Connecting the Dots in Policy Networks

The San Joaquin–Sacramento River Delta presents a classic example of governance conflict. More than 23 million Californians and millions of acres of farmland rely on the Delta for all or part of their water supply. Countless species depend on it for their habitat. Individuals and organizations, both public and private, represent a dizzying array of interests and interdependencies—and they make decisions about Delta water use and management that may impose unintended and/or negative impacts upon others throughout the system.

Water governance is an inherently fragmented process. Different organizations have overlapping responsibilities for policy issues that span administrative boundaries, or they work independently on issues that are in fact related.

In these contexts, certain individuals or organizations emerge as brokers to facilitate negotiations between those with varying, and at times competing, interests. Essentially, brokers serve to “connect the dots”—they bridge previously detached or uncoordinated organizations on an issue of mutual consequence. For example, a broker might mediate negotiations about a proposed water infrastructure project between an energy company and a recreational group located down river.

Brokers also have access to certain information that non-brokers do not, and they control flows of information between organizations. For these reasons, brokers are associated with greater influence over the policy process. But how does the structure of these networks—i.e., which organizations are connected by which brokers—affect policy change?

Part of the key to answering this question, says SESYNC postdoctoral fellow Lorien Jasny, is embracing the complexity of policy networks—and specifically, acknowledging the role of policy forums (called “venues”) that bring together organizations (called “actors”). Venues too perform an important brokerage function by linking previously disconnected actors that attend jointly to negotiate decisions.

In a new study published online February 3 in the journal Social Networks, Jasny introduces a new theoretical and analytical approach in social network analysis that she developed: two-mode brokerage. The scientific paper, co-authored by Mark Lubell, professor and Director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior at UC Davis, expands on earlier notions of brokerage by integrating analyses of how venues are linked by those who participate in them.

Jasny and Lubell applied the two-mode brokerage analysis to examine the complex institutional system of water governance in the San Joaquin–Sacramento River Delta. They identified a significant amount of venue brokerage that, they say, evolved over time as groups struggled with the fragmented policies that address complex water problems in the region.

“Policy decisions made on issues such as water supply, water quality, or fisheries affect each other on the ecosystem level,” said Lubell. “Sometimes water policy actors can find mutually beneficial solutions; sometimes all they can do is try to avoid hurting each other. So, actors build new, collaborative venues that allow them to cooperatively address interdependent management issues.”

These venues take many different forms, such as scientific, regulatory, and local planning forums. Likewise, each venue attracts different actors, among them federal, state, and regional governments; environmental groups; and business and industry groups. The researchers say that integrating venue brokerage into a network analysis may help explain why certain actors are more likely to work together or how certain decisions are made. Eventually, the insights gained from these types of analyses could be used to inform brokerage practices in water policy networks.

“Public policy—especially for environmental issues—is essentially created within systems of conflict,” Jasny said. “We need to be studying how these systems are structured, because policy actors are constantly negotiating decisions that have significant implications for others.”

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to understanding complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.

Melissa Andreycheck, SESYNC