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Plan writing as a policy tool: instrumental, conceptual, and tactical uses of water management plans in California

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Numerous environmental regulations require organizations to codify prospective activities in a written plan. However, evidence suggests that many plans are never implemented, raising questions about why public agencies continually require plans, whether mandating plans allows agencies to meet their policy aims, and what additional purposes plans serve. Adopting concepts from literature on research utilization, we develop a plan use typology, defining instrumental use as occurring when the requirement to write a plan directly addresses a stated policy problem, conceptual use as occurring when the requirement to write a plan indirectly addresses a policy problem by raising awareness of an issue or improving governance capacity, and tactical use as occurring when the requirement to write a plan serves a political or symbolic purpose unrelated to solving the policy problem. We then apply the typology to four California statutes that require local and regional utilities to write water management plans. We first assess the statutes to identify the goals underlying the requirement to write a plan and assess what plan uses are emphasized in guidance documents and the written plans themselves. Lastly, we interview the plan writing organizations to capture their perspectives on the value and limitations of these plans. We find that legislators turn to plans to support instrumental and conceptual goals but that the plans themselves and the way they are used by authoring agencies primarily serve conceptual and tactical uses, suggesting a disconnect between the policy goals underlying plans and their actual use.

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