Evaluation and Adaptation Pathways

Policy analysts have a new addition to their toolbox, one that recognizes the importance of deep uncertainty and the resulting need for adaptive planning approaches. The use of adaptation pathways, as this new addition is known, supports the development of adaptive policies and programmes. These are policies or programmes that do not put a blueprint design centre-stage, or specific programme goals or targets, but which recognize various pathways that could lead to the realization of long-term ambitions. Adaptation pathways provide a means to structure various possible sequences of actions, enabling a more modular and adaptive, yet planned, approach to policy-making under uncertainty.




The Delta Programme

This new tool has implications for evaluators as well, but before exploring those, let’s shortly illustrate the use of adaptation pathways as tool for planning: In the Netherlands, the Delta Programme has been at the forefront in using adaptation pathways. For instance, pathways are identified for the management of the IJsselmeer (Lake IJssel), the largest freshwater body in Western Europe, whereby water levels in the lake are being managed flexibly but with the idea to maintain a buffer capacity for fresh water. This buffer will be a 20 cm water slice in summer periods, but it is foreseen that this buffer could increase to 40 to 50 cm water slice if necessary. Furthermore, it is anticipated that in the future, with a rapid increasing water demand and rapid climate change, even more may be required. Part of the adaptive policy then is to try and keep the room for further fluctuations in the lake level open. For instance by preventing or discouraging constructions in areas close to the lake.


Adaptation Pathways and M&E

The use of adaptation pathways, and similar adaptive policy-making approaches, offers a renewed opportunity to close some of the gaps that have come to exist between planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Adaptation pathways recognize the need for continuous monitoring and evaluation as part of the planning philosophy. How would public officials know if it is necessary to switch to another pathway, if not for monitoring and evaluation? Adaptation pathways have a specific terminology that reflects this, speaking of signposts, triggers and adaptation tipping points.

In a traditional planning cycle, a good plan is expected to work towards the realization of SMART objectives: specific and measurable objectives, connected to a clear timeframe. With the timeframe typically being the policy or plan period of somewhere between three to six years. With such plans, evaluations can assess whether goals have been realized or not, and evaluators may hope that future plans and programmes will take to heart any lessons the evaluators had to offer. This practice reinstates the fences that exist between planning, implementation and evaluation as separated parts that typically involve different people. The use of mid-term evaluations or “ex-durante” evaluations may help to bring these groups closer together, but even those are likely to stay by and large within the predefined planning frameworks. They may help to see if progress is being made towards timely realization of objectives, or if there is a need to step up efforts. Room for adaptation remains confined within the boundaries set by the initial planning logic.

Against this background, it is easy to see how more adaptive planning approaches offer important opportunities for evaluators, planners and implementing parties to interact more and engage in a joint process of adaptation and learning. There is a need for evaluative thinking to advice on the design of such processes, and to complement the adaptation pathways’ logic with useful insights from evaluative thinking. Because, obviously, there is more to monitoring and evaluation of adaptive plans than ‘just’ monitoring the developments in predefined signposts variables and their associated trigger values. Yet, this is the direction that M&E of adaptation pathways is currently taking. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete. Even if adaptation pathways recognize uncertainties more explicitly, they still may suggest a false sense of certainty – perhaps even more so than traditional planning approaches. More uncertainty has been taken into account, in a systematic way, so our plans are more robust and hence, there is less uncertainty that could cause these plans to fail. As any seasoned evaluator will know, also the thinking underlying the various pathways may turn out to be incorrect or inappropriate, and hence, needs to be scrutinized as part of an evaluative effort.


Adaptation Pathways and Implementation

For evaluators who work in a development context, another question comes to mind when thinking about adaptation pathways. This is the question to what extent adaptation pathways are useful as planning tools. In a developing country context, adaptation pathways are currently used more to understand community (climate) adaptation processes at the local level. Using adaptation pathways as a central part of plan development goes further than its use to understand community adaptation strategies. When central in long-term planning, adaptation pathways offer an adaptive extension of existing planning approaches. It offers an advanced planning tool that helps to anticipate uncertainties in future developments. Adaptation pathways help decision-makers to think not just one planning-cycle ahead, but two, three, or even more. But what if even closing one planning cycle is already a challenge? In many cases, even "short term" plans that look 3 to 5 years ahead prove impossible or difficult to implement. The need for adaptive capacity in some cases may be found more in room for improvisation and flexibility during plan implementation, rather than in detailing more flexible and adaptive plans for a longer planning horizon.


Implementation Maturity

A useful complement, perhaps preceding the use of adaptation pathways, would therefore be to also assess the “implementation maturity” of the first parts in a pathway, before developing an extensive map of alternative and alternating pathways. Such implementation maturity can be assessed using fairly simple notions of motivation and abilities of involved actors. Whereas adaptation pathways have been tested and used in the Netherlands, such implementation maturity assessments are being explored for flood management plans in Vietnam.


A Modular Approach

In fact, the combination seems powerful, when adaptation pathways take the shape of a modular approach, starting the most ‘basic’ modules that seem most feasible, followed by more advanced modules that may become necessary, or feasible, as time moves on. The example from the Netherlands implicitly follows the same logic. The first step in the adaptation pathway for the IJsselmeer means that water levels in winter are kept at their existing levels. The second Delta Commission, however, first suggested that raising water levels with 1 or even 1.5 metres might be necessary. This proved, at least for now, unfeasible. It may be in the cards for the future, as part of an adaptation pathway, but it is not the starting point.


Questions Around the Use of Adaptation Pathways

Obviously, once you start thinking about the use of adaptation pathways and its underlying logic, more questions come to mind. For instance questions related to the use of long-term ambitions rather than specific objectives; Would such thinking be a good thing, given the pervasive uncertainties involved in long-term planning, or is this a first step towards an “anything-goes” lack of commitment among the parties involved? And if adaptation pathways are indeed used more as modular devices to step up efforts later when needed, does this mean that incremental development will always override large and visionary interventions? Or are large interventions anyway risky and bound to backfire? These and many more questions may come to mind – and may have also been discussed among the people currently working with, and further developing, adaptation pathways. The point here isnot to sell or denounce adaptation pathways as analytical tool, but merely to point a larger group of evaluators to this interesting new development, and urge them to explore it and find how they will want to relate to it.

So explore adaptive thinking and adaptation pathways to further your evaluations, complement them with common-evaluators’-sense about the importance of e.g. theory-based evaluations, appropriate evaluation arrangements and institutions, as well as with an eye for the implementation maturity of adaptation pathways from a stakeholder perspective!



Haasnoot, M., Kwakkel, J.H., Walker, W.E., ter Maat, J., 2013. Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways: A Method for Crafting Robust Decisions for a Deeply Uncertain World. Global Environmental Change 23, 485–498.

Maru, I.T., M. Stafford Smith, A. Sparrow, P.F. Pinho, O.P. Dube. 2014. A Linked Vulnerability and Resilience Framework for Adaptation Pathways in Remote Disadvantaged Communities. Global Environmental Change 28, 337 – 350.

Phi, Ho Long, L.M. Hermans, W.J.A.M. Douven, G.E. van Halsema, M.F. Khan. 2015. A Framework to Assess Plan Implementation Maturity with an Application to Flood Management in Vietnam. Water International.

Delta Programme: http://english.deltacommissaris.nl/

Society for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty: http://www.deepuncertainty.org/



Very interesting - room here

Very interesting - room here to put elements of scenario development and look at adaptive systems further. Then the role of synchronicity as elements fall back to a status quo?

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