Main authors: Frode Sundnes, Cors van den Brink, Morten Graversgaard
FAIRWAYiS editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: »Sundnes, F. et al. (2020) Advancing MAPs as vehicles for resolving issues on drinking water pollution from agriculture. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 2.5R, 56 pp


Here we discuss the overall findings of the functioning of the multi-actor platforms in the FAIRWAY project in light of the framework on the dimensions of engagement outlined in »Dimensions for multi-actor engagement.

Contents table
1. Dimensions of engagement
2. Concluding remarks
3. Key lessons for multi-actor platforms

1. Dimensions of engagement

1.1 Arenas

A wide spectrum of actors are present in the different engagement platforms. The participants originate from different sectors (farmers, drinking water companies, water boards, municipalities, provinces, ministries, advisors, universities, etc.), but also from different levels of authority and decision-making. The MAPs are by design multi-actor, multi-sector and multi-level platforms. Participants, across the board, indicate that this considerably adds to the extent to which the MAPs are successful platforms for engagement.

The importance of getting relevant actors together as early in the process as possible has been highlighted. In some of the MAPs it is, however, clear that not all relevant actors are taking part, either because of different priorities, lack of resources, or that they for different reasons have not been invited or included in the processes. There are also examples of issues being so contested that central actors are not able to sit around the same table and discuss the issues at hand. However, there are also instances where the goals of the MAPs might have broadened or changed, making new actors relevant during the process, exemplified with the »Anglian Region, UK: multi-actor platform engagement.

1.2 Synergies

We observe many instances where the multi-actor processes are considered to have an added value, held against a situation whereby each and every actor working for their individual goals separately. There is a broad consensus that the MAPs function well as platforms for exchange of opinions and ideas, and for sharing information and knowledge. This comes through clearly in the way the MAPs are successful in creating a common understanding amongst actors. This relates both to increasing the science- and experience-based knowledge base of the group, and to the growing understanding and respect of other actors’ positions and arguments. One of the MAP participants explains how the involved farmers not only broaden their perspectives on their farming practices but also, the other participants in the MAPs get their perceptions of farmers changed (»Derg catchment, UK: multi-actor platform engagement).

Sharing of different perspectives and good co-operation between key actors does not necessarily lead to the desired impacts but might be a necessary requirement for common understanding and for setting joint strategies and shared goals for problem-solving.

1.3 Shared goals

In most of the multi-actor platforms the participants reported that the MAPs have contributed to developing shared goals. Still, in the way the respective goals are spelled out by different actors one can still see that there are often different angles presented to an overarching goal. This might be a reflection of what by a vast majority of actors is presented as the main value of the multi-actor platforms; the exchange of ideas and broadening of perspectives. This contribution is based on open discussions and the exchange of opinions within the MAP, in which actors can bring forth their views and opinions and discuss possible solutions and their consequences. These open discussions contribute to clarity on overarching goal and might help to change individual objectives into shared goals.

In some cases, the goals are presented in very different ways, despite the reporting of a high level of shared understanding. There are also examples of MAPs where the overarching shared goal might be under-communicated, unstated or missing. While this seems to be the case in »Baixo Mondego, PT: multi-actor platform engagement, this is also a MAP where the process-dimension of the platforms - the getting together and exchanging ideas - is highlighted, and also a MAP where conflicts are absent. This might be an indication that determining a shared goal does not have to be the starting point but could be worked out later in the process.

In »Island Tunø, DK: multi-actor platform engagement, the lack of a shared understanding was remedied by compensation to farmers; but that the lack of shared understanding is at the projects’ peril in the long term.

Although the MAPs might be a good vehicle for increasing understanding amongst the group of participants, it comes out from some of the MAPs’ experiences that this might not be sufficient to influence other related and linked actors outside of the MAP, and that the achieved common understanding is precarious. Following, although the MAPs are good arenas for exchange and influence, they might not be sufficient to deliver on water quality goals.

1.4 Power balance

It is reflected in the experiences in the various MAPs that multi-actor platforms are successful in terms of creating arenas for engagement and for facilitating the sharing of perspectives and increasing understanding across actor groups. While the ideal is to create a level playing field for these engagement processes to unfold, this might still be difficult in practice. While some MAPs report that dominant actors also dominate the outcomes of these processes; it seems like the overall picture is that the MAPs are able to facilitate discussions and exchange of opinions within the groups.

However, it is reported in many of the MAPs that participating actors only to a limited extent feel that they are able to influence the processes. This might be an indication of a skewed power balance within the group. It might also be that consensus-oriented processes by nature do not work in everyone’s favour, but instead leads one to seek common solutions based on compromises and least-common-denominators, rather than ideal positions.

Moreover, the MAPs are, in most cases, not arenas for changing the formal power balance between actors as it is often laid down in rules and regulations, which relates to the issues of decision space.

1.5 Decision space

An issue that runs through many of the MAP analyses is the lack of decision space for the platforms. While the formal status of the MAPs differs, most are based on voluntary participation and identifying and implementing voluntary measures. This leads to frustration on part of many of the actors when agreements and unified recommendations with a sound scientific basis in the groups do not materialise in immediate changes. This comes out clearly for instance in »Lower Saxony, DE: multi-actor platform engagement. While it is emphasised that the MAPs indeed are important and successful in bringing actors together, the MAPs serve more as platforms for information sharing, rather than platforms for action. A participant in »Dravsko Polje, SI: multi-actor platform engagement framed it like this; “There are no changes yet, we are just talking. But we are sitting together”.

The MAPs within FAIRWAY provide a platform in which different actors work together on the basis of equality and fairness, and a main requirement for this is voluntariness. However, participants in some MAPs also question the fact that standards will not be met when measures can only be identified and implemented in a voluntary fashion. Voluntariness linked to the fact that measures should benefit both the farmer and groundwater quality may in some cases a priori exclude potential effective measures. This is the situation for changing the grazing practices of farmers in »Overijssel, NL: multi-actor platform engagement. Here, the farmers mention the fact that voluntariness also hampers the enforcement of practices carried out within groundwater protection areas by neighbouring farmers not participating in the project. However, farmers at the same time stress the fact that they do not want that measures implemented in their farm management by means of a project-pilot will become obligatory measures forced on them by government rules.

To the extent that the MAPs are able to come up with good agreed-upon measure for changes to farming practices, there is a potential for showcasing measures for agricultural authorities, that might in effect impact on official regulations. In such instance, one could also argue that the multi-actor platforms may broaden their mandate and increase their decision space in the process, through increased “outside legitimacy”.

1.6 Adaptability

The issue of adaptability is difficult to pin down in the relatively short duration of the project and its MAPs. While there is a degree of flexibility in the way the MAPs function, and their goals and ambitions, still, as case studies of the larger project there an inherent rigidity in the setup. There are however good examples in the project, e.g. the MAP »Anglian Region, UK: multi-actor platform engagement of changes in the actor group as well as in orientation and priorities, to adapt to the need of the participants, in this case the farmers.

1.7 Available resources

We observe that the issue of resources come up in the MAPs in terms of both financial resources and human resources.

Predictability in terms of human resources is a key issue that is brought up in many of the MAPs. Facilitation of engagement processes is resource- and time-demanding and requires commitment. Moreover, the institutions’ commitment should be such that the turnover of facilitators is not at a frequency that hampers the engagement processes. This comes out clearly particularly in »Dravsko Polje, SI: multi-actor platform engagement and »Noord-Brabant, NL: multi-actor platform engagement.

Financial resources are important in different phases of these multi-actor processes. At the outset, there might be need for financial compensation and incentives for some actor groups, like farmers, to be involved in the processes at all. Linked to this, there might also be expectations amongst farmers for support in implementing measures that require new practices and tool. In »Derg catchment, UK: multi-actor platform engagement, it is evident that uncertainty about such support-mechanisms have constrained the engagement of farmers in the MAP.

In the longer term, financial uncertainty for facilitation of the MAP processes is a key issue that is seen as a threat to the sustainability of the MAPs over time.

1.8 Trust

Based on the experiences of the FAIRWAY MAPs, issues of trust appear important in a multitude of ways for the engagement processes. For relations of trust to develop it is reported that regular physical meetings, be it official or informal meeting, or field visits, are essential. Also, a track-record of commitment to working with the actors over time is emphasized as important, relating to the challenges of long-term sustainability of resource limitations. While a lack of tangible outcomes can be a threat to trust in partners and facilitators over time, this is also the situation for cases where the decision space and the mandate of the platform is limited to that extent that changes in farming practices are difficult to enforce.

2. Concluding remarks

The FAIRWAY MAPs are generally successful in terms of creating arenas for dialogue and exchange. However, many of them - at this point - lack tangible impacts. For the newly established MAPs this should not come as a surprise. It is reported that processes such as relationship building, fostering good relations and common understanding, takes a lot of time. When coupled with awareness-raising amongst key actors, it also takes time for change to take place, for instance in changing farming practices. For the longer-running MAPs this should be an issue of concern. There is evidence from the MAPs of how the lack of impact might jeopardise the MAP-processes, creating disappointment or fatigue on the part of the participating actors. This issue therefore speaks to a need of thinking of engagement processes in a long-term perspective. We also see that for some MAPs, voluntariness in terms of implementation of measures can help in the trust-building process, but on the other hand, can be a reason for why objectives and tangible impacts are hard to reach. There are also apparent differences in perspective within the MAPs, on whether the increased dialogue is to be considered a success-factor in itself, or whether success only can be determined when there are real impacts.

The issue of trust has come up in the process as crucial for successful engagement platforms, and essential for the achieving tangible outcomes in the longer run. Trust has been included in the framework set up for analysing the MAPs, but based on our evaluation of the FAIRWAY MAPs we do however consider that it is an issue that cuts across all of the dimensions in our framework.

3. Key lessons for multi-actor platforms

  • Engagement platforms, if successfully set up as multi-actor, multi-sector and multi-level platforms, can play an important role in bringing actors together and enable information and knowledge sharing.
  • By fostering such exchange, multi-actor platforms have a potential to contribute to creating common understanding amongst actors and challenge predetermined ideas, persistent norms, and preconceived impressions of “the other”.
  • While knowledge and information sharing and shared understanding can be valuable, there is a number of constraints on MAPs to move from this stage to reach established goals and achieve real change in farm management or regulations.
  • Moving from a toolkit approach to engagement processes to a more process-oriented approach, highlights the fact that facilitation of engagement processes is resource- and time-demanding and requires commitment over time. Predictability in terms of human resources for facilitation is a key factor. In some instances, economic compensation to participants is a requirement that needs to be planned for.
  • A dilemma for engagement processes is that they need to be conceptualised and planned for in a long-term perspective, while the lack of immediate impacts can be a threat to trust in facilitators and processes over time, which might lead to participant fatigue that jeopardise the processes. Setting ambitions and goals based on who is participating, the mandate and legitimacy of the platform and the governance context is therefore important, as not to create unrealistic expectations.  


Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see


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