As national governments work to ensure sufficient fresh water, food, energy, housing, health, and education for their nation while trying to maintain its resources for future generations, they discover that they are not well organized to address the crosscutting nature of sustainability issues. A National Sustainability Policy is needed to help agencies overcome current barriers to making effective decisions related to sustainability. This policy should include an analytical framework to aid government decision making on issues where linkages are vital, identify high-priority sustainability challenges that need greater interagency cooperation, and recommend other steps agencies can take to break down barriers to successful collaboration.
Barriers to Governing for Sustainability
Currently, several barriers frustrate government efforts to address sustainability challenges such as those described below. These obstacles impede agencies’ ability to fully consider the connections among resource areas and to build the linkages needed to manage them:
- The separated and dispersed authority that results from the basic legal framework of government.
- Funding mechanisms that favor short-term, single-agency initiatives rather than longer-term, cross-agency projects.
- A lack of access to or coordination of foundational elements such as research and information/data.
- The culture of government, which tends to encourage agencies and their personnel to “stay in your lane” and avoid getting involved in sister agencies’ activities.
Fortunately, steps can be taken to overcome these obstacles and create structures and incentives to enable greater collaboration where it is needed or beneficial.
Why a National Sustainability Policy?
A National Sustainability Policy could help break down barriers and enable initiatives that cut across jurisdictions and resource areas. The objective of the policy would be to address environmental, economic, and societal issues and support human well-being by:
- Encouraging and promoting coordination among agencies;
- Reducing siloed decision making and improving integration of research and operations across the government;
- Enhancing communication among agencies and between the government and stakeholders at national, state, and local levels;
- Reducing duplication of efforts and improving cost effectiveness; and
- Enhancing the use of existing laws by providing guidance on how to incorporate sustainability goals and linkages into national decision-making processes.
An optimal National Sustainability Policy would establish the fundamental principle of promoting the long-term sustainability of Belize’s economy, natural resources, and social well-being. It would facilitate sustainability initiatives across the national government, including working with many governmental and non-governmental partners. It would set out broad general objectives, management principles, and a framework for addressing complex cross-jurisdictional sustainability challenges; however, it should not be prescriptive in its approach, goals, participants, or structure. It would also build collaborative approaches that deal with sustainability connections into the operations of government agencies.
Any policy developed should speak to the need for linkages similar to those required for sustainability in that it establishes a national framework to address cross-governance challenges, and then engages stakeholders in regular meetings and other interactions designed to stimulate cooperative action. All stakeholders, including the private sector and NGOs, should be provided an opportunity for contributing to the development of the National Sustainability Policy. Once the policy is in place, agencies should develop specific implementation plans. In implementing the policy, consideration should be given to creating open and transparent oversight involving the public, local, district and National legislatures, and the Prime Minister.
A Framework for Sustainability
Along with a National Sustainability Policy, the Belize government should adopt a practical tool that agencies can use when approaching sustainability issues and projects: a structured decision framework that reflects relevant connections and helps agencies strengthen linkages. Any framework must be flexible enough that it can be applied to a broad range of sustainability challenges. The framework should lay out a process that is structured but flexible from beginning to end, from formulating the problem through achieving outcomes. It should be used on sustainability issues that are complex enough to warrant a multi-agency approach.
PHASE 1: PREPARATION AND PLANNING. This important phase, which is often overlooked or done in an incomplete fashion, includes three major steps that need to occur before the actual program or project is designed.
- Frame the problem. This step ensures that the problem to be solved is clearly understood. All dimensions of the problem must be identified, including the environmental resource connections, societal connections, and economic connections. These elements of the problem will inform the selection of agencies and organizations that should be involved in the program or project. This step includes determining baseline conditions, key drivers, metrics, and goals based on those metrics.
- Identify and enlist stakeholders. The next step is to identify the relevant agency linkages. Depending on the natural resources and social and economic aspects of the problem, it will be critical to engage all of the national agencies affected by it. Another part of this step is to identify relevant non-agency stakeholders — local and regional government agencies, NGOs, private sector interests, and others who are invested in the outcome of decisions and actions. In addition, the individual representatives from the agencies and stakeholders who will serve on the project team must be identified.
- Develop a project management plan. The plan should clearly delineate the roles, responsibilities, and accountability of each member organization or participant, as well as a business plan for funding the project’s design, implementation, and maintenance.
PHASE 2: DESIGN AND IMPLEMENTATION
- Set project goals. The team formalizes goals for the program or project — a step that should be taken with input from stakeholders and relevant members of the public. During this step, the short- and long-term outcomes are developed, as well as how they will be measured.
- Design an action plan. In this step, the team develops a comprehensive design of the approach, strategies, and actions needed to meet the goals established in the previous step. The necessary tools, knowledge, and information to accomplish the goals must be identified and pursued, and the team needs to identify who will implement the plan and how the program will be maintained.
- Implement the action plan. In this step, the action plan is implemented. A key component of this step is determining the kinds of boundary organizations or processes that are needed. A boundary organization is one that bridges scientific and technical experts with policy makers and stakeholders. Such organizations often facilitate ongoing dialogue between expert groups and others.
PHASE 3: EVALUATION AND ADAPTATION. This is where short-term outcomes — which occur on the scale of a year to a few years — start to be assessed relative to the baseline established in the first phase. Are the trends that are observed on track with goals? Significant learning typically occurs during this step; the knowledge and experience gained allow modifications to how the problem is framed and to the approach, methods, and design used to solve it. Additional stakeholders may also be identified and engaged at this point.
PHASE 4: LONG-TERM OUTCOMES. Long-term outcomes are on the scale of several years or more, and should closely track the goals. While performance continues to be assessed and adjustments made during this phase, as in the previous one, a point is reached where a formal assessment is needed. Using the outcome measures developed in the second phase, evaluations are conducted to see if short- and long-term outcomes are meeting goals.
When well-executed, this framework will encourage systems thinking, enhance the legitimacy and relevance of government actions, and result in streamlined and more efficient governance.
Moving forward, it will be important for agencies to build sustainability into their very fabric: their mission statements, their goals and objectives, and their organizational and management structures. But agencies need not await structural overhauls in order to strengthen their capacity to build sustainability linkages.
The sustainability of the nation’s interconnected environmental, economic, and social systems, which is vital to Belize over the long term, cannot afford to be constrained by fragmentation of authority, inadequate sharing of information, or the structure of government. Fortunately, there are ways to surmount these barriers and build linkages that will allow agencies and other stakeholders to effectively address sustainability challenges. A National Sustainability Policy would help to break down these barriers by facilitating sustainability initiatives that cut across jurisdictions and resource areas while establishing the fundamental principle of promoting the long-term sustainability of Belize.
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