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Pick your own adventure when trying to get co-management advice implemented

I recently had a great opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with someone now retired from senior levels of the public service in Canada. With hindsight, time to reflect, and a new work environment in academia, he shared insights for us to consider when working in co-management and when we want to see consensus advice implemented.

Trevor (Swerdfager) had a long public service career and gained unique insights into how co-management agreements are developed and implemented from the bureaucratic perspective. We had a wide-ranging discussion as he shared thoughts on co-management models, challenges, and opportunities based on his diverse career path. There were many angles for a follow-up article. I’ve decided to highlight the different types of staff in a major government department. As a thought exercise I’d be interested in your comments and what approach you would take to a situation.



For context, this is a Canadian setting with potential relevance internationally. In Canada, various co-management forms exist, but common are those negotiated through treaties. These treaties establish co-management boards that reach consensus and recommend implementation by higher authorities. This treaty feature impedes Indigenous self-determination when the advice of co-management boards is not implemented.

For example, the Canadian Fisheries Act, reads:

the Minister may, in his absolute discretion, wherever the exclusive right of fishing does not already exist by law, issue or authorize to be issued leases and licences for fisheries or fishing, wherever situated or carried on.

So given this situation, let’s assume for the purpose of this exercise that you sit on a co-management board that was negotiated through a treaty. As a board you have been discussing a major fish species that is currently assessed from a western scientific perspective as being in the “healthy zone”. 

You have also been engaged in co-producing knowledge that is local and place based so your consensus is tailored toward benefiting the local Indigenous Peoples that have the negotiated treaty. After, a three year dialogue your board has reached consensus and you have communicated a recommendation directly to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.


Which pathway would you take from here?

In the podcast conversation with Trevor, he discusses three different groups you may choose to engage with:

  1. The operational and regional staff, who often include biologists, scientists, and resource managers working on the ground. They tend to view co-management as normal business, working directly with their partners. It’s often seen as collaborating with colleagues who have certain rights and interests.

  2. The senior bureaucrats or middle management, such as assistant deputy ministers and director generals, who may see co-management more as an impediment or “pain” requiring extensive consultation that slows things down. There is a tendency to view co-management boards as just another stakeholder to consult.

  3. The political level, including the minister referenced in the Fisheries Act. There is also the political staff in the minister’s office, who often lack nuanced understanding of co-management foundations and legal bases. Most ministers have limited appreciation for what co-management entails.

Where are you going next?

With your recommendation now given to the Minister, what is your next step? Are there ways to effectively brief and educate political staff and ministers about co-management, and the importance of implementing consensus advice? Can or should the co-management have to be communicated in a way that resonates with political priorities?

Would you immediately engage the political level, or follow up with regional staff you have collaborated with for years to co-produce the knowledge informing the co-management advice? Are there ways to leverage their expertise and understanding of the internal realities of government?

Or do you approach senior bureaucrats and seek a favourable decision? Can you effectively communicating the rationale, legal basis, and practical benefits of the co-management recommendations, or suggest ways to position the advice as enhancing the department’s mandate rather than just another obligation?

You can vote below for your preferred pathway.

The Minister can follow the consensus co-management recommendation, or make an entirely unique decision.

There is not a magic answer to this scenario and it is not uncommon to have setbacks or roadblocks that may be viewed as opportunities to reassess your approach and find alternative pathways to influence the decision-making process. This could actually be considered adaptive co-management. 


Please leave your ideas in the comments below. This is a very interesting thought exercise and depending on your positionality or experience, your answer could be very instructional for people learning about co-management and situations like this.

Which route would you take?

  • Pathway 1

  • Pathway 2

  • Pathway 3

  • A combination


If you are an educator or professor, please feel free to use this exercise in your teaching or modify it accordingly. All content on the Co-management Commons website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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