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Success story: New Modes of Governance for Sustainable Forestry in Europe: programmatic rhetoric and actual practices The GoFOR project

The context of forest and environmental politics is changing. More than ever before, governmental actors lack the powers to deliver the required or requested policy results on their own. If decisions cannot, or shall not, be imposed by hierarchy, and co-ordination cannot be left to market mechanisms, other means of co-ordination are needed. Under the term “new modes of governance”, policy makers are striving for more inclusive, better integrated but less intrusive policy means of achieving policy goals.

The idea of governance is not new in the fields of forest, environmental and natural resource policy. However, so far, few comparative analyses or systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of these practices have been carried out. The recently finished research project “New Modes of Governance for Sustainable Forestry in Europe – GoFOR” strove to close – or at least narrow – this research gap. The main objective of the GoFOR project was to evaluate the evolving practices of new modes of governance as a basis for policy relevant conclusions and recommendations.

GoFOR was funded by the European Commission under the Sixth EU Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (Contract No.: 6447GoFOR). The project involved partners in ten countries throughout Europe: Austria (co-ordinator), Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Romania, Spain, the Netherlands. Objectives

The main objective of the GoFOR project was to study and evaluate evolving practices of new modes of governance in the field of forest policy and in adjacent policy domains (like nature conservation policy, rural development policy etc.). More concretely, GoFOR aimed to evaluate new practices of governance by:

  • analyzing programmatic policy statements to learn about the role that governance and its elements play in the repertoire of different policy actors,
  • investigating current and evolving practices of governance to find out whether they are applied in a substantive way or whether they are merely symbolic rhetoric,
  • exploring the broader political context to see how far effective governance is contingent on environmental, social, political, and economic factors, and
  • carrying out cross-sectoral comparisons of governance processes in ten countries to search for common patterns in governance arrangements and to learn about factors that either facilitate or hamper effective governance.

Conceptual framework of the GoFOR project

Governance is a multi-faceted concept. At times governance has been used as a normatively-laden catchword of political language (“good governance”). In other cases it is used as an analytical term in the fields of political science and economics where it particularly describes those types of political processes in which non-hierarchical modes of guidance, such as persuasion and negotiation, are employed, and public as well as private actors are engaged in policy formulation and implementation.

The recently finished project GoFOR studied evolving practices of new modes of governance in biodiversity and natural resource policy. When setting up the general conceptual framework in the GoFOR project, the first and foremost challenge was to operationalise the concept of “governance”. Even though governance and new modes of governance have been in frequent use in both politics and science, a coherent governance theory and clear definitions are still lacking. Since prevailing concepts of governance are too vague to productively guide empirical analysis, GoFOR operationalised “governance” by focusing on five more concrete procedural elements:

  • participation,
  • inter-sectoral co-ordination,
  • multi-level co-ordination,
  • adaptive and iterative approaches, and
  • input of democratic and accountable expertise.

These elements can be found both in political documents, such as the White Paper on European Governance, and in theoretical-conceptual discussions on new forms of policy making. In focusing on these five elements the conceptual framework of GoFOR followed three distinct but interrelated lines of inquiry:

  • First, the analysis of programmatic policy statements sought to assess the salience of new modes of governance and its constituting elements on the basis of the strategic and programmatic role they play in the repertoire of political institutions and policy actors. Empirically those roles were determined by investigating programmatic policy statements such as White Papers and other strategy documents, position papers, general procedural guidelines for governance processes, but also the more programmatic parts of legislative texts, subsidy schemes and the like. Analysis of the “rhetoric” of governance was expected to provide a straightforward image of the current political compromises on the meaning and materialization of new modes of governance in a given policy arena.
  • Second, the analysis of current and evolving practices of governance strove to assess, on the one hand, policy processes (e.g., the formulation and implementation of national forest programmes or biodiversity strategies, the planning of a national park), but also the outputs of those processes (such as new policy programmes or procedural and institutional reforms). By contrasting the programmatic rhetoric with the actual practices it was possible to learn about the role that governance and its elements play in the repertoire of policy actors and to find out whether they are applied in a substantive way or remain symbolic lip service.
  • Third, the operationalisation of new modes of governance was not only based on empirical evidence, but the potential of new governance was also assessed in the light of theoretical approaches and concepts.

Figure 1: Elements of the Analysis and Conceptual Framework

Figure 1 shows the overall conceptual framework of the GoFOR project, presenting the main analytical concepts addressed in the cases studies and the three research steps described above (arrows).


A multiple case study research design was applied with 19 cases coming from ten European countries. In its empirical research work, GoFOR was structured into three distinct phases (see Figure 2):

Figure 2: Overall work plan and timeframe

  • A pre-assessment phase in which a set of criteria that operationalise the concept of governance was developed and translated into a common research protocol; this common research protocol was tested with an enlarged set of pilot studies.
  • A main assessment phase in which a reduced set of governance case studies was analysed in detail, and finally
  • a synthesis phase of cross-case comparison, searching for general patterns of governance arrangements.

    GoFOR case studies were not “country reports” or “sector reports”, but rather analyses of concrete policy processes in which new modes of governance or certain elements thereof were applied. The cases analysed deal, for instance, with National Forest Programmes (Austria, Hungary, and Spain), the reformulation of Forest Laws (France), the implementation of Natura 2000 (Denmark and Romania), the designation of nature conservation areas in Greece as well as the Netherlands, regional development policies under the LEADER+ programme in Germany, and the policies against corruption in Romania. Table 1 shows an overview of all 19 case studies that were carried out in GoFOR.

    Key results

    Rhetoric of governance
    The dominant rhetoric is usually a positive, optimistic one, stressing that more participation is necessarily better and that more integrated and co-ordinated policies are preferable. This governance rhetoric has often been stimulated by, and leaning on, international and/or European discourses and policies. International agreements and EU policies suggest or prescribe participatory and integrative policy-making as well as the use of monitoring and evaluation procedures. The change towards new modes of governance is typically associated with two perceived weaknesses: (i) a loss of legitimacy of the traditional, opaque way of decision-making, and (ii) co-ordination deficits due to a compartmentalised way of policy-making. These critiques have led to calls for the opening of actor networks through more participation and inter-sectoral as well as multi-level co-ordination.

    Opening of actor networks

    Our analysis yields a mixed overall picture on the implementation of these principles. Most of the governance processes did result in enlarged sets of actors involved. At the same time, public authorities as well as other hitherto privileged actors have often proved reluctant to open up major decision arenas. The dominating form of participation was to consult major interest organisations in various fora (round tables, advisory boards etc.). Non-organised citizens were mainly addressed by information campaigns or consultative participation, but they were difficult to mobilise. Furthermore, processes tended to be institutionalised on a temporary basis only, even if they were labelled “long-term, open-ended endeavours” (e.g. strategy processes). Nevertheless, nearly all of the cases indicate that in the long-term, the overall policy culture is likely to become more participatory, providing a broader range of stakeholders’ legitimate access to influence decision-making.

    Horizontal and vertical policy co-ordination

    Most processes also entailed the inclusion of a larger number of sectors and territorial levels often prescribed as “part of the rules” by international agreements or European policies. However, in many cases well entrenched administrative structures and sectoral logics significantly constrained the processes’ effectiveness. Institutional innovation was mainly found in the wake of decentralization, most obviously at the regional and local levels, whereas traditional patterns of decision-making were largely preserved at the national level. Decentralised processes have succeeded in mobilizing societal capacities, and became less sector-focused but more integrative.

    Learning through evaluation

    The success of governance processes are largely dependent on the participants’ ability to gather information, learn and adapt throughout the process. One governance strategy to ensure those expectations is to regularly monitor and evaluate processes and policies. Monitoring and evaluation have been viewed as important in nearly all our cases. Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, evaluations were not effectively integrated into the processes and rarely resulted in effective feedback and policy learning. Evaluations were often conducted pro-forma to fulfil externally prescribed obligations. This finding stands in contrast to the most frequently mentioned motives for conducting evaluations: “to enhance efficiency” and “to facilitate learning”.

    New role of the state

    A last recapitulatory question that we addressed was the question of what role state actors actually play in governance arrangements. Does the oft-proclaimed trend “from government to governance” lead to a “retreat of the state” from societal steering? In our set of case studies new modes of governance did not replace traditional forms of government. Government and governance interact or coexist in different forms. In the vast majority of cases, participatory and co-ordination procedures were induced and to a varying extent also controlled by state actors. This may be due to the selection of cases: GoFOR intentionally focused on government-initiated processes, but not on pure bottom-up processes. However, even in the few exceptions from this selection rule public administrators were rather influential. They effectively promoted or hindered new governance approaches, e.g. by providing commitment, by establishing the institutional framework, and by defining the processes’ objectives, timeframes, and measures. This central role of state actors, in the end, also points to the high susceptibility of governance processes to changes in governmental regimes and state actors’ preferences. The state has remained at least a strong “meta-governor” in many of our cases.

    Prof. Dr. Karl Hogl and Assoc. Prof. Dr. Michael Pregernig (project co-ordinators)
    Institute of Forest, Environmental and Natural Resource Policy,
    University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU),
    Feistmantelstr. 4,
    A-1180 Vienna, Austria,
    Phone: +43/1 47654 4402,
    Fax: +43/1 47654 4417,
    Leaflet PDF: GoFOR project