Buzz Holling on target-based management

I’ve been following the discussion of social impact bonds, in which a social venture like prison inmate training and rehabilitation is financed by a third party, evaluated against certain targets, and ultimately paid for by taxpayers if the targets are met.

In this context, I took a look back at Buzz Holling’s writing on target-based management. He’s critical. But how relevant are his concerns about the use of targets in ecosystem management to other contexts, to a social context like mental health care or prison inmate training and rehabilitation?

From “What Barriers? What Bridges?” in the 1995 book Barriers and bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions:

I reviewed some twenty-three examples of managed ecosystems. In each of the cases the goal was to control a target variable in order to achieve social objectives, typically maintaining or expanding employment and economic activity.

In each case the goal was to control the variability of the target – insects and fire at low levels, cattle grazing at intermediate stocking densities, and salmon at high populations. The level desired was different in each situation, but the common feature was to reduce variability of a target whose normal fluctuations imposed problems and periodic crises for pulp mill employment, recreation, farming incomes, or fishermen’s catches.

At the same time, however, elements of the system were slowly changing as a consequence of the initial success of the policy. And because the problem was defined narrowly, such changes were not perceived. In short, the success in controlling an ecological variable that normally fluctuated led to more spatially homogenized ecosystems over landscape scales.  It led to systems more likely to flip into a persistent degraded state, triggered by disturbances that previously could be absorbed. This is the definition of loss of resilience.

Those changes in the ecosystems could have been managed were it not for concomitant changes in two other elements of the interrelationships – in the management institution(s) and in the people who reaped the benefits or endured the costs.

Because of the initial success, in each case the management agencies shifted from their original social and ecological objectives to the laudable objective of improving operational efficiency of the agency itself – spraying insects, fighting fires, producing beef and releasing hatchery fish with as much efficiency and as little cost as possible.

Success brought changes in the society as well. Dependencies developed and powerful political pressures were exerted for continuing the sustained flow of the food or fiber that no longer fluctuated as it once had. More investments therefore logically flowed to expanding pulp mills, recreational facilities, cattle ranches, and fishing technology.

This is the development side of the equation, and its expansion can be rightly applauded. But if the ecosystem from which resources are garnered becomes less and less resilient, more and more sensitive to large-scale transformation, then the efficient but myopic agency and the productive but dependent industry simply become part of the source of crisis and decision gridlock.

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