The MiSt programme

The MiSt Programme

Background

MiSt is a long term research programme on tools for environmental assessment in strategic decision making funded by the Swedish Environment Protection Agency. Nine  leading   national research institutions in the field cooperate under programme coordination from the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona. The programme will run until 2008 and at present consists of ten projects. In 2004 a call for further projects will be made filling the total budget of SEK 20 million over the five year period.

The focus of the MiSt-programme is the empirical study of effectiveness of tools of   environmental assessment as aid to strategic decision making.

The aim is:

  • a critical examination of their function
  • a theory based understanding of their effectiveness 
  • and ultimately a development of prescriptions for effective tool use including effective combinations of tools

Tools can be understood as a function of three dimensions:

  • the purpose for which they have been constructed and their mode of construction e.g. their relation to the concept of "method"
  • the relation of tools to the context of their application 
  • the underlying or implicit factors behind the tools

Research is based on examining cases in different sectors, administrative levels, environmental fields, geographic locations etc. Individual projects have been chosen as part of the planning of MiSt for a combination of their interest in illustrating important issues, sectors etc to provide the necessary breadth presupposed in the call for a programme.

Two important perspectives running through the programme are public participation and legal regulation of tools.

The MiSt-programme is applied, multidisciplinary striving towards interdisciplinarity. Research is carried out in co-operation and interaction with agencies, organisations and other stakeholders. The programme is an integrated network with other major research projects of the cooperating institutions giving an added value.

There are four components to the programme: Concurrent programme activities aiming at integrating projects, this includes a "research school" where doctoral students from the programme institutions but also from other institutions   ; concrete, empirical research projects; Future research preceded by exploratory projects; Synthesis and summary including communication with users.

Points of departure and some research issues in MiSt

The concept of tools

The figure illustrates the approach to understanding tools taken in MiSt  

Implicit Factors

The programme has a number of common points of departure[1]to which individual projects will relate critically:

  • A contention that "environment" plays a limited role in many forms of strategic decision making outside the environment sector itself. This makes the scope for improvement potentially large but the limitations and reasons behind this need to be understood.
  • The problem that tools are often developed on largely normative bases and neither systematically tested nor evaluated against empirical evidence. This necessitates an empirical approach and one largely dependent on a combination of cases and overview of issues, sectors etc.
  • The need to understand, evaluate and develop tools against an understanding both of their implicit assumptions, theoretical foundations etc as well as the contexts in which they are used i.e. a critique of the notion of neutral, all purpose tools. Figure 1 below is a simple model of this approach. The model highlights the need for a variety of projects in order to provide a sufficient breadth of tools and contextual factors in the study to allow for synthesis and prescription over a wider field of tools development and use.
  • An approach to effectiveness which   attempts to study the effects of tools on the content and outcomes of decision making. This makes multidisciplinary approaches necessary even though impact may have to be assessed conventionally or indirectly.
  • Understandings of a number of principal features of strategic decision making and the Swedish systems of environmental planning and management discussed in the proposal. Among them are the notions of tiering, the strong position of local decision-making and planning in many sectors, the lack of regulation of and tools for assessment at central level, the weakness of the regional level in many sectors.

This approach is necessary to fulfil the double demands for depth and empirical foundation. We eschew the traditional, disciplinary approach to the field. The lack of a single discipline or theoretical structure necessitates a multi-disciplinary approach and aiming for interdisciplinarity. This holds for both the task of examining and understanding present practices as well as the ultimate prescriptive task of a programme. A main theme or focus must thus be broader than a conventional, disciplinary theory or hypothesis.

Unifying concepts and research questions

The research questions largely derive from explicit or implicit assumptions of strategic decision making and environmental assessment. The empirical approach makes it natural to examine the assumptions against practice. Relating to the above concepts and focus a number of concepts and related research questions are common to all projects within the programme albeit with differences in emphasis.

Such common, unifying concepts and questions are important for tools and tool use:

"Good practice". The assumption within different sectors and in the EIA/SEA literature is that there is or can be a set of formal or informal rules of "good practice". The implicit or explicit notions of good practice however seems to vary and tool development or application is influenced by different notions of good practice. One aspect of Swedish environmental planning and management is that canons of good practice are very general or lacking or formulated as collections of "good examples". Strategic guidance can thus be hypothesised to be lacking.[2]The projects will examine notions of good practice, their background etc in different fields and compare them to empirical material. As can be seen from the individual projects the notions or models of "good practice" will have to be extracted, examined and tested from several sources since central regulation is rarely explicit or event virtually non-existent in some systems and sectors.

"Tiering". A central, but theoretically and practically problematic notion to strategic decision making is what in EA parlance is often termed tiering i.e. the notion of hierarchical consistency in planning and decision making. This is discussed in the application. Questions concerned with tiering are for example: How are global and national goals - expressed in the environmental goals, policy documents etc - transmitted down through chains of planning and decision making. Can top-goals and objectives be met in bottom up   systems such as the Swedish planning system with a local planning monopoly i.e is the doctrine of management by objectives behind the environmental goals actually producing consistency and pursuit of common goals not only in policy formulation but also in implementation. (This is an important aspect of the strategic nature of the local/municipal cases studied in several projects.)

The role of public participation for inclusion, exclusion or shifts in goals and objectives is interesting and can be studied especially in some of the projects (esp. 1, 2, 8 & 9)

As noted in the application the two main doctrines of SEA, which can provisionally be labelled "EIA-analogy" and "integration" give rise to different notions of good practice. It seems that they are emphasised differently in environmental protection and spatial planning respectively. Is this a necessary adaptation to different contexts or expressions of different but not necessary planning doctrines, professional cultures, legal regulation etc.

"Handling the concept of environment". Given the very general and wide but somewhat differing definitions of the concept of "environment" by different legislation we ask: How is the concept of environment in fact handled, what aspects are included in the actual assessments and in decision making. Can inclusions and exclusions be understood   as functions of tools, their theoretical and scientific foundation, by context of application such as sector, level in system etc - see figure 1. What substance are the national environmental goals filled with and what goals receive attention in different systems and levels.

"Effectiveness" The projects will need to approach this concept in differing ways thus shedding light on what should be meant by it. At a general, intuitive level tools that positively affect some environmental factor towards desired states would be termed effective. In practical studies indirect means of assessing outcome or causal relationships A first order assumption and examination can however be made by relating the official goals, definitions etc of environment as well as the existing norms, emission limits etc with what is in fact dealt with in assessment and carried into decision making.

"Alternatives" As noted "alternatives are at the heart of EIA". The primary empirical question is thus   what alternatives are in fact examined, how are they generated, included or excluded. The empirical material will need to be understood in the model outlined in figure 1 and against planning theory and doctrine. The issue of "alternatives" is suitable for increased understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of models and doctrines of good practice and the possibility of regulating tools and processes legally.

Within the programme there are projects in SEA-implementation:   processes and tools for assessment of programme and plans but also of national policy for sustainability and implementation at regional and local level. Scenario techniques:   application   in strategic decision-making, policy and regional/ local planning. Effectiveness of tools   and combinations of tools in complex processes of policy, planning and implementation; especially the use of environmental systems analytical tools.   There are two "horizontal perspectives": Public participation: Methods of effective and efficient public participation at different levels; the problem of openness and transparency in pursuing complex scientific or technical tools and in complex processes of decision-making; the meaning of participation at different levels of decision making. The issue of effectiveness of regulation of tools and processes.  The programme addresses decision-making in existing decision structures and under change.

 


[1]These could loosely be called hypotheses but the emphasis on examination and insight rather than formal testing seems to make the term somewhat pretentious.

[2]As an example the kind existing e.g. in the UK in the form of guidance for identifying the environmentaly "preferred option" is lacking for both projects and plans and the existence of individual norms piecemeal.

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