches 

RESEARCH QUESTION AND METHODOLOGY

In this paper we address the following research question: what is the potential of ADM, as a method adopted in the Dutch Delta Programme to develop policies for the long term, for fostering or hindering the governance capabilities of reflexivity, responsiveness, resilience, revitalization and rescaling in the governance of the wicked problem of climate change adaptation?

We answer this question through an ex ante analysis (Thissen & Walker 2012) of ADM in the context of the Dutch Delta Programme, based on policy documents. Over the last years, the Delta Programme has been developing proposals to the national government for five delta decisions, on water safety, freshwater, spatial adaptation, Ijsselmeer region and Rhine-Meuse delta (Deltaprogramma 2014a). The programme is supported by a dedicated Delta Fund and is directed by the Delta Commissioner, a government commissioner whose position is anchored in the Delta Act of 2011. This means that the Delta Programme, the Delta Fund and the position of Delta Commissioner have legal status. The Delta programme has a number of regional sub-programmes related to important delta areas or decisions.

For data on ADM, we relied on policy documents produced by the Delta Programme detailing their ADM approach. Apart from the yearly official policy documents produced by the Delta Programme (Deltaprogramma 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014a, b), the main source of information were the ‘guidelines for ADM’, complemented where necessary with the scientific literature on the concepts and methods to which these guidelines refer (Dobes 2008; Kwadijk et al. 2010; Woodward et al. 2011; Gersonius 2012; Kwakkel & Haasnoot 2012; Haasnoot et al. 2012, 2013). The guidelines were written down in a document of over 100 pages, including a discussion of principles, concrete steps, methods, process organization and case examples (Rhee 2012). For our analysis, we assume that this approach would be implemented as put down in the guidelines, not only during the development of the advice for five delta decisions, but also further into the future for addressing the long term issue of climate change adaptation. For our understanding of the Delta Programme as the context within which ADM was developed and adopted, we relied on earlier research (Vink & Mulligen 2012; Brugge et al. 2012; Teisman et al. 2013; Vink et al. 2013; Biesbroek et al. 2014; Kennis voor Klimaat 2014; Termeer & Dewulf 2014).

The particular ways in which the ADM approach is implemented in the decision making over actual cases is a relevant and interesting topic for research but beyond the scope of this paper. As is the case for many policy issues and associated decision-making processes that have a long term character, it is too early to make claims about the actual implementation yet. Our ex ante analysis does allow an assessment of the potential of ADM as a way of dealing with the long-term issue of climate change adaptation. For this analysis, we rely on an existing theoretical framework of governance capabilities. We analysed how the context conditions for ADM set by the Delta Programme, the underlying principles, the proposed steps and methods, and the envisaged organization of the process, could foster or hinder the realization of each of the five governance capabilities (Termeer et al. 2013a; Termeer & Dewulf 2014).

ADAPTIVE DELTA MANAGEMENT AS A POLICY DEVELOPMENT APPROACH IN THE DUTCH DELTA PROGRAMME

ADM (Deltaprogramma 2011; Rhee 2012) is a policy development approach used by the Dutch Delta Programme for ensuring long term flood protection and freshwater provision in the Dutch delta. ADM aims at addressing uncertainties about climate change and socio-economic developments in Dutch water management policies for the coming century (Brugge et al. 2012). The approach explicitly looks far ahead on the time scale (up until 2100) and aims for robust maps and flexible pathways for adapting the Dutch delta to the possible impacts of climate change, taking into account different socio-economic development scenarios. Innovative policy analysis methods like adaptation tipping points (Kwadijk et al. 2010; Kwakkel et al. 2013), adaptation pathways (Haasnoot et al. 2012) and real options analysis (Dobes 2008) are part of ADM and should help to achieve the goals of the Delta Programme: ‘invest not too little nor too much, and not too early nor too late’.

The aim of ADM is to address the long-term character of the climate adaptation issue and the uncertainties about the timing and gravity of climate impacts. The goal is not to take measures assuming the most likely or the worst case scenario, but to account for uncertainties by continuing to rely on multiple possible future scenarios, and to adapt to new developments or knowledge over time. A number of fundamental principles are mentioned by Rhee (2012: viii): connecting short term decisions about spatial planning and the water system with long term challenges of flood safety and freshwater supply; working with sequences of decisions or multiple possible adaptation pathways, emphasizing the role of timing and windows of opportunity; developing and valuing flexibility in policies and measures; and linking the investment agendas of public and private actors to achieve synergy (added societal value, cost saving or funding opportunities).

The kind of decisions resulting from ADM analyses are not unitary and fixed, except perhaps for which first step to take. Rather they include a set of alternatives, with options at different points in time, and a script on how to decide later when new information comes in.

In summary, ADM aims to identify under what conditions to implement what actions in the face of the considerable uncertainties involved in long term challenges like climate change adaptation. To achieve this, different policy analysis methods are used to identify and value the relevant policy options now and in the future: (1) adaptation tipping points, where thresholds are identified at which current and future policies will no longer be effective; (2) adaptation pathways, where a flexible sequence of policies is identified, taking into account lock-in effects, flexibility and the implications of advancements in the knowledge base; and (3) real options method, to determine the economic value of building in flexibility in (sequences of) policy measures. We first discuss the policy analysis methods and then the proposed process design in which these are embedded and used.

Adaptation tipping points are points where the magnitude of change due to climate change or sea level rise is such that the current policy will no longer be able to meet the objectives (Kwadijk et al. 2010: 730). This way of reasoning is different from the usual approach of identifying climate scenarios, assessing pressures, states and impacts, and finally concluding whether adaptation measures are necessary. The adaptation tipping point approach starts from the question of what is acceptable and unacceptable in sectors of activity that are potentially affected by climate change or other long term issues. The question thus becomes: how much climate change impact can the current policy cope with? From this highly practically relevant starting point, the durability of current measures can be assessed and the climate conditions under which their objectives are no longer achieved can be identified. The final step involves estimating the timing of the adaptation tipping point under different climate scenarios. Reasons for tipping points are that current policies become too expensive, technically impossible or societally unacceptable. If there are substantial differences between the scenarios, adaptation tipping points may look more like windows than like points. For example, under a heavy climate change scenario an adaptation tipping point may occur rather soon, while under a light climate change scenario the tipping point might occur decades later.

Adaptation pathways are based on the identification of adaptation tipping points for both current and future policies, but aim at preventing an actual tipping point from occurring by identifying flexible pathways including combinations of measures over time. A set of adaptation pathways forms an adaptation map, from which opportunities, no-regret strategies, dead ends and timing issues can be identified (Haasnoot et al. 2012). Different preferred pathways arise from ‘different climate scenarios, different realisations of the same climate scenario, external socio-economic events or trends, and due to different management responses’.

Finally, real options analysis is a method from economics that allows users to value financially the investment in the flexibility of being able to switch to another policy option in the future, and has been applied to flood risk management (Dobes 2008; Woodward et al. 2011). Real options analysis is suggested as one way to determine preferential policy options, after the relevant pathways have been identified, but it can only be applied if probabilities for the different scenarios are available.

The guidelines also lay out a process design for ADM (Rhee 2012). Here we discuss only the three main phases. More details will be added when we discuss the governance implications in the next sections.

ADM starts with a problem analysis phase, in which the primary goals are defined. These are related to the priorities of the Delta Programme, namely avoiding floods and freshwater scarcity now and in the future. Other ambitions can then be combined with these goals. Defining the scope of the problem is an important first step in the problem analysis phase. An analysis of adaptation tipping points is also part of this phase, based on an assessment of autonomous developments, the delta scenarios, and when current policies will stop being effective. Uncertainties in adaptation tipping points (or windows, as we discussed above) are an important part of the analysis.

In the strategy development phase a variety of policy options and corresponding measures are developed and brought together in one or more adaptation pathways. This is done in three steps: (1) exploring the playing field of possible policies that can satisfy the primary goals of flood safety and freshwater provision; (2) identifying promising policy options, adaptation pathways are constructed and synergies with other ambitions are sought; and (3) assessing the promising policy options as to their goal achievement, cost effectiveness, robustness and flexibility, to identify a preferential pathway.

In the following paragraphs we assess the potential of adaptive management for contributing to the governance capabilities of reflexivity, resilience, responsiveness, revitalization and rescaling.

Reflexivity

The governance capability for reflexivity relies on understanding and dealing with unstructured problems and the variety of frames in a given policy domain (Termeer et al. 2013a). Framing is the process by which decisions, policy issues, or events acquire different meanings from different perspectives (Schon & Rein 1994; Benford & Snow 2000; Chong & Druckman 2007; Dewulf et al. 2009). People frame issues differently depending on their background and position, or the particular interactional setting in which they operate. They highlight particular aspects of a situation at the expense of others, draw different issue boundaries, and put different elements at the core of the issue. When frames differ considerably, confusion, misunderstandings, disagreement, or even intractable controversy are likely to result (Schon & Rein 1994). Reflexivity helps to appreciate the variety of frames, to continuously reconsider dominant problem frames, and to bring about a redefinition of action perspectives.

With respect to ADM as a policy development approach, framing the goals of the involved policies is a first occasion to be reflexive about problem framing. The guidelines (Rhee 2012) refer back to the policy goals defined in the Delta Act and implemented in the Delta Programme, namely preventing floods and freshwater scarcity. These goals are framed as priorities of ‘national public interest’, which can be combined with (less important) ambitions in other domains like agriculture, economics, nature or recreation. Although this leaves quite some room for considering a variety of problem frames in each particular case, the issues of flooding and freshwater strongly guide the overall problem analysis. Although these goals are not necessarily inherent in the ADM approach, to specify them as priorities does seem to simplify the complex problem of climate change adaptation by reducing the number of problem framings that are considered important.

On a more specific level, determining adaptation tipping points beyond which policies are no longer fulfilling their objectives is another key occasion for framing, because these require the definition of acceptability thresholds (Gersonius 2012), in other words: the points beyond which we start calling something a problem. When these thresholds are legally defined, as is the case for the exceedance probabilities of dikes in the Netherlands (ranging from 1 in 250 years to 1 in 10,000 years), acceptability thresholds are relatively easy to determine. This is not the case for many other issues and domains, including for example freshwater provision for drinking water and irrigation. Freshwater availability for irrigation can be framed as a matter of public interest, but can also be framed as a sectorial, or an individual farmer's problem, leading to very different acceptability thresholds for freshwater scarcity.

Frame differences and the resulting ambiguity are particularly challenging for model-based policy analysis, because the specification of the model's objectives, structure, parameters and outcomes entails implicit or explicit choices about how to frame the policy problem at hand (Dewulf et al. 2005; Brugnach et al. 2011). The question then becomes to what extent the framing embedded in the models relates to the frames of policy makers and other stakeholders, and how open the policy analysis methods are for incorporating multiple frames or changing frames over time.

Although limited to three predefined perspectives, interesting attempts have been made to include frames derived from cultural theory in the assessment of adaptation pathways, namely the hierarchist, egalitarian and individualist perspectives on water management (Hoekstra 1998; Haasnoot et al. 2013). They are introduced at the moment when preferred pathways are selected out of the larger map of adaptation pathways. When there is overlap between the preferred pathways from different perspectives, these will constitute the more socially robust solutions (Nowotny 2003; Haasnoot et al. 2013). However, one could also argue that by the time a map of adaptation pathways has been constructed, many framing choices have already been made regarding, e.g. which problems to address, which acceptability thresholds to use or which range of strategies to consider. In principle it is also possible to make different maps based on different assumptions about thresholds and possibly including different candidate actions, reflecting different perspectives.

Resilience

Resilience is the capability to adapt flexibly to the uncertainties and constantly changing conditions surrounding wicked problems (Termeer et al. 2013a). It is derived from ecological theories (Holling 1973) and has been applied to social-ecological systems in adaptive governance and adaptive management approaches (Folke et al. 2005; Pahl-Wostl 2007). These approaches assume a world that changes both continuously and abruptly in unpredictable directions, which requires continuous learning and experimentation, but also policy options that are either robust, that is, which stay functional under a range of different scenarios, or flexible, that is, which can be adjusted as needed or applied only when necessary (Brugnach et al. 2008).

ADM puts a lot of emphasis on dealing with uncertainties, about both climate change and socio-economic developments. The considerable uncertainties about future developments are taken into account by relying on four future ‘delta scenarios’, by constructing multiple possible adaptation pathways, and by considering timing and sequence in keeping options open. The approach aims at both robustness and flexibility, or more precisely: robustness through flexibility. The map of adaptation pathways becomes robust to uncertain future developments through the flexibility to change course that is built into the pathways. When possible, this flexibility is also economically valued through a real options analysis.

ADM in its present form focusses on factors which are moderately uncertain, where a set or bandwidth of possible outcomes can be specified (Rhee 2012: 26), and not so much on unknown unknowns (Termeer & Brink 2013). In other words, it aims to address deep uncertainties (Kwakkel et al. 2010), where multiple alternatives can be enumerated, but without attaching (a rank order of) probabilities to the alternatives. The analysis of lock-in, lock-out or regret associated with different measures are primarily proposed to construct and assess specific pathways, but are also of more general importance in terms of resilience. Reducing lock-in (the impossibility of moving away from a particular policy option), lock-out (the impossibility of moving towards a particular other policy option) and regret (the cost of having to move to another policy option) also contributes to more generalized flexibility, and can build resilience to disturbances that were not considered in the analysis, or allow a shift to policy options that were not contemplated in the adaptation pathways. Another strength of ADM from the perspective of resilience is in the early-on reflection about failure of policies. Through defining acceptability thresholds and ‘sell-by dates’ of policies, future failure becomes a self-evident characteristic of policies.

One important aspect of the governance capability for resilience does not receive much attention in the guidelines for ADM: monitoring and learning. Flexibility to change course is only meaningful when one assumes a sustained capacity for learning, through gathering new information and iteratively re-assessing the situation and the associated uncertainties (Swanson et al. 2010). Continuous monitoring of assumptions and parameters relevant for decisions on pathways is crucial if ADM is to become more than a one shot policy analysis exercise.

Responsiveness

The capability of responsiveness is the ability of governance actors to observe and respond effectively and in a timely fashion to issues that are pressing in politics and society (Termeer et al. 2013a). This capability is based on agenda setting theories, which provide insights into the patterns of issue attention in the media, society, and politics (Jones & Baumgartner 2004). Through linking social attention to policy attention and policy change, they show that public attention for policy issues tends to be stable, interrupted occasionally by sudden flows of increased attention, resulting in major policy changes when policy entrepreneurs succeed in taking advantage of windows of opportunity.

At first sight, the long term perspective of adaptive delta-management seems at odds with the increasing rate of change in policy demands, the rapid appearance and disappearance of hypes and controversies, or the sudden mobilization of citizens through social media. And indeed, the climate change issue has travelled a bumpy road in that respect. After a consistent rise on the scientific and policy agenda during the 1980s and 1990s, the media and policy attention for climate change rose sharply in the 2000s – up to the point where almost any issue could be made more important by linking it to climate change. In 2008 the Dutch Delta Committee, in setting out the ambitious framework for climate change adaptation in the Netherlands, built strongly on the dominant climate change issue at the time (Verduijn et al. 2012; Boezeman et al. 2013; Vink et al. 2013). By the time the Delta Programme started its activities, however, the climate change issue had become controversial because of the so-called ‘climategate’ affair (end of 2009) and the alleged errors in the IPCC report (beginning of 2010). Climate change was no longer a self-evident part of the policy agenda, and the legitimation of the Delta Programme happened much more in terms of safeguarding economic prosperity in the delta, references to climate change being conspicuously absent in the press releases about the launch of the Delta Programme in 2011 (Vink et al. 2013). If ADM becomes part of the standard operating procedures of the relevant administrations, it may well go a long way as a depoliticized issue than can be handled in an administrative fashion. But how can high investments and large infrastructural measures, which are likely to provoke protest or controversies, be legitimated without reference to climate change? Keeping climate change and other long term issues on the policy agenda in the coming decades in a continuous or at least periodic fashion will probably be an important factor in the successful implementation of ADM.

If we consider the processes and methods proposed for ADM, there are also elements which are likely to support responsiveness. A first element is the flexibility that is at the heart of the whole approach. The emphasis on keeping multiple options open over time does create possibilities for redirecting adaptation pathways, also in the light of upcoming or waning issues on the policy agenda. In this sense, there is more room for manoeuvre compared to approaches that advocate fixed measures from the start, or optimize only for the most likely scenario, or specify a fixed timeline. A second element is the attention for windows of opportunity when identifying promising policy options (Rhee 2012; Haasnoot et al. 2013). The windows of opportunity referred to are mostly related to maintenance or investments decisions in neighbouring sectors, but windows of opportunity for responding to societal demands are considered as well. For example, extreme wet or dry years are mentioned as windows of opportunity for building societal support for policy decisions (Haasnoot et al. 2013).

Revitalization

Revitalizing is the capability to unblock stagnations and reanimate deadlocked policy processes. It is based on sensemaking theory (Weick 2005) and configuration theory (Termeer & Kessener 2007), which study how policy makers can become stranded in their attempts to cope differently with wicked problems (Weick 2005). Sensemaking theories focus on the interactions between people at the micro level of policy making. Faced with wicked problems, people collectively try to understand what is happening, adopt some ideas about how to deal with them, start acting, create experiences through such acting, and make sense of the entire situation. However, these on-going social processes of sensemaking can become disrupted. Meanings and rules can become fixated so that actors are no longer able to change or reflect on them, even in cases in which ‘more of the same’ solutions no longer work or become counterproductive.

ADM does not pay explicit attention to the micro level of policy making, but it is still interesting to briefly speculate on its likely potential or pitfalls with respect to unproductive policy processes or deadlocks. Some policy issues have a long history of controversy and stagnation, in which many different proposals are defended and attacked, but where important decisions are not taken and very little progress is made. The flexibility built into ADM to change path in the future, or to push adaptation tipping points further into the future, could become a pitfall in this kind of situation, because it could be misused for just postponing difficult decisions. If, for example, high discount rates are applied for assessing future costs, ADM could become an excuse for not taking action now and shifting the burden into the future. On the other hand, ADM might also harbour potential for revitalizing stagnated policy processes. When policy deliberations get stuck in a deadlock of short-sighted vested interests, introducing the long term perspective of several decades ahead could also cast a completely different, forward-looking light on policy issues with a problematic history. Riparian communities engaged in conflict over the distribution of water resources, for example, might reconsider their actions when they realize future developments constitute a threat to the entire river.

Rescaling

Rescaling is the governance capability to observe mismatches and to reorganize connections across different levels and scales. The archetypical cross-scale issue is the mismatch between the scale of a problem and the scale at which it is governed (Cash et al. 2006; Cumming et al. 2006). But understanding and addressing cross-level issues, e.g. vertical interplay between different levels of governance (Young 2002), is also key to the governance capability for rescaling (Termeer & Dewulf 2014). This governance capability involves observing both cross-scale issues (scale mismatches) and cross-level issues (interplay), and strategies for organizing connections across different levels and scales.

Although important cross-level issues are likely to come up when the national Delta Programme has to integrate the results of its regional programmes, this spatial dimension is not explicitly addressed in the guidelines for ADM (Rhee 2012). The identification of adaptation tipping points and pathways can be done at different spatial scale levels (e.g. different regions, or regional and national), but the interdependencies between levels are not addressed by the method. Different maps of adaptation pathways for different regions may conflict with each other, making it very difficult to add up the different maps into a national plan, for example.

ADM does address an important temporal mismatch (Cumming et al. 2006) between the temporal scale of governance processes and the temporal scale of climate change and its impacts on the water system. Managing the main water system in the Netherlands involves high investments in infrastructure (e.g. building storm surge barriers), operations (e.g. pumping water out of low-lying areas) and maintenance (e.g. reinforcing old dikes). Budgets are dependent on political decision-making cycles, which play out on much shorter term than processes of climate change. It is typically tempting for politicians to postpone difficult or expensive long term decisions. Adaptive delta-management tries to deal with this temporal scale mismatch by identifying the implications of long term developments and associated uncertainties for short and medium term policy making. With the method of adaptation tipping points and pathways, the long term perspective is brought into short term decision-making.

An adaptation tipping point is reached when ‘the magnitude of change is such that the current management strategy can no longer meet its objectives' (Kwadijk et al. 2010). For example, fresh water supply in the western part of the Netherlands can become problematic at 35 cm or more sea level rise, which in the worst climate scenarios could occur by 2030. By calculating back when the planning and implementation of changes to water system would need to start, medium term and short term decisions come into sight. The construction of adaptation pathways (Haasnoot et al. 2012) in the form of a roadmap that indicates where different policy options (both current and future ones) run into trouble by reaching an adaptation tipping point, and which alternative adaptation policies can be adopted afterwards. This leads to the identification of opportunities, threats, timing and sequence of policy options, which policymakers can use to develop water management roadmaps into the future.

DISCUSSION

In the preceding sections, we have analysed five governance capabilities (Termeer et al. 2013a; Termeer & Dewulf 2014) in relation to ADM, in the light of addressing the wicked problem of climate change adaptation in densely populated river deltas. In this discussion, we reflect on the institutional context in which ADM is to be implemented now and in the future.

The current institutional context is mainly formed by the Delta Programme, which has been installed as a multi-level policy development programme parallel to the usual processes of policy making by different layers of government. Some of the weaknesses of ADM that we identified by applying the framework of five governance capabilities are compensated by other activities of the different regional and thematic offices of the Delta Programme. In the Delta Programme IJsselmeer, for example, which addresses the question how the water level of the large freshwater lake IJsselmeer has to be managed now and in the future, the governance capability of reflexivity for example is evident in the intensive deliberations with relevant stakeholders and the aim of co-creating knowledge (Vink & Mulligen 2012). As argued above, however, the question remains to what extent the framing embedded in the models and assumptions used for the ADM exercise is synchronized with the knowledge frames developed through the stakeholder deliberations (Dewulf et al. 2005).

Overall the current institutional context for ADM in the Netherlands is quite favourable, but this may to a large extent be due to its embedding in the parallel governance structure of the Delta Programme as a policy development programme, within which ADM can be developed, tested and supported by the programme's staff. This begs the question about the future institutional context for ADM, which is a very relevant question given the long term character of climate change adaptation as a policy issue. By 2015, the Delta Programme has to deliver its advice on five key delta decisions to the Dutch national government, which will then decide what to do with this advice. There is however considerable uncertainty about the institutional structure through which the implementation of the delta decisions will take place after 2015, and therefore about the institutional context in which ADM would have to become embedded in the future. Will a follow-up Delta Programme be put in place, or will ministries, waterboards or municipalities, which each have their own responsibilities for water management, be expected to incorporate an ADM approach into their own decision-making procedures?

The key point here is that for a policy development approach targeted at long term policy issues like climate adaptation, a long term commitment to implementing the approach itself is necessary. Because ADM differs substantially from the usual ways of analysing, developing and deciding on policy options, this is not to be taken lightly. If limited to a one shot operation, the whole approach becomes a linear exercise and does not provide much added value. Linking the short term with the long term in decision-making about water management needs to be a permanent, iterative and institutionalized feature of the governance system. Tolerance for uncertainty (Brugnach et al. 2008), commitment to monitoring and learning (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007), and flexibility for iterative revision of policies (Lempert & Groves 2010; Swanson et al. 2010) will need to be present in the governance system to enable ADM.

The methods of ADM aim to incorporate flexibility so that current decisions can be reversed, amended or expanded in accordance with the future scenario actually materialises. This flexibility is only meaningful when one assumes a sustained capacity for learning, through gathering new information and re-assessing the situation and the associated uncertainties. To incorporate this approach in the day-to-day policy processes at different administrative levels will require the next level in dealing with uncertain facts and conflicting interests at the same time, and will challenge politicians, civil servants, scientists and citizens alike.

CONCLUSION

We started this paper with discussing ADM, a policy development approach adopted by the Dutch Delta Programme to address the uncertainties in climate adaptation policy, relying on sophisticated and innovative policy analysis methods. Because the governance of climate adaptation can be considered a wicked problem, we explained how we would use the framework of five governance capabilities as a set of principles to assess the potential of ADM in coping with the wickedness of the climate adaptation problem. We conclude that ADM can contribute substantially to the governance capability of resilience, through its focus on robustness through flexibility. Matching the temporal dimensions of the governance scale and the problem scale through bringing long term concerns into short term decisions contributes substantially to the governance capability of rescaling. Cross-level issues on the governance scale, which present themselves when regional ADM exercises have to be integrated into a national strategy, are less well addressed. As ADM does not pay explicit attention to the micro level of policy making, not much can be said about its potential to contribute to the governance capability for revitalization: there is potential for casting a new light on old problems through invoking the long term perspective, but the flexibility inherent in ADM could also be misused for postponing or avoiding decisions in deadlocked policy processes. ADM has the potential to contribute to the governance capability of reflexivity, but only if the relevant (changes in) frames in the policy domain are synchronized with the assumptions embedded in the adaptation tipping points and pathway maps. ADM can contribute to the governance capability of responsiveness, by providing political room for manoeuvre to strategically postpone or accelerate decisions depending on windows of opportunity, but also has some characteristics that could result in non-responsiveness, through the assumption that the same policy issue (climate change adaptation) can be kept on the policy agenda for a very long time. Finally, to enable ADM as a policy development approach for long term issues, a long term commitment to iterative policy revision, flexibility and learning will need to be present in the broader governance system.

This analysis contributes to our understanding of how the ideas of adaptive management (Gunderson 1999; Pahl-Wostl 2007) are operationalized for dealing with the long term issue of climate change adaptation in the Dutch delta through the ADM approach. At the same time, it adds a broader perspective on adaptive governance (Folke et al. 2005) by analysing the potential of this approach to contribute to five different governance capabilities. Taking a governance perspective problematizes the assumed clarity about the management position and the management object. This brings a range of other issues into the picture, captured by the governance capabilities framework, and allowing for a more comprehensive analysis that goes beyond optimizing the resilience of the social-ecological system under consideration.

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