During my first secondment at Masaryk University in Brno (CZ), the focus was on the identification and comparison of suitable network approaches for the case-based analysis of complex environmental governance situations. In this blog post, I would like to give a brief overview of some of the topics and questions that have been addressed

The aim of the secondment was to learn about, compare and judge the feasibility of several different network approaches to complex situations of environmental governance in social-ecological systems.

Why take a network approach to Environmental Governance?

Environmental governance is happening more and more via partnerships and the collaboration of a multitude of stakeholders. One can probably say that in many cases the era of top-down central decision-making is over. This is especially so for contested and complex social-ecological systems, where there are many different stakeholders with possibly conflicting interests and a multitude of interlinked ecological processes.

Issue interdependency

Part of the complexity of these social-ecological systems stems from the fact that both environmental problems, and more social policy issues or problems cannot be treated separately. Even if we were able to isolate one main problem, this does not necessarily mean that we remove neither the interdependencies with other problems nor the complexity of biophysical and societal effects of possible interventions (Hedlund et al. 2020).

Responses to complexity – from government to governance

A response to dealing with this complexity could be seen in this shift from more central government decision-making towards a more polycentric and networked type of governance. This phenomenon has been described as “going from government to governance”, where governance refers to “multi-layered points of policy-making involving a plurality of public and private actors” (Lo 2018). There is quite a substantial body of literature that looks into these rather new forms of governance (Bodin’s 2017 article on “Collaborative Environmental Governance” made it into the journal SCIENCE)  and scholars point out that motivations for this transition are manifold (Bodin 2017; Scott & Thomas 2017).

Fresh study material for network scholars

As governance is thus gradually done more via collaborations and partnerships it becomes increasingly interesting to see how within these collaborative networks, for example, information is exchanged, knowledge is co-created, power dynamics evolve and decision-making authority is distributed. Key questions, of course, also involve whether these networked approaches to environmental governance actually yield better outcomes for people and the environment and under which conditions / in which contexts they work best.

Example of collaborative environmental governance

Coastline management and environmental governance of coastal ecosystems in the UK is a brilliant example of the aforementioned social-ecological complexity. The Coastal-based approach (CoBA) is a governance mechanism recently co-initiated by the Environment Agency that could provide a better framework for collaborative environmental governance, which, in theory, should provide more integrated and more widely accepted and thus more durable solutions to the complex and diverse problems in the coastal setting (e.g. flooding, over-use of coastal ecosystems, etc.). It was in this setting of governance of coastal complexity that my secondment was trying to find suitable network approaches. As at my home institution, the University of Groningen, quantitative network models are predominantly used, the focus of my secondment was rather on the qualitative network approaches that can be applied to various policy and environmental governance contexts (e.g. Di Gregorio et al. 2019, Hedlund et al. 2020); and most notably the Networks of Action Situations (NAS) [McGinnis 2011, Moeck et al. 2019, Kimmich 2013].


The Coastal-Based Approach (COBA) to governance of complex coastal social-ecological systems

The Coastal Based Approach (CoBA) is an innovative collaborative governance mechanism, which aims to provide flexible, inclusive and effective leadership for some of the most challenging, complex and often neglected areas of the UK


Coastal complexity from a Networks of Action situations (NAS) point of view

Being a more flexible approach NAS can give insight into alternative governance approaches and mechanisms involving a diversity of stakeholders; i.e. a perfect fit to the CoBa-approach. At the same time, it has been noted during the secondment that NAS can also be used as an in-depth immersion into a governance situation (e.g. a qualitative pre-study) to better understand complex processes, synergies and conflicts between interests and goals of different stakeholders as well as possible solutions or coping strategies that could widely be accepted.

An action situation per se can be of purely social nature, human-natural, or natural-natural, but there has to be a concrete situation/context provided in which action is happening. Usually, in social-ecological action situations what is provided is the background, actors, institutions, rules, and then the actual event. Just looking at the illustration of the Coastal-based approach above, you can imagine how many different action situations there are in the coastal context; the difficulty lies in picking out those action situations that tell us most about conflicts and possible solutions, but this is certainly not an easy endeavour. In the best case, this can then lead to an in-depth understanding of a complex governance situation and it shall be seen how useful the NAS approach proves to be when we tentatively apply it to UK coastline governance scenarios during my next secondment at the Environment Agency.

Connectivity of secondments

What is beautiful about our overarching iCONN-concept of connectivity is that it is omnipresent on our more and more connected planet; even my two secondments are seamlessly connected:  My first secondment in Brno looked more into the conceptual backgrounds and the application potential of qualitative and quantitative network approaches qualitative network studies with application potential for real-world situations. This application of a toolbox of network techniques and methods will be tested in the following secondment with the Environment Agency in the UK, where pilot projects for the above-mentioned Coastal-based approach will be the object of study. In short: Exciting times ahead!



Bodin, Ö. (2017). “Collaborative environmental governance: Achieving collective action in social-ecological systems.” Science 357 (6352).

Di Gregorio M., Fatorelli L., Paavola J., Locatelli B., Pramova E., Nurrochmat DR., May PH., Brockhaus M., Sari IM., Kusumadewi SD., (2019). Multi-level governance and power in climate change policy networks. Global Environmental Change. 54, pp.64-77.

Hedlund J, Bodin O, Nohrstedt N (2020). Policy issue interdependency and the formation of collaborative networks, People and Nature , 10.1002/pan3.10170, 3, 1, (236-250)

Kimmich, C. (2013). Linking action situations: Coordination, conflicts, and evolution in electricity provision for irrigation in Andhra Pradesh, India. Ecological Economics, 90, 150-158.

Kimmich, C., Ehlers, M. H., Kellner, E., Oberlack, C., Thiel, A., & Villamayor-Tomas, S. (2020). Networks of action situations in social-ecological systems research.

Lo C (2018). Going from Government to Governance. In: Farazmand A. (eds) Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3282-1

McGinnis, M. D. (2011). Networks of adjacent action situations in polycentric governance. Policy Studies Journal, 39(1), 51-78.

Möck, M., et al. (2019). “Layering Action Situations to Integrate Spatial Scales, Resource Linkages, and Change over Time: The Case of Groundwater Management in Agricultural Hubs in Germany.” Policy Studies Journal.

Scott, T. A. and C. W. Thomas (2017). “Unpacking the Collaborative Toolbox: Why and When Do Public Managers Choose Collaborative Governance Strategies?” Policy Studies Journal 45(1): 191-214.