Glenn Page’s Top YEE Tips: Ecological stewardship in evaluation

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**8 min read**

I met Glenn around a year ago in his capacity – at the time – as Lead Steward of the SDG Transformations Forum Working Group on Evaluation for Transformation (E4T). Since then I have worked with him, taking over his role when he moved into the position of Councillor in the Forum as well as leading support for Michael Quinn Patton’s Blue Marble Evaluation. And what a pleasure it has been! Glenn is one of the most energetic, inspiring and wise people you can wish to have by your side when engaging in an initiative. More than that, he has focused much of his expertise in one of the most worthwhile areas of work in the era of the Anthropocene – helping to ensure effective, complex systems-informed action to the stewardship of our ocean, marine and coastal ecosystems and, more recently, global systems in general. I hope that the six competencies he notes as his top tips for YEEs will inspire many more of you to sharpen your skills and interests in order to work in this important area.

As a restoration ecologist who has come to embrace the power of evaluation to better understand systems change, help develop new approaches to intractable problems, generate ongoing adaptations to changing conditions and provide guidance for rapid response under crisis condition I can see how evaluation can help to transform social and ecological systems. Unfortunately, I see too often cases where evaluation is used to reinforce the status quo.

So, for those interested in professional development to better see the social and ecological context they are working within and contribute to a stewardship ethic in a rapidly changing world, here are six core competencies to develop.

Top Tip 1. Develop your ability to analyse long-term changes in the condition and use of ecosystems.

Learn how to better see the many inter-relationships among human and natural resources. This requires seeing long- and short-term trajectories of change, considering the multiple stakeholders involved in a given ecosystem, who has gained from extraction and who depends on the goods and services nature provides. These are not static considerations but issues that are highly complex and frequently in dynamic flux.  For example, if you live in the tropics near the coast, each coral reef system has unique features and is on an evolutionary path that must be understood if a stewardship initiative is to effectively and efficiently influence the processes of change and if the initiative is to successfully address the issues that they are generating.

One major competency is in the recognition that resources users and others without technical training can make important contributions to the documentation and analysis of ecosystem change and the potential for changes in human behavior towards a stewardship ethic. This often requires the ability to see the big picture, as well as the individual strands and their inter-relationships, also known as a system orientation as well as openness to the diversity of world views and perspectives.

Top Tip 2: Develop your ability to analyse power structures and processes that encompass values, policies, laws and institutions that determine how ecosystems are conserved and used.

When thinking about biodiversity and all the free goods and services nature provides, it is important to recognise that we do not manage nature; we manage people! From an evaluation perspective, the unit of analysis must therefore be upon the management of human activities. This requires understand what types of structures work best within a given context that encompass the values, policies, laws and institutions that are rooted within the culture of a given place.

This is best done when examining how power has been expressed to define how resources and environments are used, what behaviors are deemed acceptable or forbidden and what rules or sanctions are applied to direct how natural resource are stewarded or extracted for the purpose of profit. Such work involves the analysis of the governance dimensions of a particular place and how to use frameworks that reveal the processes and outcomes of past and present regimes that serve to steward or deplete natural systems.

This competency requires a deeper appreciation of the indigenous cultures that have and perhaps still do exist, and to recognise the implications of indigenous traditions and values when evaluating a natural resource management program.

Top Tip 3. Develop the leadership required to build the “political will” to design, adopt and implement evaluations that address complex challenges posed by ecosystem change.

Generating the “political will” to conduct innovative forms of evaluation that addresses complex ecosystem management issues requires effective and committed leadership. The evaluator must also be an effective integrator and communicator who can navigate the process of assembling support for a course of action, articulate a vision, and inspire action on the issues posed by the use, conservation and restoration needs of a natural ecosystem. Effective evaluators can appeal to the values and beliefs of a society, and demonstrate their commitment to fair dealing, accountability and respect for the opinions and beliefs of others.

Top Tip 4. Develop strength in facilitation, mediation, stakeholder engagement and public education.

Effective evaluators are skilled in facilitation, negotiation, the identification of common ground and the crafting of compromises that do not detract from the fundamental goals of a program. Involvement of key stakeholders lie at the center of all successful ecosystem management programmes.

In a time of accelerating global change it is essential that evaluators also learn how to educate the public and stakeholders about the activities that are changing ecosystems, on the implications of these changes for society, and on the options for addressing the issues of concern.

Stewardship cannot be fostered if the public is ignorant or misinformed on the issues and the choices that they face.  Collaboration with the media and partnerships with schools with service organisations and businesses can be effective strategies for reaching the public and building a constituency that understands why the issues being addressed by an evaluation are important and worthy of support and attention.

Top Tip 5. Develop the skills required to do a strategic design for an evaluation of an ecosystem management program.

The design of an evaluation and its strategic plan of action requires defining issues and their causes, assessing potential solutions, articulating a vision, setting goals and selecting the partners and strategies by which desired outcomes may be attained. This strategic planning process must be grounded in a thorough understanding of the existing natural system and the traditions, interests and values that have shaped it by the people who live there.

When the time and resources available to evaluate a program are less than those required, it is essential to set goals and intermediate objectives that set realistic expectations, and to determine how the small step can contribute to the larger, longer term efforts that build adaptation and learning toward the stewardship of natural systems.  The evaluator needs to build knowledge and skills to understand the “toolbox” of regulatory and non-regulatory tools such as land and water zoning schemes, permit programs, performance standards and the equally important non-regulatory measures that include incentive programs, investments in capacity building, and investments in public education.

Particularly critical is the ability to see who is acting to sustain political commitment for the program and secure the financial resources required to sustain an ecosystem stewardship program over the long term. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an example of a type of decision support tool for displaying spatially expressed variables on electronic maps to help visualise and better understand the relationships across the environmental, social, economic, and institutional dimensions of an area.

Top Tip 6. Develop your ability to implement an evaluation that supports adaptive management.

Successful evaluators learn how to make explicit and internalise the learning process, and encourage the adjustments suggested by the program’s experience as it matures. It is equally important to recognise and engage dialogue on the changes in the social, political, and environmental context within which the program is operating. Changes in ecosystem condition and dynamics that may require adjustments to a program’s objectives and strategies may be anticipated both at the scale in which the program is operating and at the national or even regional and global scales. The ability to promote learning and feedback among all participants in a Program – particularly decision makers and those most directly affected by a plan of action – is critical.

Blue Marble Evaluation is what we are talking about, and it is now in full-scale development. This is based on a core philosophy that evaluation must do more to contribute to a global stewardship ethic with a focus on how to evaluate response to global systems change. This work is not for the faint of heart and will require new competencies, and (we predict) will become a growth industry in the field of evaluation. For more information about the development of a Blue Marble Evaluator infrastructure, please contact me directly at

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