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Tightly coupled policies and loosely coupled networks in the governing of flood risk mitigation in municipal administrations

Per Becker, Division of Risk Management and Societal Safety, Lund University, Sweden; Risk and Crisis Research Centre (RCR), Mid Sweden University, Sweden; Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management, North-West University, South Africa


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Flood risk is a complex and transboundary issue that is expected to escalate with climate change and requires to be governed by collaborative networks of actors. Municipal administrations have been suggested to have a particularly important and challenging role in such governance. Although collaborative governance has attracted intense scientific attention, empirical studies generally focus either on the macro-level institutions per se, or on the meso-level interaction between organizations, without corresponding attention to the micro-level interactions between the individual actors constituting the organizations and reproducing the institutions. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the understanding of how flood risk is governed within municipal administrations, by studying how actors interact within them when implementing tightly coupled policies. The paper draws on comparative case study research of three Swedish municipal administrations (Lomma, Lund, and Staffanstorp). Data were collected through interviews with all 143 actors actively contributing to mitigating flood risk within the municipal administrations, and analyzed structurally and interpretatively using social network analysis and qualitative analysis. Although the Swedish legal framework consists of tightly coupled policies demanding coordination between the actors implementing them, there is a recurrent pattern of relative integration between actors implementing policies for planning and water and sewage, and substantial separation between them and actors implementing policy for risk and vulnerability. This cinderellic fragmentation generates a “problem of fit” between the legal framework and the collaborative networks implementing it, which undermines the effectiveness of flood risk mitigation in municipal administrations. It is not accidental but a consequence of a directional separation of institutionalization, where the more bottom-up and problem-oriented institutionalization of practices in planning and water and sewage, and the more top-down and compliance-oriented institutionalization of practices in risk and vulnerability pull the network of actors apart. I demonstrate how the mechanisms of increasing returns, commitments, and objectification may all operate simultaneously but to various degrees in different practices across any collaborative governance network. Hence, potentially undermining policy coherence, policy integration, and collaborative governance.

Key words

flood risk; governance; institutional fit; institutionalism

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087