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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Outcomes of Collaborative Water Policy Making: Applying Complexity Thinking to Evaluation


The California water policy arena has been a notoriously conflictual environment, in which parties frequently were at odds with one another on multiple fronts simultaneously, fighting one another through the regulatory and resource management agencies, the courts, Congress and the state legislature, and the voters. Today, however, these diverse parties are engaging in collaborative dialogues, focusing on joint problem solving rather than mutual destruction and, more often than not, going to the legislative bodies and voters with one voice in seeking remedies to their problems.

These collaborative dialogues have produced robust and lasting outcomes that extend well beyond the resolution of specific disputes. Together, these and other examples demonstrate how such dialogues have profoundly transformed policy making practices, as well as the way in which day-to-day decisions about on-the-ground management and operations are made.

When the world is viewed as a complex system, in which learning, feedback, and adaptations take place through highly linked, self-organizing networks -- as opposed to a mechanistic model of inputs and outputs -- it's easier to understand how collaborative dialogue processes function and produce a wide variety of types of results. Evaluation methods based on a mechanistic world view will fail to identify many of the most important results of these processes. If evaluation is approached as it has been done traditionally, focusing first and foremost on whether agreements were obtained and how strong the consensus was, the truly important results of these processes will be missed, including the building of social and political capital, the learning and change, the development of high quality information, new and innovative ideas, new institutions and practices that are adaptive and flexible, and the cascade of changes in attitudes, behaviors, and actions.

The challenge now is to approach the evaluation task from a complex systems perspective and to identify and seek to develop a robust understanding of the significance of the first-, second-, and third-order outcomes of these processes in the contexts in which they occur. Process participants themselves may be focused on agreements and not recognize the significance of some of these outcomes until much later. As the authors have discovered, first- and some second-order outcomes, such as the development of social and political capital and high-quality, trusted information, begin to occur during the collaborative dialogue process. Other second- and third-order outcomes most often emerge after the reaching of a formal agreement. And although a process may have finished in a formal sense, it can continue to produce results as the changes in attitudes and practices continue to propagate through the system. In evaluating how well the processes are working, frameworks must be developed that are flexible and allow incorporation of ongoing learning and adaptation as new and different results emerge.

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