Adaptive water governance: flood management and the policy process in Scotland

  • Josselin Jim Rouillard

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis improves the understanding of adaptive water governance in the policy process, and draws lessons of policy relevance for flood management. Scholars using the concept of adaptive water governance posit that factors influencing the governing activities of social actors are of critical importance to improve society’s capacity to better respond to the on-going water crisis. They developed a set of principles for adaptive water governance, in particular the need for polycentric forms of governance, where power over decision-making is not held by a single social actor but distributed across society, and the use of participatory processes, promoting collective action and enhancing collective reflection. Empirical evidence on the validity of these principles remains sparse, in particular in public policy processes.

    The thesis uses established research on the policy process to better conceptualise the governance of complex water problems. It examines empirically the emergence of integrated, ecosystem-based flood management in Scotland, a typical Western democracy though characterised by an interesting history of institutional design and flood policy dynamics. First, factors influencing the formulation and integration of the approach in national environmental policies are identified, drawing on an inductive, thematic and historical analysis of documents and interviews with key policy actors. Second, factors influencing the implementation of the approach, in particular the role of policy instruments and public participation, are then identified in the Eddleston and Bowmont-Glen catchments. A combination of documentary analysis, interviews with local actors, and Q Methodology are used. The thesis supports the general principle that polycentric governance can improve the adaptability of governance systems. Horizontally, multiple actors with decision-making power may encourage greater reflexivity in the policy process. Having multiple policy regimes may also foster innovative interventions. Vertically, significant autonomy between governance levels may help better adapt policies to the appropriate scale of intervention. The devolution of legislative powers from the British to the Scottish level is presented as an example. At a more local level, providing greater autonomy to implementers can enhance their capacity to enforce policies. The thesis also provides evidence for critics of polycentric governance. In particular, polycentric governance may result in a lack of coherence between policy regimes, heterogeneous implementation, and potentially status-quo, rather than change. The thesis supports the idea that a strong participatory approach may help overcome the limitations of polycentric governance. Findings indicate that critical factors for success are the institutional context in which it occurs, its inclusive nature, adequate resourcing, time available, and the willingness of participants to reach compromise and learn. Individual entrepreneurship is clearly fundamental to increase the adaptability of governance systems.Overall, the thesis shows that attention to the public policy process is an important analytical approach to the study of adaptive governance. Past research on the policy process provides constructive theories to explore principles of adaptive governance in an empirical context. Main policy recommendations, for Scotland and beyond, include, amongst others, a call for strong governance arrangements to accompany the work of multi-actor groups for policy integration, the use of instrument mixes across policy regimes to influence land managers, and greater support for non-governmental catchment organisations to foster local collaboration and improve policy implementation.
    Date of Award2012
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorAlison Reeves (Supervisor)


    • Resilience
    • Integrated water resource management
    • Flooding
    • Land use
    • Policy sciences
    • Institutions

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