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The Story of the Pluralistic Evaluation Framework

Nov 19, 2018 | Blog

By Richard Gunton, CECAN Fellow

19th November 2018

The pluralistic evaluation framework is a new tool for policymakers that has gradually taken shape during the last 12 months of my CECAN fellowship. It is now ready to be presented at a webinar on 20 November, where I will be explaining the rationale in the space of 45 minutes. Here I want to share a little of the journey that it has been on, building on what I wrote here last January and June.

The idea behind the pluralistic evaluation framework arose from a working group that I set up in 2015. That group’s aim was to critique and enrich the ecosystem services framework, a popular approach to motivating nature conservation. Ecosystem services are benefits of natural habitats to humans that can be quantified, ultimately in monetary terms. This is therefore a consequentialist approach to natural resources management. The ecosystem services approach is not without many critics, but our working group had a distinctive starting point. Named the Faith-in-Scholarship Working Group on Ecosystem Services (FiSWES), its inspiration was a framework known as Reformational philosophy, which arises from a Protestant Christian tradition in the Netherlands. Applied to the question of how to motivate conservation of natural habitats and ecosystems, the main principles that our group arrived at were to distinguish a plurality of functional groups of stakeholders and a plurality of ways in which they may appreciate any given natural place, and to maintain these pluralities throughout any assessment of an ecosystem. We outlined 12 kinds of functions that should be distinguished without collapsing them into any single metric, monetary or otherwise. We called our proposal the “ecosystem valuing framework”, and were delighted with an opportunity to lay it out in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Moving on from FiSWES, from mid-2017 my CECAN fellowship with Sue Hartley, Adam Hejnowicz and Ian Christie offered an opportunity to develop the ecosystem valuing framework into something that could be used for policy evaluation. The emphasis on pluralities of stakeholders and of modes of appreciation would remain central; the challenge was to develop a tool that would connect well with the kinds of problems and categories that occur in environmental policymaking, and that busy policymakers and evaluators would find it practical to implement. The greatest advance here was achieved by expanding on an idea that had been left to one side when our group set out the ecosystem valuing framework. We had pointed out that our framework was, in a sense, the well-known category of “cultural ecosystem services” writ large to encompass every aspect of human appreciation. It had also not escaped our notice that the category of “supporting ecosystem services”, likewise central in the ecosystem services approach, could be writ large to encompass every aspect of the functioning of a natural place. Reformational philosophy distinguishes carefully between subjects and objects, and we noted that ecosystems need analysing as functioning subjects, not just as objects of human appreciation. Now this category came to the fore, inspired by another method promoted within CECAN.

Systems mapping is a stakeholder-based approach to illuminating the causal interactions among a range of entities and states in a complex system, as a way of increasing our understanding of its behaviour. A systems map of an ecosystem could be extremely intricate, but new layers of complexity appear when our “system” is not just seen physically and biologically but also perhaps technically, socially, economically and politically. So the pluralities of the ecosystem valuing framework proved to have a third application: in recognising the diverse kinds of systems that interweave and interrelate in any complex situation where human interests arise. Indeed, the 12 categories we had recognised before proved particularly appropriate here, providing an intuitive connection between the plurality of stakeholders and the plurality of modes of appreciation. As this third suite of categories took its place in the framework that my mentors Ian, Adam and Sue had helped me develop, it seemed clear that the resulting proposal should be called the pluralistic evaluation framework (PEF).

The journey is ongoing. An inspirational team comprising my mentors and some of the original FiSWES members is helping to hone and promote the new framework. Part of this is about finding the most user-friendly ways of presenting the PEF to people and groups who can benefit from it; another challenge is actually pilotting it in real situations. We’re working on both those fronts, encouraged by the new phase of life for CECAN itself, and the interest being shown in the PEF already.

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