• collaborative management;
  • co-management;
  • ecosystem-based management;
  • governance;
  • institutions;
  • legitimacy;
  • network governance


  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

With the ambition to contribute to the endeavour of co-management, this paper focuses on the critical aspect of legitimacy and sets out to explain stakeholder acceptance in natural resource governance. A comparative study of five coastal and marine areas in Sweden is conducted. The empirical results demonstrate, first, how the past and the present institutional landscape set the underlying conditions and affect stakeholders’ acceptance of new co-management initiatives. Second, the results point to the critical function of network governance. Conscious choices regarding what composition of actors to involve, and in particular the inclusion and commitment of government actors, have significant bearing on stakeholder acceptance. Furthermore, deliberative efforts to reframe the process, adjusting the agenda to ongoing collaborative processes and key stakeholder goals, are seemingly as important. Thus, strivings towards legitimate co-management require skilful manoeuvring of the present institutional landscape as well as deliberate strategies for the evolution of social networks. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment


  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

Co-management, or the formation of new collaborative governance structures comprising private and public actors, is largely a response to shortcomings and dilemmas of top-down environmental governance (Ansell and Gash, 2007; Driessen et al., 2012) and an attempt to mirror the complexity of most policy issues (Gray, 1989). The concept of co-management, its meaning and possible consequences, has received much attention in recent research (e.g. Plummer et al., 2012) and has increasingly entered the policy arena. The ecosystem-based approach, for example, which currently constitutes a key guiding principle of international and national conservational policy, encompasses the very idea of collaboration and stakeholder participation as a prerequisite for well functioning management systems (CBD COP 5 V6, 2000; HELCOM–OSPAR, 2003; Swedish EPA, 2007). Several theoretical arguments speak in favor of co-management. It promises, among other things, enhanced possibilities for learning and efficient conflict resolution. Another commonly emphasized argument is the potential of co-management to increase legitimacy (Berkes, 2009; Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2007; Carlsson and Berkes, 2005; Huitima et al., 2009; Jentoft et al., 1998; Jentoft, 2000; Pinkerton, 1989; Plummer and FitzGibbon, 2004; Pomery et al., 2001; Raakjær Nielsen, 2003; Rova and Carlsson, 2001). Thus, legitimacy, known as the very foundation of successful governance, is at least partly assumed to result from collaborative processes. While studies show that empirical findings exist to support such claims, the relation between co-management and legitimacy is complex. The mechanisms by which legitimacy, which is here defined as stakeholder acceptance, is enhanced by co-management remain largely uncertain.

This paper addresses this uncertainty by attempting to determine the specific factors influencing legitimacy in co-management using a comparative analysis of collaborative processes across five cases of coastal/marine ecosystem-based management in Sweden. The cases are situated within the regions of Blekinge, Bohuslän, Stockholm, Västernorrland and Östergötland, and are of particular interest for this study since they illustrate co-management processes initiated under the same formal institutional framework and tasked with the same objective, i.e. to develop new management plans that align with the ideas of an ecosystem-based approach trough a collaborative approach. Two broad theoretical lenses guide our examination of legitimacy across the cases. The first relates to structures, more specifically the pre-existing institutions and organizational landscapes in which the current co-management process is unfolding. The second is agency, and appertains to specific strategies used by key agents in the co-management process to enhance the legitimacy of both process and substance. To better account for the multi-stakeholder environment characterizing co-management, we apply a network governance perspective to understand agency. The effect of structure and agency, as well as their possible interplay, on stakeholder acceptance is examined. Previous work has elaborated the theory of the factors affecting collaboration (cf. Ansell and Gash, 2007). We build on and further develop these substantial efforts in order to specifically investigate factors affecting the perceived legitimacy of process and substance among co-management stakeholders. What factors, related to existing institutions and regional governance strategies, influence stakeholder acceptance in co-management?

Next we develop a set of propositions of how specific aspects of structure and agency affect stakeholder acceptance. Following the methods section, we test these propositions on the five aforementioned cases and, thereafter, discuss the results and implications for theory. The paper ends with a short conclusion in which issues for future research are raised. While five cases are not enough to generate firm generalizations, the emerging patterns provide a good empirical basis for discussion and formulation of well grounded hypotheses to be tested in further empirical work.

Theory and Propositions

  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

Legitimacy as Stakeholder Acceptance of Process and Substance

Legitimacy denotes the fairness, correctness or rightfulness of power relations (Beetham, 1991; Matti, 2009) and is considered a necessary prerequisite for effective institutions, as the difference between people accepting or objecting to the ‘rules of the game’. It is a key concept in the study of institutions and natural resources, and studies on collaborative management commonly refer to it as a central factor affecting the collaborative performance (Jentoft, 2000; Jentoft et al., 1998; Pinkerton, 1989; Plummer and Fitzgibbon, 2004). Legitimacy can be a matter of accepting the decision-making power in itself, the particular procedure of decision making, or what is decided (Scharpf, 1999). A distinction between input and output legitimacy is often made (cf. Bäckstrand, 2006; Johansson, 2012), in which the former refers to qualities of the process and the latter to policy substance.

Legitimacy is sometimes also conceptualized as an outcome of collaboration. This notion draws on ideas from deliberative democracy (cf. Bäckstrand et al., 2010; Elster, 1998; Dryzek, 2000; Parkins and Mitchell, 2005; Zachrisson, 2009) and considers co-management as an arena in which opposing interests, through stakeholder participation, can be articulated and deliberated on, fostering understandings, common agreements and, finally, acceptance. However, cross-boundary collaboration is challenging and can also serve to channel or even institutionalize conflicts, and promote ‘dialogues of the deaf’ and mistrust (cf. Bryson et al., 2006; Castro and Nielsen, 2001; Lubell, 2004; Jentoft, 2000; Sabatier et al., 2005; Sorensen and Torfing, 2009; Suskevics, 2012; van der Heijden and ten Heuvelhof, 2012). More empirical work is therefore needed to understand the determinants of legitimacy in collaborative management settings. For the purpose of this study, we define legitimacy as stakeholder acceptance and set out to explain this quality in regard to both process and substance.

Institutional Landscape

Socio-political processes such as co-management are played out in an institutional context of formal and informal rules that define the general conditions for collaboration (Ostrom, 2005; North, 1990). This institutional context thus defines structure constraining and guiding individual behavior (Blom-Hansen, 1997; Granovetter, 1985, 1992; Peters, 1999; Koelble, 1995; Nee and Ingram, 2001). In the study of co-management, institutions can be considered both an explanatory and an outcome variable depending upon level of analysis (cf. Kiser and Ostrom, 1982). At higher levels of organization, institutions affect and set the initial terms for collaboration. Thus they can be conceived as an exogenous influence on the co-management process embedded within them. But co-management is also institutionalizing processes in themselves; forming, reforming and reinforcing the rules of the game, through complex interactions between dialogue, trust-building and contestations.

Ansell and Gash (2007) emphasize the critical influence of ‘starting conditions’ on collaborative governance. This includes the institutions as well as the resources in place, and their effect on incentives for actors to collaborate. Similarly, the critical role of pre-existing organizational structures on new organizational processes has been empirically demonstrated in studies of emerging organizations (Aldrich, 1999; Ahrne and Apostolis, 2002; Brummel et al., 2012). To explicitly accommodate both the broader institutional context and the specific starting conditions, we include in our conceptual model the institutional landscape, which we define as existing institutions, organizations and collaboration structures. This institutional landscape thus provides the context in which co-management processes evolve and influences incentives and conditions for collaboration. This idea of path-dependency affecting socio-political processes is a reoccurring theme in institutional theory (Peters, 1999), and we argue that it is likely to also affect the level of acceptance. Previous, or existing, organizational structures and collaborative processes can lend trust and legitimacy to new co-management initiatives. However, in cases where previous attempts have failed or been conflict ridden, these past experiences may constitute a significant obstacle in the struggle for successful co-management outcomes (Ansell and Gash, 2007; Gray, 1989). Our first proposition is thus the following

P 1. The institutional landscape and actors’ experiences with previous processes affect stakeholder acceptance.

Agency and Governance Strategies

The structural view downplays human agency, and, in an effort to address this, research has examined the role of agency and the importance of key actors – managers, leaders, stewards, entrepreneurs – for outcome of co-management (Schultz et al., 2007; Olsson et al., 2004; Bodin and Crona, 2009; Westley et al., 2013). Ansell and Gash (2007) highlight the key role of such ‘facilitative leadership’ for the collaborative process, and empirical evidence abounds of the crucial role of leadership in activating structural assets such as trust and social capital, by providing know-how and facilitating collective action through coordination and mitigation of conflicts (Bodin and Crona, 2008; Krishna, 2002, Westley et al., 2013). We therefore argue that leaders, and the particular strategies they adopt, have a significant impact on stakeholder acceptance. Below we outline three specific ways in which these strategies can be conceptualized employing a network governance approach.

Co-management processes can be perceived as networks, composed of actors that are connected through different types and strengths of relationship (Carlsson and Berkes, 2005; Carlsson and Sandström, 2008). Exercising leadership under these conditions is thus essentially a matter of network governance (here used as a synonym to network management), defined as deliberative attempts to facilitate collaboration and influence networking processes. The literature places network governance strategies in three broad categories: strategies managing network structure, network substance and network process (cf. Agranoff and McGuire, 2001; Koppenjan and Klijn, 2004; Klijn, 2005; Klijn et al., 1995; Kickert et al., 1997; Klijn and Edelenbos, 2007). We draw on this work and develop propositions to test the significance of all three categories in relation to stakeholder acceptance.

The first category, network structure strategies, denotes deliberative efforts by leadership to engage (or exclude) certain actors and resources, but also their attempts to stabilize the network, initiate new interactions and form new coalitions (Klijn, 2005). By controlling the actors involved, the ‘network manager’ can ensure that necessary resources are mobilized and that all relevant perspectives and interests are taken into consideration. A key aspect here is what type of actor to involve. While a diversity of perspectives can be beneficial by bringing in multiple perspectives and potentially increasing acceptance, increasing numbers of divergent perspectives can also reduce the extent to which communication occur between the involved stakeholders (Aral et al., 2012). We therefore propose the following.

P 2. Strategies to influence the diversity of actors involved in co-management affect stakeholder acceptance.

While inclusion of broad diversity is important, some actors may be more important than others. Given that most collaborative efforts have to operate within existing government institutions and legal arrangements, the inclusion, but also the commitment, of actors representing formal governance is important to anchor the process in existing policy structures (Huitima et al., 2009). In the Swedish context, the municipalities are critical for implementation of many of the initiatives agreed on within the processes studied here. Our third proposition is thus the following.

P 3. Strategies aiming to influence the involvement and commitment of relevant government representatives in co-management affect stakeholder acceptance.

The second category, network substance strategies, includes mangers’ attempts to create appropriate conditions for the accommodation of goals and agreements that are jointly accepted by actors involved. This is particularly important in situations when collaboration is deadlocked due to competing interests and perceptions of the problem at hand. Strategies within this category include reformulation or reframing of issues and/or the very objective of networking, to suggest package deals, to create variation in solutions and to provide the process with new information and knowledge (Klijn, 2005). Here we investigate the existence of all of these but give particular attention to reframing of substance. This includes reframing the goal of collaboration to better fit the goals held by certain key stakeholders, as well as reframing with the purpose of linking the process to existing infrastructure or process momentum to achieve integration. Accordingly, a possible interplay between this type of governance strategy and pre-existing organizational structures in the institutional landscape (P1) is assumed.

P 4. Strategies to (re)frame the co-management process, so as to align with stakeholder goals and/or pre-existing organizational structures, affect stakeholder acceptance.

The final category is network process strategies. It includes the creation of new organizational arrangements. Network managers can also facilitate the collaborative process by imposing a common process design or by appointing certain process managers with the task to coordinate interactions. Furthermore, deliberative attempts to mediate, broker and create incentives for participation are other strategies that fall within this category (Klijn, 2005). In short, this category concerns the ability of managers to deliberately structure the process to facilitate coordination. This translates into our fifth and final proposition stating the following.

P 5. Strategies to facilitate stakeholder interactions through organizational arrangements and process design affect stakeholder acceptance.

Figure 1 outlines our conceptual framework of the factors affecting legitimacy in co-management and the emerging propositions. We acknowledge the potential interplay between several of the propositions, particularly the effect of the institutional landscape on the network governance strategies. In the following sections we use these propositions to interrogate our empirical data and to assess if, in what direction and to what extent these issues affect stakeholder acceptance.


Figure 1. Analytical framework

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  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

Between the years 2008 and 2010 the five study areas were part of a national project aimed at establishing, through inter-sectorial, regional and local collaboration, new regional management plans incorporating an ecosystem-based approach for marine and coastal areas. The project was initiated by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and was expected to result in new solutions for perimeter protection as well as to contribute to the fulfilment of international conventions such as the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD, 1992) and the Helsinki Convention (HELCOM, 2008). Four of five areas constitute Baltic Sea Protected Areas (BSPAs) within HELCOM and the fifth is an MPA within the OSPAR Convention (1992), which is why the areas also adhere to HELCOM–OSPAR guidelines (2003) regarding management of marine protected areas.

The five areas are referred to by the name of the administrative region in which they are embedded and are described in Table 1. They diverge considerably with regard to geography, size and socio-economic context. Nonetheless, all were tasked with the same objectives, and all received similar amounts of support and funding from the EPA. Given this, and the fact that they operate under the same international and national framework of formal rules, a comparative approach is useful for generating generalizable findings.

Table 1. Study areas
  1. Information from the Swedish EPA (2012) and our own survey data. No of actors involved reflects individuals who had participated in more than two meetings.

Total area (ha)210 000539 70029 852152 03416 610
Share ocean (%)7460985394
Population (p, permanent; pt, part time)85 000 (p)58 000 (p) 40 500 (pt)2 families5400 (p) 2400 (pt)160 (p) in adjacent areas
International statusBSPA + UNESCO MAB areaMPABSPA + RAMSARBSPA + UNESCO World Heritage areaBSPA
No of municipalities in the geographical area35221
No of actors involved in the process6266357549

Data Collection and Metrics

Data were collected during 2011 and aimed to capture the regional working processes, from the initiation of the national project in 2008 to the finalization of new management plans in 2010, using multiple sources of data. Document analysis of relevant policies, regulations, management plans and meeting minutes, produced primarily by the EPA and the five areas, was conducted. This provided background information and an account of the development of the process in each area. Moreover, in-depth interviews with regional project managers/coordinators (seven respondents) and with the responsible official at the EPA were conducted to provide further information on this process. Interviews were semi-structured, lasted between 90 and 180 minutes and were designed to elicit data on the various strategies employed by regional coordinators (P2–P5), as well as more detailed information on the regional context of each area, including previous initiatives (P1). Transcribed interviews and documentary data were analysed using ATLAS.ti qualitative analysis software (Altheide, 1996). The qualitative analysis was conducted in several steps of reading, coding and recoding the material.

Information on the diversity of organizational affiliations of actors involved (P2, P3) in each area was collected via a web survey directed towards all those involved. Diversity of actors was calculated using Simpson's diversity index (Simpson, 1949), and organizational type was categorized as private person, government agency (municipal, regional or national), non-governmental organization, commercial enterprise, university or similar, foundations led by a public authority and local land owners’ organizations.

To assess legitimacy a five point Likert scale (5, agree completely; 1, disagree completely) was used to capture survey responses to the following statements: (1) the process, and the decision-making procedure that has resulted in the collaborative management plan, has been rightful, (2) the content of the collaboration plan corresponds to my own picture of how the area should best be managed. The former statement captures process acceptance and the latter substance acceptance. The survey data were analysed using SPSS statistical software and response rates ranged from 73 to 86 percent.


  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References


The co-management process in Blekinge was integrated into an ongoing regional working process aimed at becoming a biosphere area.1 This had several implications. An organizational structure was already in place and a certain amount of ecological information about the area had been assessed. This collaboration structure also affected the geographical borders of the area in focus as well as the overall aim of the management plan, thus illustrating the influence of the existing institutional landscape on the co-management process (P1). While conservation is the primary objective expressed by HELCOM–OSPAR, sustainable development in a broad sense constitutes the principal logic of biosphere areas. These differences gave rise to conflicts over goals. This tension between conservation and more pro-development values is characteristic of the process in Blekinge. The regional project coordinators were forced to balance conservation oriented guidelines from the EPA with development oriented interests advocated by the County Administration Board (from here on CAB) and municipalities2 in order to ensure legitimacy and the implementation of the plan. This balance was achieved by including issues such as development on the agenda, thus broadening the substantial scope of the plan. This also ensured the buy-in of formal government (CAB and municipalities), who, as pointed out by one project coordinator,

…are the most important actors, since the implementation of the plan is the primary objective [and implementation occurs at the municipal level – our clarification].

This illustrates how project coordinators deliberately deployed network structure strategies to include municipal actors in an effort to further the process (P3). This strategy was fruitful, as our analysis shows the process included a moderately diversified network (diversity index = 0.633), with 25 percent representing the municipality (see Table 3 later). Furthermore, reframing of the agenda to include a broader development focus, and the linking of the co-management process to the biosphere initiative, both illustrate how network substance strategies were used (P4). The strategy resulted in a broadly written plan without proposals for specific actions in order to further ensure the adoption of the plan by the political authorities.

Apart from an early shift in leadership, the process was managed by two actors: a CAB employee and the coordinator for the biosphere. Initially a working group, partly overlapping the biosphere group, was formed to govern the process. However, the work progressed slowly, as group members lacked the time and mandate needed to integrate the work with their ordinary tasks. As noted by a project coordinator,

In some cases it was deadly difficult to get people to attend. So I turned to the city councillors, who in turn turned to the administrative directors.

In order to mobilize actors and resources and increase efficiency, the project coordinators restructured the project organization. Work with the management plan was integrated with the ongoing biosphere work and municipalities were asked to nominate representatives. Nine theme groups were thereafter formed and assigned responsibility for different parts of the plan. Private actors and non-public organizations were informed and given the opportunity to influence the process through an archipelagic council, which is a stakeholder organization related to the biosphere work. These measures led to increased participation and commitment. The working process was structured using Open Standards, a process tool developed for conservation work, guiding the process from the identification of values, via impact factors and strategies, towards concrete measures for management.4 Through workshops, working with Post-it notes on a sticky board, the substance of the plan emerged. As stated by a project coordinator,

I felt that everyone became involved, you can change notes, move them, reformulate them and everyone sees what is going on. Everyone thinks out loud and you see the small possible conflict situations clearly and can talk openly about them.

Taken together, this illustrates how project leaders thus deliberately pursued different network process strategies in working to structure the process (P5). The collaboration process in Blekinge achieved relatively high levels of acceptance of both process and substance, 73 and 82 percent respectively (see Table 2).

Table 2. Stakeholder acceptance
  1. N = 212.

Acceptance of process
The process, and the decision-making procedure that has resulted in the collaboration plan, has been rightful
Acceptance of substance
The content of the collaboration plan corresponds to my own picture of how the area should best be managed      


From its start, the co-management process in Bohuslän quickly became incorporated into an existing inter-municipality process on integrated coast zone management (ICZM). The pre-existence of a collaborative process perceived as legitimate to build on was a strong reason behind the project coordinator choosing to pursue the integration of the two processes (P1). At first, there was resistance from the ICZM group to the merger, as they feared it would come with increased state restrictions on use of marine resources. The regional project coordinator solicited help from the head of planning at CAB to convince them that the project was not another way to impose conservation measures but a chance to enhance knowledge for marine planning, and after the co-management proposal had been reframed as an opportunity to strengthen the marine-related aspect of the ICZM project they accepted the idea. This illustrates the use of reframing strategies to increase acceptance for the process and facilitate its integration into ongoing structures to enhance legitimacy (P4).

The integration of the two processes came to have significant effects on the network structure strategies. It affected the composition of actors involved, the aim of the process and the organizational structure. Following the ICZM project format, the collaboration engaged primarily public actors, foremost officials from the CAB and municipalities. Both politicians in government and in opposition were included in order to anchor the process broadly within the formal political system. Thus, there was a clear focus on the involvement and commitment of representatives from formal government (P3), and this resulted in 44 percent of the actors being municipality representatives. The diversity of actors received less attention, however (P2), with no outspoken ambition to involve private actors or non-public organizations in the work (diversity index = 0.33).

The region had previous experiences using Open Standards and the tool was also applied with positive results in this process. By merging groups and mobilizing additional conservation expertise, the ICZM organization was leveraged to conduct work with the marine management plan. To connect key individuals to the project and thus ensure acceptance for the process within the CAB, the project coordinator nominated the head of conservation and the head of water management as representatives in the national steering group. Moreover, the commitment of certain key actors was secured by providing economic compensations for their involvement. We thus see evidence of very deliberate strategies to enhance both process and substance legitimacy by clearly structuring the process to facilitate interactions between different municipality sectors (P5). Integration with an already established process had many advantages, since many collaboration issues had already been handled. As noted by the project coordinator,

We became involved at a very good stage when all of that was worked out and the participants saw themselves as representatives for the region and not for their municipality.

Compared with the cross-case average, Bohuslän enjoys high and medium levels of stakeholder acceptance, 67 and 70 percent.


The process in Stockholm started without any pre-existing collaboration experiences to draw on and the CAB even lacked previous contacts with certain parts of the geographical area. Thus, this case is an example of a process in which no previous governance structure was there to affect the studied co-management initiative (P1). Furthermore, this area stands out as being the most remote, with fairly low impacts in terms of resource use (mainly from boat tourism during summers) as well as a pronounced consensus among local landowner to conserve the ecological qualities of the area.

As a start, a series of information meetings was arranged by the CAB, inviting interest organizations, municipalities, central authorities, companies and private property owners (with a big focus on the latter) to discuss the aim of the project and the new management plan. Invited actors, particularly private property owners, expressed great scepticism towards the planning process and a general mistrust in government authorities. The very idea of ‘a protected area’ was questioned and there was a general fear for further restrictions on use. The communication between the project coordinator and property owners was further complicated by the fact that new actors continuously entered the process. The coordinator also experienced difficulties in getting commitment from the departments within CAB and struggled with how to use Open Standards in the process. As a response to this, a higher CAB official took on the role as moderator during stakeholder meetings, resulting in more structured discussions. A decision not to use Open Standards was taken, since it was considered too time consuming in relation to its contribution to the work with the management plan.

The primary network structure strategy of the coordinators was to involve property owners in collaboration, as this group was considered the key stakeholder group. Our analysis shows that a comparatively small and highly heterogeneous network (diversity index = 0.72) evolved during the process (P2). Even though the involvement of municipalities was very low (merely 8 percent of all actors) the project coordinator did not recount any open resistance from municipalities (P3).

No new data collection was undertaken in Stockholm. Instead, the knowledge base was formed by compiling previous inventories and knowledge within the CAB together with input from private actors living in the area. The substance of the plan was jointly formulated together with concerned stakeholders. According to the coordinator,

It was very much the dialogue with the stakeholders that decided what issues and measures to be included.

Instead of deliberatively framing the process to fit into other processes or particular goals, the main network substance strategy to get everyone on board was to leave the agenda open and a large mandate for local actors to decide on the content of the plan (P4).

Initially, the co-management process was run by a regional coordinator, who also worked part time for the EPA as a national coordinator for the same project, and an internal work group within the CAB. Later on, a project organization was pursued, resulting in an external steering group (with municipalities, property owners and other stakeholders), a work group of administrative officials and a coordinating group of executives at the CAB. As elaborated above, the project coordinators in Stockholm struggled to find a proper process design to follow, and significant efforts were initially put into addressing this by primarily sustaining good communication and collaboration between the CAB and property owners (P5). The coordinator said

It took a while before we found a way to work together with the property owners.

The process legitimacy in Stockholm is relatively low (60 percent), while the substance legitimacy is high (80 percent).


The co-management process in Västernorrland was not integrated into any previous working process5 (P1), and as noted by the regional project coordinator

When you have nothing in place to cling to, it takes time.

The main network structure strategy consisted of a very broad invitation to the local community by advertising in local newspapers and public spaces. All who participated wanted to have their say, and the first meetings were dedicated to brainstorming, listening and discussing the purpose of the management plan. The municipalities, in particular one of them, were sceptical towards the collaborative process, and the project coordinator struggled with their commitment during the whole process.

It has been a very difficult obstacle to overcome and it has affected the whole project, they [the municipalities] have been somewhat suspicious.

The inclusive strategy resulted in a large and moderately diversified network, with an increasing diversity of perspectives (diversity index = 0.62), which the project coordinator had to reconcile. While suspicious of the process, municipality representatives nonetheless made up 23 percent of the total network (P3). Furthermore, the legal status of the plan has been a troublesome issue, much debated among the actors involved in this area. The project coordinator has worked with the EPA and the central authority for planning to collect information trying to disentangle and clarify this issue.

In terms of network substance strategies, the work in Västernorrland was primarily focused on forming a rigorous base of ecological knowledge from which to work. An extensive amount of scientific information from previous and new inventories was compiled. Moreover, the project coordinator reached out to the public for information about specific values and trends in the coastal and marine environment, acknowledging the local ecological knowledge of private actors. Although participating stakeholders were specifically asked to consider the balance between use and conservation, the main focus of the process was on acquiring scientific facts, and there was subsequently less deliberate attempt to mediate between divergent interests and values (P4).

Inspired by the parallel process developing in Bohuslän, the process was organized around a steering group composed of the county governor, city councillors and higher public officials; a project group that involved the project coordinator and public officials from the county administration and the municipalities; a larger collaboration group of private actors and interest organizations and a reference group including experts. Moreover, four theme groups were formed based on the topics raised at initial stakeholder meetings to work with different aspects included in the management plan. Cross-theme interactions were facilitated by circulating meeting minutes and arranging mixed group meetings (P5). Furthermore, using a sticky-board, analysing chains of impacts and mapping valuable areas and pressures on the ecosystem, the collaborative process was facilitated during meetings. Use of Open Standards increased the transparency, highlighting divergent views and enhancing understanding among actors with very different perspectives. As noted by the project coordinator,

You talked about the same thing […] everyone dared to say something, everyone wrote something on their notes.

This illustrates how the project coordinator deliberately structured the process to enhance cross-theme interactions (P5). Despite the above efforts by the coordinator to manage the process, the legitimacy of both process and substance in Västernorrland is low (54 percent and 65 percent respectively).


The co-management process in Östergötland was not integrated into any ongoing process but the project coordinator took advantage of personal experiences from a previous project on sustainable archipelagos (MOPS). Moreover, the geographical extent of the area in focus for the new management plan coincided with previously suggested plans by the EPA for a national park. Knowledge of this overlap, and the strong restrictions on use in national parks, made stakeholders in Östergötland sceptical from the start and caused property owners to suspect a hidden agenda to impose a national park on the area. This shows how, even when there are no ongoing regional collaborative processes to link up with (as in Blekinge and Bohuslän), experiences of previous collaborative processes can constitute institutional constraints and affect new co-management initiatives (P1).

The process started with an invitation to property owners, a regional development forum, municipalities and local organizations. The network structure strategies were primarily directed towards property owners as they were 'the ones concerned', but a variety of actors were invited. To also ensure the representation by part-time residents, one part-time resident was given economic compensations to attend the meetings. As expressed by the coordinator,

We cannot take the risk of being criticized for missing some important aspect or ingredient.

The project coordinators have thus undertaken deliberate network structure strategies, with a primary focus on landowners and residents. Involvement and support from municipalities were lacking, but this was not a prioritized issue among coordinators since the relationship between the CAB and the property owners was considered the key focus (P3). Still, the absence of municipalities caused disappointment among the group of property owners and the relationship between the two groups of actors deteriorated during the process. A small yet highly diversified network (diversity index = 0.72) was formed as a result of the process (P2), but municipalities were poorly represented, constituting merely 11 percent of the network, and their commitment was perceived as very low.

To gain support from stakeholders, the coordinators decided early on that the plan should not be exclusively focused on conservation, but that development and conservation should be integrated. Participants were also given the possibility to address issues not directly related to the collaborative plan during the meetings, enlarging the scope of the plan to sustain acceptance (P4). In spite of this, the ambition of increased legitimacy was challenged. Fear of the formation of a national park remained among residents in spite of repeated attempts by the project coordinator to separate the work with the management plan from the national park process. The process of legitimizing the work among this stakeholder group was difficult, since the archipelago inhabitants are poorly organized. The absence of a coordinated negotiation partner increased the time it took to finalize the process and the new management plan. As one coordinator stated,

They [the residents] are great individualists; they take responsibility only for their own matters.

Together with two CAB officials the project coordinator formed an informal work group leading the process. The process was then organized through three theme groups involving public and private actors, primarily land owners within the proposed area. An archipelago council (involving municipality, CAB, fishery and nature conservation interests) was also set up as a reference group, without a decision-making role, but receiving information about the process. An attempt at structuring the process was undertaken by the CAB, but the main network process strategy remained to promote collaboration between the CAB and property owners (P5). Work preceded in the theme groups and new ecological inventories were conducted by consultants. Open Standards was used and appreciated by project coordinators:

I must say that it has been a success since it structured the discussions.

Similarly to Västernorrland, Östergötland struggled with low acceptance levels for both process (59 percent) and substance (65 percent), despite deliberate attempts by coordinators to facilitate the collaborative process in different ways.

Table 2 summarizes stakeholder acceptance of process and substance within the studied regions. Why do some areas achieve legitimacy and others struggle? To answer this question Table 3 summarizes the major patterns emerging with regard to the stated propositions and levels of legitimacy in each case. The following section examines these in more detail by revisiting our conceptual framework to compare and contrast the cases using our propositions to guide the analysis.

Table 3. Institutional landscape and governance strategies
  1. Our interpretation regarding the size and diversity is based on a comparative logic, using the average value as a baseline.

Institutional landscapeP1. Institutional landscape and previous collaboration experiencesyes (biosphere area)yes (ICZM)nonoyes (MOPS, national park process)
Network structureP2. Diversity of actorsmedium (0.63)low (0.33)high (0.72)medium (0.62)high (0.72)
P3. Inclusion and commitment of formal governmentmedium (0.25) involvementhigh (0.44) involvementlow (0.8) involvementmedium (0.23) involvement, lacking commitmentlow (0.11) involvement, lacking commitment
Network substanceP4. (Re)framing of process and goalsreframe towards development issues and biosphere workreframe towards ICZMopen agendaknowledge mobilization as major strategyattempts to separate the work from the national park process
  open agenda   open agenda
Network processP5. Structured approach to process managementorganization integrated with biosphere workorganization integrated with ICZM projectorganization developed by CABgreat efforts to design cross-boundary interactionorganization developed by CAB
  reorganization to increase efficiencyOpen Standardsprocess design developed over timeOpen StandardsOpen Standards
  Open Standards    


  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

Starting with process legitimacy, we note that the areas with high levels of stakeholder acceptance, i.e. Blekinge and Bohuslän (Table 2), share three common features (Table 3). Within these areas, the coordinators made very deliberate and strategic choices when it comes to network structure, i.e. the process of selecting how many and what type of actor to involve in the process. While the two cases slightly differ with respect to actors’ diversity (medium and low, respectively), the coordinators largely targeted public actors, to get local decision makers and officials to engage in and commit to the process (P3). Furthermore, both areas had ongoing collaborative processes in place (P1), and coordinators within these areas were very sensitive to both pre-existing structures and the interests and opinions of identified key actors, i.e. the municipality representatives. Deliberate network substance strategies linking co-management to ongoing initiatives was pursued (P5) by reframing the aim of the collaborative process and the management plan to increase support among these actors and enhance legitimacy (P4).

Västernorrland and Östergötland are characterized by lower levels of process legitimacy, and in contrast to the processes described above neither area had any pre-existing governance structures in the institutional landscape to which to link (P1). Moreover, both areas had an explicit ambition to engage foremost private actors and both encountered severe difficulties in securing commitment from the municipalities (P3). Diversity of perspectives (being high or medium) also seems to have played a part (P2). The broad, non-exclusive approach to actor engagement appears to have contributed to the divergent perspectives characterizing the process in Västernorrland, while in Östergötland the individualistic nature of private land-owners, without a coordinating force to represent their common interests, created high diversity of interests hampering the process. Without the explicit reframing strategies to dealing with conflicting interests and goals (P4), evident in Blekinge and Bohuslän, this diversity likely reduced process legitimacy as well as stakeholder acceptance of the plan. The lack of previous governance structures likely also affected outcomes, as neither area had existing structures or legitimate platforms to build on. Instead, the negative experiences from previous national park plans in Östergötland permeated the process and created suspicions, which severely hampered the legitimacy and acceptance of both the plan and the process.

Blekinge and Stockholm distinguish themselves by the high level of correspondence between views held by stakeholders and the view presented in the management plan, thus indicating high substance legitimacy (Table 2). While the two areas diverge considerably regarding the propositions examined here, they share primarily two aspects. First, project coordinators encouraged actors to bring their own issues to the table and they explicitly worked to create variation in the solutions to goal conflicts by avoiding narrow prioritizations and enhancing buy-in from all actors (adopting an open agenda as a network substance strategy). Second, while the areas differ regarding inclusion of formal government actors, neither area suffered from any outspoken difficulty in the relation with municipal representatives. Thus, the potential conflict with formal government structure is absent.

Having an open agenda is also a distinguishing feature of the process in Östergötland, an area characterized by low substance legitimacy (Table 3). This suggests it may be a necessary but not sufficient cause for explaining acceptance of substantial outcome. If we acknowledge the possible interplay between our explanatory variables, however, we tentatively propose that the pervasive scepticism characterizing the process in Östergötland, stemming from previous experience, may be a stronger factor, effectively overriding attempts by coordinators to promote acceptance by opening up the agenda for property owners' own issues. The process in Östergötland also had a problematic relationship with local government, a feature it shares with Västernorrland, and that distinguishes both these areas from the ones with high substance legitimacy.

Two key findings emerge from the above discussion. The first relates to the decisive impact that previous collaboration structures and actors’ experiences have on the legitimacy of co-management, in support of P1 (cf. Ostrom, 2005; Brummel et al., 2012, Ansell and Gash, 2007). While far from ground breaking, this is a highly relevant finding worth emphasizing as a significant amount of public funding to natural resource management goes via temporary, short term, projects that draw on ideas of collaborative management. The last decades have seen an increasing number of funding schemes for collaborative governance and natural resource management; the one in focus here is just one of many examples. In stark contrast to this, our results emphasizing the positive effect of legitimacy resulting from pre-existing collaborative initiatives in the institutional landscape indicate that successful co-management initiatives take a long time to realize, as different stakeholders have different interests, use different terminology and sometimes suffers from a lack of mandate to participate actively at all times. Therefore, the time needed to reach a stage where trust is high and stakeholders feel they can communicate freely can be significant (Lubell et al., 2009), certainly often longer than the time frame available in individual projects and initiatives. Nonetheless, reaching this stage is a prerequisite for a collaborative process involving difficult tasks such as negotiating and defining common goals (cf. Ansell and Gash 2007). The positive effect on legitimacy emerging from the integrating of co-management processes with other pre-existing collaborative initiatives should therefore be emphasized in relation to new co-management initiatives. In the best of worlds there are existing governance structures, active or slumbering network constellations, which are trusted and perceived as legitimate to build on, but in the cases where these do not exist, or where previous experiences have created mistrust, time and resources must be allocated for the process to develop trustful relations, with the ultimate goal of enhancing both process and substance legitimacy. Acquiring this trust also requires public officials working with the implementation to be skilled in integrating different projects and taking advantage of already established structures and processes.

The second key finding relates to the importance of adopting ‘a network approach’ in the pursuit to govern co-management processes. By managing the evolution of emerging social networks, legitimacy can be influenced (cf. Kickert et al., 1997). Our results emphasize the criticality of making deliberate choices regarding what actors to involve in the process and the particular significance of ensuring commitment from concerned governmental actors (in support of P3). This supports the findings of Klijn et al. (2010) stressing the strong effect from network structure strategies on collaborative outcomes as well as the notion put forward by Huitima et al. (2009) about the necessity to link co-management to formal government structures. McGuire and Agranoff (2011) describe the absence of formal power as a 'real-life barrier' to the performance of governance networks, and our study highlights that this factor seemingly also affects legitimacy. Furthermore, our results suggest that efforts put into actively managing the substance of the collaborative process (cf. Klijn, 2005; Klijn et al., 2010), by opening up the agenda and, in particular, reframing goals to handle diversity and arrive at common visions (cf. Bouwen and Taillieu, 2004; Dewulf et al., 2005; Olsson, 2007), are instrumental for increasing stakeholder acceptance (i.e., P4 is supported). A completely open agenda could, however, lead to a purely aggregative process where all stakeholders are allowed to unquestionably stack their favourite issues on top of each other. Without deliberation on how to prioritize between conflicting issues and making necessary trade-offs, this could quickly deteriorate into power struggles where weaker actors are disadvantaged (Warner, 2006; Bradford 1998), ultimately undermining both legitimacy and commitment to the process (Gray, 1989).

A brief mention of some limitations of the work presented here is warranted. We acknowledge that only a restricted set of explanatory factors are examined here, while legitimacy as a concept is more multi-faceted and dependent on various interrelated socio-political factors beyond the scope of this study. In addition, put into the context of ecosystem-based management, many other criteria than legitimacy must be considered when evaluating the realization of an ecosystem-based approach. Different aspects of ecological status and function, but also the geographic scales of management initiatives, balanced use between conservation and development, and use of adaptive management practices, to name a few (cf. Christensen et al., 1996). The challenges of governing towards an ecosystem-based approach, via the formation of management plans that fulfil both ecological and social criteria, is thus significantly more complex than reflected here. The environmental effects from co-management systems have not been dealt with, and remain an unanswered question puzzling the field of research (Koontz and Thomas, 2006). Even so, we argue that legitimacy of both process and substance is critical to achieving long-term support for any measures developed under an ecosystem approach, and thus underpins the likelihood of improved management of biological resources. It should therefore be of primary concern throughout any governance process, but is particularly important at the onset of collaborative ecosystem governance initiatives.


  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

This paper set out to explain stakeholder acceptance in co-management with the underlying ambition of contributing to the field of collaborative governance of natural resources. As illustrated, such an analysis is far from straightforward, as it reflects both dependencies between the explanatory factors formulated as propositions, and a real-world complexity that theory and a condensed analytical framework can never fully capture. Even so, some tentative findings can be gleaned from the results. The empirical results demonstrate, first, how the past and the present institutional landscape set the underlying conditions and affect stakeholders’ acceptance of new co-management initiatives. Second, the results point to the critical function of network governance. In particular, the inclusion and commitment of formal government actors and deliberative efforts to reframe the process are critical factors. Even though the research design imposes restrictions on the generalizability, these findings can serve as a useful base for future research in the form of testable hypotheses. We believe that additional case studies, comparing co-management in different institutional settings and at other scales, could serve to develop these findings further. To test the robustness, and wider implications of the hypotheses, however, larger n studies would be needed. Given the trend towards co-management in contemporary natural resource governance and the critical aspect of legitimacy, we strongly encourage more systematic research searching for the determinants of legitimacy in collaborative governance.


  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

We gratefully acknowledge the research programme 'Baltic ecosystem adaptive management (BEAM)' at Stockholm University, the Swedish Research Council FORMAS and the programme 'Partially protected areas as buffers to increase the linked social–ecological resilience, BUFFER' (BiodivERsA) for funding parts of this work. The work was also supported by MISTRA through a core grant to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. We would also like to thank Sara Borgström, Diego Galafassi and Frida Johansson for assisting in the process of data collection and the three anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on the manuscript.

  1. 1

    Biosphere areas are nominated by UNESCO and represent model areas for sustainable development and natural resource use. At the time of our study Blekinge was a candidate to become an official biosphere area, an ambition that was realized in July 2011.

  2. 2

    From our interviews, and from stories told at a national meeting, the biosphere application appears to have been a strategy to ensure the (sustainable) development agenda in the archipelago.

  3. 3

    The interpretation concerning diversity is relative and based on cross-case comparisons (all data are presented later in Table 3).

  4. 4

    In 2009, the EPA decided that all areas should be offered Open Standards and the related software, Miradi, in their regional work. Open Standards is a process support tool developed to promote and structure management processes towards conservation and sustainable development.

  5. 5

    An evaluation report, written on the assignment of the EPA, suggests that the process surrounding the nomination of the area as a World Heritage Site have contributed positively to the process in Västernorrland (Norrby et al., 2011). However, our empirical analysis does not reveal any direct connection between the two processes.


  1. Top of page
  3. Introduction
  4. Theory and Propositions
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References
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