Newsletter No 2 June 2010

Water policy entrepreneurs

Dr. Dave Huitema

Co author: Sander Meijerink, Associate Professor, Radboud University Nijmegen, Institute for Management Research

Addressing water issues such as water scarcity, flood risks or water pollution, often will require major changes or transitions in existing policies and policy practices. The necessary changes can be substantial, such as a change from policies based on the hydraulic paradigm to ecosystem based water policies. They may also pertain to governance processes, such as a change toward more participatory modes of governance.  A comparative analysis of such transitions in fifteen countries and at the European and global levels reveals that specific individuals or organizations have played a crucial role in instigating and implementing change (Huitema and Meijerink, 2009). This article discusses the role of these ‘water policy entrepreneurs’, and the strategies which they have used to direct change. This has theoretical relevance, but is also significant for practical purposes. Once issues such as climate change will start affecting water systems in unforeseeable ways, we may need new insights in how water governance changes and the role of key change agents in these processes.

epajunebAnalyses of water policy transitions in fifteen countries and the European and global levels have demonstrated that (small groups of) individuals may play a crucial role in realizing these transitions. Water policy entrepreneurs draw from a wide range of change strategies. The results show that policy entrepreneurs not only develop an attractive policy alternative, but are also good at building coalitions, framing issues in ways that are supportive to a new policy approach, and at the exploitation and manipulation of venues for debate and action.  Clearly, the management of water transitions is a highly political game, and those who would like to take part in that game need to know the tricks of politics as much as the fundamentals of water management. The mere possibility for individuals to influence policy trajectories is a hopeful message to those who face the manifold and urgent problems of modern water management.


Overview water policy transitions

Table 1 presents an overview of the water policy transitions which are discussed in Huitema and Meijerink (2009). As these are all instances were change was accomplished, analyzing them was a fertile ground for learning more about the roles and strategies of certain key actors. The set of countries was selected from different governance contexts and includes both developing and developed countries.

Table 1:
Substantive and governance transitions analyzed. For details about the individual cases see: Huitema and Meijerink (2009).

Country Transition  
ChinaRiver restoration Ecosystem-based water river management
IndiaDecentralization, participatory governance (water user associations)
IndonesiaDecentralization, participatory governance (water user associations)
ThailandWet to dry (all year around irrigation) Farm to city (secure supplies to urban users) Good to service (manage multiple services)
AustraliaEnvironmental water allocation, sustainable groundwater management
United StatesIntegrated water management
MexicoMarketization (water markets, water pricing), decentralization, participatory governance (water user associations)
South AfricaSustainable management of mining water
TanzaniaPrivatization, decentralization, participatory governance (water user associations)
GermanySpace for the river Flood risk management
HungaryRiver restoration Ecosystem-based water management
SpainSustainable alternatives to supply- based management
TurkeyPrivatization of water services Decentralization, participatory water governance (water user associations)
SwedenAdaptive management, introduction of the European Water Framework Directive
The NetherlandsGreening of water policies, river restoration, space for the river
European UnionMarketization (full cost recovery, water pricing), public and stakeholder participation


In each of the transitions that was analyzed, the influence of policy entrepreneurs could be detected. Did these entrepreneurs ‘manage’ those transitions in the sense that they carefully plotted and steered them? No. In each case a set of unexpected events occurred and unexpected linkages were made. But the entrepreneurs we saw at play managed to respond to such events and affect the outcomes to considerable degrees.  Were these entrepreneurs operating independently? No, they usually operated in groups, implying that collective entrepreneurship is the norm.  Group members either had complementary skills (e.g. some of them are better at developing new ideas, and others better at communicating and selling these new ideas), or were able to use a different set of policy-shaping strategies because they had a different position. For instance, a researcher may draw on a different arsenal of strategies to influence policy trajectories than a high ranked civil servant. What can we say about the position of the entrepreneurs and their qualities? Although entrepreneurs clearly have commonalities, they displayed great variety. They were sometimes civil servants, politicians, or researchers, and in other cases they were employed by NGOs. If the entrepreneurs don’t have a common base that they work from, they do demonstrate certain personal qualities. First, they generally have good networking skills, hence large networks. Secondly, the entrepreneurs which we have traced have all demonstrated perseverance. They were involved in a particular water policy transition for a long period of time, often more than a decade. Within this period, they often changed position, for example from a research institute to the governmental bureaucracy. The practically relevant question, of course, is how exactly have these entrepreneurs been able to direct change, in other words: how did they manage to make a difference? It should be interesting that despite the huge cultural, historic, institutional and economic differences between the countries studied, there are still some remarkable similarities between the strategies that were used by policy entrepreneurs. The lesson is that entrepreneurs can make use of the following generic set of strategies.

Generic set of strategies

(1) Development and articulation of new ideas
The starting point for any change process is a set of new ideas. To be able to change the status quo you therefore need an attractive policy alternative first. Pilot projects or experiments were used in several transitions and appeared to be particularly helpful in demonstrating the feasibility of new approaches to water management. Often, policy transitions started with small scale experiments, which later were scaled up. Typical examples were projects for river restoration in Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary and China, which had all been initiated locally and at a small scale first, before the idea of river restoration was scaled up and incorporated in national water management agendas and policies.

(2) Building of coalitions
The policy entrepreneurs managed to gain support for their ideas by building various types of coalitions. Coalition building requires advocacy. That is why entrepreneurs often proved apt at communicating the advantages of their new approach. But this is not enough. They also demonstrated skills at negotiating deals with those who propagated different or even opposing policy ideas. That is why they should be prepared to compromise at some times, and need to have skills to broker between parties who have opposing ideas as well. Policy entrepreneurs have to balance continuously between advocacy and brokerage strategies. A policy entrepreneur who advocates the ideas of ecosystem based water management will also need to be able to listen to the needs of local communities which may be economically dependent on the exploitation of a particular ecosystem, and help them with finding alternative livelihoods.  

(3) Framing and exploitation of windows of opportunity
The analyses convincingly demonstrate that policy entrepreneurs need windows of opportunity to effectuate change. Windows of opportunity are those relatively scarce moments when chances for realizing change are relatively high (Kingdon, 1995).  This may be because there is widespread dissatisfaction with the existing order of things. Water policy entrepreneurs may exploit both problem and political windows.  The framing or ‘painting’ of such windows appears to be highly relevant here. Take a river flood as an example. The actual event may be interpreted completely differently by different parties. Those who advocate river restoration may argue that the main cause of the flooding is the canalization of the river system which has diminished water storage capacity. However, those who have a stronger belief in the potential of traditional engineering might argue that the floods were primarily caused by reduced governmental expenditures for the building and strengthening of dikes. We learn from the case studies that such processes of meaning making and the resulting ‘framing contests’ between different coalitions (Boin et al. , 2009), are crucial to understanding continuity and change in water management policies. There also is an important relationship between the exploitation of windows of opportunity and the realization of experiments and pilot projects, which we have mentioned earlier in this article. Policy entrepreneurs often use experiments to demonstrate the feasibility of new approaches. This enables them to present a convincing policy alternative once a window opens.

(4) Manipulation and exploitation of multiple venues
Modern societies are characterized by the existence of multiple venues for exercising influence. Most governance systems nowadays are highly fragmented. Water issues are being discussed on various levels of government, and within different types of venues, such as elected bodies, river basin commissions, the legislature, the media, and within research networks. Water policy entrepreneurs are aware of the existence of these multiple venues and often employ strategies of ‘venue shopping’ (Baumgartner and Jones, 1991).  This means that they search for venues that are receptive to their ideas. If they are not taken seriously on one governmental level, they may try to gain support on another level, and if elected politicians do not listen to them, they may start playing the media or start litigation to enforce change. Policy entrepreneurs may also try to manipulate the composition of venues so as to make these venues more receptive to their ideas. They may try to get supporters of a particular water management strategy, and try to bypass those who resist change. Possibilities for venue shopping and venue manipulation are different within different institutional systems. Whereas the US is known for the existence of multiple venues within its governance system, within a country with a state centered regime like China possibilities for venue shopping clearly are more limited. Still, the case study on river restoration in China revealed how WWF-China was very effective in manipulating and exploiting venues where issues of river basin management were discussed.



-Baumgartner, F.R. en B.D. Jones (1991), ‘Agenda dynamics and policy subsystems’, Journal of Politics, 53 (4), 1044-1074.

-Boin, A., P. ‘t Hart, en A. McConnell (2009), Crisis exploitation: political and policy impacts of framing contests, Journal of European Public Policy, 16 (1), 81-106.

-Huitema, D., S. Meijerink (red.)(2009), Water policy entrepreneurs: a research companion to water transitions around the globe, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

-Kingdon, J.W. (1995), Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (2nd edition), New York: Harper Collins


Footnote: this essay also appeared in Water21, the journal for water professionals published by IWA.

Contact information: Dr. D. Huitema