CECAN Fellowship Blog: Evaluative methodologies for the transition towards an institutional ecosystem approach ‘system-cultures’ within Natural Resources Wales and CECAN


By Dr Nick Kirsop-Taylor (University of Exeter), CECAN Fellow

27th July 2018


Transforming institutional cultures for nexus management 

Many public natural resource management organisations are trying to institutionalise integrated approaches to natural resource management. These new approaches hold the promise of allowing them to better meet the complex institutional, policy, and natural environments in which they operate. Indeed, these ‘new’ approaches should enable and empower institutions to better manage the complexities of designing, implementing and evaluating policies and management approaches across the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus. The majority of these approaches focus on changing the structure, process, leadership and ‘tools’ within public organisations to facilitate greater integrated working. However, very few consider (or have the means to effect) the critical importance of institutional culture(s) in leading and sustaining the long-term transitions towards becoming organisations that are truly integrated across the WEF nexus. Whilst clearly a degree of focus on processes, structures, transition tools and interventions are important for institutional change management; just focusing on these without consideration for understanding and shaping the institutional culture as well is problematic. Whilst most of these public organisations understand the criticality of culture for creating true complexity-cognate institutions, the majority have thus far lacked the means and mechanisms for understanding how to affect the emergence of cultures that are facilitative of integrated WEF nexus approaches. Moreover there is little research exploring how and what such facilitative institutional cultures might look like, let alone what values, behaviours, and activities that might support their emergence. 


Working with Natural Resources Wales 

Through my research with CECAN I have explored how, fundamentally, institutional cultures might be facilitative of complexity across the WEF nexus. I have explored this through working with individuals from Natural Resources Wales (NRW). This organisation is currently seeking to operationalise a new approach to integrated management based upon their sustainable management of natural resources (SMNR) programme which has been derived from the Convention on Biological Diversity’s ecosystem approach. NRW face the particular opportunity of being a ‘new’ (2016) institution with the requirement for operationalising enshrined in their statutory purposes under the Environment Act (Wales), 2016. In many ways NRW have benefitted in this through being given a ‘clean sheet’ on which to operationalise this new integrated SMNR approach. That said, NRW have been consolidated out of three extant legacy organisations, who have each brought legacy processes, identities, and cultures that complicate the idea of this being a completely ‘clean sheet’ to start from. Whilst NRW have been making significant strides in terms of consolidating its processes, forms and structures across the institution, they are still grappling with understanding what their new institutional culture will be. Indeed, NRW were found to still be grappling with understanding how this new and emergent culture might support and facilitate their delivery of a SMNR-based approach to managing complexity. 


An acceptance of sub-culturality 

This Fellowship explored the dynamic mix of sub-cultures brought in from NRWs legacy agencies, juxtaposed against the vision for a new pan-institutional culture that might support the delivery of the SMNR programme. This new cultural vision has been constituted by NRWs leaders and management with the aim of it eventually having a common and overarching currency across the whole institution. Critically however, it was suggested that it would be imprudent to assume that the sub-cultures that exist within the rank and file are just legacy ‘hang-ups’ that will, in time, be subsumed into the new macro-culture. Instead, it was suggested that these sub-cultures needed to be seen as less legacy hang-ups, and instead being rational cultural responses to the various functions that the different parts of the NRW business undertake. This means that rather than assuming that a macro culture would in time come to dominate there needs to be a cultural equilibrium point reached between sub-culturality and macro culture. The very nature of delivering varied functions will lead to this multi-culturality which needs to be accepted. Exactly where that equilibrium lies and how institutions construct this acceptance of ‘multi-culturality’ will be situational, but there might be common rules and guidance that shape best-practice. This is a subject I hope to continue researching in the near future. 


Effects of culture on evaluation 

Perhaps unsurprisingly the dynamic equilibrium between multi and macro culture(s) also effects how NRW constructs and conducts evaluates the wide variety of work it undertakes, and the SMNR programme itself. These sub-cultures have preferences for discrete evaluative methods and epistemologies which are fundamentally tied into their function (statutory or otherwise), legacy preferences, and cultural norms of validity and acceptance. These sub-cultural preferences and bias might remain valid in discrete evaluations of the work conducted by individual parts of NRW. However, the research suggested that their biases and cultural preferences may not serve the wider evaluations and understandings of how NRW as an institution is capturing the integrated nature of the SMNR programme. These understandings are important to NRW for meeting their statutory reporting commitments as well as for validating the utility of the new SMNR-based approach. If such statutory reports want to offer broad, wide-ranging, yet integration-minded evaluations representative of pan-WEF nexus situations, different evaluative methods and cultures need to be considered. The results of this research suggested that this is likely to drive a greater acceptance of the need for a wider use of qualitative methods that capture different perspectives and evaluations on the success of an SMNR approach. Policy-makers have a complex relationship with the concept and utility of qualitative data and its data gathering methods. Movement towards a use and acceptance of qualitative methods in SMNR evaluations will need to be built upon a macro-institutional culture that legitimises qualitative data and experiences; and especially case study-based evaluations. Moreover, many of the people who partook in this research accepted that adopting an SMNR-based approach was only the first part of the challenge. The next challenge comes from designing evaluative methods to capture the value of SMNR and facilitating for the emergence of a culture that legitimises and seeks to evangelise the criticality of a more qualitative approach to evaluating the complex picture of Welsh natural resources to other public partners and stakeholders.