In the densely populated Netherlands, there is much competition when it comes to how land is used, even on the coast. As well as safety, there are increasingly frequently other factors at play - ecological, recreational, economic.
In recent years, coastal managers have therefore been advocating mega-nourishment: simply depositing an enormous quantity of sand (>5 million m³, or 2,000 Olympic swimming pools) either just behind or on beaches. Ewert Aukes has researched why it has taken so long for this innovation to gain acceptance - and how policies can ever be successful, with there being ‘so many people, so many opinions’ and no single idea being more ‘worthy’ than the next. On 13 October, he will be awarded his PhD in public administration from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS) of the University of Twente.
Urbanization and globalization, flooding, and the rise in sea levels - everything is conspiring to undermine our coastal areas (coastal squeeze). Technology for bringing together safety and other spatial functions - mega-nourishment - has been the subject of discussion since the 1980s, but was only realized in 2011, says Ewert Aukes. Proponents had to create awareness of this innovative idea and overcome resistance to it. That is because many experts believed that the benefits of mega-nourishment would be negated by the drawbacks.
For a technology that still had to prove itself in a maze of pitfalls, Aukes investigated the input of relevant government bodies and other organizations - definitions of problems, discussions on possible and acceptable solutions, and, just as importantly, observations of parties or actors deemed relevant. Two of his three research cases involved mega-nourishment: the Zandmotor at Ter Heijde on the North Sea coast, and the Hondsbossche Duinen project in North Holland. The third was a small-scale experiment with sand in the Markermeer in the Netherlands - the Houtribdijk pilot project. Aukes held in-depth interviews with government officials who were personally involved in the decision-making process. He then investigated how the people he had interviewed framed the various aspects of the creation of the projects and, looking back, at how they observed the development of the debate between the various actors.
Framing is more than deliberately tailoring your message to suit your audience. It is about cognitive structures that are part of being human - they give us the opportunity to create order in our environment and to attach meaning to it, while at the same time limiting our ability ‘to see things differently’. That is why, says Aukes, that when analysing policy issues it is not enough to be satisfied with the explanatory style in cause and effect relationships between independent and dependent variables. It is about defining, by actors who of course are able to contribute a range of perspectives, none of which is fundamentally normatively privileged, or ‘truer’, than the others.
Several decades later, mega-nourishment has now been added to the coast management repertoire. In the Hondsbossche Duinen project, changes to the project management meant that actors started to focus more on similarities between frames rather than on their differences. With the small-scale Houtribdijk pilot project, efficient implementation in line with the prevailing procedures resulted in a low level of involvement on the part of the actors, and consequently minimal exchanges between the frames. And what about the Zandmotor project at Ter Heijde? Initially, it appeared to confirm what Blaise Pascal (in Pensées, 1660) had described as experienced-based wisdom: “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” Nonetheless, it was here that the first mega-nourishment on the Dutch coast came about. And that was because one actor, the Province of South Holland, took the lead in giving a definition with which the other actors could identify. According to Aukes, this was a strong sign of what ‘interpretive policy entrepreneurship’ is capable of.
The dissertation offers various options for future research. For example, the knowledge of interpretations and policy processes can be translated into practical guidelines. Following on from this limited study into government organizations, it could be worth investigating whether social parties, such as non-governmental organizations, citizens’ initiatives, or the general public, have similar interpretations that could lead to success. It would also be relevant to study how interpretations - in an age when scientific findings are disputed by opinions - categorize knowledge as doubtful or indeed irrefutable. An example is that of the way in which leading politicians cast doubt on the existence of climate change..