Controversies in watermanagement: Frames and mental models

M.J. Kolkman, A. van der Veen, P.A.T.M. Geurts

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Controversies in decision and policy-making processes can be analysed using frame reflection and mental model mapping techniques. The purpose of the method presented in this paper is to improve the quality of the information and interpretations available to decision makers, by surfacing and juxtaposing the different frames of decision makers, experts, and special interests groups. The research provides a new method to analyse frames. It defines a frame to consist of perspectives and a mental model, which are in close interaction (through second order learning processes). The mental model acts like a “filter” through which the problem situation is observed. Five major perspective types guide the construction of meaning out of the information delivered by the mental model, and determine what actors see as their interests. The perspective types are related to an actor's institutional and personal position in the decision making process.

The method was applied to a case, in order to test its viability. The case concerns the decision making process and environmental impact assessment procedure for the improvement of dike ring 53 in the Netherlands, which was initiated by the Dutch “Flood Defences Act 1996”. In this specific case the perspectives and mental models of stakeholders were elicited to explain controversies. The case was analysed with regard to the conflicts emerging between stakeholders, on an individual level. The influence of institutional embedding of individuals on the use of information and the construction of meaning, and the limits of a participatory approach were analysed within the details of controversies that emerged during the case analysis.

Complicating factor appeared to be the interaction between national dike safety norms (short term) and local water management problems (long term). Revealed controversies mainly concerned disputes between an organisational and a technical perspective. But also disputes on distribution of responsibilities between different institutes, on legal and political liability, and on funding issues, involving persons of both perspectives, were found.

The case reveals a lack of possibilities to search for an integrated solution which involves all levels of authority, and a lack of possibilities to discuss the additional problems that were raised by the integrated approach in the initial phase of the case project. The complex and unstructured nature of the problem situation caused the traditional substantive approach to fail to deliver a good solution. Legal, socio-economic and institutional factors ultimately dominated the decision making process.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)685-706
JournalEnvironmental impact assessment review
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2007
EventInternational Experience and Perspectives in SEA 2005: Gobal Conference on Strategic Environmental Assessment, Prague, Czech Republic, 26-30 September 2005 - Prague, Czech Republic
Duration: 26 Sep 200530 Sep 2005


  • Integrated water management
  • Mental model mapping
  • Frame analysis
  • EIA


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