Conservation Minnesota

A Lake Manager’s Notebook: Public Education

Dick-Osgood-bioApril 2014

Public education is an obligatory element of every lake management program – no brainer, right?  Wait a minute, let’s use our brains.

I published an article on this topic, Putting Education in Lake Plans, 15 years ago (reprinted below).  At that time, I wondered whether lake managers ever had specific management objectives with education programs or were these programs more often considered obligatory and worthy by their own weight?  Could education programs be evaluated with measurable outcomes?  Should they be?

Of course they should.

Fast forward.  In Navigating Environmental Attitudes, author Thomas Heberlein is very clear:

“Those who have dealt with environmental problems for years know that changing attitudes and behavior is nearly impossible.”

Heberlein lamented that the environmental institutions “relegated the human dimension to an education problem” and overestimate the correlation between attitudes and behaviors.  In fact, he concluded there is very little correlation.  Heberlein concluded that changing attitudes is easy, but changing behavior is difficult.

Farmers have a high awareness of the benefits of buffer strips and other agricultural best management practices (BMPs), but they do not, by and large, implement them because of contrary cultural norms and regulatory incentives.  In fact, agriculture is specifically exempt from the Clean Water Act.  Boaters have a high awareness of aquatic invasive species (AIS) and how to clean their boats and trailers, but when not watched, many do not clean their boats and trailers.  Interestingly, when asked, most boaters say they clean their boats.

Herberlein describes a “cognitive fix” which relies on changing human behavior through education and information, but emphasizes that behavior change only occurs in concert with “technological fixes” (physically changing the environment) and “structural fixes” (changing the structure of that influences behavior).

There are many examples of people knowing the issues and understanding what they are supposed to do, but their behavior seldom follows.

Boaters have an awareness of AIS laws and practices and a corresponding high rate of self-reported compliance.  Education campaigns have been effective at increasing awareness, but no controlled studies have demonstrated changing behavior.  Technological changes have been proposed, such as decontamination stations, however these have gone cross-wise with public attitudes and have not gained wide support.

Landowners are aware of and receptive to best management practices, yet most of these are implemented only when cost-sharing programs are available.  Our impaired waters lists keep swelling.

Herberlein would argue that structural fixes (for example, laws, regulations or infrastructure modifications) are needed to really change behavior.  Herberlein also cautions that such fixes must be tested to assure they are in concert with attitudes and norms.  This is a systematic and scientifically rigorous procedure is verifiable – we can test whether or not the program works.

Short of an approach like this, we are spinning our wheels.

Herberlein makes a compelling argument that managing challenging environmental problems requires a thorough understanding of attitudes and a systematic and scientific testing of fixes that support required behaviors (he recommends professional social scientists be in project teams).

Public education, as it is often practiced and outside of this larger, strategic context is a meaningless and usually fruitless shortcut.  Think (critically) of this the next time you are in a committee meeting and someone says, “let’s make a brochure.”


Heberlein, TA. 2012. Navigating Environmental Attitudes. Oxford University Press, New York.


Putting Education in Lake Plans

Dick Osgood

[Originally published in LakeLine (1999) 19:50-51]

Lake and watershed management plans seem to have this in common – they always contain a recommendation for an education program.  Yet they do not seem to include a critical analysis of or strategic plan for how the education program will help achieve the management objectives for the lake.

The first three lake plans I pulled off my bookshelf while preparing this column had these recommendations:

“A lake management education and information delivery system should be established.”

“Implement a public education program.”

“Develop and implement an information/education program to support this management plan.”

I could not find in any of these plans discussion of how a lack of education contributed to the problems identified in the plan.  Nor could I find how education was expected to enhance or achieve the proposed management actions.  I should know, I worked on all of these plans.

In each case, the committees that developed the plans simply insisted on including an education element for at least one of these reasons:

Education materials are widely available at low cost or no cost.

Education is a core value shared by many.

Education programs are non-controversial and can attract funding.

We want to believe people will do the ‘right thing’ once educated.

Why Spear This Sacred Cow?

The problem is that education as an after-thought (without any critical analysis or strategic thinking) is not helpful and may in fact, be detrimental to the overall plan.

A recent article (Wagenet et al. 1999) reported on a study of the effectiveness of a watershed education program.  What they found was interesting.  By evaluating three groups of people using or reading the educational materials – full users, partial users and non-recipients – they drew these conclusions:

People who fully use education materials were significantly more knowledgeable about specific watershed facts and issues compared to partial users and non-recipients.

The full users did not apply the information (take action) any more than the partial users or non-recipients.

Partial users actually rejected the education program because issues relating to the larger watershed management effort were controversial.

Even the people who fully used these materials to gain real knowledge did not change their behavior.  This raises two key points: first, there was no positive change in behavior among any of the groups, and second, some people rejected the education materials out of hand.  Both points are important when considering the role of education in a lake management plan.

Why do many education programs backfire?

When resources are spent on education, other more direct management actions may be set aside.

Education programs are not normally designed for a strategic purpose, so generic messages tend to be used.

Few people want to criticize educational programs, thus few want to look critically at education programs.  It is difficult to analyze the effectiveness of education, especially those programs without a strategic purpose.

While interesting, generic messages do not promote action.

So, we should forget about education then.  Right?  Wrong.

I believe education has a critical role in any lake management effort.  But I have learned that education must be done strategically, critically and thoroughly.

In past columns, I have emphasized the importance of engaging the local community in developing a lake management plan.  This means identifying those who have a stake in the lake or its management, discovering what they value, facilitating a plan to attain or sustain those aspects of the lake environment, and engaging the local community in an ongoing management effort.

The concluding remarks of (Wagenet et al. 1999) were:

“The research described in this paper indicates that providing the public with information about environmental issues and contextualizing that information in ways that are individually meaningful can increase public knowledge about certain environmental issues, which is an important first step in expanding citizen participation in the environmental policy process.”

Here, the authors hit on the key for managing lakes and watersheds.  Education is important for engaging a broad base of participation in lake management.  Because this study was done amidst controversy, it was discovered that even rejecting the education materials was a form of public engagement.  Ideally, we should strive to engage the lake community in more positive ways.

Once engaged, the local community (or “the public”) can be organized to work cooperatively for mutual management goals.  This is a critical element in a management plan.  Without some level of mutual action, any management effort falls short.

Thus, I see the roles of education in managing lakes and watersheds to be:

Engage the local community in a positive dialog and evaluation of mutual interests to develop an action plan to realize a shared vision.

Education is a central element of the management plan strategically designed to engage the lake community.  Rather than simply tacking it onto the plan, an education and information program must be a deliberate action that balances costs and benefits against other actions with a measurable outcome directed to a management objective.

I would like to hear about education successes stories about education plans that have been strategically designed and have resulted in measurable outcomes.


Wagenet, L.P., M.J. Pfeffer, H.D. Sutphin and J.M. Stycos. 1999. Adult education and watershed knowledge in Upstate New York. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 35:609-621.

About Dick Osgood

Dick Osgood
Dick Osgood has authored numerous scientific journal papers, made hundreds of presentations at professional meetings, and recently co-authored his first book.  Now he’s working on his second book titled A Lake Manager’s Notebook.  Dick is a Certified Lake Manager and offers lake management consulting services through his business Osgood Consulting LLC.
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