Institutional change

It takes more than an action plan

Institutions are slow in adopting new management approaches

When it comes to the management of Baltic marine ecosystems, there is much agreement that a systemic, ecosystem approach is preferable to the classic sector-by-sector approach. Indeed, in 2007, the nine countries bordering the Baltic Sea signed the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) a plan intended to replace a sectoral thinking with a more systemic thinking wherein man and nature are interdependent.

So far, so good, but good plans are no guarantee for institutional change.

Not as radical as you might think
In a study recently published in Marine Policy, centre PhD student Matilda Valman evaluated the change to an ecosystem approach for the Helsinki Comission (HELCOM), the governing body for the protection of the Baltic Sea.

Valman found that BSAP did not trigger any institutional change, leaving it unclear whether international institutions like HELCOM are actually able to adapt to major, unpredictable shifts in the ecosystems they are set to manage.

"Helcom and governments around the Baltic Sea often describe the BSAP agreement as a radical shift from the old management tradition in the region, our study suggest that BSAP did not cause any particular change," says Matilda Valman.

"It proves that in order to intentionally change an institution it is vital that the change processes occur at all levels of the institution".

Helps identify patterns
In her study, Valman did a quantitative text analysis of almost 600 documents from Helcom's annual meetings, committees and working groups. The material covered 30 years of work, between 1980 and 2011. By searching through the extensive material, Valman was able to detect keywords that constituted a shift in perspectives and management approaches.

"Although this method does not explain why change happens, it helps identify patterns of change over a longer period of time," Valman says.

Two separate worlds
But despite apparent change in the use of words and perspectives, no signs of actual change can be found in Helcom. Management focus changed from specific substances during the 1980s to sustainability issues during the 1990s and up to recent years, but it is generally a process of new words added to old ones.

"As it seems, the ecosystem and the management system are two completely independent systems in the Baltic Sea region, where none of the systems actually affect the other. If the solutions should be the answer to the crises and the crises should cohere with the issues, one have to connect the ecosystems with the management systems so that nature answers our call," is Valmans conclusion.



Valman M. Institutional stability and change in the Baltic Sea: 30 years of issues, crises and solutions. Mar. Policy (2012),

Matilda Valman is currently doing her PhD affiliated with the Political Science department at Stockholm University and the Formas-funded project "Regime Shifts in the Baltic Sea Ecosystem - Modelling Complex Adaptive Ecosystems and Governance Implications" at the Baltic Nest Institute.
Her PhD "Equifinality in the Baltic Sea - How can the shift to an ecosystem approach in the governance of the Baltic Sea be explained?" is oriented towards the international ecosystem management of the Baltic Sea.