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Shared Vision Planning

The What and Why of Shared Vision Planning for Water Supply

"The What and Why of Shared Vision Planning" is an excerpt from “The What and Why of Shared Vision Planning for Water Supply” by Dr. Kurt Stephenson.  Dr. Stephenson is an associate professor in the  Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Virginia Tech.  The remarks in this paper were prepared for the panel session “Collaborative Water Supply Planning: A Shared Vision Approach for the Rappahannock River Basin”, Universities Council on Water Resources, Water Security in the 21st Century Conference, Washington, DC. July 30, 2002. 

— Kurt Stephenson


There is an old saying frequently attributed to Mark Twain: “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.”  Given that this adage is at least 100 years old indicates that conflict over how to use our water resources has never really been in short supply.  Conflict and “fight’n” over water seems inevitable.  But is there a way to manage and channel this conflict in ways that will lead to more productive, inclusive, and mutually satisfactory outcomes? 

Shared vision planning is an approach to managing this conflict in a way that can increase the chances for reaching constructive agreements.  Shared vision planning relies on deliberative, inclusive decision making processes as the forum in which to debate how water resources will be used among competing ends.  What is unique about shared vision planning, however, is how analytical technical expertise and analysis is integrated into a collaborative planning process.  Through a structured planning process, an analytical computer model of the water resource system, called a shared vision model, is constructed with the participation of stakeholders.  The shared vision model is designed to be used by stakeholders themselves to develop a mutually satisfactory water supply plan.

Conflict in Water Supply Planning

As Bill Lord (1979) pointed out many years ago, conflict in water resources planning arises over answers to two basic types of questions: “What is?” and “What ought to be?”    

 First, conflict can occur over answers to “What is?” questions.  Water supply planning requires that we answer questions about how the water supply system works -- if “A” happens, what will happen to “B”?  Examples of this type of “What is” question in water supply planning might include:  

  • What is instream flow if we operate a reservoir this way?
  • What is per capita water consumption under this conservation program?
  • What is the risk of a water shortage in the next 10 years? 

Participants in a water supply planning process may disagree over the answers to these questions.  Lord (1979) calls these technical debates “cognitive” conflict.  Better knowledge and more sophisticated technical analysis can reduce this type of conflict. Resolving or managing cognitive conflict is challenging, given the complexity of our natural and social systems and the forward-looking nature of the planning process (what is and will be).  After all, technical analysis of existing technologies and water use behaviors can better inform, but rarely provide a definitive answer to, what per capita water consumption is likely to be in the future. 

The challenges to answering, “What is” questions, however, pale in comparison to the challenge of answering questions of “What ought to be?”  Examples of “ought” questions that typically arise in a water supply planning process are:

  • What water conservation measures ought the public be required to do?
  • What water supply risks ought the public assume?
  • What ought to be minimum instream flows?

Answers over ought questions do not have a technical solution, but are primarily social and political in nature -- rooted in deeply held interests and values of the different players in the planning process.    Several types of conflict arise over questions of what ought to be done. One type of conflict is “interest conflict”.  Interest conflict is personal in nature – related to how an alternative will personally influence private stakeholder interests (Lord 1979).  For example, a proposed water supply project of one local community may reduce future water supply of a downstream community.  In this case the water supply decisions have a direct impact on the economic well being of a downstream community.  Other types of conflict are more ideological in nature. Value conflict is more communal in nature and arises over different opinions of what is good for us as a community or society rather than what is good for me individually (Lord 1979).  “Value” conflict can be more abstract and subjective than interest conflict and often centers on the relative importance of environmental quality versus economic growth or consumer sovereignty.  Much environmental conflict, such as that surrounding instream flows, is, at its origin, value conflict.  Participants in water supply planning may all agree that “A” water supply plan will have “B” impact on instream flow.  Furthermore, few may have a direct personal stake in changes in flow regimes (one’s self interest is not directly impacted by stream flow levels).  Nonetheless, conflict over what ought to be a minimum instream flow can be acute.  The conflict often arises from environmental ethics related to the degree to which human water use will impinge on the aquatic ecosystem.

Given this social and political origin, technical analysis cannot resolve value or interest conflict. Technical analysis cannot answer what ought to be done and how much water ought to be left in the stream channel.  But technical analysis is necessary to illuminate and foster creative debate and resolutions over ought questions.

Unfortunately, our current water supply planning processes are not doing a very good job at dealing with these conflicts. The situation we often find ourselves in now is a highly pitched political battle over value and interests that is being waged with technical analysis. The aim is not to learn from the opposing side, but to score political points and tactical advantage through analytical maneuvers. Technical analysis is more often used to defend, attack, or legitimate firmly entrenched positions, rather than reducing cognitive conflict or reconciling value and interest conflict.

Planning is made more difficult when we allow the decision process to confuse “is” and “ought”; When we allow technical analysis of the “is” to obscure appropriate debate about the “ought”; when we allow interests and value conflicts to be shrouded by an impenetrable fog of technical analyses.  

Helen Ingram and Anne Schneider (1999, 27) recently wrote, “The most fundamental flaw in contemporary water policy is that many value questions in which ordinary citizens have a great interest are being framed as technical questions.” 

Shared Vision Planning and Models

 Shared vision planning (SVP) is an approach to water supply planning specifically designed to address the type of problem expressed by Ingram and Schneider.  The essence of shared vision planning is to create a planning process capable of building a mutual understanding of the “is” questions for the ultimate purpose of focusing decision-participants’ attention, debate, and resolution on the “ought” questions. 

 Variations of the shared vision theme to planning are around, but the U.S. Corp of Engineers’ Institute for Water Resources (IWR) articulated the SVP vision in its 1995 National Study of Water Management During Drought.  Using methods pioneered by Dr. Richard Palmer and refined, tested and studied by the staff at IWR, the Drought Study contained example applications of how “shared vision planning” could be designed and used to resolve water conflicts. 

Shared vision planning is built on three separate foundations: planning principles, collaborative negotiation, and technical system models.

 1.      SVP relies on time tested planning principles – identify objectives, formulate alternatives, measure effects, evaluate alternatives - to structure a water resource planning process.

 2.      SVP relies on collaborative negotiation between different stakeholder groups, rather than technical experts, to apply these planning principles.  SVP expects that a deliberative decision process be used to develop objectives, formulate alternatives and produce ways to evaluate alternatives with the ultimate purpose of building agreement on what ought to be done.  Advocates believe that public collaborative negotiation, properly structured, can be a transformative process and not simply a way of dividing up known gains and losses.  Collaborative negotiation can help shape preferences of the participants through mutual understanding and discovery of each other’s interests and values, which can lead to the collaborative development of creative alternatives. The idea behind collaborative negotiation is to structure a decision process that is best capable of jointly expanding opportunities for discovering mutually beneficial gains. The idea is not to set up a battle over a fixed pie, but rather to encourage people to find a bigger pie.

 3.      Decision-participants cannot decide what ought to be done without first having a basis for knowing “what is.”  SVP relies on systems engineering and computer modeling to identify how the multiple elements in a water resource system relate to one another.  Computer models used in shared vision planning are called “shared vision models” (SVM).  SVMs help planning participants answer, “what is” questions: If A happens, what will happen to B.  The model does not pretend to make judgments on what ought to happen -- what is the best plan or whether “B” is good or bad, desirable or undesirable.

The shared vision approach plays a key role in linking the three foundations of shared vision planning together…


 A shared vision planning process puts the burden on the stakeholders themselves, rather than technical experts or rigid regulatory dictates, to identify the answers to what can be done and ought to be done. And, the shared vision model gives them the tools to structure and facilitate the debate over the best way forward.  SVP does not promise to eliminate conflict. The shared vision process may not always produce agreement.  After all, some stakeholders may elect to negotiate in bad faith or to purposefully undermine the process.  Any deliberative planning process will fail under these circumstances.  But SVP does aim to improve the prospects that people with different interests and values can discover enough common ground to identify mutually satisfactory alternatives through a negotiated planning process.


Ingram, Helen and Anne Schneider. “Science, Democracy, and Water Policy” Water Resources Update 133 (Autumn 1999): 21-28

Institute for Water Resources. National Study of Water Management during Drought, United States Army Corps of Engineers, 1995 Report to Congress.

Lord, William B. “Conflict in Federal Water Resource Planning” Water Resources Bulletin 15 (October 1979) 5: 1226-1235.

This excerpt from “The What and Why of Shared Vision Planning” provides an answer to the question “What is shared vision planning?”  The third foundation upon which shared vision planning is built (as articulated in this excerpt) identifies the role that shared vision models play in the shared vision planning process.  The discussion of shared vision models is addressed separately on this web site in the Shared Vision Models section. The entire document is available in PDF format (pdf, 161 KB).