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Four Cultural Narratives for Managing Social-ecological Complexity in Public Natural Resource Management


Abstract and Figures

Public Natural Resource Management (NRM) agencies operate in complex social-ecological domains. These complexities proliferate unpredictably therefore investigating and supporting the ability of public agencies to respond effectively is increasingly important. However, understanding how public NRM agencies innovate and restructure to negotiate the range of particular complexities they face is an under researched field. One particular conceptualisation of the social-ecological complexities facing NRM agencies that is of growing influence is the Water–Energy–Food (WEF) nexus. Yet, as a tool to frame and understand those complexities it has limitations. Specifically, it overlooks how NRMs respond institutionally to these social-ecological complexities in the context of economic and organisational challenges—thus creating a gap in the literature. Current debates in public administration can be brought to bear here. Using an organisational cultures approach, this paper reports on a case study with a national NRM agency to investigate how they are attempting to transform institutionally to respond to complexity in challenging times. The research involved 12 elite interviews with senior leaders from Natural Resources Wales, (NRW) and investigated how cultural narratives are being explicitly and implicitly constructed and mobilised to this end. The research identified four distinct and sequential cultural narratives: collaboration, communication, trust, and empowerment where each narrative supported the delivery of different dimensions of NRW’s social-ecological complexity mandate. Counter to the current managerialist approaches in public administration, these results suggest that the empowerment of expert bureaucrats is important in responding effectively to complexity.
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Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434
Four Cultural Narratives for Managing Social-ecological Complexity
in Public Natural Resource Management
Nick A. Kirsop-Taylor 1Adam P. Hejnowicz2Karen Scott1
Received: 29 July 2019 / Accepted: 15 June 2020 / Published online: 7 July 2020
© The Author(s) 2020
Public Natural Resource Management (NRM) agencies operate in complex social-ecological domains. These
complexities proliferate unpredictably therefore investigating and supporting the ability of public agencies to respond
effectively is increasingly important. However, understanding how public NRM agencies innovate and restructure to
negotiate the range of particular complexities they face is an under researched eld. One particular conceptualisation of
the social-ecological complexities facing NRM agencies that is of growing inuence is the WaterEnergyFood (WEF)
nexus. Yet, as a tool to frame and understand those complexities it has limitations. Specically, it overlooks how NRMs
respond institutionally to these social-ecological complexities in the context of economic and organisational challenges
thus creating a gap in the literature. Current debates in public administration can be brought to bear here. Using an
organisational cultures approach, this paper reports on a case study with a national NRM agency to investigate how they
are attempting to transform institutionally to respond to complexity in challenging times. The research involved 12 elite
interviews with senior leaders from Natural Resources Wales, (NRW) and investigated how cultural narratives are being
explicitly and implicitly constructed and mobilised to this end. The research identied four distinct and sequential cultural
narratives: collaboration, communication, trust, and empowerment where each narrative supported the delivery of
different dimensions of NRWs social-ecological complexity mandate. Counter to the current managerialist approaches in
public administration, these results suggest that the empowerment of expert bureaucrats is important in responding
effectively to complexity.
Keywords Public agency WaterEnergyFood nexus Organisation Environment Culture Social-ecological complexity
The signicant majority of contemporary public organisa-
tions operate in increasingly complex policy domains
(Cairney et al. 2019). They must negotiate issues arising
from an array of social, economic, and ecological systems
and the interactions between them (Capra and Luisi 2016).
Complex systems such as these are highly diverse and
dynamic by nature and characterised by properties such as
non-linearity, multiscalarity, feedbacks, tipping points,
self-organisation, emergence, path dependency, adaptation,
and uncertainty (Mobus and Kalton 2014). Consequently,
because they are open to continual change and interact with
other systems in unanticipated ways, complex systems
display a high degree of unpredictability in their responses
to different drivers of change, which makes the task of
managing and governing them particularly demanding
(Young 2017).
Public natural resource management (NRM) agencies, in
particular, face a difcult situation in managing multiple
complexities (Kennedy and Quigley 1998; Belcher 2001;
Koontz and Bodine 2008). First, like other organisations,
they have to address organisational and operational com-
plexities such as human resource and strategic development
issues (Stacey 2015) and executive accountabilities (Tho-
mann et al. 2017; Gravey et al. 2018; Schoenefeld and
*Nick A. Kirsop-Taylor
1Politics Department, University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall TR10
2Department of Biology, University of York, Wentworth Way
YO10 5DD, UK
Supplementary information The online version of this article (https:// contains supplementary
material, which is available to authorised users.
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Jordan 2019). Second, like other public policy delivery
agencies, they have to tackle the complexities of policy
implementation and evaluation (Cairney et al. 2019) whilst
under the increasing pressure of political and economic
challenges and public expectations (Van Wart 2013; Taylor
et al. 2019; National Audit Ofce 2018). Third, they have
an additional layer of complexity to manage, in the form of
the local and global sustainability challenges such as those
posed by climate change, biodiversity loss, and land-use
change (e.g., Vince 2014; Steffen et al. 2018) that involve
the governance of complex social-ecological systems
(Young 2017). In other words, interrelated environmental
systems (e.g., marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosys-
tems) and social systems (e.g., sheries, agriculture, and
forestry) (Cortner et al. 1998; Belcher 2001; Rammel et al.
2007; Biggs et al. 2015; Young 2017).
These complexities proliferate unpredictably (at the
time of writing we are in the middle of the COVID-19
pandemic), therefore investigating and supporting the
ability of public agencies to respond effectively is
increasingly important (Eppel and Rhodes 2018). How-
ever, understanding how public NRM agencies innovate
and restructure to negotiate the range of particular com-
plexities they face is an under researched eld. One par-
ticular conceptualisation of the social-ecological
complexities facing NRMs that is of growing inuence is
the WaterEnergyFood(WEF)nexus.Yet,asatoolto
frame and understand those complexities it has limita-
tions. Specically, it overlooks how NRMs respond
institutionally to these complexities in the context of
economic and organisational challengesthus creating a
gap in the literature. Current debates in public adminis-
tration can be brought to bear here. Using an organisa-
tional cultures approach, this paper reports on a case study
with a national NRM agency to investigate how they are
attempting to transform institutionally to respond to
complexity in challenging times. The research involved
senior leaders from the Welsh national natural resource
agencyNatural Resources Wales (NRW), and focusses
on how narratives are being explicitly and implicitly
constructed to create a better organisational culture for
addressing complexity.
Responding to Complexity
Socio-ecological Complexity Frameworks
Understanding how organisations in general develop,
operate, respond, and behave falls within the realm of
organisational studies and public administration (Stacey
2015; Mullins 2016). Traditionally, public administration
scholarship has focused on organisational and operational
complexity and how increased challenges in service
delivery often test the boundaries of political trust and
bureaucratic autonomy and empowerment (Peters 2010:
2972; Thomann et al. 2017). Some scholars work from the
perspective that rising complexity is best managed through
an increasingly professional bureaucracy who can make
autonomous expert situational decisions (Randolph 1995;
Jamil et al. 2016; Kim and Fernandez 2015). Others argue
from more managerial approaches that stricter account-
abilities will endow bureaucrats with the tools necessary to
meet complex situations (e.g., audit cultures) (Halligan
2007;Bovensetal.2014; Schillermans, van Twist 2016).
These differing perspectives reect a wider debate about
the optimal modality for exercising control and ensuring
accountability in a bureaucracy (Peters 2010: 263302).
More recently, there has been a broadening of scope
beyond these traditional perspectives, including an increased
focus on how public NRMs govern in relation to the complex
social-ecological systems under their remit (Barton et al.
2010; Cilliers et al. 2013; Scott et al. 2015). A challenge that
demands signicant organisational and epistemic change
from NRM agencies that are often sectorally organised, have
difculty integrating social and natural science research, and
remain at the whim of political economies and ideologies
(Leck et al. 2015). The ecosystem approach, arising from the
Convention on Biological Diversity (Jenkins et al. 2015),
provided an early attempt to design a holistic, non-sectoral,
and decentralised framework for integrated NRM based on a
suite of fundamental principles (CBD 1998;Waylenetal.
2015). Indeed, as we outline later, the ecosystem approach
was the foundation NRW adopted as an organisational
framing to navigate social-ecological complexity (Kirsop-
Taylor and Hejnowicz 2020). In relation to natural resource
use, scarcity, and management, the WEF nexus provides a
more recent conceptual framing of social-ecological com-
plexity that has garnered widespread policy traction (e.g.,
Ringler et al. 2013; Scott et al. 2015). In many respects, the
WEF nexus represents a contemporary social-ecological
problematic that previously saw efforts at reconciliation
through the ecosystem approach (Leck et al. 2015;Bhaduri
et al. 2015; Bizikova et al. 2013).
The WEF emphasises the complex interconnections
between related biophysical systems (i.e., water, energy,
and food), economic sectors, and policy domains as they
affect human wellbeing and public welfare (Scott et al.
2015). In that regard, the WEF provides an approach to
think systematically (so-called nexus thinking) about the
interdependencies underlying the functioning of social-
ecological systems as well as a means to adopt multi-
disciplinary systems perspectives (Ringler et al. 2013; Leck
et al. 2015; Albrecht et al. 2018). Whilst the utilisation of
the WEF as a particular framing of contemporary social-
ecological challenges and a form of enquiry is not without
420 Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434
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criticism (Wiegleb and Bruns 2018; Simpson and Jewitt
2019) it resonates strongly with national policy-actors (Leck
et al. 2015; Kirsop-Taylor and Hejnowicz 2020).
Hence, there is increasing emphasis on understanding
complex social-ecological challenges through a WEF lens
(Dodds and Bartram 2016). And, in particular, addressing
the challenges posed by interconnected and inter-
dependent systems through a governance imperative
(Weitz et al. 2017;Pahl-Wostl2019). However, whilst the
WEF is particularly useful as a means of examining bio-
physical and cross-sectoral linkages within a system, in
relation to the issue of governance, the WEF is generally
more concerned with understanding the external role and
actions of actors, such as NRM agencies, involved in
governing social-ecological systems. As such, it offers
limited insights into how public NRM agencies should
internally reconcile emerging knowledges of and
accountabilities for social-ecological complexity along-
side the economic, political, and operational challenges of
maintaining funding, capacity, and capabilities. In addi-
tion, the focus on system perspectives for organisational
change management, which often goes hand in hand with
the WEF approach, has been criticised for its rationalist
and reductionist approach (Tsoukas and Hatch 2001;
Mowles et al. 2008; Simpson 2012). The tendency to
frame organisations as a set of structures and agents where
different levers can be pulled by change managers
neglects the day-to-day difculties of trying to achieve
things together, which is what it would mean to under-
stand the process of organising as complex processes of
relating(Mowles et al. 2008: 816; Simpson 2012). In
these circumstances, which concern matters of internal
organisational dynamics and behavioural responses, it is
necessary to turn to other approaches that can be applied
to examine these issues, notably organisational culture
(Peters 2010:3378).
Organisational Culture
There is a long-held view that the eld of public adminis-
tration should be considered as a form of culture science
(e.g., Kulturwissenschaftsee Ringeling 2017) that
acknowledges the criticality of culture in shaping the public
sphere. Within this perspective public organisational culture
is a versatile and powerful theoretical framing for under-
standing how public organisations manage and reconcile
multiple complexities (e.g., Parker and Bradley 2000; Parry
and Proctor-Thomson 2010; Stanford 2010; Dartey-Baah
et al. 2011; Lowndes and Roberts 2013). Culture exists at
all levels of an organisation (Rez and Gati 2004) and in
relation to all issues and operations. Therefore, it is a useful
lens to examine both broadly and deeply across multiple
complex and intersecting domains within organisations.
Smircich (1983) reviewed the cultural turn in organisational
theory and developed a ve-pronged typology to categorise
understandings of organisational culture. In order to bring
clarity to the eld she linked ontological assumptions about
culture and organisations from anthropology and organisa-
tional theory respectively to create ve views of organisa-
tional culture: comparative management, corporate culture,
organisational cognition, organisational symbolism,
unconscious processes and organisation. This typology
allows researchers to interrogate their own ontological
understandings of both cultureand organisation. In this
paper we broadly follow an organisational cognition model
where organisations are systems of knowledgeand culture
is a system of shared cognitionswhere both systems
function in relation to rules(Smircich 1983: 342). This
resonates closely with Scheins well-known denition of
organisational culture:
Culture can now be dened as (a) a pattern of basic
assumptions, (b) invented, discovered, or developed
by a given group, (c) as it learns to cope with its
problems of external adaptation and internal integra-
tion, (d) that has worked well enough to be considered
valid and, therefore (e) is to be taught to new members
as the (f) correct way to perceive, think, and feel in
relation to those problems. (Schein 1990, p 113)
Viewed in this manner, culture can help and encourage
the building of adaptivity and learning into public organi-
sations (Costanza et al. 2015). Equally, organisational
cultures can help organisations transition away from toxic
and intolerant practices (e.g., UK Police foundation 2018)
towards cultures that tolerate mistakes as gateways to
learning and innovation (Betts and Holden 2004;Maria
2003; Wodcka-Hyjek 2014; Olejarski et al. 2019). The
embedding of cultural values has also been identied to be
signicant for business performance and management in
the face of external threats (Mansol et al. 2014), as well as
moderating internal organisational behavioural dynamics
and communication (Fischer and Smith 2006;Sagivand
Schwartz 2007).
Cultural Narratives
In recent decades there has been a steadily increasing
academic and policy interest in the potential power that
narratives have in shaping, informing, and constructing
organisational cultures (Doolin 2003; Rowlinson et al.
2014) for improving management (Browning 1991;
Rhodes and Brown 2005), especially during periods of
change and complexity (Bevir and Krupicka 2007;
Strandberg and Vigsø 2016). Narratives have been shown
to inuence policy-making (e.g., Rhodes 2002; Stevens
Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434 421
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2011;Lowndes2016), constitute evidence (Epstein et al.
2014), and shape policy cultures (e.g., Rhodes 2018).
Organisational cultural narratives are the accounts of con-
nected events and ideas that create a value-laden story
relevant to a particular collections of individuals (Eisenberg
et al. 2001;Dettori2011;Utoft2020). They are the stories
that help to build, change, and/or sustain shared meanings
in an organisation. Organisational cultural narratives can
manifest as crisp linear stories (Labov 1972;Hones1998)
or as mosaics of commonly associated collection of themes,
aspirations, and observations that collectively account and
construct the associative determinantsof narrative (as per
Fulford 1999).
Whilst certainly there is a critical counter-literature
about narrative approaches to policy analysis (e.g., Jones
and McBeth 2010), the weight of scholarly activity in this
eld is focussed on how narrative approaches can offer an
important conceptual lens for understanding complexity in
contemporary public agencies (Browning 1991;Lämsä
and Sintonen 2006; Denning 2011;Pekar2011;Morrell
2006; Dalhstrom 2014;Vaaraetal.2016). The prolifera-
tion of narrative approaches to organisational studies (and
to a lesser degree public administration) literatures has
facilitated an increasing sophistication in the methods of
narrative analysis (e.g., Riessman 1993;Daiuteand
Lightfoot 2004). In a systematic review Sahni and Sinha
(2016) acknowledge the growing use of narrative
approaches in organisational analysis but nd that under-
standing the role and signicance of narratives within
organisations is an under researched eld. Furthermore,
there are few contributions to this literature exploring
narratives for culture in public NRM agencies (e.g.,
Dalhstrom 2014) who, as already noted, face a somewhat
unique set of challenges.
We build on the view that narrative themes that inu-
ence communications, organisational relationships,
visions and values, and where leaders are deeply embed-
ded in a process of change, can be the basis for new types
of organisational cultures to emerge (Simpson 2012;
Stacey 2015). We therefore argue that cultural narratives
should be a useful tool for constructing or re-aligning
public organisational cultures towards the challenges of
grappling with social-ecological complexities. As men-
tioned above, popular system-based approaches for
change management in organisations dealing with uncer-
tainty and complexity have limitations. Simpson (2012)
argues that these approaches tend to characterise leader-
ship as the key to success, usually framing this as a one-
step removed change management herothat can use their
expertise of how systems work to guide the organisation
through difcult transitions. Instead they argue for atten-
tion to the evolving dynamics of relating that make an
organisation what it is and how it is continuously
interactions through language that build complex patterns
of how an organisation thinks about itself, what it can
achieve and how it should act. We explore this argument
through the case of NRW.
Case Study
NRM and the Challenges of the Current UK Political
The United Kingdom (UK) offers an interesting setting for
understanding complexity in public NRM agencies. Since
2016 until the time of writing the discourse regarding
agency capabilities for dealing with complexity has
focused on their preparedness for Brexiti.e., the UKs
departure from the European Union (EU) (e.g., Rutter and
McCrae 2016; Jessop 2017) and the requirement for new
and replacement policies (see: UK Governments Industrial
Strategy and 25-Year Environment Plan, both launched in
2018). Moreover, when combined with systematic agency
underfunding following 10 years of public sector austerity
(National Audit Ofce 2018; Kirsop-Taylor et al. 2020)
and uncertainties around post-Brexit zombie legislation
(Burns and Carter 2018: 25) the current situation is parti-
cularly challenging. These relatively acutepolitical and
economic issues co-exist, and to some degree overshadow,
the longer-term challenge of responding to and governing
social-ecological complexity through remodelling how
public NRM agencies function and behave (Kirsop-Taylor
and Hejnowicz 2020).
History and Development of NRW
Within the UK Wales (see Fig. 1) is a (non-federal) nation
that operates under a reserved model of devolved govern-
ance. This provides a degree of power for drafting legisla-
tion, managing budgets, and setting rules within certain
policy areas (Trench 2015) and the fully devolved envir-
onmentpolicy-area. Following a widespread consultation
and listening exercise the Sustaining a Living Walesgreen
paper (2012) articulated the challenges and vision for
twenty-rst century NRM agency in Wales. This led to an
ambitious policy and institution-building agenda (St.Denny
2016; Moon and Evans 2017) legislated through the Well-
being of Future Generations Act (2015) and the Environ-
ment (Wales) Act (2016).
The Environment (Wales) Act (2016) built on previous
by consolidating the three separate NRM
1Especially the Natural Resources Body for Wales Establishment
422 Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434
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agencies (the Welsh Environment Agency, the Countryside
Council for Wales, and the Welsh Forestry Commission)
into a unied national agency called NRW. Each of the
legacy agencies brought unique and differentiated activ-
ities, processes, leadership styles, and cultures to the new
agency (Waylen et al. 2015). The Environment (Wales) Act
(2016) legislated for the design and adoption of a new
multiple-scale framework approach for national NRM
mindful of the need to be better attuned to social-ecological
complexity (as expressed in the consultation). This new
approach, called the sustainable management of natural
resources(SMNR), was based upon instantiating an
adapted form of the Malawi Principles of the ecosystem
approach from the Convention on Biological Diversity
(Jenkins et al. 2015). Figure 2highlights how NRW
adapted the principles of an ecosystem approach into their
SMNR programme to meet the challenges posed by
managing social-ecological complexity.
The principles of the SMNR approach are activated by
NRW through a mix of discretionary and legislative powers,
and executive expectations for implementation. The oper-
ationalisation of these principles into the processes, archi-
tectures, and activities of NRW is an evolving process of
learning, iteration, and adaptation.
Justication for Focusing on NRW
We selected NRW as a case study for a unique combi-
nation of reasons, which together provide a useful and
interesting context in which to consider the role of cultural
narratives in building and facilitating organisational per-
formance for complexity. First, they are a newly created
NRM organisation with a fresh organisational mandate.
Second, they are currently explicitly transforming their
organisational processes and functions to increase their
complexity-capacity through the SMNR approach. Third,
they are at a global rst-mover disadvantage in imple-
menting the SMNR approach. Fourth, they have a level of
political patronage that has provided an enabling envir-
onment to act and operate in an innovative way. More-
over, they are operating within highly scally constrained
conditions as a result of public austerity. No UK public
NRM agency has faced such a signicant disparity of
funding between their initial business case (2013) and
current funding settlements as NRW (Reynolds and
Ninnes 2017). Finally, as noted by Waylen et al. (2015),
organisational legacies, such as those from the three
agencies that constituted NRW, can create hurdles for
integration and innovation that require signicant effort to
overcome (Kirsop-Taylor and Hejnowicz 2020). In NRW
this has produced an environment ripe for structural,
functional, and cultural innovation, as well as for con-
tention, failure(s), and potential for learning.
Whilst the combination of justications for case selc-
tion evidence the uniqueness of NRW as a case, the
challenges it faces in terms of meeting socio-ecological
complexities, change management, and building culture
are near universal to all other international NRM agen-
cies. Therefore, this case-based research may help other
organisations interested in such transformational aspira-
tions and facing similar conditions and constraints, to
anticipate and understand the opportunities and barriers
involved in such processes from an organisational cul-
tures perspective.
Fig. 1 Devolved Wales. Source:
Business Wales 2019
Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434 423
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The focus of this research was on organisational cultural
narratives to create more effective responses to complex-
ity. Similar research within large public agencies has
highlighted the value of the elite interview method for
understanding complex organisational change manage-
ment situations (Schara and Common 2016). Hochschild
(2009) notes that fewer focussed interviews with respon-
dents chosen for their detailed knowledge of a subject are
likely to yield richer data than other sampling approaches.
Congruent with the normative rationale of elite case-based
research methods (Leuffen 2007; Luton 2010: 26-28;
Boggards 2018) this small sample of elite managers were,
in all probability, the only interviewees who could offer
such detailed insights into the phenomena under investi-
gation. They were the ones tasked with, and responsible
for, organisational change with a focus on changing
organisational culture and the organisational messaging
around that. This therefore necessitated a qualitative
research design with a small nsample of NRW organisa-
tional elites (as per Luton 2010). The drawbacks of elite
interviewing in terms of accessibility, positionality, and
small nsample sizes (Harvey 2011)wereoffsetbythe
benets of gaining rst-hand accounts that were highly
detailed and nuanced.
Twelve semi-structured interviews were conducted with
senior managers within NRW. The primary contact within
NRW was established through an existing organisational
gatekeeper, which led to opportunity and snowball sam-
pling. The interview sample comprised members of the
senior management team (n=3), departmental heads (n=
4), team leaders (n=2), and senior members of the change
management team (n=3). The sample included repre-
sentatives from each of the three legacy agencies that
comprised NRW, and from former members of Welsh
Government now working in NRW. A semi-structured
interview method was employed that raised specic issues
whilst giving exibility for elite-led dialogue (see Sup-
porting Information). Empirical data were collected
between March and May 2018 through a combination of
Skype based interviews and telephone calls (see Support-
ing Information). Interviews were recorded using the italk
application and produced 10 h of data for transcription and
analysis. The data were analysed in NVivo 11 (QSR
International 2018) against a partially pre-set, but emer-
gent and iterative node framework based on parent nodes
such as culture, and child nodes such as leadership,
legacies,andnarratives of culture(see Supporting
Interviewees considered that the development of an effec-
tive and appropriate culture was essential in meeting their
Fig. 2 From the Convention on Biological Diversitys ecosystem approach to NRWs principles of SMNR
424 Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434
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legislative mandate to govern complex socio-ecological
systems. They expressed how the development of culture in
NRW was a long-term project that incorporated both
existing activities, as well as aspirational elements.
Organisational Culture and Leadership
Members of the senior team at NRW had a solid under-
standing of what the SMNR principles were and how they
helped them address social-ecological complexities. Seven
interviewees considered that whilst building the processes,
forms and structures of the new joint agency was impor-
tant, these would only take NRW so far in its journey
(Int. 3) and all interviewees considered cultureto be a
critical element in delivering the SMNR approach.
Most interviewees expressed the view that culture
change in the organisation was necessary to develop shared
understandings of SMNR and how to deliver it. This was
achievable through education, training, mentoring, coach-
ing, collaboration, and communication:
Weve got the training, bringing everybody up to a
common understanding of what it all means Well
continue on that for the next couple of years as we go
through the next phase of organisational design. There
is a growing understanding that SMNR is the place
where we could start to move away from our legacy
traditions and build the new NRW traditions and
culture. [Interview 5]
A majority of ten interviewees were critical of the notion
that organisational culture could be created in a top-down
fashion. Some of these interviewees pointed towards the
annual NRW People surveysof 2015 and 2016 as evidence
of staff perceptions of the coercive nature of management
during the formation stage of NRW. Nine interviewees
expressed the view that the emergence of culture was a
natural evolutionary process that was hard to create though
imposition. However, there was some recognition that the
pressing legislative mandate and political pressures for deli-
vering the SMNR approach necessitated and legitimised top-
down efforts at shaping or supporting culture, even if this
entailed a degree of coercion. Interviewee Four described
shaping culture a nettle that we have to quickly grasp(Int.
4) and Interviewee Seven noted:
its hard to build a culture for an organisation which
has gone through rapid change, perhaps it needs
something stronger
Three interviewees indicated that their new organisa-
tional culture was a long-term project that would only
emerge through a supportive environmentas Interviewee
Eight noted:
I think you can create the conditions to allow culture
to emerge, though I think you cant necessarily shape
it through a hard process. It takes time, its a lot of
time, but you can certainly create the conditions for
Unsurprisingly, several interviewees (n=5) suggested
that this supportive environmenthad to be constructed at
the intersection of senior management leadership, and the
values and behaviours of bureaucrats in NRW as a whole.
Eight interviewees drew attention to the critical role of the
agency leadership and leaders in taking responsibility for
the emergence of a culture to meet complexity. Six inter-
viewees described the characteristics of leadership in terms
of being able to communicate a consistent vision for the
agency (n=3). Two interviewees expressed that their role
was to work to create an organisational sense of shared
mission and endeavour, or what Interviewee Nine called a
sense of us. As Interviewee Eight said:
I think leadership vision is critical. The troops are
quite attached to some of their old stuff and they see it
[leadership for culture] as corporate nonsense. It takes
a little while before you get used to it and you realise
that its not corporate nonsense. I think its critical
to support in the future of the organisation.
Narratives for Culture Change
Interviewees offered a range of comments about narratives
for cultural change. Seven interviewees noted a number of
different and intersecting narratives about addressing social-
ecological complexity through SMNR. Four of these
interviewees further argued that these narratives were key to
building the culture that NRW needed to adopt if it was
going to meet its legislative mandate:
We have to be better at building the stories to
demonstrate the difference that it [SMNR] makes. Its
about the narrativeIf we tell the stories in a more
engaging way, in a more live, real way and the real
difference that the SMNR outcome will have, that is
the trick that we need to be able to pull off, I think.
[Interview 5]
It [culture change] does take a while and you have to
be really consistent in narrative. You have to
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essentially keep saying the same thing for a long
time.[Interview 2]
Its all about making sure people are doing the right
thing. A lot of this is our own narrative. Narrative is
much more important, in my experience of working
around the UK I think [this] is the way to make
sure that we get this metamorphosis or accept change
into doing the right things I dont think that the
way that people using some behavioural insights work
is probably the way that we will make sure the
organisation is moving in the right direction.
[Interview 12]
Interviewees generally expressed a sense that the culture
of NRW would necessarily emerge from aspects of the
legacy cultures that comprised NRW, and from the activ-
ities of the different parts of the organisation. Four of the
interviewees argued that there were widely understood
stories that constructed a sense of organisational identity
and purpose attached to each of the legacy agencies, for
example, Interviewee Eight noted how:
the story of the Countryside Council for Wales being
the advocates, the Forestry Commission being the
problem-solvers, and the Welsh Environment
Agency being the enforcers; and that these should
never meet, or could never get on was quite powerful.
Three interviewees commented on how narratives about
organisational identity that constructed the legacy agencies
could now act as barriers for working together to meet
social-ecological complexity in the new agency, for exam-
ple, Interviewee Four who noted how:
I think you will always have teams with a different
focus. I wouldnt say, I wouldnt talk about them
(cultures) emerging. I think its more a case of how do
we overcome the different cultures of the three
agencies so far and some people nd that easier than
others depending where you were in that agency.
People in environment agency dont have any trouble
understanding the Countryside Council of Wales
biodiversity people.
Narrative Themes for Creating NRW Culture
We found that the above discussions coalesced around four
interconnected narrative themes about the identity and
purpose of the agency: communication, collaboration, trust,
and empowerment. Whilst we review these themes
separately for clarity and expediency, they need to be
appreciated in terms of their integration with one another,
and it is important to note how these themes are inter-
connected and variously interwoven through discussions of
cultural change. This can be illustrated in the aspirations of
Interviewee Eight below which was a fairly typical narra-
tive for cultural change. This includes common themes of
changing the structure of the organisation for greater
communication and collaboration,andempowering
employees to take risks and having trust they will not be
punished for this:
This is a question that Im really keen to explore
actually is how do you evaluate how connected a
person or an organisation is? Its about how can
you really demonstrate that connectedness is which
Im convinced is an [important]part of dealing with
complexity I would like there to be less structure
around teams and disciplines and more multi-
workplace based teams, multi-disciplinary teams,
and really keen to work horizontally across the
organisation with other parts of the business to try
those outcomes and also externally taking perhaps
more risks to get to those outcomes.
Seven interviewees (in different ways) considered that
these narrative themes might be key in forming an agency-
level culture. Three other interviewees expressed how these
narratives could help them deliver SMNR and meet the
emerging social-ecological challenges identied. Respon-
dents discussed various activities and responsibilities con-
ducted by particular actors to help build and or deliver these
narratives. These discussions covered what the leadership
said and did, and the behaviours and values of individuals
and teams in the whole organisation. There was a differ-
entiation between those narrative themes that were already
commonly adopted by the organisation, and those that the
leadership aspired towards. Therefore, a narrative pattern
emerged about who NRW already were culturally, and who
they might yet become to meet SMNR. Figure 3shows the
four distinct, yet connected, narratives that NRW elite
interviewees considered were already evident, or aspired
towards. We now discuss each of those narrative themes in
turn acknowledging that the narrative themes were inter-
woven with each other.
Interviewees conceptualised NRW becoming a commu-
nicative organisation in terms of how they, the leadership,
would have to communicate consistently about a unied
cultural vision for the organisation. They expressed a hope
that this endeavour would feed into the wider evolving
426 Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434
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value system of the organisation, which could be evidenced
through staff behaviours inclined towards high levels of
communication in relation to problem-solving activities.
Four Interviewees commented on how individual beha-
viours would also need to reect a culture of rapid, open,
and free-owing interdisciplinary communications. Inter-
viewee Nine offered a comment that captured this:
we should be an organisation that talks to itself at
every level, with no barriers.
This included a belief that communication would have to
be framed as a story about regularity of contact and co-
creation of solutions to complexity through team discourse
(Int. 8). This was part of a wider conversation about how the
success of this approach would be evidenced in the colla-
borative and multi-team behaviours team members dis-
played (n=3). Interviewee One discussed this in terms of:
I know its not all about structures, but we are trying
to design structures that would make (communication)
easier, were looking to bring (people) together in
(local area-based) teams. . then connect upwards to
another more national team to provide the overarching
policies and priorities for the whole of Wales
culturally its in peoples behaviours and things like
thatweve still got a way to go.
Interviewees considered their role in part was to foster a
sense of NRW being an intensely professional agency that
had a culture of continual learning and growing individual
expertise through strong joint working:
That is the biggest improvement that I have to
achieve before I retire, that weve changed the culture
of the organisation in such a positive way that the
whole thing works as a systemWeve got a holistic
system within the organisation that enables everybody
to work together to the common good, if you like.
(Interview 6)
The interview discourse revealed how the narrative of
Collaboration is already evident in the actions and messages
of the NRW leadership:
If you look at the areas around collaboration and
integration, those principles there, that requires an
open culture of listening to others. It also requires
business processes and system constraints that happen
with the organisation to allow those things to take
place[If] You have individual targets on perfor-
mance. If you develop a very individually competitive
culture within an organisation, nobodys ever going to
collaborate.[Interview 3]
This narrative has likely already been mobilised, as
seen in values and behaviours of the NRW teamevi-
denced in part by the ndings of the 2015 and
2016 People surveys, the process of delivering the
NRW State of Natural Resources Report and atten-
ingthe structure of the organisation into place-based
area teams (as shown in Kirsop-Taylor and Hejnowicz
Fig. 3 Four cultural narratives of NRW
Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434 427
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The second version of that is the area statements,
which were doing at the moment. They are bringing
much more staff together which creates the numbers.
You can see that culture prodding out now between
the eco side of things.[Interview 4]
Four interviewees discussed how NRW needed to foster
a staff-wide sense that collaboration was essential to solving
complex social-ecological challenges. Three of these inter-
viewees considered that collaboration had to be more than
just a behaviour that could be easily witnessed by com-
munication practices, but a deep value that shaped all
decision-making and activity.
Interviewees considered Trust as a multi-directional
dynamic that infused all levels of NRW, and was mani-
fested in three principal areas. It was primarily considered in
terms of how the leadership offered trust to the wider
organisation based on their skills, experiences, and capa-
cities to make autonomous decisions free from direct and
instantaneous oversight. Others considered that the leader-
ship characteristics would also have to reect a sense of
Trust in the wider organisation to own and take responsi-
bility for mistakes when they occur. For two other inter-
viewees there was a third dimension to Trust, that
bureaucrats could trust the leadership to deliver a certainty
of vision. The story of Trust in NRW was considered as a
bidirectional and reciprocal relationship between bureau-
crats and leadershipso as to loosen the overly prescribed
bonds of accountability in the interests of increasing agility,
responsiveness, and innovation. As Interviewee Eleven
we trust you, you trust us, and together we all act
quickly, decisively, and innovate in response to
complex problems.
Trust was seen as multi-dimensional, and conceived in
terms of intra-organisational social trust and extra-
organisational public trust, or, as Interviewee Ten sug-
gested: we trust each other, and the public should trust us.
Interviewees considered this would make NRW more resi-
lient and adaptive to evolving WEF problems and
accountabilities, as well as more likely to be evidence-based
in their decision-making. Three interviewees expressed how
NRW could not meet its legislated mandate to deliver
SMNR without a culture of trust that circumvented (legacy)
managerialism and associated cultures of blame and risk
aversion. Critically, however, they considered that a narra-
tive of Trust needed to be partnered with, and lead to, a
narrative of Empowerment.
Four interviewees described how a key characteristic of
leadership in NRW should be to trust members of the team
to problem-solve complex issues. For two interviewees this
was predicated upon a growing sense of bureaucratic pro-
fessionalism and expertise for meeting complexity through
training, learning, and development. Four interviewees
perceived that this had to be coupled with a responsibility to
help empower agency members to go beyond traditional
knowledges towards interdisciplinarity, for example Inter-
viewee Nine who argued that:
we need to be helping colleagues feel comfortable
with going out of their intellectual comfort zone,
which lets be honest, is mostly based on what theyve
learnt before!
Three other interviewees also expressed how part of their
role as leaders was to set a climate in which team members
felt empowered to use their increased professionalism and
expertise to make informed expert decisions without fear of
blame. Two others argued how despite this being a difcult
challenge, due to the nature of UK civil service culture, this
was a key job for them as leaders if they were going to trust
individuals to problem-solve complex issues.
Interviewees also described how the culture for addres-
sing complexity would need to be actualised through the
behaviours that individual members of NRW team dis-
played. This included the behaviours associated with
increased individual autonomy (n=3). Coupled to the
notion of increased autonomy were comments (n=3) about
the fear of failure that comes with increased autonomy. Two
interviewees related how they had to therefore build a
narrative about an acceptance of failure, insomuch as failure
is a gateway to rapid learning or what Interviewee Three
described as failing fast.
Interviewees also discussed the underlying values that
would support these behaviours and characteristics of lea-
dership. Two other interviewees expressed comments on
how re-framing failure as a positive outcome needed to be
deeply embedded in values that individuals held. For
example, Interviewee Six argued that if this was not the
case it wouldnt work, people need to know that getting it
wrong is OK sometimes. The depth of internalised values
was expressed by Interviewee Four when describing how
they wanted leaders to have a genuine tolerance of mis-
takes, or Interviewee Nine (one of three interviewees) who
argued that the ipside of tolerance was responsibility, and
that we need everyone to own their mistakes.Two
interviewees noted that this would have to be linked to
evidence of learning and improvement to assuage executive
and public expectations for accountability; though the
428 Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434
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natural conict this might cause with the narrative for Trust
was not discussed.
The development of a certain culturewas an explicit
theme in the aspirations of NRW leadership for the future.
The intervieweesconceptions of culture and their desire to
explicitly change/develop/work with certain cultures reso-
nated well with Scheinsdenition as set out in the intro-
duction. Congruent with Parker and Bradley (2000), Parry
and Proctor-Thomson (2010), Stanford (2010), and others
(see: Schein 1990; Dartey-Baah et al. 2011; Lowndes and
Roberts 2013) we found that interviewees considered cul-
ture a critical component in building a successful public
NRM organisation. Interviewees considered that whilst
leadership in public NRM agencies might play an important
role in creating support structures for the development of a
particular culture (as per Parker and Bradley 2000), the
delivery and emergence of culture had to be a collaborative
endeavour across all layers of the organisation (Rez and
Gati 2004; Mowles et al. 2008). As noted in the Introduc-
tion, the general paucity of literature on organisational
cultural narratives in public NRM agencies (and especially
those seeking to tackle social-ecological challenges) made
the nature of Findings, and this Discussion, in many ways
exploratory in nature. Narratives for cultural change were
expressed in the form of sequential and associative structure
in the discussed themes, aspirations, and expectations of the
discourse, as per Fulfords(1999) account of organisational
Organisational Cultural Narratives for Sociological
Of course, the question remains how will/can these narra-
tives be practically employed to help NRW develop as an
organisation in a form attuned to handle social-ecological
complexity? In Table 1, we outline how the four distinctive
cultural narratives we identied can help facilitate and
instantiate specic SMNR principles (illustrated in Fig. 2),
thus providing a pathway to enable NRW to meet its
statutory mandate and the challenges of governing complex
social-ecological resource systems.
Our ndings chime with Pekar (2011) in that inter-
viewees considered that building characteristics, values, and
behaviours that would make NRW a communicative orga-
nisation were perhaps one of easier endeavours. The value
of communication in social-ecological management activ-
ities has similarly been well-documented (e.g., Johnson and
Karlberg 2017) as has the value of communicative public
organisations (e.g., Canel and Luoma-aho 2018). Inter-
viewees expressed aspirations for NRW being a commu-
nicative organisation by nature(Int. 1) that moved beyond
pure public relations-style communications to inculcating a
narrative of ongoing open and honest dialogue with citizens
and colleagues.
The narrative of Collaboration (both within NRW and
between NRW and other agencies) was found to be the
most important cultural narrative element for meeting
aspects of social-ecological complexity, a nding supported
by the wider literature (e.g., Ringler et al. 2013; Leck et al.
2015; Tanaguchi et al. 2017). Mobilising the narrative of a
collaborative organisation has the potential to help NRW
meet their SMNR mandate of being participatory, recog-
nising the multiple benets from natural resource decision-
making, and managing for the long-term. Though, of
course, simply mobilising a narrative in a supercial way
would not necessarily be the sole and automatic determinant
of it happening. A theme which emerged from the ndings
was a desire to have these narrative themes emerge from
and embedded in internalised values rather than a more
supercial, top-down, abstract change management strat-
egy. As such this chimes well with Staceys work and
arguments about narrative and change processes in organi-
sations (Stacey 2015; Mowles et al. 2008).
The discussions of narrative themes around trust and
empowerment were interesting where it engaged with the
aforementioned debate in public administration theory
about the optimal modalities for ensuring accountability
(Peters 2010:263302). There is a longstanding tension in
how public agencies and bureaucrats are held accountable
between the degree of autonomy they enjoy to make pro-
fessional decisions free from oversight; and the degree of
control that their controlling authority holds them under
(see: Romzek and Dubnick 1987). Excessive bureaucratic
autonomy can lead to the emergence of unaccountable elite
cadre, but in contrast limited bureaucratic autonomy can
lead to inexibility, risk aversion, and calcication (Leyden
and Link 1993). Betts and Holden (2004) and Kittle (2017)
have noted how limiting autonomy can precipitate bureau-
cratic risk aversion which can, in due course, stymie risk-
taking as an opportunity for organisational learning. There
is long and well-developed public administration literature
highlighting the criticality of trust within complex public
Table 1 Narratives facilitating SMNR
Narrative SMNR principles
Communication Adaptivity, participation, multiple benets
Trust Resilience, adaptivity, evidence
Empowerment All
Collaboration Collaboration, participation, multiple benets,
Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434 429
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organisations (Hindmoor 2002; Chen et al. 2013; Brown
2018). In this case, elites considered that NRW are mobi-
lising this narrative so that it might become an organisation
that exhibits trust between all members of the organisation.
This trust will act as a facilitator for the connected cultural
narrative of empowerment.
Interviewees suggested that a cultural story of accep-
tance towards reasonable failure should be promoted where
it supported NRW adopting the wider outcome of becom-
ing a learning organisation (as per Maria 2003; Betts and
Holden 2004; Jamil et al. 2016; Olejarski et al. 2019). This
was not described by interviewees as a no blame culture
(see: Boviard and Quirk 2013;Wise2018) such as that
seen in the UK Police Foundation (2018). Instead the
intention expressed by interviewees was for a form of
cultural story that NRW would tell about itself in which
bureaucrats were empowered to make complex decisions
based on their training and knowledge and blame for fail-
ures could be apportioned insomuch as failure was
reframed as a learning exercise.
Interviewees did not consider the narrative of Empow-
erment as being associated with meeting any specic aspect
of SMNR (and more broadly social-ecological complexity).
Rather, Empowerment was considered a critical determinant
for individual bureaucrats deploying their skills and
experiences to make complex decisions without fear of
over-management or excessive blame for mistakes. If NRW
could conceptualise itself as an organisation that trusts and
empowers its staff to make decisions, take responsibility,
fail fast, and that tolerates mistakes, then it might be able to
meet current and future social-ecological sustainability
challenges. This builds upon Kirsop-Taylor (2018) who
suggested that meeting todays complex sustainability
challenges might require a reconceptualisation of public
managerialism (e.g., notions of public and executive
accountability, and empowerment of bureaucrats) in NRM
agencies, and that the failure to do this might result in
agencies becoming unresponsive and increasingly ineffec-
tive in meeting their respective mandates.
To the majority of interviewees there was a sequential
and layered nature to these narratives, with Trust and
Empowerment being built upon a foundation of Colla-
boration and Communication. This sequential con-
ceptualisation meant that some interviewees already
considered that NRW were exhibiting the narratives of
Collaboration and Communication, that a narrative of Trust
was starting to emerge, and that potentially in the future this
might lead to NRW telling itself the story of its Empow-
erment. This means that NRW is more likely to meet the
SMNR principles of Adaptivity, Collaboration, Participa-
tion, Long-term, and Multiple benets in the short term;
whilst the principles of Adaptivity, Resilience, and Evi-
dence might take longer (as the narratives of Trust and
Empowerment are mobilised). Thus, what was discerned in
this research offers a snapshot of a process of narrative
evolution within NRW towards a more conscious effort to
create a culture to meet contemporary social-ecological
In this paper we have offered an original empirical con-
tribution to extant theorisation about the use of narratives in
public NRM organisations. It advances current under-
standings about how public NRM agencies can adapt
reexively to new and emerging complexity challenges
through culture and narrative. The ndings of our research
suggest that the narratives of Communication, Collabora-
tion, Trust and Empowerment might be utilised to mobilise
the cultural changes needed to meet complex congura-
tions of social-ecological expectations within challenging
political and economic contexts. Collaboration was high-
lighted to be the central cultural narrative for encouraging
and developing a coherent organisational level of a com-
mon and recognisable mutual culture. Our results also
discerned a social-ecological driven dynamic tension
between the narratives of Empowerment and Trust, and
prevailing norms of bureaucratic accountability. This ten-
sion suggests a loosening of the bonds of formal account-
abilities in favour of greater informal accountabilities
driven by the need for bureaucrats to be empowered to
manage and solve social-ecological complexity at the street
level. This is an emancipatory aspiration that would make
professional bureaucrats more accountable to informal
mandates of expertise and professionalism as opposed to
strict formal accountability.
Public NRM agencies internationally are facing these
same challenges and the ndings here from one leading-
edge organisation have highlighted one approach and its
emergent impacts. The counter to this might suggest that the
increasing social-ecological complexity pressures might be
met through other innovations such as natural capital
approaches or tighter and developed managerialism. This
might precipitate a conict of ideas about how best to
respond to meeting social-ecological complexitythrough
the re-empowerment of bureaucrats or doubling-down on
managerialism. To recapitulate, there is increasing emphasis
on formulating NRM social-ecological complexities and
challenges through a WEF lens, which has more recently
focused on the importance of advancing the consideration
of the governance foundations of these interconnected and
interdependent systems. Consideration of social-ecological
complexities through a WEF lens can be useful to articulate,
in particular, the physical and cross-sectoral connections
within these systems, and for examining how actors operate
430 Environmental Management (2020) 66:419434
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within these systems from an external perspective. How-
ever, it offers very limited insights into how actors such as
public NRM agencies should, at an institutional level and
from an internal organisational dynamic, reconcile emer-
ging knowledges, and accountabilities for complexity with
the economic, political, and operational challenges of
maintaining funding, capacities, and capabilities. Systems-
based approaches which have gained popularity with public
agencies to help them deal with complexity and change
management often fail to deal with the everyday realities
and complexities of organisational culture. We stress the
importance of further research as vital to inform these
debates and to understand how NRM agencies can respond
effectively to the increasing expectations on them in the
challenging political and economic context of the 21st
century. Ultimately, the ndings offer important insights for
public administrators attempting to address social-
ecological complexity within their agency; and for Public
Administration scholars at the intersection of narrative,
organisation, and culture.
Acknowledgements This paper was funded through a Research Fel-
lowship from The Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the
Nexus, a UK Economic and Social Research Council large centre [ES/
N012550/1]. Research was conducted with the generous support of
Natural Resources Wales. The data that comprised this research is
stored at the UK Data Service but safeguarded due to its sensitive
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conict of Interest The authors declare that they have no conicts of
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