Ireland’s water resources are an important natural asset. Clean, healthy water is essential for our economy, our aquatic wildlife and our health and wellbeing. However, as noted in the foreword to the draft third-cycle River Basin Management Plan (Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, 2021), (Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, 2021, p. 3), there are mounting environmental pressures on Ireland’s waters, with the situation described as “urgent”.
The decline in water quality is being driven primarily by nutrient pollution coming from agriculture and waste water systems. A complex array of stakeholders are involved in water quality. Like many other Environmental challenges, water is often described as a “wicked problem”, with “wicked” denoting resistance to resolution. It is a problem for which there is no single solution and no determinable stopping point (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007).
In early 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed on a 2-year research programme with the Institute of Public Administration to review water governance arrangements in Ireland, with particular regard to changes made under the second-cycle RBMP, 2018–2021 (Government of Ireland, 2018). The research programme has encompassed a number of reports to date, including:
- a report reviewing water governance arrangements in Ireland using the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Water Governance Indicator Framework;
- a report examining water governance in Ireland using an experimental governance lens;
- a report reviewing case studies on local catchment groups in Ireland (River Moy Trust and the Inishowen Rivers Trust);
- a paper reviewing the Water Forum (An Fóram Uisce) as a vehicle for stakeholder engagement in respect of policy.
The reports listed above sought to inform thinking in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage regarding the third-cycle RBMP, which was being prepared by the department during the first half of 2021. Section 5.3.1 of the draft RBMP 2022–2027, published for consultation in September 2021, makes extensive reference to the findings and recommendations of the research programme.
This final report comes at the end of the 2-year research programme and aims to draw out wider learning from the study of water governance. Many of our findings on water governance can be generalised, and the objective of this research paper, which concludes the research programme, is to share this learning with the wider public service to support governance arrangements for other complex policy issues.
A central element of the research programme has been to review water governance using experimental governance as a framework. Experimental governance is a governance model developed by academics (Sabel and Zeitlin, 2012) to support the governance of “wicked problems”. These are challenging policy issues that require a cross-government response. The complexity of these issues means that, while the ultimate goal (e.g. clean water) is clear, there is no obvious solution or pathway to achieve this goal. Rather, the solution is arrived at incrementally through an iterative process that, crucially, involves frontline and local-level stakeholders. There is some evidence that an experimental governance approach is beneficial in addressing “wicked problems” and, while the water governance structures established under the second-cycle RBMP were not set up deliberately with an experimental governance approach in mind, many tenets of experimental governance are evident in the approach.
The main findings from the research programme are discussed in this paper under six headings, based on the lessons learned:
- clearly assign roles and take ownership of responsibilities;
- encourage experimentation, a willingness to engage with varying perspectives and responsiveness to local contexts;
- make data central: its generation, monitoring, reporting and review;
- focus on building capacity and sharing learning; 5. ensure a targeted and diverse approach to regulation;
- carefully manage stakeholder engagement.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of any policy can be seen in the outcomes. Do the RBMP and associated governance arrangements demonstrably improve the quality of water or, to take some other current government challenges, does policy in housing, mental health or climate improve outcomes for citizens? In a paper reflecting on public service reform, Boyle (2020, p. 16) commented that structures and processes are not sufficient on their own to achieve better outcomes, but that rather “the capability and competence of public servants is at the heart of good public dministration”. The conclusions in this report seek to marry better structures and processes with better capacity among the public servants involved to ensure better governance. The overarching aim is of course to continuously improve policy and ultimately ensure better policy outcomes`.
Source – EPA Publications
Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/water-drop-40784/