Recognizing political influences in participatory social-ecological systems modeling
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participatory modeling
science policy
evidence-based policy
boundary objects
watershed management

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Lim, T. C., Glynn, P. D., Shenk, G. W., Bitterman, P., Guillaume, J. H. A., Little, J. C., & Webster, D. G. (2023). Recognizing political influences in participatory social-ecological systems modeling. Socio-Environmental Systems Modelling, 5, 18509.


Stakeholder participation in social-ecological systems (SES) modeling is increasingly considered a desirable way to elicit diverse sources of knowledge about SES behavior and to promote inclusive decision-making in SES. Understanding how participatory modeling processes function in the context of long-term adaptive management of SES may allow for better design of participatory processes to achieve the intended outcomes of inclusionary knowledge, representativeness, and social learning, while avoiding unintended outcomes. Long-term adaptive management contexts often include political influences -- attempts to shift or preserve power structures and authority, and efforts to represent the political and economic interests of stakeholders -- in the computer models that are used to shape policy making and implementation. In this research, we examine a period that included a major transition in the watershed model used for management of the Chesapeake Bay in the United States. The Chesapeake Bay watershed model has been in development since the 1980s, and is considered by many to be an exemplary case of participatory modeling. We use documentary analysis and interviews with participants involved in the model application and development transition to reveal a variety of ways in which participatory modeling may be subject to different kinds of political influences, some of which resulted in unintended outcomes, including: perceptions of difficulty updating the model in substantive ways, “gaming” of the model/participatory process by stakeholders, and increasing resistance against considering uncertainty in the system not captured by the model. This research suggests unintended or negative outcomes may be associated with both participatory decision-making and stakeholder learning even though they are so often touted as the benefits of participatory modeling. We end with a hypothesis that further development of a theory of computer model governance to bridge model impact and broader theories of environmental governance at the science-policy interface may result in improved SES modeling outcomes.

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