The article evaluates whether the participatory arrangements in Swedish water management following from the European Union's Water Framework Directive (WFD) contribute to legitimacy by increased learning and knowledge-generation. In contrast to most evaluations of collaborative arrangements, we use a three-tiered approach analyzing actors, processes and structures jointly, which allows us to more fully consider the merits and challenges facing this new management system. Based on original data collected from the Water councils in one of five Swedish Water Districts, we conclude that the prospects for learning and legitimacy-creation in Swedish water management are favorable. Despite the absence of decision-making power, a majority of the participants find the management system overall positive and meaningful, as new knowledge is collected and distributed through the Water councils. Thus, the management processes seem to work in favor of reaching the overarching goal of internal legitimacy, i.e. among the participating stakeholders. The main challenge, following our data, is for the new management system to serve as an arena for broad public involvement. As long as only a small number of stakeholders partake in the Water councils, the potential for creating external legitimacy for this new governance system is limited.

Introduction

In this article, we focus on the institutional change in Swedish water management, spurred by the introduction of the European Union's Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC, abbreviated WFD). The purpose of the article is to evaluate and analyze whether the participatory arrangements of the WFD, when put into practice at the sub-local level, imply a framework for increased learning and legitimacy within the management system. In contrast to most evaluations of collaborative arrangements focusing on the qualities of the processes alone, we here suggest a three-dimensional approach analyzing participation, processes and structures jointly, and taking the perception of the involved actors into account, thereby allowing us to consider a more complete picture of the merits and challenges facing this new management system. It should, however, be noted that the main focal point for this article is the conditions and prospects for successful collaboration that are manifested through the practical implications of the WFD, and not on the outcomes of the system as such. However, we believe that analyzing conditions and prospects also enables us to explore and outline the challenges facing the implementation of supra-national participatory principles in sub-local political contexts.

Over the past decades of natural resource management (NRM) theory and practice, it has been increasingly recognized that an a priori identification of best management practices is not always possible and that NRM instead should be designed in a way that better facilitates its continuous adaptation to the increasing complexity, uncertainty and surprise changes that characterize socio-ecological systems (Holling, 1978; Walters, 1986; Folke et al., 2002; Olsson et al., 2004). The success of adaptive management, conceived of as a highly flexible, iterative system where management actions are incessantly evaluated and adjusted in order to improve long-run management outcomes, primarily revolves around processes of learning where new knowledge of the ecosystem is collected and allowed to impact future decision-making. Since adaptive management is often implemented in complex socio-ecological settings, involving both multiple stakeholders, multiple interests and stretching across multiple institutional levels, a collaborative process is suggested as a further element of success (e.g. Folke et al., 2002; Olsson et al., 2004; Carlsson & Berkes, 2005; Armitage et al., 2008; Plummer et al., 2012). In particular, the participation and collaboration of stakeholders helps inform decision-making and build support for its implementation; address multiple-uses conflicts; and, subsequently, enhances the likelihood of reaching solutions that are both legitimate as well as ecologically rational (cf. Dietz et al., 2003; Colfer, 2005, 2011; Jentoft & Chuenpagdee, 2009; Plummer, 2009; Cundill & Fabricius, 2010).

In the endeavor of designing management systems with a high degree of both adaptability and legitimacy, moving from a hierarchical, state-controlled system of government to a governance system that spans multiple decision-making levels and allows for participation by a range of actors holding a multitude of organizational affiliations, is becoming increasingly popular. Collaborative institutions are ascribed the potential to overcome legitimacy deficits in contested policy sectors (e.g. Dietz et al., 2003), by enabling a broad range of stakeholders with conflicting beliefs to participate, and engage in open and reasonable discussions (e.g. Gutmann & Thompson, 1996; Chambers, 2003). Furthermore, a regime that spans several levels of policy-making, in a system that has been defined as having cross-scale linkages (Berkes, 2002; Young, 2002); multi-level governance (Hooghe & Marks, 2003); polycentrism (Ostrom, 2001; Imperial, 2005); or nested enterprises (Kiser & Ostrom, 1982; Ostrom, 1990, 2005; Lundqvist, 2004), opens the path for decisions that better fit the nature of the problem rather than keeping within traditional administrative structures. Whereas a scaling-up of decision-making to the supra-national level is necessary for increasing adaptive capacity in the light of border-crossing or even global problems, a scaling-down of decision-making to the sub-local level rather allows for decisions that incorporate and utilize local knowledge on the resource and thus are better adapted to the specific situation and locale (e.g. Pinkerton, 1989; Ostrom, 1990; Plummer & FitzGibbon, 2004; Carlsson & Berkes, 2005). As learning is key for the ability of management systems to adapt, as well as for more legitimate outcomes, the social processes surrounding decision-making should be constructed in a way that facilitates a co-creation of knowledge and an introduction of new or alternative values to the process.

Aim of the article

If an institutional reorientation towards more collaborative structures and sub-local participation is to have the suggested positive outcomes, and provide for increased learning (both in terms of knowledge generation, scientific and experience based, and increased understanding of competing interests) and, thus, adaptive capacity, a number of prerequisites relating both to the institutional structure within which stakeholder interaction takes place, the processes of deliberative practices as well as the stakeholders themselves, need to be fulfilled (e.g. Delli Carpini et al., 2004; Ryfe, 2005; Zachrisson, 2010). To explore these prerequisites in the context of Swedish water management is the main purpose of this article. To do so, we analyze original data collected from the Water councils in one of the five Swedish Water Districts asking whether participation and processes within the council are designed in a way which is conducive to learning and co-creation of knowledge as suggested by the literature on collaborative arrangements and, indeed, being a guiding principle of the EU Water Framework Directive. Since the legitimacy of a regime or policy should not be conceived of as a solely normative quality but also as dependent on the perceptions of those actors involved (cf. Beetham, 1991; Matti, 2010), our study focuses on both the formal set-up of the institutional structure, as well as how the stakeholders within this structure perceive issues concerning participation and processes. Although our empirical point of departure is on one particular institutional setting, we believe that our study also contributes more generally to the literature on new governance arrangements in the broader NRM-case, providing conclusions on how institutions and policy frameworks can be designed to ensure a better fit with the specifics of multiple-uses/multiple-users NRM.

The article proceeds as follows. In the first part, we outline the specifics of our case: the Swedish institutional restructuring following the Water Framework Directive. Second, our theoretical framework is elucidated, focusing on stakeholders, processes, and institutional frameworks. We then turn to the empirical applications of the framework, expanding our research method and data. We conclude by discussing the prospects for the current system to produce ecological rationality and democratic legitimacy, while at the same time considering the general usefulness and applicability of our analytical framework.

The Swedish water councils: collaborative deliberation in practice

The Swedish government's implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive is a textbook example of how multi-level governance is paired with collaborative management structures in an effort to increase the adaptive capacity in NRM. According to the WFD, introduced by the EU in 2000, fresh water resource management should no longer be organized by existing administrative hierarchies, but rather by the natural logic of the water catchment areas transcending local, regional and even national boundaries (Directive 2000/60/EC). This is well in line with the theoretical notion of finding appropriate spatial scales for more ecologically sustainable management of key resources, and is accomplished by a simultaneous scaling-up (to the EU-level) and scaling-down (to sub-national regions or even river basins) of tasks, responsibilities and decision-making authority.

Although the WFD specifies that each member state holds the responsibility for ensuring that appropriate administrative arrangements are established within their territory, the WFD also clearly pronounces the necessity of subsidiarity in decision-making (Directive 2000/60, Article 1:13) as well as that of ‘information, consultation and involvement of the public, including users’ (Directive 2000/60, Article 1:14). As the WFD was incorporated into Swedish law through the 2004 Water management regulation (SFS (Swedish Statute Book), 2004, p. 660), administrative arrangements were designed in a way that answered both to the demand for ecologically rational scales and subsidiarity, and public as well as stakeholder involvement. The WFD thus gave rise to an entirely new administrative structure (cf. Lundqvist, 2004) where 5 sub-national Water Authorities were set up to manage the 117 main catchment areas in Sweden, thus creating a new layer of administration between the state and the County Administrative Boards (CABs). As the WFD also stresses the necessity of involving local stakeholders and the public in the management system, the Swedish water management regulation also includes formal requirements for the Water Authorities to ensure cooperation with and participation by those stakeholders and members of the public that are affected by water management decisions and can contribute with knowledge about local water conditions. In response to these requirements, stakeholder involvement is achieved in several ways. The old Swedish administrative tradition known as the ‘remiss’ procedure, which is a consultation process prior to important decisions (e.g. Trädgårdh, 2007), is used regularly to collect responses from affected interests on, for instance, water management plans and action plans. Other ways to ensure stakeholder involvement followed directly from WFD implementation, such as a Reference group supporting the decision-making authority at the regional level (i.e. the Water Board). The main example of an administrative procedure designed to enable stakeholder involvement in Swedish water management, however, are Water councils compiled by the affected stakeholders and set up in main catchment areas as the main point of contact between stakeholders and the Water Authorities (Lundmark & Jonsson, 2014).

Although the Water councils are non-statutory bodies without formal decision-making power, their function and existence is key to fulfilling the WFD requirements of increasing legitimacy for the water-management system through stakeholder participation. In order to implement a long term sustainable water management with capacity to adapt to changes in both the resource itself as well as in its social context, the participation of and learning among affected interests and the participatory processes' ability to contribute with co-created knowledge to the decision-making processes are imperative. In this article, we take our point of departure in the Swedish water management system as a case of multi-level, collaborative arrangements in order to evaluate and analyze whether the local participatory arrangements in the form of Water councils are set up and function in a way that is conducive to knowledge generation. Which, then, are the criteria that should be evaluated in this endeavor?

Analyzing prospects for legitimacy in the Swedish water councils: a proposed framework

The analytical framework guiding this study takes its point of departure in two propositions. First, that a thorough analysis should incorporate three separate, but interlinked, dimensions: the institutional structures, the processes within these structures, and the qualities of the actors themselves. Second, that both learning-capacity and legitimacy are not qualities intrinsic to structures or processes, but are conferred to them through the perceptions and actions of those actors involved (cf. Beetham, 1991; Tsakatika, 2005). Thus, evaluating the prospects of learning and legitimacy requires considering both formal settings and actor perceptions simultaneously.

As a first instance, we acknowledge that the multi-level character of the Swedish water management, where the local Water councils are interlinked with administrative apparatuses at the regional, national and supra-national levels, suggests that the outcomes of stakeholder actions and interactions are both determined and constrained by an external institutional framework. We therefore align with Saarikoski et al. (2013) in arguing that a study of one collaborative process should not only scale down its perspective by focusing on the stakeholders themselves, but also scale up the perspective to account also for the institutional context in which the process is situated. Institutions, defined as formal and informal rules, regulate all forms of behavior and are therefore highly significant for determining outcomes (e.g. North, 1990; Ostrom, 1990; Peters, 2005). As such, the potential for local processes to contribute with new knowledge, and indeed also increase public legitimacy for management decisions, is dependent on the formal institutional setting within which these processes are located and the possibilities this setting provides for stakeholder knowledge, preferences and information to flow upwards from the local processes and affect decision-making on higher administrative levels.

Essentially drawing on deliberative democratic theory (e.g. Gutmann & Thompson, 1996; Dryzek, 2000, 2005; Smith, 2001; Dryzek & Niemeyer, 2006), proponents of collaborative decision-making arrangements argue that increased participation and dialogue among stakeholders will facilitate both joint problem understandings, co-creation of knowledge and introduction of alternative values to the process, as well as contribute to increasing the legitimacy and thus effective implementation of decision-making outputs (Chambers, 1996, 2003; Dietz et al., 2003; Baber, 2004; Barabas, 2004; Koontz, 2005; Ryfe, 2005; Black, 2008; McLaverty & Halpin, 2008; Bäckstrand et al., 2010; Cundill et al., 2011). Similarly, a collective learning process of the kind foreseen when initiating the Water councils commonly denotes a transformative process where actors, through interacting and communicating, acquire shared meanings of the management problems and ways to solve them (e.g. Argyris & Schön, 1996; Folke et al., 2003; Blackmore, 2007; Pahl-Wostl et al., 2007; Lundmark & Jonsson, 2014). From this perspective, evaluating the success of such arrangements has therefore mainly focused on their deliberative processes. As argued by Zachrisson (2010), the proposed positive outcomes of collaborative management are dependent on the practice of deliberation itself fulfilling a number of theoretically derived qualitative requirements (see also Bohman, 1996; Page & Shapiro, 1999; Dryzek, 2000; Young, 2000; Meadowcroft, 2004; Plummer & Fitzgibbon, 2004). Together, these criteria facilitate an open and free exchange of ideas on equal terms among the participants that separate true deliberation from mere participation.

Summing up previous attempts to outline criteria for true deliberation leads us to suggest four key characteristics of deliberative democracy. First, the processes must be characterized by equality in that all affected stakeholders are granted the opportunity to express their opinions on equal terms throughout (e.g. Benhabib, 1996; Bohman, 1996; Dryzek, 2000). Second, the processes must be open and transparent, enabling all those interested to take part in, scrutinize, and compare the arguments made (Jacobs, 1996; Cohen, 1997; Dryzek, 2000; Young, 2000). Third, the processes must encourage reason giving in the sense that the arguments, positions, and preferences of stakeholders are accompanied by an explanation of the reasons for these positions and thus open for debate in light of new information and expert knowledge (e.g. Benhabib, 1996; Young, 2000; Pellizzoni, 2001; Rosenberg, 2007). This criterion also raises demands on the discussion climate itself, in that arguments are to be deliberated in a tolerant and respectful atmosphere. Fourth, the processes must have a significant influence on key decisions concerning resources (Dryzek, 2000). Without real power, neither internal nor external legitimacy can be achieved by imposing co-management. Only by satisfying these qualitative requirements can deliberative processes be anticipated to increase the substantive legitimacy, and the extent to which they are fulfilled is therefore a key factor in analyzing the performance of systems (cf. Lundmark & Matti, 2015).

At the same time, however, actors populate these processes. As acknowledged by, among others, Pinkerton (1989, p. 29) (see also Berkes, 1997; Grimble & Wellard, 1997; Ramirez, 1999; Plummer & Fitzgibbon, 2004), the human dimension, comprising the characteristics of and relationships among actors within the system, is fundamental for explaining and predicting results as well as for improving interventions and structuring stakeholder interactions: ‘the motivations and attitudes of key actors can make or break co-management, no matter how much legal backing or supportive arrangements an agreement has’. Focusing stakeholder attributes allows for conclusions regarding both when it is reasonable to assume that a process will work as intended and how it needs to be designed to produce high levels of learning among participants. Also among policy process scholars, stakeholder analysis is a well-utilized tool for understanding the dynamics and context of a policy issue. As such, it is used both for identifying key actors, assessing their respective interest and predicting future conflicts based on the distributional and socio-political impacts of a decision, as well as for discovering paths to collective agreements and calculating the likelihood that a political strategy, venue, or policy alternative will be successful in initiating policy change and learning (cf. Freeman & Gilbert, 1987; Grimble & Wellard, 1997; Engel, 1997; Ramirez, 1999; Brugha & Varvasovsky, 2000; Weible, 2006; Elgin & Weible, 2013). Thus, it seems reasonable that also the actors themselves should constitute an integral part of any study with the purpose of exploring a collaborative arrangement.

Several approaches to analyzing stakeholder attributes are possible. Certainly, focusing on stakeholders' beliefs is particularly significant when mapping out coalitions and network-structures within a policy subsystem, as beliefs function both as a driver directing preferences and action within a process (e.g. Sabatier, 1988; Sabatier & Hunter, 1989; Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999) and as the force either bringing actors with convergent beliefs together into networks or separating actors with strongly divergent beliefs (e.g. Weible, 2006; Matti & Sandström, 2011; Elgin & Weible, 2013). However, stakeholders can also be analyzed from a perspective of inclusion. In particular for settings where the ambition is to enhance legitimacy by collecting non-state actors from a broad range of organizational affiliations, focusing on the breadth of inclusion and whether the included stakeholders represent key interests surrounding the resource is of vital importance, as legitimacy is derived from the quality of stakeholder engagement and influence (Black, 2008; McLaverty & Halpin, 2008; Wallner, 2008). Drawing on previous studies of input- (e.g. Sharpf, 1997; Parkinson, 2003; Skogstad, 2003; Smith, 2005; Montpetit, 2008) and in particular throughput-legitimacy (e.g. Schmidt, 2013; Doberstein & Millar, 2014), it is reasonable to assume that legitimacy arises through processes where ‘all those subject to the decision in question’ (Dryzek, 2001, p. 651) are also allowed to participate and deliberate upon it prior to any decision being made. Therefore, a key aspect of the analysis of the individual-dimension concerns the level of inclusion of key stakeholders within the Water councils, and whether it is perceived as allowing for a broad representation of interests, and, subsequently, holds the potential for a co-production of knowledge.

The combination of these three dimensions, capturing actors, processes and structures, results in a conceptual framework illustrated in Table 1 below. Predicting and explaining the extent to which the collaborative arrangements in the Swedish water management system succeed in fostering a co-creation of knowledge and inducing a high level of legitimacy for management decisions requires careful analyses of both individual perceptions and the formal institutional structure. Only by combining these three dimensions will it be possible to fully comprehend if the structure of and work within the Swedish Water councils are designed in a way that is conducive to co-creation of knowledge as suggested both by the WFD and the literature on collaborative arrangements; that is, if the design of the management system as a whole will affect long-term adaptive capacity and, subsequently, provide a more sustainable management of water resources1.

Table 1.

Framework for analyzing the prospects for deliberation.

Analytical dimension Description In focus for analysis 
The institutional dimension The formal institutional structure Formal mandate and boundaries of the sub-local process; Connection to higher administrative levels 
The process dimension The deliberative process and interaction among stakeholders Actors' perceived quality of the deliberative setting (equality, reasonableness, transparency and influence) 
The individual dimension Stakeholder attributes and participation Actors’ perceived inclusion of key stakeholders; breadth of organizational affiliations (diversity of preferences/beliefs) 
Analytical dimension Description In focus for analysis 
The institutional dimension The formal institutional structure Formal mandate and boundaries of the sub-local process; Connection to higher administrative levels 
The process dimension The deliberative process and interaction among stakeholders Actors' perceived quality of the deliberative setting (equality, reasonableness, transparency and influence) 
The individual dimension Stakeholder attributes and participation Actors’ perceived inclusion of key stakeholders; breadth of organizational affiliations (diversity of preferences/beliefs) 

Results

Following the logic of our analytical framework (Table 1), the main results of the study are presented in a three-part analysis, addressing the institutional-, process-, and individual dimensions respectively.

Data were collected through a web survey, sent to members of the Water councils in one of the five Swedish Water Districts, asking whether the structure of and work within these boards are perceived to be designed and organized in a way that is conducive to learning and co-creation of knowledge as suggested by the literature on collaborative arrangements. During spring 2012 a web survey was sent to all 163 members in the 13 Water councils in the Water District. After duplications (people who are members of more than one Water council) and participants who could not be reached by email were removed, 120 unique individuals received an invitation to participate. After two reminders, 53 complete questionnaires were received. The response rate of about 44% could be considered relatively high given the increasing difficulty of attracting survey respondents, and although it is not directly comparable with web panels sent to public citizens, this response rate is significantly higher than in recent web panel surveys conducted in Sweden (see e.g. Ek & Persson, 2014). Still, it is possible that respondents differ from the average Water council participants; they may for instance be more engaged or have a stronger interest in matters regarding water quality. This possible self-selection should be kept in mind when interpreting the results.

The institutional dimension

Starting with the institutional dimension, the analysis here concerns the formal regulatory framework governing both the mandate of the Water councils and their position in the Swedish decision-making system, as well as the formal rules concerning membership and participation.

The WFD, as we recall, gave rise to an entirely new multi-level governance structure. In Sweden, five Water Authorities at regional level were mandated to administer and monitor the water bodies, as well as to enable stakeholder involvement (SOU (Official Reports of the Swedish Government), 2002, p. 105; Lundqvist, 2004). We recall that there are several platforms for knowledge integration in the new management structure. Stakeholders partake in the discussion of water issues in the Water Board (with decision-making authority), a Reference group, as well as in Water councils. Of these organizations, Water councils have the most pronounced collaborative aim (Lundmark & Jonsson, 2014) and, subsequently, are our focus here. The relationship between Water councils and other organizations in Swedish water management is outlined in Figure 1.
Fig. 1.

The Swedish water governance system.

Fig. 1.

The Swedish water governance system.

As of today, 125 Water councils have been established in Sweden (Söderasp, 2015). Some of them are reformations of the local water management organizations existing in the Swedish south since the 1950s (Jonsson & Lundqvist, 2006). The Water councils are in all essence voluntary organizations, open for all those affected to participate in (Bill, 2003/04, p. 57), and their membership therefore varies across Sweden to reflect the local circumstances of the catchment areas. For instance, the study by Lundmark & Jonsson (2014) shows that the Water council of the Lule and Råne Rivers in northern Sweden is a loose network that, in practice, consists of a mail list to those individuals that have articulated an interest in joining the network. However, representatives from affected municipalities; landowners (forestry and agriculture); industry; and non-governmental interest groups are commonplace, particularly in the steering group.

Following the WFD, Water Authorities shall consult with affected agencies, municipalities, organizations and single individuals before deciding on management plans and related documents (Directive 2000/60/EC, Article 1:14). The regulatory framework at the national level does not, however, refer to consultation through Water councils, but rather stresses the formalized traditional consultation process (i.e. the ‘remiss’ procedure; cf. Elvander, 1966; Trädgårdh, 2007), declaring that information is made accessible to all affected actors, including how, when and to whom comments can be submitted before important policy decisions are made. Following the regulation, the Water Authorities do not need to adjust quality targets or action plans according to what comes up during the process of consultation, but rather present the comments received and explicate how they have been considered (or not)2.

The Water councils are not themselves bestowed with any formal decision-making authority as this resides with the Water Authorities. However, following the necessity of local participation and knowledge generation outlined in the WFD they are nevertheless expected to play a significant role in the development and implementation of management-plans for the area. In particular, the governing idea with this institutional change is that the Water councils will serve as a tool for knowledge exchange (both informing the public and affected stakeholders about water management plans and incorporating experienced-based knowledge into water management); a forum for consultation and development of common solutions for local problems; as well as a driver for increased participation by local stakeholders and private interests in the development and implementation of management plans (Directive 2000/60). This, in turn, is anticipated to enhance the legitimacy of both the management system and its outputs and lead to a more sustainable and efficient water management (e.g. SOU, 2002, p. 105).

It is, however, not only the formal setting that is of interest in an analysis of the Water councils' prerequisites for being an arena of legitimacy-creation and learning. Also the internal processes within the Water councils have to conform to a number of qualitative criteria outlined in theory, and, in particular, be understood by the stakeholders as conforming to these.

The process dimension

The process dimension focuses on the extent to which the deliberative setting within the Water councils is designed to, and indeed does, facilitate productive interaction among the participants. This is because qualitative stakeholder interaction, within the collaborative management-literature, is considered key to learning across interests and organizations, and therefore to increased legitimacy. In line with an understanding of legitimacy as a two-way street, in which actors subject to structures and processes confer legitimacy to them based on their perceptions, we focus the following parts of the analysis on the statements and evaluations by the stakeholders themselves. First, it seems reasonable to assume that regular meetings are a prerequisite for members of the Water councils to find their involvement in the process as being meaningful. This also seems to be the opinion of a significant majority of the members: less than 10% of our respondents stated that the meetings, held a couple of times a year, were too few. Instead, 87% understood the meetings to be held frequently enough or even too often. A majority of respondents also report that they see themselves as actively (70%) and regularly (77%) involved in the work of the Water councils. On this aspect, however, we note that representatives for business and industry as well as for business associations partake less regularly in the meetings and activities arranged by the Water councils, as half of the respondents with these organizational affiliations either completely or partly disagree with such a statement.

Second, the perceived quality of the internal processes of the Water councils is of significance for how the participants value them as able to fulfill their purpose as participatory activities. In Table 2 below, we account for how the respondents answered a number of questions related to deliberative quality.

Table 2.

The perceived quality of the work in the Water Board (percentage distributions).

 Completely disagree Partly disagree Unsure Partly agree Completely agree Do not know 
1. The work in the Water Board functions well 15 49 28 
2. The responsibilities of the Water Boards should be extended 13 28 23 23 
3. All participants are given equal opportunity to provide comments and suggestions during our meetings 13 77 
4. In the Water Board we have good opportunities to influence measures for improved water quality in our region 13 26 40 15 
5. My experience is that all participants are listened to and treated with respect during our meetings 11 81 
6. Our discussions are open to other interested parties (e.g. through public minutes of our meetings) 81 
7. The composition of participants in my Water Board is satisfactory 42 40 
 Completely disagree Partly disagree Unsure Partly agree Completely agree Do not know 
1. The work in the Water Board functions well 15 49 28 
2. The responsibilities of the Water Boards should be extended 13 28 23 23 
3. All participants are given equal opportunity to provide comments and suggestions during our meetings 13 77 
4. In the Water Board we have good opportunities to influence measures for improved water quality in our region 13 26 40 15 
5. My experience is that all participants are listened to and treated with respect during our meetings 11 81 
6. Our discussions are open to other interested parties (e.g. through public minutes of our meetings) 81 
7. The composition of participants in my Water Board is satisfactory 42 40 

All in all, a significant majority of respondents display a rather positive outlook on the quality of work within the Water councils. This is true both for the transparency/openness of the discussions (statement 6); the equality and reasonableness of the processes (statements 3 and 5); as well as for the inclusiveness of different interests in the discussions (statement 7). On the more general issue of whether the work functions well, 41 respondents (77%) agree either completely or partly. On the questions related to the perceived influence of the Water councils, we, however, note that the responses are more dispersed along the scale with more respondents being either unsure or in disagreement. Although a fair share of the respondents perceive that the Water councils do have good opportunities to influence regional water quality measures, almost half of the respondents do not agree with this statement3. Similarly, almost half of the respondents are in favor of extending the responsibilities of the Water councils. Thus, we conclude that although the deliberative quality in terms of equality, reasonableness and openness are perceived to be good, the mere consultative status of the Water councils does not provide participants with influence or decision making autonomy, something that has been argued as being of significant importance for legitimacy creation (e.g. Ostrom, 1990).

A third aspect of the process' ability to increase water governance legitimacy, strongly related to the question of influence above, concerns the participants' perception of the possibilities for the Water councils to take an active role in the governance system. In Table 3 below, respondents' views on knowledge within the Water councils are illustrated.

Table 3.

Access to expertise in the Water Board (percentage distributions).

 Completely disagree Partly disagree Unsure Partly agree Completely agree Do not know 
The members in my Water Board have sufficient knowledge of issues related to water and water quality 15 42 32 
We work actively to take part in the latest knowledge in issues related to water quality (e.g. by inviting experts to our meetings) 17 47 23 
We have the resources necessary to meet our need for improved knowledge in issues related to water quality 15 38 23 17 
 Completely disagree Partly disagree Unsure Partly agree Completely agree Do not know 
The members in my Water Board have sufficient knowledge of issues related to water and water quality 15 42 32 
We work actively to take part in the latest knowledge in issues related to water quality (e.g. by inviting experts to our meetings) 17 47 23 
We have the resources necessary to meet our need for improved knowledge in issues related to water quality 15 38 23 17 

Also on these aspects, a majority of our respondents express positive attitudes towards the processes of the Water councils. Most respondents agree both that the level of knowledge within the Water councils is sufficient, and that processes to increase or update knowledge are in place. When it comes to resources necessary to improve knowledge, however, the respondents are, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, less positive. Nevertheless, almost half of the respondents still agree that the required resources can be utilized.

The individual dimension

Regardless of the Water councils' formal decision-making authority, one of their key objectives is to increase legitimacy by serving as an arena for broad stakeholder participation. Therefore, a further dimension in our analysis concerns the stakeholders themselves, or more specifically how they perceive the inclusion of key stakeholders, the breadth of organizational affiliations represented and, thus, the diversity of preferences and beliefs allowed to be part of the deliberative processes.

Although membership in the water councils formally is open for all those affected to participate, our study shows that membership in the steering groups of the councils is heavily dominated by municipal representatives and representatives of major industries, in particular energy, forestry, and mining companies. Together, these make up more than half of the members of the Water councils' steering groups. Strikingly enough, even though local influence is a main ambition, interest-group representation is dominated by major organizations such as the Federation of Swedish Farmers (LRF) or the Northern Federation of Forest Owners (in Swedish: Norra Skogsägarna), whereas village associations and similar small-scale non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with a significant local connection are in the minority4. Representatives for environmental NGOs are missing from the steering groups of about half of the Water councils surveyed. These data are also reflected among our respondents, where as many as 75% completely agree that their participation in the Water council is mainly a result of their professional role. However, the actors themselves also acknowledge this biased representation. When asked, 50% of our respondents stated that they thought important actors were indeed missing from the Water councils5. Out of these, about half reported that they are missing the local or environmental perspective, for example environmental NGOs; the general public; and Sami interest-organizations.

However, it seems from our results that organizational affiliation is of less importance for the overall attitudes towards the Water councils. When it comes to actor beliefs and perceptions of both organization and internal processes, we cannot detect any significant differences in attitudes between representatives with different organizational backgrounds. This goes both for views of the quality of the process as well as for overall attitudes to the work within the Water councils.

Conclusions

Taking off from the broad collection of theories and empirical studies pointing towards increased learning and knowledge-generation as resulting from new participatory governance-systems, this article has attempted to outline and analyze the challenges and merits of such as system focusing specifically on the case of collaborative water management in northern Sweden. The analysis followed a tripartite structure, acknowledging that the potential for success or failure in participatory systems not only depends on the internal processes where learning and knowledge-creation takes place, but also on the institutional structures of the system and the actors populating the processes. As such, we suggest that a comprehensive exploration of the qualities of governance-systems must span several levels of analysis, bringing together the process-focus of deliberative democratic theory with institutional- and stakeholder-analysis.

In general, our results suggest that the prospects for learning and legitimacy-creation in the Swedish water-management system are favorable. Despite the fact that the institutional structure does not provide formal channels for power and influence or open up for autonomous decision-making by the sub-local Water councils, according to the responses of the actors taking part, this does not seem to cloud their perceptions of the processes within the Water councils as overall positive and meaningful, as well as open and respectful. Clearly, this is of high significance for the Water councils' ability to de facto constitute arenas for knowledge-creation and learning across interest affiliations. As similar patterns of positive perceptions of the internal processes of the Water councils are also seen concerning more direct questions on knowledge, a majority of the participants clearly understands the levels of knowledge as satisfactory and express that new knowledge is regularly collected and distributed as part of the Water councils' work. It should also be noted that these overall positive views on the process do not seem to be affected by organizational affiliation; no pattern of responses or significant difference between different representatives can be noted in our data. Based on these results, we conclude that in our case of water management in northern Sweden the processes seem to work in favor of reaching the overarching goal of internal legitimacy, that is, among the stakeholders participating in the processes.

However, on one issue, the challenges to the system are significantly more pronounced. Although the composition of Water councils is unregulated and open for all to participate in, it is clear from our study that certain actors and interests are more frequently represented. This is certainly evident when examining the organizational affiliation of named members of the councils, but also reflected in the perceptions of the participants themselves where about half of our respondents state that important interests are missing. Primarily, we note that representatives of interest-based NGOs are in stark minority in all the councils surveyed. For example, environmental organizations lack representation in half of the councils, whereas professional organizations, industry and municipal politics have strong representation in all. This professionalism of the Water councils can prove the largest challenge to the prospect for Swedish water governance to reach beyond a small number of stakeholders and also be detrimental for creating external legitimacy for the system, that is, among the general public, and serve as an arena for public involvement.

Acknowledgements

Financial support from the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas) and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency is gratefully acknowledged. The research undertaken in preparation of this paper has formed part of the multi-disciplinary research program SPEQS (‘A Systems Perspective on Environmental Quality Standards’).

1

The theoretical framework used in this study was developed by Lundmark & Matti (2015).

2

Water councils are not explicitly mentioned in either the regulation on water quality management (SFS, 2004, p. 660) or in the regulation with instruction to the CABs (SFS, 2007, p. 825). Information on the councils, their composition and function, is rather presented in various informative pamphlets and handbooks from the Water Authorities (e.g. Vattenmyndigheterna (Water Authorities) (2006, 2008)), where they are depicted as one of the most important actors in the new water management – to accomplish a comprehensive view on water resources and to ensure that authorities and other actors learn from each other.

3

This result corresponds with the findings by Eckerberg and colleagues concerning the Water councils in the Bothnian Bay (County Administrative Board of Norrbotten, 2012).

4

This corresponds rather well to the affiliation of our respondents.

5

In a study by Eckerberg et al., only about a third of their interviewees from the 13 Water councils in the the Bothnian Bay district consider that not all relevant interests are represented (County Administrative Board of Norrbotten, 2012, p. 25).

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