The European WFD attempts to rescale competences of water governance in a newly fashioned multi-level system of mandated participatory planning. This constitutes an experiment for governments, involved stakeholders and citizens across the European Union. German federalism has produced 16 such experiments, as each federal state pursues its own strategy of setting up participation mechanisms. Our comparative study of two such cases reveals, first, that the WFD did impact on institutionalizing hydrological governance scales and participation. Participation has been put in place in various forms and on multiple levels of governance, showing distinct differences between the two studied cases. Contrary to expectations, governance competences have scarcely shifted toward hydrological scales but remain with the federal states, with limited cross-border cooperation in river basins. In NRW, the Wupperverband, acting on sub-basin scale, has been strengthened and partly assumed competences originally held by the district governments. In LS, area cooperations were implemented on sub-basin and catchment scales, but had little influence on planning.
Did the WFD succeed in improving both effective water governance and democratic legitimacy of decision-making through its re-scaling approach? Or do scale-related dilemmas prevail?
As regards Dahl’s (1994) ‘democratic dilemma’ and the local—supra-local dualism, the message taken from the case study comparison is not unequivocal: Given the complexity of water management issues to be tackled for WFD implementation, the more local decision processes appeared both more effective (in the sense of producing better informed and more meaningful outputs) and more legitimate (in terms of relating closer to citizen and stakeholder interest). On the other hand, local processes in LS were more susceptible to being dominated by economic (agricultural) interests, working against strict water protection. To a lesser degree, the argument of greater effectiveness of higher-level decision-making proved relevant, namely the positive effect of central guidance on measures implementation in NRW (which was largely lacking in LS). This relative superiority of local as opposed to higher-level decision-making must, of course, be interpreted against the more local nature of most water management issues encountered in the two case regions. A key factor determining whether local or less local processes are more effective depended on whether environmental knowledge or environmental advocacy is sought.
Was participation able to bridge ‘misfits’ between ecological (i.e., hydrological) and administrative scales of governance, or did this introduce new problems of legitimacy? Water-related, task-specific governance scales conflicted with established notions of territorially based representation and legitimacy, thus creating scalar ‘misfits’. This was more pronounced in LS, with area cooperations crossing territorial boundaries, as compared to the NRW-model, in the Wupper case due to the strong role of the grown basin-oriented water board. While the participation of actors organized along the sub-basin boundaries in the Hase did appear to bridge misfits, problems of legitimacy and representation remained. Whether participation helps to bridge scale-related misfits appears to depend on the institutional history, with grown structures more likely to perform than fresh reforms of re-scaling.
Polycentricity, finally, appeared somewhat favorable in effectiveness terms. Our analysis suggests to distinguish between governance polycentricity of the planning system and that of the implementation system. Higher polycentricity in planning in NRW proved successful due to competing structures, while higher polycentricity in implementation in LS proved less conducive to both effectiveness and legitimacy. Clearly, this distinction between the planning and the implementation stage will warrant further enquiry.
Three caveats must be mentioned with regard to our assessment. First, contrary to earlier expectations, it has become apparent that the official planning documents (RBMP and PoM) were not used as the central vehicle for the development and implementation of measures on the ground, but rather as a means to symbolically report to the Commission. Instead, the initiated governance mechanisms triggered activities such as the elaboration of additional plans (implementation timetables in NRW) or the promotion of voluntary initiatives (LS) (see Koontz and Newig 2014). Second, the environmental impact of the studied processes and their outputs cannot yet be fully evaluated. Ecological data is still sparse and often real impacts of implemented measures become visible only after some time. Finally, the relevance of the hydrological scales involved in this case study (and similar others) is arguably questionable (Ingram 2011) and ultimately remains an empirical issue. This points to the politics involved in the re-scaling of governance, which has been highlighted in the critical human geography literature (Hüesker and Moss 2015).
Beyond, but related to the initial assumptions contained in the three sets of mechanisms, three key insights emerge from this empirical study. First, a major re-scaling effort such as the one introduced by the WFD cannot easily resolve scale-related trade-offs between effectiveness and legitimacy. Rather, grown, co-evolved institutional structures appear more important than ‘optimized’ scalar governance arrangements. Second, the dualism of effectiveness vs. legitimacy appears less pronounced than potential trade-offs between dimensions within either concept. Third, the concept of polycentricity appears more diverse than initially assumed and can be disentangled into polycentricity in planning and polycentricity in implementation.
The findings reported here are of wider importance to related attempts at governance re-scaling through mandated participatory planning. Such new governance modes appear, for example, in the Floods Directive, that mandates flood risk management plans to be produced until 2015 on the level of flood-risk areas (Newig et al. 2014), regarding the biodiversity regime (Paavola et al. 2009), or the Ambient Air Quality Directive (Newig and Koontz 2014). Research on scalar, multi-level, and participatory governance will, therefore, continue to be relevant beyond the implementation of the WFD.