A Qualitative Assessment of the Stakeholder Engagement Process: Development of the Falls Lake Nutrient Management Strategy Plan

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Natural resource managers have increasingly recognized the importance of involving stakeholders in decisions about how to deal with complex environmental problems. Stakeholder participation can improve the outcomes of potentially contentious decision processes, but effective stakeholder engagement has proven difficult for resource management agencies. In this Master’s Project, I explore how the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) has approached stakeholder engagement. The overarching goal of this study is to develop recommendations for how the agency can improve the outcomes of future stakeholder processes. The case selected for this qualitative, single-case study is a stakeholder process conducted by the Division of Water Quality (NC DWQ) as part of NC DEQ’s federally mandated development of a Nutrient Management Strategy for Falls Lake in central North Carolina. The research design addressed six research questions related to how NC DWQ and its partner organization interacted with stakeholders during the Falls Lake Stakeholder Process: 1. What was the purpose of conducting the stakeholder process? 2. What did the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) expect to achieve through the stakeholder process? 3. Why did the NC DEQ select the Triangle J Council of Governments to manage the stakeholder process instead of managing it internally as they have done for other projects? 4. How were stakeholders selected and engaged in the process? 5. Did the stakeholder process achieve what the NC DEQ expected or wanted it to do? 6. How could the stakeholder process have been improved? Data was obtained through archival research and by interviews with 12 people who had been directly involved with the Falls Lake Stakeholder Project. Four of the interviewees were designated as internal stakeholders because they were involved with process planning and management, and the remaining interviewees were designated as external stakeholders because they attended meetings but were not involved with process planning and management. A standard theme-based content analysis approach was used to analyze the interviews. The framework for analysis centered on four steps identified in the literature as being especially useful for designing stakeholder involvement strategies, and four factors considered to be particularly important in determining the success of a stakeholder involvement process. This study found that the Falls Lake stakeholder process was less successful than it could have been. Several factors contributing to this outcome were identified. NC DWQ’s main goal in conducting the process was to gain buy-in for implementing the nutrient management rules being developed rather than to build consensus. The process managers did not have sufficient training and experience to design and conduct an effective stakeholder engagement process, and no guidelines were available within NC DEQ. This meant that little consideration was given to what type, if any, stakeholder process was appropriate to the decision situation. The process did not focus sufficiently on building trust among NC DWQ and the stakeholders, and the process facilitator was a stakeholder in the process rather than a neutral third party. Lack of funding and a hard deadline imposed by the legislature limited the scope and potential impact of the stakeholder process. Among the most important findings from the interviews was that the internal and external stakeholders had different views about how successful the Falls Lake Stakeholder Process had been. Internal stakeholders were largely satisfied with the outcomes of the process, noting in particular that no letters of objection had been received during the public comment period. In contrast, the external stakeholders generally were dissatisfied with the process and did not believe that the resulting rules were reasonable or achievable. The primary reason cited for this dissatisfaction was lack of input into development of the Falls Lake nutrient model. Arguably the most significant contribution of this study is recognition that NC DEQ has not explored and assessed stakeholder participation methods, and has not developed a clear policy and guidelines for its staff to follow. I make several recommendations for how future processes can be improved based on this study’s findings. The first step in designing a stakeholder process should be assessing the situation to determine what level of stakeholder involvement is appropriate. Sufficient time and funding needs to be allocated for stakeholder engagement; a neutral facilitator should be hired to set up and run this engagement process. Finally, greater agency-level support is required for improved stakeholder participation efforts; the metrics selected to assess success should emphasize specifically relevant determinative factors, and these metrics should be considered in performance reviews. I conclude that improved outcomes are possible given such agency-level support.



stakeholder engagement, nutrient management study,