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IMC Governance Working Group: Developing a Terms of Reference

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Fall 2010

Karen Baker (PAL, CCE), Nicole Kaplan (SGS), and Eda Melendez-Colom (LUQ)

The concept of IMC governance: its origin and goals

At the 2008 Information Management Committee (IMC) annual meeting, the need to define ourselves more formally as an LTER IM Committee emerged. Recognition had been growing in prior years that new arrangements were required to manage new demands on the committee activities and resources. Requests for participation in LTER Network IM activities have been increasing as well as the expectation for partnering outside the LTER Network. The committee’s growth in size and responsibilities made apparent the value in better defining our work methods and criteria for decision-making as well as in broadening our traditional informal style to include more formal governance. The Governance Working Group (GWG) was formed at the 2008 IMC annual meeting with the initial goal to explore, document and learn from the ways IMC members have conducted their governance. The desire to preserve valued aspects of the IMC was strong despite plans for changing practices to meet changing circumstances. The GWG effort involved identifying elements of governance, by reviewing governance structures, practices, and decision-making. The GWG was charged with recommending governance practices for the IMC, recognizing that such an effort could be informed by revisiting past and existing practices.

At the 2008 meeting, there followed an intensive 48 hours of developing interview questions and conducting interviews of four past IMC chairs (Susan Stafford, Barbara Benson, Nicole Kaplan, and Corinna Gies) together with an Executive Board Representative who was an early committee participant (John Porter) – all of whom happened to be at the meeting.  Subsequently, a GWG meeting was arranged synergistically with the LTER SocioEcological Science (SES) working group in Puerto Rico in December 2008. In developing the goals and milestones of the GWG and beginning to identify governance principles and established past practices through analysis of interview transcripts, we were able to provide input to the SES breakout groups as well as to refine the GWG charge and elaborate on the governance structure and roles within IMC. Two IMC virtual ‘watercooler’ videoteleconferences (VTC) in March and August of 2009 kept the IMC informed and engaged with GWG activities. Our approach began to take shape, and it was clear it would address the decisions made by the IMC and the IMC steering committee, IMExec.  GWG VTCs were devoted to reviewing strategies for decision-making, prioritizing projects, and coordinating of IMC activities, expanding the organizational context explicitly to reflect LTER by-laws, outlining communication with a network information system advisory committee, and responding to new mandates and expectations from National Science Foundation representatives.

Governance models and principles

Governance may be defined as a set of ideas about how direction is provided to collective human activity. We identified appropriate definitions of governance to ground our efforts using information gathered earlier by the Network during their strategic planning process. The Network governance process was reviewed at a series of LTER Governance Working Group meetings in 2005:

"What distinguishes governance from management is that it is concerned with how the big (or strategic directions) are taken… The process of governance typically rests on a governance system or framework.  The formal elements of this system (constitutions, bylaws, conventions) define how the process is supposed to function in a particular setting.  But in practice, the informal decisions, accepted practices, or unwritten codes of conduct that people follow are often equally important in determining how governance works." (T.Plumptre;

A shortened version of a set of good governance principles (UN Development Program, 1997) had been summarized as follows:

  • Legitimacy and voice: Participation and consensus orientation
  • Direction: Strategic vision
  • Performance: Responsiveness; effectiveness and efficiency
  • Accountability: Accountability & transparency
  • Fairness: Equity

These good governance principles were applied to ensure that the work of the IM GWG was grounded and our Network and IMC values preserved as we moved forward.

IMC GWG charge, historical context, and emergence of the ToR

After formation, the charge of the committee was clarified at a March 2009 VTC:

"The IMC GWG will prepare a summary to inform IMExec and IMC about governance in terms of organizational framework and with examples of collaborative activities and mechanisms that support Network science and long-term information infrastructure. In preparing these materials, the IMC GWG will rely on information from the IMC and broader community relating to the LTER strategic planning process."

In August 2009 at the IMC annual meeting, presentation of a summary diagram of our community stimulated discussion. Discussion included elaboration on the types of decision-making in addition to informal approaches (i.e. formal, semi-formal, tacit, and compliance) and the types of communication available, to broaden and make visible how business was carried out by the community (e.g. surveys, white papers, requests for comment, requests for support, and requests for endorsement). 

Concerned with learning from our history, a gathering of the types of activities in which we have been engaged was developed into a collection prototyped as a ‘HistoryDB’ module. This was recognized as a larger project to put aside until governance issues had been addressed. The incomplete collection of events served as a record or timeline of activities, a memory trace that identified actions and provided examples of decisions made over time.

By February 2010 in a presentation to IMExec, the focus moved first from the community diagram to an organizational diagram and finally to a general recognition of the need for explicit governance guidelines, e.g. by-laws or Terms of Reference (ToR). This development parallels the LTER Network development and adoption of by-laws in 2006. A first draft of elements of a ToR was presented in a June 2010 VTC that laid the foundation for full discussions of the document at the September 2010 IMC annual meeting through a series of break-out groups. The GWG itself expanded from 3 members to 7 in order to support plans to prepare a finished document for the 2011 IMC annual meeting.

Governance and the way we work given the duality of site and network levels

There are 26 sites with different research themes, habitats and scientific questions that all have a shared goal of creating and disseminating ecological data and knowledge. This presents what appears as a situated1-universal paradox - the goal of making choices that optimize for individual site concerns while also taking action as members of a network. This paradox requires a balance between local site and broader network goals and is a defining characteristic of the site-network model. We have a history of respecting each individual site’s choices of hardware and software, design approaches and scientific tools to do their research; it’s our fortune to co-exist within a network context of long-term ecological scientists that anchors our understanding and respect for multiple perspectives and configurations. It frames our dedication to taking time to listen to and learn from each other. As information managers familiar with ‘making do’ given limited resources and ‘good enough’ given the tsunami of data and data types, we are not shy about changing practices, trying new approaches, or adopting prototypes from other sites when they are adaptable to our own particular site’s historical, physical and administrative reality. Governance in the form of the ToR brings into this balance, procedures for identifying and addressing how we work at the network-level and the impacts of this work on individual sites.  The site-network context also creates a venue to elevate site-based or cross-site projects to contribute to the capacity of the Network, by establishing means to support the development and enactment of new approaches.

Concluding thoughts

It was an IMC ‘emergent moment’ when three realizations coalesced into a new working group: Nicole with the perspective of an IMC co-chair suggesting that many of the troubles arising for IMC were related to governance, Eda recognizing the value of revisiting our history by interviewing past chairs, and Karen as past member of the 2005-2006 LTER GWG contributing experience with ethnographic methods and concepts.  This was an effort focused from the start on articulation work critical to functionality of an expanded IMC facing growing pressures and continuing development. Interviews and review of historical events helped in capturing the multiple perspectives and memories involved, maintaining the inclusivity characteristic of the IMC, and facilitating consideration of a joint course of action in partnership with the IM-Exec and IMC members. Sharing a review of history prompted reflection, which was critical to identifying, defining and maintaining the unique aspects as well as the intent of the IMC. It took time for an initial reticence to changing what has been working well to shift to the realization that a ToR would help maintain some defining characteristics of the IMC - characteristics such as inclusiveness, open-mindedness, engagement, collaboration, co-learning, and respect for the paradoxes inherent to the site-network model – in the light of new demands and changing circumstances. The Terms of Reference represent a change mechanism for IMC governance that expands awareness of decision-making and openness of the governance process for information management at the network level in the LTER site-network model of science. 

1Note: The term ‘situated’ is used in social sciences to refer to the individuality of the local or the heterogeneity to be expected from differing circumstances such as with physical locations or human experience; situated is often used in describing technological configurations and organizational arrangements; it refers to and acknowledges local influences that create different experiences with and understandings of data, knowledge and learning.