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Governing the Murray Darling Basin

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 18 September 2015

Fine, I admit I like Twitter as an outreach tool. My fondness for Twitter was recently reinforced when I replied to a message from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) regarding the various agencies and planning processes around the Murray-Darling watershed in Australia.   I was pleasantly surprised when the MDBA directly responded to a couple of questions that I posed regarding the complexity of the MDBA governance system.

As most water policy wonks know, the Murray-Darling is famous for experiencing a severe drought and implementing very strong regional governance institutions.  The MDBA has primary responsibility for developing and enforcing the basin plan and reports directly to the Commonwealth Water Minister.  MDBA is thus a national level institution that wields a good deal of centralized authority to coordinate the behavior of other government and private actors.  However, as the link above demonstrates, even the primary governance structure of the Murray-Darling is a polycentric ecology of policy games.  By my count, there are a least 5 government agencies/authorities (columns in the table), who participate in a set of 9 interdependent decision-making processes (rows in table). Some of these decision processes are nested within the broader Murray-Darling basin plan.  In addition, even a cursory perusal of the MDBA website suggests there are many other policy games happening than listed in the top-level table. 

I asked two questions in my Twitter dialog with MDBA, and both were linked to some of our other empirical studies in the California Delta, Tampa Bay, and Parana, Argentina.  The first question was “how do the actors navigate this?” and the second was “How often do decisions in one venue affect outcomes in others either positive, negative or confusion?”  The 140 character answers were quite revealing.

The answer to the first question was “clear lines of responsibility and lots of work on good relationships.”  These two ideas have been central to work on collaborative governance in the last two decades. The first clause refers to having a clear understanding of the institutional rules and the responsibilities and authority of the various actors.  It takes a long time to develop this understanding, and changes in institutional rules require additional policy learning.  I’m willing to venture that more centralized arrangements like in the Murray-Darling actually make this easier. 

The second clause points to the importance of developing trust and mutual understanding among actors, which has been called “social capital” in many different writings. Social capital evolves via policy network relationships established between individual people representing various organizations and interests. Social capital weaves through the formal institutional rules, and supports informal norms and better understanding of the governance process.  In part of the Twitter dialog, New Mexico water journalist John Fleck even commented that since the Murray-Darling formal governance still appears fuzzy, the social relationships must be the key organizing principle.  I’m sure Elinor Ostrom would be sympathetic to this comment, although of course she also thought institutional rules were centrally important.

In answer to the second question, the MDBA wrote “all working toward same plan, & collaboration built-in, so prob not as much as you think.” This suggests that overall levels of collaboration are quite high in the MDBA, so in theory if we implemented our empirical study in the Murray-Darling, we would observe much lower levels of perceived conflict than in a place like the California Delta where many stakeholders see water policy as a zero-sum game. There would be a lower incidence of "institutional externalities" where decision in one venue have unintended conquences for the other venues, which is an underlying cause of bureaucratic fragmentation.  In addition, the MDBA response hints at the importance of a common vision or goal that is accepted and well-understood by major stakeholders.  Again, while developing such a common vision and plan often takes a long time and involves plenty of conflict, this idea is frequently cited as one of the principles of collaborative governance.

So thanks MDBA for the interesting global dialog, without having to travel for 18 hours. Your two Tweets provided some keen insights into one of the most important experiments in water governance in the world, one which California and other Western US states frequently examine for lessons about how to govern our increasingly scarce water resources.  If you ever want some more researchers to come over and ask nosey questions about how you make collaboration work, let us know!