Systems Thinking for Land Use Policy Making

Systems Thinking for Land Use Policy Making

The Problem

Land use is one of the most complex policy areas in government because it interacts with so many other issues, including (to name just a few) water quality and quantity, climate change, biodiversity, energy generation, food security, economic development, international trade, housing availability, mental health and immigration.

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has responsibility for land use policy-making, but the policy areas that it interacts with are handled by teams of civil servants across almost every government department. Also, the number of non-governmental stakeholders is vast, and there can be conflicts.

Finally, the science-policy interface is difficult to manage. There is only partial integration across the many relevant scientific disciplines, paradigms, research communities, theories and methodologies. Indeed, there can be problems of science-policy alignment given the different purposes, interests and incentives at play in science and policy institutions.



Land use is a continuous focus of Defra’s activities. This means that, although the student will not start their fieldwork until mid-2022, Defra can be certain that there will be ‘live’ land use policy issues to engage with.


The research has two objectives, co-created with Defra:

  1. Enhancing systemic policy making on land use issues that cross departmental boundaries and involve multiple stakeholders, by developing a systems methodology and methods that dovetail with Defra’s existing processes so uptake and continued use is made sustainable.
  2. Enhancing the science-policy interface, and integrating diverse science advice for use in the context of the systems methodology developed in objective one.


Both objectives will be pursued through a single methodological process with five stages:

  1. One year of immersion in the literature on systems thinking used in policy making, where the student will become familiar with the major systems methodologies that have been applied in socio-ecological policy making and environmental management. Alongside this, the student will undertake research training with the Panorama DTP. The outcome will be a refined approach to the rest of the research set out below.
  2. Four months of participant observation by the student in Defra’s land-use policy making and science engagements. 30 recorded interviews will be undertaken with Defra staff, civil servants from other departments and external stakeholders to understand experiences of the policy making processes, opportunities to enhance them with systems methods, and constraints that need to be respected. Generic policy processes will be mapped, and important deviances from them noted. The output will be a set of criteria that systemic enhancements need to conform to.
  3. Six months of methodological development, including the design, adaptation and importing of methods for systemic policy making and science engagement, meeting the criteria already specified. Every innovation will be co-created with Defra staff: some will originate from the student, some from Defra, but all will be openly discussed in terms of their desirability (validity, reliability, technological feasibility and ability to enhance existing culture and processes), viability (ability to be used within resource constraints) and adaptability (to deal with different issues and contexts). This phase will involve 6-10 focused design workshops, with iterations of method development.
  4. Eight months of field trials on selected land use policy issues requiring cross-departmental working, stakeholder engagement and the sourcing of science advice. Defra staff will decide which methods they want to use, in what order, and how. The student will evaluate the uses, collecting data through 30 recorded interviews with Defra staff and questionnaires filled in by stakeholders involved in using the methods. Any methods that are not used or are quickly abandoned will be discussed in the interviews so the reasons can be discovered. Data analysis will examine the use of the methodology and methods in relation to the purposes being pursued, the outcomes attained (including perceptions of the systemic qualities of the policy advice generated), and the context that facilitated or impeded use. Final refinements of the methods will be made before the student writes up for publication and examination.
  5. One year of writing up. In addition to producing a thesis, the student will be expected to take the lead in writing a Defra policy report and 2 journal papers.


The research will have three forms of impact: enhanced policy making on the land use issues tackled during the field trials; continued use of the systems methodology and methods by Defra after the research; and uptake by other government ministries, with systems thinkers in the UK Cabinet Office acting as a pathway to impact, as one of their roles is to improve cross-departmental collaboration.


Dr Dan McGonigle (Head of the Systems Research Programme, Chief Scientific Adviser’s Office, Defra) will co-supervise the student with Prof Gerald Midgley and Dr Amanda Gregory (Centre for Systems Studies and Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull).

Co-Sponsorship of the CASE Award by Defra

Defra will pay £3,500 over the course of the 3.5-year studentship to enhance the student’s training grant, and will also pay all travel and subsistence costs of the student when visiting Defra’s offices. If face-to-face working has resumed when the fieldwork commences (Autumn 2022), the research will require the student to live in or near London during the fieldwork period to facilitate regular access to Defra’s London office and keep travel expenses at a reasonable level. If covid-19 is still preventing face-to-face working in Defra, then engagements with policy makers will be through video conferencing, and the systems methodology and methods to be developed will use IT-mediated, collaborative tools.

Defra will host the student for 18 months during the studentship. ‘Hosting’ in this case means having access to a desk in Defra’s London office (or online meetings with policy makers if covid-19 is still an issue); sitting in relevant policy and science meetings to do participant observation; having access to interviewees in Defra; being given introductions to stakeholders; participating in meetings and workshops with Defra staff; being able to observe Defra-initiated trials of the new systems methods; and being able to collect evaluation data (e.g., stakeholders in workshops filling in questionnaires afterwards, and staff being interviewed).

Studying at the University of Hull

The closing date for applications is 5 January 2021, and interviews of short-listed candidates will be held between 22-25 February. The studentship will start in Autumn 2021. In addition to being a member of the NERC Panorama DTP and the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull, the student will join the Centre for Systems Studies in the Faculty of Business, Law and Politics. Prof Gerald Midgley and Dr Amanda Gregory (the supervisors) are Co-Directors of this Centre, which is internationally renowned for its cutting-edge research in systems thinking and practice:   The Centre for Systems Studies offers a specialist PhD in Systems Science, and the student will be able to use the PhD study rooms in the Faculty, Doctoral College and Library. The University of Hull library hosts one of the most extensive collections of books and journals on systems thinking anywhere in the world.