Innovation, science and trans-boundary environmental governance: Using social capital to enhance collaboration and co-learning in the management of the Great Lakes fisheries

Project Summary

In the context of the Great Lakes Governance System, the task of sustainably managing complex social-ecological systems (including ecosystem health, sustainable fisheries, tourism and water quality) in a trans-boundary regulatory setting represents a significant and enduring challenge for government. The Great Lakes serve as boundary waters between Canada and the U.S.A., bordering Ontario, eight American states, and more than a dozen major metropolitan areas. This results in substantial policy overlap and regulatory diversity. Additionally, the Great Lakes are known to be under significant stress, with overfishing, toxic chemicals and contaminated sediment, nutrient loading, invasive non-native species and hydrologic alterations drastically undermining the resilience of the social-ecological system. As a result, it has been recognized that there is an urgent need for significant institutional change to foster co-learning, collaboration and adaptive capacity in the management of the Great Lakes. However, in order to achieve this vision, such institutional change must be reinforced by sufficient social capital to enable the people and organizations participating in the policy network to share knowledge and meaningfully engage in policy discourse. Despite the significance of social capital to policy innovation and institutional change, there has been little empirical research into the dimensions of social capital that affect how policy actors collaborate, co-learn and innovate within a trans-boundary setting. This research proposal questions the way that we approach complex and adaptive social-ecological challenges in the Great Lakes Region and explores how we can better collaborate, co-learn, and integrate knowledge to innovate for sustainable natural resource management outcomes.

Public policy scholarship has increasingly recognized the importance of multi-stakeholder collaborative networks and has examined them from a multitude of angles. Similarly, the literature on environmental policy implementation underscores the need for a range of stakeholders to harmonize program formulation and implementation. However, many network properties and the (potentially integrative) outcomes they generate have remained under-examined -- in particular, the extent to which networks are characterized by formal or informal relationships, how trusting these relationships are, and the effect that these network properties have on policy-oriented learning, innovation and, ultimately, decision making. The overarching objective of this research is to enhance the capacity of the Great Lakes Governance System to collaborate, co-learn and innovate to foster the resilience of the social-ecological system. Specifically, our research will:

1. Define the Great Lakes fisheries policy network and assess the distribution of social capital (i.e., formal and informal communication and trust) among members;

2. Evaluate the extent to which network members share information and which collaborative mechanisms they utilize for this;

3. Determine the effects of several measures of social capital on policy-oriented learning and knowledge sharing within the trans-boundary policy network.

We will study several categories of network members, including civil servants in Canada, the United States, and in bilateral organizations; economic stakeholders; and scientists. To measure social capital and policy learning, we will use a range of innovative techniques appropriate for each category of stakeholder. This research will make important empirical and theoretical contributions to the fields of public administration, environmental governance and international relations. The results will also inform policy efforts to improve the governance of Great Lakes fisheries and ecosystems.