Resolving Conservation Conflicts: The Nominal Group Technique

Post provided by Jean Hugé

Conservation conflicts are actually conflicts among people with different priorities and values

Conservation conflicts are actually conflicts among people with different priorities.

Conservation issues seem to be getting ever more complex and challenging. Practitioners and society at large agree on the need to gather – and somehow use – as much information as possible before making any conservation-related decisions. Talking to all kinds of people, ranging from local villagers, fishermen and hunters to international experts, community leaders and environmentalists, is now common practice in conservation research. Not everyone will agree on the eventual conservation decisions, but the idea is that decisions should only be made after (almost) everyone’s opinion has been heard.

So far so good. The calls for inclusive conservation are being acknowledged, and we should be ready to move on and make better decisions, right? Well, it’s not always that easy. Conservation conflicts are actually conflicts among people with different priorities and values. Just calling for dialogue and hoping that consensus and effective conservation action will just follow isn’t enough.

Getting people to talk to each other, and translating their discussions into usable recommendations in support of sound conservation decision-making, is hard work. Often conservation practitioners are not well prepared to design and apply the kind of participatory, qualitative techniques that are best suited to actually supporting decision-making. This leads to a whole lot of frustration, and improvised (often less effective) ways of engaging the public in conservation science and practice. Having faced these problems in our own research, we wanted to help solve them. So, our team (Jean Hugé & Nibedita Mukherjee) has focused on reviewing the applications of a range of qualitative techniques which we highlight in a special feature in a recent volume of Methods in Ecology & Evolution.

What is the Nominal Group Technique?

Finding a balance between two highly sought-after components of ‘good conservation research’ – gathering specific information and encouraging group discussions to get a grip on diverse viewpoints – is especially challenging when you’re trying to figure out which qualitative technique to use.

The Nominal Group Technique (NGT) lets you combine the focus of individual reflection with the richness of group discussions. It has a lot of potential for conservation research. The basic structure of NGT is simple: in a first stage, participants are asked to reflect individually, and to generate ideas based on a pre-determined question asked by the facilitator. In the second stage, they’re asked to discuss these ideas in a group and to prioritize them through collective ranking.

The three main advantages of the method are:

  • The combination of individual and collective steps
  • The ability to identify and build consensus among diverse stakeholders
  • A clear output (typically a list of priorities)

We reviewed the scientific literature to assess if, how, and to what extent NGT has been used in conservation and ecology. Well, it turns out it’s still unknown to most of us – it’s only been used in 14 NGT articles in conservation research! We make the case for the method as we believe it’s under-used given its potential.

Nominal Group Technique in Conservation Research

Richard Niyomugabo explaining the NGT session.

Richard Niyomugabo explaining the NGT session.

Although it’s still not widely used, NGT has been used in ecology and conservation for things like supporting biodiversity management, identifying stakeholder preferences and attitudes, prioritizing capacity-building exercises and exploring novel concepts. Most NGT studies have been applied at local level. The method is quite flexible though and has been used in combination with a range of techniques (surveys, the Delphi method, multi-criteria analysis), as well as with the collection of ecological data.

NGT is an excellent technique to use (either on its own or alongside any of the methods mentioned above). It give a clear and usable output and lets you easily compare different groups with possibly divergent opinions. The quality of the participatory process minimizes dominance effects and considers all participants’ views equally. Finally, and this is often very important for studies with low levels of funding, it has limited requirements in terms of time and resources. NGT is particularly good for studies with well-defined, one-dimensional questions, as otherwise the voting step can become too complicated.

Why You Should Use NGT

The exchanges among participants, the sharing of ideas and the joint production of knowledge in NGT allow for a de-polarizing approach to the study and management of conservation issues. It’s a systematic, robust yet simple way of scoring and ranking lists of conservation options or priorities, so it has a direct link to conservation actions, which grants it direct policy relevance.

To find out more about the Nominal Group Technique in conservation research, read our Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘The nominal group technique in ecology & conservation: application & challenges’.

This article is part of the ‘Qualitative methods for eliciting judgements for decision making’ Special Feature.

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