On User Engagement and Climate Information Use

Recently, a war of words erupted between the leader of the Western Cape province (Premier Helen Zille) and the national meteorological service in South Africa. The Premier suggested that the city of Cape Town was ill prepared for a drought that has placed the city’s water supply in a precarious situation because the forecast provided by the national meteorological service did not accurately predict a drought. As a result, the city did not plan in a timely manner or with the urgency required. The meteorological office shot back, claiming they only had one briefing with the Premier about the forecast and should not be blamed for the province’s inaction, poor planning, and slow implementation.

I imagine these kinds of spats are not uncommon in other countries and cities. However, what stood out for me most from the public confrontation was the nature of engagement between the climate service provider and the decision-maker. It got me thinking: What kind of a relationship do they have? Do they engage in any other way apart from the stated briefing? What other users do they engage? Are these engagements sufficient to inform effective climate information use?

In a forthcoming FCFA paper on climate information use for decision-making on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in two African cities (Lusaka, Zambia, and Kisumu, Kenya), some useful insights emerged about engagement between climate information providers and users like the city of Cape Town.

We found that one of the best conditions for climate information exchange and use is interactive, multi-stakeholder engagement. Interactive engagement, involving different actors and different modes of engagement (for instance forums or workshops), is favoured because it presents an opportunity for providers and users to exchange climate information in person. This enables users to provide immediate feedback and engage providers in the development and delivery of information, thus ensuring services are appropriate and relevant to user needs. In addition, users can obtain clarity on the climate information they receive, while providers improve their understanding of the decision-making contexts in which their climate information and services will be used. Lastly, a two-way engagement enables providers and users to collaboratively conceive the actions that various actors can take in preparing for and responding to climatic hazards.

Interactive multi-stakeholder engagement

The nature of engagement between climate information providers and users, how it occurs and when it occurs, has strong implications for the success of information exchange and information uptake. Engagement can affect: 1) the climate information products and services produced; 2) how climate information is delivered to users; 3) decision-makers’ understanding of the information; 4) correct usage of information provided. As such, interactive engagement needs to be done well if it is to support climate information value chains, from production of climate information, through to its translation, dissemination, and use.

There are some challenges with common multi-stakeholder engagement approaches. I will use the example of climate outlook forums (COFs), which are commonly used to engage potential users with climate information, to illustrate some challenges.

COFs are held before the beginning of the rainy season, to allow for advance planning. National meteorological services, along with other climate information providers, present climate forecasts and discuss the implications with various stakeholders from climate sensitive sectors (e.g. agriculture, water, and energy), with the intention of developing climate outlooks that can guide sectoral planning and actions in response to climatic hazards.

However, climate information providers do not always have a good understanding of particular sectoral needs and the climate information that is relevant for decision-making. For instance, engagement at climate forums may not be helpful to a water manager in a city seeking to plan when and where to drill additional boreholes as a water supply stop-gap measure in the case of drought and subsequent water shortage. In addition, engagements at COFs tend not to be sufficient for users to understand complex concepts like uncertainty that accompany climate information and to be able to use uncertain information for decision-making. As a result, in Lusaka and Kisumu, it is not uncommon for COFs to have no effect on the approaches and actions of water managers in city councils and water utilities in planning for the upcoming season.

COFs largely occur once or twice a year. There is little to no follow-up during the course of the season to refine plans and actions and respond to issues as the season progresses. All this limits the usefulness of the information provided. Of late, there has been an emergence of new approaches to interactive multi-stakeholder engagement to address the historical challenges of productive engagement between providers and potential users of climate information.

Emergent engagement approaches: some lessons and blind spots

Emerging approaches of engagement with users are more participatory, immersive, and iterative. These are partly meant to provide sufficient opportunity to address some of the challenges of engaging users (e.g. unpacking uncertainty, allowing for feedback and tailoring of products). The city learning labs approach used by the FCFA FRACTAL project, for instance, have important lessons for interactive engagement between providers and users of weather and climate information: 1) providers of climate information need to take more time to understand users, encourage and consider their feedback, and use it to tailor information products to their needs; and 2) users can do more to understand the climate information provided and appropriate usage for their planning and actions.

Another important lesson is that those leading interactive engagements need to be good facilitators and communicators, have multi-disciplinary expertise, be sensitive to power and relational dynamics of stakeholders, and conversant with decision-making contexts. Yet, this combination of skills, competencies, and experience seem to be in short supply in academia, national meteorological services and other organisations that specialise in climate and weather information provision.

Iterative, deep engagement with users requires significantly more time from all involved. This can lead to user fatigue. Therefore, users need to see the benefit of investing their time and efforts in engaging with providers. In addition, engaging stakeholders bi-laterally outside forums and workshops is also critical, to deepen relationships. This requires diplomacy, especially where politics becomes an important determinant of action.

In conclusion, evidence suggests that the nature and depth (or lack thereof) of engagement between providers and users of climate information is a strong determinant of whether climate information is used appropriately to inform climate sensitive decisions or not. Therefore, climate information providers like national meteorological services, and users such as cities leaders, planners and water managers should seriously consider how they engage and whether their engagement approaches are suited to the growing climate information needs that a rapidly changing climate and accompanying hazards present.

This blog was written by FCFA’s Nkulumo Zinyengere