How Policy and Decision-makers Retrieve and Use Environmental Information

Environmental ManagementIt is well known that many of the world’s environments are being degraded. However, it is less well known that the volume of literature and research generated each year in an attempt to understand environmental degradation is increasing. In short, there is a paradox between our constantly improving knowledge of the environment and its continuously worsening state. This warrants the study of environmental information dissemination to understand how policy and decision makers retrieve and use environmental information, so that communication between environmental information creators and users can be improved.

A case study completed by Jacobson, Lisle, Carter, and Hocking (2013), in New South Wales Parks and Wildlife Service, Australia, surveyed conservation managers with the goal of analyzing how the dissemination and application of technical information could be improved. The survey had a 38.2% response rate and when the responses were analyzed, the data showed that almost 80% of respondents were comfortable with interpreting technical information in a written form, such as journal articles. This high proportion of managers led the authors to believe that an increase in technical information training at an organizational level is unlikely to increase the use of technical information by managers. This result was dissimilar to findings from other environmental information dissemination research. Typically, technical information comprehension is a common problem for decision makers (as will be discussed further on).  When asked what information managers considered valuable, staff experience was ranked the highest. Similarly, the most influential types of information were related to personal rather than published sources. Overall, the authors determined that “technical information is more likely to influence decision-making if disseminated through informal networks (i.e., speaking with managers), rather than in a pure form (e.g., as a research article such as you are reading)” (Jacobson et al., 2013, p.228).  In order to capitalize on these personal connections the authors suggest that organizations promote collaborative research projects, participation in science-management networks, employees working more directly with managers, and secondments between research and practitioner agreements.

A paper on a similar subject, written by Steiner-Davis, Tenopir, Allard, and Frame (2014) reported on the study of the biodiversity information needs of environmental researchers, managers, and decision makers, in the United States, through the use of surveys (2014).  Managers need high quality data in order to make comprehensive decisions. However, some information may only be available at a single scale and decision-making is very much a multi-scale matter leading the authors to question what types of information are being used to make multi-scale decisions.  An internet survey was created and sent to southeastern universities, governmental, and non-governmental researchers, as registrants at various wildlife and biodiversity conferences. Respondents consisted of over 450 environmental scientists, resources managers, and decision-makers.  Much like the Jacobson et al. study, more than half of the respondents found that the best way to find the information they needed was to consult with a colleague or coworker.

Both papers came to similar conclusions: environmental information needs to be easily accessible, easily digestible, and matched to users’ needs if it is to be used by policy and decision-makers. These criteria seem easy to achieve; however, both papers discussed barriers preventing effective information dissemination. Some of these barriers include: a lack of time to sort through large volumes of data, data unavailability, appropriateness of the information, an individual’s ability to interpret the data, the possibility that data is not current, and that decision-makers who may have rudimentary research skills. These barriers may explain why so many decision-makers and managers prefer to use colleagues as their primary source of information, particularly since this method could save them time, verbal rather than written information may be easier to understand, and specific questions typically lead to appropriate answers. Jacobson et al. suggested that  “technical information uptake is best supported through existing peer networks tailored to specific work areas.” (2013, p. 221), but how do existing networks receive their information? Both papers stress the need to promote informal organizational networks as a way to facilitate information dissemination; however, an assumption is made that people within these informal networks already have credible and informed information, which may not always be the case. Information users need the skills to understand the information that is provided, but information creators have a responsibility in communicating their work effectively. “These results suggested that if biodiversity information creators and providers… are interested in providing more useful biodiversity information, they must concern themselves with information skills, particularly information finding skills of those who use the information” (Steiner-Davis et al., 2014, p. 698).

In both instances, the authors attempted to understand the lack of environmental evidence-based policy-making in specific spheres (biodiversity and conservation) by studying how managers and policy-makers disseminate information. By using similar methodologies, the authors determined that managers and decision-makers prefer personal over published sources. However, to avoid using potentially ill-informed, personal sources of information it is important that environmental information be understandable, digestible, and matched to users’ needs. This way, managers may seek out a variety of sources to inform their management decisions, ultimately leading to more comprehensive and evidence-based decision-making to help combat the degradation of the world’s environments.

 

References

Jacobson, C., Lisle, A., Carter, R. W., Hocking, M. T. (2013). Improving technical information use: What can be learnt from a manager’s perspective? Environmental Management, 52, 221-233.

Steiner-Davis, M. L. E., Tenopir, C., Allard, S., Frame, M. T. (2014). Facilitating access to biodiversity information: A survey of users’ needs and practices. Environmental Management, 53, 690-701.

 

Author: Shelby McLean