Informational Governance Sheds Needed Light on Decision-Making Processes

The complex functions that scientific information, and research-based evidence in general, fulfill in decision-making processes receive less attention than they could or should. These functions seem to be invisible to most, probably in part due to the massive volume of information available today. Like the air we breathe, the importance of information and its use are not recognized until the supply is cut off or a disaster occurs. Without any doubt, the vast diversity of information types and sources currently available, the myriad of pathways by which information reaches people, and the multiplicity of behaviours that relate to information use are far from trivial phenomena. There is much to study and much to learn that could strengthen decision-making processes. The current global concern about fake news, and even fake fact checking, may prompt greater interest in developing a better understanding about how information figures in the dynamic, sometimes volatile, processes of public policy and decision-making.

What is Informational Governance?

Informational governance is one approach that aims to encompass and explain a wide breadth of information activities that could advance understanding of the role(s) of information in many governance contexts. This concept has been given prominence by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, principally, Arthur P. J. Mol. His 2008 book, Environmental Reform in the Information Age. The Contours of Informational Governance, presents the view that in the latter half of the twentieth century and opening decade of the twenty-first a “quantitatively new phase in the relation between information processing and environmental governance” (p. 3) occurred driven largely by major developments in information technologies. Within this context, new questions have emerged: “questions related to access to and control over information and informational processes; questions related to quality, reliability, uncertainty and verification of information; questions related to new power relations between non-state actors and state authorities and questions related to new institutional arrangements to govern the environment in an era marked by information centrality” (p. 4).

Mol first developed the idea of informational governance in a 2006 paper and noted there that this concept was based on the theoretical insight of the Spanish sociologist and communications scholar, Manual Castells (see Castells, 1996, 1997, 1998). Mol drew on information society theory to show that this perspective was missing from descriptions of environmental governance. In his 2008 volume, he extended his thinking on the subject by arguing that “informational governance explains the emergence and working of nonhierarchical, nonlegal and noneconomic modes of governance, by focussing on the growing centrality of informational processes and resources” (p. 21). Mol did not claim that information had only recently taken on a new role in environmental decision-making – information had been involved “ever since modern states started to develop and implement their environmental activities and programs” – but that in order to understand “current innovations and changes in in environmental governance,” it has become necessary to recognize the importance of “informational processes, informational resources and informational politics.” He concluded that “the strategies, actions and coalitions of actors in environmental politics and governance, as well as the formation, design and functioning of institutions for environmental governance, can no longer be understood without focusing on information and knowledge” (p. 277). Attributing a central role to information does not mean it functions in isolation from other societal activities: e.g., “globalisation processes, the changing sovereignty of nation-states (both internally and externally), the growing uncertainties connected to the disenchantment with science, and various technological developments” (p. 278). In fact, information and information processes are closely intertwined with these activities, and may be pivotal to how they operate and evolve. Mol was careful to note that informational governance does not mean the demise of other interpretive frameworks. While other models explain governance processes, Mol contended they are not sufficient, and emphasized that “one cannot understand fully the contemporary shifts in environmental governance if informational processes, dynamics, and resources remain unanswered” or ignored (p. 282). Nonetheless, he noted that informational governance may be more relevant in some contexts than others, and the theory helps to explain discontinuities that other models are unable to accommodate. Informational governance puts information and related behaviours under the spotlight and it can serve as a balance to other theoretical models or interpretations. By applying this concept, questions about the functions of information receive needed attention.

Since 2008, a few studies have taken up and extended Mol’s thesis. Laurence L. Delina, for example, adopted an informational governance perspective in a 2011 paper to outline strategies in the use of information and communication technologies in climate change monitoring, mitigation, and adaptation. In 2013, in a paper in Marine Policy, Ellen Hoefnagel, Birgit de Vos, and Erik Buisman described how informational governance can be used to account for activities in marine policy-making contexts. More recently, Katrine Soma, Catrien Termeer, and Paul Opdam, colleagues of Mol at Wageningen University, conducted a systematic review of the literature on informational governance, which they published in Environmental Science & Policy. They identified 39 peer-reviewed papers (books and grey literature were excluded in their searches) that they analyzed to illustrate how informational governance is becoming a multidisciplinary subject, at least in sustainability research.

Multi-dimensions of Informational Governance

The most comprehensive coverage of informational governance is set out in a special issue of Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability published in February 2016. Sixteen papers by an international pool of authors discuss four themes: 1) Processes of information construction; 2) Information processing through new technology, e.g., social media; 3) Qualities of transparency and accountability; and 4) Institutional change. The papers were initially drafted and discussed in a workshop at Wageningen University prior to submission to the journal. A brief description of four of the sixteen papers will illustrate the breadth of informational governance, the diversity of settings in which the concept can be applied as an explanatory framework, and the complexity of governance activities.

Markku Lehtonen, Léa Sébastien, and Tom Bauler, researchers based in the UK, France, and Belgium, reviewed recent literature on the multiple roles of sustainability development indicators (SDIs). Their paper is structured around three themes: types of intended and unanticipated functions of indicators and the difference between use and influence of SDIs; various approaches for gaining an understanding of indirect influence of indicators, particularly as boundary objects, and the trade-offs and dilemmas between use and influence of indicators and between objectives and functions of indicators. The authors conclude that “indicators are not neutral ‘tools’ of governance, but instead [are] potentially powerful ‘actors’ that produce often unpredictable impacts in complex governance settings” (p. 7). This paper emphasizes that “use” and “influence” of information are different concepts and that it is naïvely optimistic to assume that SDIs “accelerate processes of transformation towards sustainability” in a straightforward manner (p. 1). As the authors point out, the literature shows that “the fact that indicator influence repeatedly escapes the control of their producers and users also invalidates the simple assumption of ‘greater use implies greater and better impacts’” (p. 7). In short, the use and influence of information are far from inconsequential matters.

Tischa A. Muñoz-Erickson and Bethany B. Cutts, based in the United States, provide an overview of recent literature on the characteristics of knowledge-action networks that affect information and knowledge dissemination and use. As research on information behaviour continues to develop, models of the unidirectional flow and transfer of information are shown to be limited and fail “to both recognize the full suite of useful knowledge and motivate successful actions” in decision making. The authors point attention to social network analysis “as a promising approach to understand and overcome structural challenges to knowledge flow and thus help improve the way that … networks are designed and constructed as informational governance strategies” (p. 57). As the authors state, how information and knowledge flows “can have enormous impacts on who is able to access and make use of it” (p. 58). Thus, there is considerable merit in understanding power influences, particularly power asymmetries “or differences in the positions that different actors hold in the structure of … [a] network” (p. 58). For instance, individuals or organizations that fill a bridging position “can serve an important social role as knowledge brokers because they are connected to otherwise disconnected actors …[and] have access to many unique pieces of information and can synthesize from this larger pool of knowledge” (p. 59). Bridgers can exert positive or negative influence on information dissemination and use in a network. The authors conclude that structural characteristics have a major impact on information pathways in networks and that social networks “can exhibit complex effects” (p. 61).

Timothy Karpouzoglou and co-authors, based in the Netherlands, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom, examined recent literature on environmental virtual observatories (EVOs). The emergence of EVOs is an outcome of developments in information technologies in recent decades. Much of the effort to create EVOs for communicating observations and simulating environmental processes has focused on the technical requirements. However, as the authors demonstrate, “some of the most promising advancements in harnessing information and communication technologies are likely to emerge when technical and scientific aspects become balanced with social needs and responses” (p. 46). In theory, the openness of EVO platforms should be “neutral to social and knowledge ranks, as well as working styles” (p. 40). Moreover, as the costs of the technologies drop, EVOs could take on greater importance with the potential benefits resulting from involving more non-experts. While the possible applications and outcomes of EVOs are considerable, the authors caution against overly optimistic views about their value in the near future. As they note, “the success of an EVO depends to a large extent on whether a participatory approach can effectively be adopted from an early stage, through an elaborate user consultation process” (p.46). In sum, the benefits may not be fully realized until understanding of how people engage with the technology and information processed through EVOs is more advanced.

Megan Bailey and co-authors, based in the Netherlands, the United States, and Indonesia, considered recent literature on the traceability of seafood, with particular attention given to consumer-facing traceability. Traceability of food products has become an important, but also contentious subject. This year, for example, seafood companies and industry associations in the United States have gone to court in a dispute about a government traceability regulation, which they claim will cost the industry upwards of $1billion. The authors note that “as information surrounding the complexity of seafood value chains grow exponentially, the ability to access, manage, and share such information is critical to mitigating ecological, economic, political, or health-related risks for regulators, suppliers, buyers, and consumers” (p. 25). It is the application of traceability methods “in communicating sustainability information that makes traceability a potentially innovative governance tool” (p. 39). Globally, however, “where North-South dynamics are so strongly engrained, a shift towards traceability as a real sustainable governance tool will only occur if such systems are widely accepted with all the critical reflection that entails” (p. 31). In this scenario, the use of information is fraught with the difficulties related to several major factors including uneven population and power distribution as well as massive pressures to meet global food requirements. Information use is closely linked to these and other factors and will continue to hold a key role in decision-making by governments, industry, and consumers.

Collectively, the papers in the February 2016 issue of Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability highlight the merits of understanding the functions of information in decision-making at all levels of governance. By applying an informational governance lens, the authors have demonstrated the value of this theoretical framework for uncovering and strengthening understanding of the many complex layers of decision-making processes. Whether one agrees that informational governance is sufficiently explanatory of recent trends in governance, this concept provides a perspective that can ensure that the many functions of information are not overlooked in the growing international concern about improving decision-making processes intended to address serious environmental and societal issues. The concept of informational governance is relatively new and warrants further consideration.

 

References

Bailey, M., Bush, S. R., Miller, A., & Kochen, M. (2016). The role of traceability in transforming seafood governance in the global south. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 18, 25-32. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2015.06.004

Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society and culture Volume I. Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Castells, M. (1997). The power of identity: The information age: Economy, society and culture Volume II. Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Castells, M. (1998). End of millennium: The information age: Economy, society and culture Volume III. Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Delina, L. L. (2011). Informational governance of climate change organisations. In A. Ospina & R. Heeks (Eds.). ICTs, climate change and development: Themes and strategic actions (pp. 207-236). Manchester: Centre for Development Informatics, University of Manchester.

Retrieved from http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/laurencedelina/files/2011-delina-chapter-informationalgovernanceclimatechangeorgs.pdf

Dipeietro, B. (2017, January 9). Seafood groups sue over Obama fish fraud rule. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/riskandcompliance/2017/01/09/seafood-groups-sue-over-obama-fish-fraud-rule/

Gross, M. (2017). The dangers of a post-truth world. Current Biology, 27(1), R1-R4.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.12.034

Hoefnagel, E., de Vos, B., & Buisman, E. (2013). Marine informational governance, a conceptual framework. Marine Policy, 42, 150-156. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2013.02.006

Jackson, J. (2017, January 19). In the post-truth era Sweden’s far right fake fact checker was inevitable. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jan/19/in-the-post-truth-era-swedens-far-right-fake-fact-checker-was-inevitable

Karpouzoglou, T., Zulkafti, Z., Grainger, S., Dewulf, A., Buytaert, W., & Hannah, D. M. (2016). Environmental virtual observatories (EVOs): Prospects for knowledge co-creation and resilience in the information age. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 18, 40-48. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2015.07.015

Lehtonen, M., Sébastien, L., & Bauler, T. (2016). The multiple roles of sustainability indicators in informational governance: Between intended use and unanticipated influence. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 18, 1-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2015.05.009

Mol, A. P. J. (2006). Environmental governance in the information age: The emergence of informational governance. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 24(4), 497-514. doi: 10.1068/c0508j

Mol, A. P. J. (2008).Environmental reform in the information age: The contours of informational governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Muñoz-Erickson, T., & Cutts, B. B. (2016). Structural dimensions of knowledge-action networks for sustainability. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 18, 56-64. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2015.08.013

Smith, D. R. (2016, December 28). More than ever, scientists need to engage with the public: The stakes are high and they may be forever. EMBO Reports. doi: 10.15252/embr.201643750

Soma, K., Termeer, C. J. A. M., & Opdam, P. (2016). Informational governance: A systematic literature review of governance for sustainability in the Information Age. Environmental Science & Policy, 56, 89-99. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2015.11.006

Soma, K., MacDonald, B. H., Termeer, C. J. A. M., & Opdam, P. (2016). Introduction article: Informational governance and environmental sustainability. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 18, 131-139. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2015.09.005

Willingham, E. (2016, November 28). A scientific approach to distinguishing real from fake news. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2016/11/28/a-scientific-approach-to-distinguishing-real-from-fake-news/#6c1fd6472692

 

Author: Bertrum H. MacDonald