Ecosystem services valuation and assessment: Is the process more important than the product?

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By Steve Fletcher, Linwood Pendleton, Wendy Dodds, Tara Hooper, François Morisseau, Karine Dedieu and Remi Mongruel

The VALMER project (www.valmer.eu) convened a workshop at the International Marine Conservation Congress (Glasgow, August 2014) to share experiences about the application of ecosystem service assessments in marine conservation. We specifically asked participants about barriers to the use of ecosystem services assessment for marine conservation. In addition to the ‘usual’ answers about “poor data availability, incomplete knowledge to link ecosystem functions and ecosystem services, and difficulties in the application of monetary valuation methods,” participants repeatedly cited “the manner” in which ecosystem services assessments are conducted as a potentially significant barrier to their eventual use, or lack thereof. The engagement process, we were told, influences how the ESA results of the assessment are perceived and subsequently used. Furthermore, there was a strong sense from participants that how stakeholders, decision-makers and any other interested parties are involved in an ecosystem services assessment has a direct effect on how the results of the assessment will be treated and used. But why?

To understand why the method of engagement is so important in ESA, let’s take a step back to examine what problems might arise in the absence of ‘non-expert’ engagement in an ecosystem services assessment. These include: a lack of understanding among users about the limitations of ESA results, uncertainty over the level of credibility and trust to place in the results, perceptions of bias in the analysis, insufficient context to understand how the results could be used, and uncertainty about how to use the results to their full potential. The result is that potentially high quality assessment and valuation work may not be used to support marine conservation decisions - simply because of how the assessment process was conducted. 

The factors that characterize good engagement in ESA are not necessarily obvious. It is not simply a case of ‘more capacity building’, engaging people in the ecosystem services assessment at the so called right times (whenever they might be), and ‘educating’ them. Such approaches have been proven ineffective time after time. Nor is it a case that any stakeholder will do, they should be accountable and genuinely representative of their groups or communities. The experiences of the workshop participants underline that the mechanism that offers most potential is the co-production of ecosystem services assessment which by necessity includes all relevant stakeholders, including scientists, managers and citizens. Co-production, therefore, requires partnership working through a structured decision-making process to enable the full engagement of all interested parties. As a result of this ongoing engagement, participants “learn by doing” and are more likely to understand the strengths, weaknesses, constraints, rationale for the selection of methods, links to policy. Most importantly it allows participants to know how much trust to place in the results of an assessment and how it can be used to support the decisions they need to make. Within VALMER, we are seeing such an approach that is guiding stakeholders through the ESA process to help focus it, manage expectations and communicate limitations, all in a concerted effort to work towards ESA that can support local governance.

It is easy to raise objections to such an approach – the people involved don’t know enough to participate meaningfully, it would take too much time, they’ll get ‘consultation fatigue’, they’ll just fight their own corner etc. We have heard such tired objections before. If the potential usefulness of ecosystem services assessment is as great as many people believe it to be, these challenges must be overcome. The co-production model, in which engagement is tailored to the needs of the assessment, is a promising route to achieve this. Perhaps there are insights we can take from science communicators, marketing, branding, and infotainment to develop creative solutions to improved engagement in ESA. The prize if we are successful is legitimate, credible and trusted assessments which feed directly into policy-making and management decisions, which may have immediate benefits for marine conservation and human well-being.

To explore this issue more, we will be holding an online discussion on OpenChannels in December - we will post the date and link in the comments below soon. More information about the VALMER project is available on our website: www.valmer.eu.

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