Designing Collective Action Engagement


Your assessments conducted for Scoping Water Challenges and Action Areas through Selecting the Level of Engagement provide the results you need to initially formulate your collective action prior to engaging external parties. Your findings from these sections should include:

  • Needed Result #1: An understanding of your water-related challenges and an initial sense of the actions areas for collective action;
  • Needed Result #2: A characterization of which external parties you’ll engage with, the current collective action landscape and how you can/should fit into it, and possibly an organization to assist you in facilitating this engagement; and
  • Needed Result #3: A general sense of your desired collective action level of engagement, the anticipated state of external interest and capacity, and a clear sense of the internal interest and capacity to support this level of engagement.

Elements of Collective Action Preparation


The figure “From Challenge to Action” in Scoping Water Challenges and Action Areas depicted a sedimentation-related water quality problem that was addressed with several collective action areas: a direct intervention with agricultural operators to improve on-farm practices; and the formation of a participatory platform to work on governance, public awareness, and education. Following this example through to Identifying and Characterizing Prospective Participants and Selecting the Level of Engagement, an obvious key interested party will be agricultural operators, while analysis undertaken in Selecting the Level of Engagement may have revealed the potential lack of interest in participation on the part of such actors. Such conclusions reflective of the conditions you face establish the basis for you to more specifically design your collective action effort.

When designing your collective action, you will:

  • Formulate preliminary desired outcomes, clarify your collective action intentions, refine your identified action areas to be more specific, and explore geographic scope and scale of the effort;
  • Assign initial core team responsibilities and address general participation requirements; and
  • Make at least initial plans for addressing any interest or capacity deficiencies you may have identified that constrain your ability to act.

Addressing these items will help provide clarity around the collective action you would like to initially test with interested parties, along with a sense of how the collective action could unfold in light of current internal and external interest and capacity. This will support crisp external communication, allow you to respond with reasonable confidence to questions, and—very importantly—establish and maintain appropriate expectations from the outset in terms of what you are willing to commit to the process. It is important to recognize, as stressed in the introduction to Section 5, that you should use this initial clarity as a concrete but flexible starting point for what will and should be an iterative and evolving collective action design effort with all interested parties.


Specifying Desired Outcomes, Formulating Collective Action Process Intentions, Refining Action Areas, and Establishing Geographic Scope and Scale

Specifying Desired Outcomes: To provide strong internal and external clarity regarding your purposes for initiating collective action, it is important to specify in a measurable manner (if possible) your desired outcomes. Here the focus is on identifying the aspect of the water management system that requires change, and on specifying the nature of the change needed. Once again, you must strike a balance between providing up-front clarity, while acknowledging and providing flexibility for other collective action participants to refine or reformulate the desired outcomes. For example, if water scarcity induced by suboptimal water use is a key challenge faced by your organization and the watershed community as a whole, then a specific desired outcome could be the implementation of water conservation measures and more water-efficient equipment by the key water users in the catchment.

Formulating Collective Action Process Intentions: Your reasons for interacting with the interested parties will influence how you structure other aspects of your process and the discussions you will have. Formulating your intentions clearly is critical, as they underlie the requests you will be making of the collective action participants. For example, if your intent is to focus on expanding the understanding of problems and solutions (a core aspect of informative collective action), then you will ask participants to share knowledge and be open to gaining a new appreciation of water-related challenges and solutions. Alternatively, if you intend to focus on expanding the availability of resources to support change (a core aspect of collaborative or integrative collective action), then you will ask participants to play a direct role in the implementation of on-the-ground problem-solving measures. Clarity on these intentions will aid your internal and external communications, as well as bring greater clarity to the expectations for participation. Examples of collective action intentions are listed in the box below.

Refining Action Areas: The 12 areas of the CEO Water Mandate’s Water Action Hub presented in Scoping Water Challenges and Action Areas reflect general areas of focus for your collective action. To be effective in your initial discussions with interested parties regarding their possible participation in a collective action, you need to specify the type of intervention you have in mind based on your understanding of the challenges you face, the long-term goals you have, and the initial commitments you are willing to make. To illustrate, specifically articulated interventions could include the following:

  • Creating a forum between companies to share information on water quality status;
  • Catalyzing a catchment stakeholder platform for promoting improved long-range water resource planning;
  • Driving an awareness initiative with water managers to promote water conservation by local communities and farmers;
  • Establishing and managing a payment program for environmental services to enable upstream catchment protection; or
  • Providing financial resources and capacity to local governments to improve water supply infrastructure operations and maintenance.

In each case, these proposed interventions more specifically depict and connect the water-related challenge, the core collective action participants, and the desired outcomes of the collective action. It is important to recognize, however, that the types of interventions you initially formulate may (and likely will) evolve over time as capacity, understanding, and trust among participants increases, and solutions are formulated and tailored through dialogue to best address the interests and needs of all parties. For example, an intervention focused on raising awareness of problems and solutions related to water infrastructure deficiencies could evolve into a partnership to jointly fund infrastructure improvements.

Establishing Geographic Scope and Scale: The scope and scale of your collective action should follow directly from your water resource management challenges and your specific planned interventions. Some challenges and interventions can be undertaken solely within a specific catchment context (e.g., a weak local infrastructure management capacity). In other instances, your challenges and interventions will be tied to regional, national, or even international contexts (e.g., a weakness in water governance resulting from gaps in national legislation or policy). Under almost all conditions, local catchment engagement will be needed, as this is where the specific challenges manifest, while the need to reach outside the catchment to involve other parties will be driven by the scale at which solutions to your challenges reside.

In certain instances, a company may conduct operations in multiple countries or regions of a country. In this case, a tiered approach may be useful. For example, a global company may partner with NGO or government global actors to draw on their networks, credibility, and resources in support of individual local catchment collective action initiatives. Case Example 8, focused on a global partnership between the Coca-Cola Company and the World Wildlife Fund, provides an example of this type of global-local partnership.

A Partnership Integrating Global Reach with Local Action Capabilities

In 2007, the Coca-Cola Company and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) established a global partnership on the premise that water was central to the interests of the world’s largest beverage company and the world’s largest international conservation organization. The partnership sought to simultaneously leverage the organizations’ global reach and local networks in order to affect watershed health, community sustainability, and water quality outcomes in seven river basins, which were targeted based on the degree to which they were threatened, the opportunity for meaningful impact, and their importance to the partners’ conservation and commercial interests.

In one target area, the Mesoamerican Reef Catchments, sediments and effluents from human activities in the adjoining basins of the Motagua and Polochic Rivers in Guatemala threatened water quality throughout the catchments and in the reef itself. These water resources are essential to 500 communities, two hydroelectric projects, numerous agricultural irrigation systems, cattle ranching, and industries including a Coca-Cola bottler, ABASA.

WWF had been working in the region for more than 25 years to build local alliances and partnerships in order to harmonize development with a healthy marine ecosystem, and a relationship had already been developing between the local WWF and ABASA staffs. The global partnership brought additional resources and focus to these efforts and leveraged the local networks and skill sets of the Coca-Cola Company, WWF, and additional partners such as CARE International to make available financial and technical assistance and other resources in order to develop a battery of conservation initiatives in key subbasins. In all, 11 communities were involved in adopting sustainable agricultural practices, transitioning to higher-income-generating activities, or participating in reforestation and watershed protection activities. The Coca-Cola Company participates as a full partner with WWF and CARE in the planning and management of these interventions while WWF, CARE, and other partners take on additional responsibilities by directly delivering technical assistance and other services at the local level.

Establishing Core Roles and General Participation

Establishing the right team—identifying the right people for the right roles—is integral to building trust and relationships among all the participants involved in a collective action. In turn, trust and credibility are often the cornerstones of a successful process, particularly wherever negotiations or a merging of interests is required. In conjunction with personal trust among participants, there must also be trust and confidence in the information base, analytical methods, and process structure. Each collective action implementation role plays some part in building trust among participants and in the data, methods, and process that will be used to form the basis of decisions by those involved. If underlying discrepancies ormistrust of any kind are not addressed, or at the very least made known and acknowledged at the beginning of a process, the collective action effort may face insurmountable challenges along the way.

There are six core implementation roles (see text box) associated with collective action—who should perform these roles will differ with the type and goals of the engagement. If you believe your company has strong, credible, trusting relationships with the other collective action participants, your organization may play multiple roles. However, more engaged levels of collective action (i.e., when moving into collaborative or integrative processes) typically need roles to be separated. It also can be very challenging for your organization to simultaneously represent your specific interests and maintain either the reality or perception of an objective neutral process convener.

In addition to the core process roles, you will need to consider the specific participation roles and representation for the collective action process. In Identifying and Characterizing Prospective Participants, you identified the interested parties critical to addressing the identified water-related challenge. You now need to identify how the interested parties can be most effectively organized and represented in the collective action process. For example, interested agricultural operators may have a catchment cooperative that typically provides representation for its membership. When structuring the collective action, the first major question to ask is, “Who should be involved to represent which interests?”

“Who is involved” will largely be determined by the type of collective action that your organization has chosen. For consultative or informative collective action, the majority of participants will be general representatives of stakeholder groups and topical experts. For the more complex collaborative or integrative collective action processes, however, those representing key interest groups must operate with deep knowledge of the topic and have credibility and leveraging capabilities in their communities.

Key Collective Action Roles

  • The initiator: Calls attention to the need for the collective action, formulates initial objectives, acts as a catalyst to generate interest and motivation to problem solve, and may provide resources to, at a minimum, jump-start the process.
  • The convener: Acts as the lead party responsible for making the decision to undertake collective action, and takes the first steps in identifying who will act in the other roles. The convener will also typically make the initial approach to potential participants and conduct any other needed outreach or research.
  • The process manager: Provides the day-today logistical and managerial support to the collective action. This can include scheduling, handling event or meeting logistics, coordinating participants, tracking tasks, preparing background materials, synthesizing results, and preparing recommendations.
  • The neutral party: Manages individual and collective discussions and relationships among interested parties, with an emphasis on enabling a candid understanding of the critical interests and needs of each participant. The need for and trust in the neutral party becomes critically important when entering into any form of consensus-seeking process.
  • The experts: Provide the technical and analytical capabilities required to ensure that problems and solutions are characterized, vetted, and understood well. This role is critical to building trust in and the credibility of the knowledge base and analytical efforts underlying the collective action.
  • The funders: Provide the resources needed to support convening the collective action participants, as well as implementing on-the-ground actions. The collective action initiator often shoulders the burden of initial seed funding for the collective action effort or early implementation actions. However, there are also funders that can offer financing at the start of the process, such as donor agency public-private partnership (PPP) funds.

Just as important as “who is involved” is “who is not involved.” While it is often an enticing option to exclude strongly dissenting parties, this path can lead to difficulties. A collective action process can change relational dynamics, leaving some parties in strong opposition because of an actual or perceived disadvantage. If left out of major discussions, these parties may go out of their way to block progress (e.g., by enacting bureaucratic or administrative roadblocks), creating the risk of derailing the collective action process or inhibiting on-the-ground implementation efforts.


Addressing Interested-Party Interest and Capacity

Your analysis undertaken in Identifying and Characterizing Prospective Participants and Selecting the Level of Engagement will reveal at least the general contours of the baseline conditions of interested-party interest and capacity. Your collective action development will need to include a consideration of any identified deficiencies, and the articulation of actions needed to address them. Interest deficiencies will most often relate to a lack of recognition of shared risks, responsibility, or benefits. These deficiencies typically require engaging the interested parties in a joint exploration of the available information to generate understanding, and hopefully to position the water-related challenge and proposed collective action as a high priority with them. It is not at all uncommon for more engaged forms of collective action—collaborative and integrative—to begin with an information-sharing focus to ensure a clear, common understanding of the challenges and needed responses, even if baseline interest among participants is high.

Capacity deficiencies typically result from a lack of technical expertise or financial wherewithal to engage as an equal and effective participant in the collective action. Inadequate capacity, by definition, will establish an inequitable process with asymmetrical participant influence (a potential power imbalance) in which certain parties are unable to represent their needs, interests, and solutions effectively. The risk of not adequately addressing these issues is a later accusation of corporate institutional domination of the process. Such imbalances will require affirmative action on the part of the collective action initiator or convener in order to bring resources to the table, making them available on an independent, “no strings attached” basis (e.g., providing financial resources to a community organization to hire its own technical consultant).

Capacity building tends to be needed most in rural or developing communities, which often have a lower capacity to participate in a collective action process than wealthy or urban communities. This low capacity can be due to a lack of resources to travel to meetings, or a lack of awareness that the process is taking place, due to limited access to communication. In these instances, you may need to fund additional outreach efforts or hold meetings in multiple areas to allow for equal participation by various communities. Capacity building is also the point in the process where an information-sharing platform might be created. When multiple community groups are involved in a dialogue, different types of knowledge will be represented, so it is important that a method is in place to ensure understanding of each party by the others. For instance, in areas where more than one language is spoken, effective capacity building would include the securing of appropriate translators.


Addressing Internal Interest and Capacity

Your development efforts will need to line up internal staff and financial resources, as well as address any deficiencies in the responsiveness and collective action experience your organization has, relative to your selected level of engagement. You can address staff and financial resources through a work-plan development and budgeting process tied to a business case in support of the collective action. The more intensive the engagement you have selected, the greater the pressure on obtaining explicit commitments to provide the needed resources over the entire anticipated duration of the process.

Deficiencies associated with responsiveness and experience will be critical to address. Keep in mind that collaborative and integrative collective action levels of engagement will almost certainly require a high degree of responsiveness to external-party needs and interests. Your organization must understand this likelihood and be prepared from the outset for these responsiveness expectations, or risk substantially disappointing the engaged parties.

Insufficient trust or credibility with external parties is a final—and very important—area of potential deficiency. Any form of collective action requires a solid foundation of trust and credibility among the engaged parties. A deficiency in this area can be addressed in a stepwise manner (e.g., beginning with basic information sharing and a commitment to transparency that can dispel misperceptions), or through the recruitment of collective action partners that have high trust and credibility with the parties you would like to engage. A valuable precursor to collective action is to address internal water stewardship opportunities—essentially, getting your own house in order from a water use optimization and impacts perspective. This effort will signal your clear commitment to sustainable water management, as well as your recognition of a responsibility for safeguarding the resource.

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