Step 3. Organizing the MSP Process

Step 3. Organizing the MSP Process

“Before beginning, plan carefully.”
–Marcus Tullius Cicero, (106 BCE-43 BCE), Roman statesman


What outputs should be delivered from this step?

  • Organization of a marine spatial planning team with the desired skills;
  • A work plan that identifies key work products and resources required to complete the outputs of planning on time;
  • Defined boundaries & time frame for analysis and management;
  • A time frame for the revision of management plans;
  • A set of principles to guide development of the marine spatial management plan; and
  • A set of general goals and SMART objectives for the marine management area.


Marine spatial planning (MSP) is likely to be most successful in achieving expected or desired outcomes/results when conducted on the basis of an “objective-based approach”. A SMART objective-based approach to MSP is organised around a hierarchy of goals, objectives, management actions, and indicators that evaluate the performance of management actions in achieving those goals and objectives. Ideally, the goals and objectives will be derived from particular problems or conflicts you encounter in your marine area (see Step 1, Establishing Authority), and will reflect a set of MSP principles (see Task 4 of this Step) that guide the process.An objective-based approach to MSP implies that analysis conducted during the planning phases (see Steps 5, 6, and 7 of this guide) is related to the MSP goals and objectives. Also the identification of management actions during the management plan development phase (Step 7, Developing the Plan) and an overall plan for implementing such management actions (Step 8, Implementing the Plan) are all carried out to achieve the goals and objectives.

This step organises the process for objective-based MSP. It is referred to as “pre-planning” since it sets the stage for the actual planning phases (Step 5, Analyzing Existing Conditions and Step 6, Analyzing Future Conditions). To fulfill this function, pre-planning should develop:

  • A marine spatial planning team;
  • A work plan, including a schedule of tasks;
  • Specification of a base year;
  • The boundaries and time-frame for planning;
  • A first draft of a set of principles;
  • A first draft of a set of general goals;
  • A first draft of a set of clear and measurable objectives; and
  • An assessment of the risks of what might go wrong during the planning process and possible contingencies.

Regardless of the context, pre-planning is a necessary and critical part of any MSP process.



A key task is to organize the marine spatial planning team. While it is important to have a multi-disciplinary team comprised of biologists, ecologists, geographers, economists, and planners with disciplinary knowledge, it is as important to have most of the desirable skills such as those found in the table below. Not all of these skills have to be within the MSP team, but access to them is important. Some can be obtained from other governmental agencies or ministries, from the scientific community, from non-governmental organizations, or consultants. Incentives to obtain these skills should be identified in the next task when a work plan is developed.

10 Steps


Desirable Skills

Functional Role or ResponsibilityKnowledge & General AptitudesProgrammatic SkillsManagement and Administrative Skills
Ensuring AuthorityKnowledge of relevant legislation with spatial implicationsLegal analysisStrategic thinking about long-term
Financing the PlanKnowledge of alternative financing approachesFinancial analysisStrategic thinking about long-term financing
Pre-PlanningWork plan development
Identifying need for planning principles, goals, and objectives
Identifying and scheduling tasks
Drafting principles, goals, and SMART objectives
Recognising the need for work plan and effective/efficient resources allocation
Focus on results and outcomes
Project/programme resource allocation
Engaging StakeholdersCommunication
Public speaking
Conflict resolution
Consensus building
Social media skills
Appreciation of benefits of engaging stakeholders
Analyzing Existing Conditions Spatial systems thinking
Data collection related to issues
Database management
Ability to think about and assess problems in time and space
Identifying short-term issues
Geographic information systems skills/mapping
Synthesis skills
Recognition of importance of evidence
Analyzing Future ConditionsRecognising importance of strategic thinking about futureIdentifying alternative future scenariosRecognising the ability to create future conditions
Developing the Marine Spatial Management PlanRelating management actions to objectivesCommitment to results-based planning
Approving and Implementing the Marine Spatial Management PlanKnowledge of authorities of implementing agenciesConflict resolution
Consensus building
Project and program implementation
Monitoring and Evaluating the Marine Management PlanCause-and-effect thinking
Recognising importance of management performance indicators
Performance monitoring
Quantitative and qualitative evaluation methods
Adapting the Marine Management Plan



Resources for MSP, including people and time, will usually be limited with respect to producing the required information for planning, developing and implementing the spatial plan, and evaluating whether your management actions are changing the behaviour of human activities toward the desired outcomes. Therefore, it’s essential to develop a work plan that specifies what parts of the process should be done by whom, by what time, at what costs, and how the various parts relate to each other. Below is an overview of the actions that are typically part of developing a work plan.

Actions to Develop a Work Plan

  • List the main activities needed to develop the work plan;
  • Break each activity down into manageable tasks, i.e. a task that can be managed by an individual or group and is easy to visualise in terms of resources required and the time it will take to complete. However, be careful, a common mistake is to break the activities into too many small components;
  • Awareness of what has worked and what has not in MSP practice around the world over the past decade.
  • Choose appropriate time periods for specifying when work activities will take place (by week, month, quarter);
  • Clarify the sequence and relationships between tasks (Does another task have to be completed before another task can be started? Can two tasks be carried out at the same time?);
  • Estimate the start time and duration of each task. This may be represented as a line or bar on a chart.
        1) Be careful to include all essential activities and tasks;
        2) Keep in mind the workload on individuals;
        3) Identify where additional assistance may be needed; and
        4) Be realistic about how long a task will take;
  • Identify key events (milestones) to help monitor progress. These are dates by which a task will be completed; and
  • Assign responsibilities for tasks with the various members of the MSP team.


An important component of the work plan is a schedule that defines the time you want to spend on each step of the MSP process. The figure to the right is an example of a chart that estimates the amount of time allocated to each step of the MSP process (up to Step 8, Implementing the Plan). Obviously, this time allocation will be different for each specific MSP context, i.e., the estimates are only illustrative.


Action 1. Defining boundaries

When defining the boundaries for your marine area, it is important to recognise two different types:

  • Boundaries for management; and
  • Boundaries for analysis.

The area for which you develop MSP is usually designated through a political process that, explicitly or implicitly, is to be managed as a single unit, e.g., the entire exclusive economic zone (Germany or The Netherlands), the marine waters of a specific state (California or Massachusetts) or bio-region (South-west Marine Bioregion of Australia).

Typically, the management boundaries of the marine area will not coincide with the boundaries of a single ecosystem, because often a number of ecosystems of varying sizes exist within, and may extend beyond, the designated management area. At the same time, the boundaries will probably coincide with only some of the areas from which demands are imposed on the resources of the marine management area for which you develop MSP. Finally, the boundaries are not likely to delimit the influences of natural processes that are external to the designated marine management area, such as larval dispersion, sediment transport, and atmospheric deposition of nutrients.

Therefore, the boundaries for analysis for MSP often will not (and do not have to) coincide with the boundaries for management. On the contrary, defining boundaries for analysis (e.g., for planning) broader than the boundaries for management (e.g., for implementation) will enable you to identify sources of influence (e.g., sources of pollution) that have an effect in your management area and ultimately include the authorities or institutions responsible for those sources in the implementation of your marine spatial plan.

An example of good practice of defining “boundaries for analysis” is the State of Rhode Island Special Area Management Plan (2010, see Key MSP Documents). Even though the state had jurisdiction only within three nautical miles (nm) of the coast, the “Ocean Study Area” planning boundary was extended to 20 nm.

Action 2. Defining the time frame

In addition to establishing boundaries, it is essential to define a time frame for your MSP initiative. The time frame consists of two parts:

Often the time frame will have to coincide with other national planning periods for planning, e.g., Viet Nam has a five-year economic planning cycle to which other plans, including marine spatial plans, have to conform.


MSP should be guided by a set of principles that:

The Box below provides some examples of MSP principles. Principles can be derived from a number of sources, including international treaties and agreements, national policy and legislation, or examples of good practice. It is important to remember that principles do not stand by themselves, but should be reflected throughout the MSP process, and in particular, in the goals and objectives you identify later. Numerous organisations and institutions have already defined principles for MSP. They are very diverse, and often represent a thin line between principles and goals.

DEFINITION. A principle is a basic or essential quality determining the nature and characteristics of the MSP process; principles should reflect the results (outcomes) to be achieved through MSP.

The ecosystem integrity  principle

The principle implies a primary focus on maintaining ecosystem structure and functioning within a marine management area. It includes the recognition that ecosystems are dynamic, changing and sometimes poorly understood (therefore requiring precautionary planning and decision-making).

The integration

Working in sectoral and institutional compartments or “silos” is often an efficient way to manage, but it creates significant costs of lack of coordination that should be identified and addressed. MSP can play a critical role in facilitating coherence and integration. Integration among levels of government can help create complementary and mutually reinforcing decisions and actions.

The public trust

This principle implies that marine resources, including marine space, belong to the people and are held in trust by the government for its people and future generations. Marine space should be managed as a “commons”, i.e., as part of the public domain, not owned exclusively or to be benefited by any one group or private interest.

The transparency  principle

This principle suggests that the processes used to make decisions should be easily understood by the public, allow citizens to see how decisions are made, how resources have been allocated, and how decisions have been reached that affect their lives.

The precautionary  principle

This principle suggests that if a decision could cause severe or irreversible harm to society or the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who advocate taking the action.

The polluter-pays   principle

The costs of pollution or damage to the environment should be paid by the responsible party.



Specifying MSP goals and objectives is essential to help you focus and tailor your MSP efforts toward achieving results. Typically, your goals and objectives should be derived from the problems and conflicts identified in Step 1, Establishing Authority, of this guide.Despite what is often assumed, goals and objectives are different from one another.

Differences between goals and objectives include:

  • Goals are broad; objectives are narrow;
  • Goals are general intentions; objectives are precise;
  • Goals are intangible; objectives are tangible;
  • Goals are abstract; objectives are concrete;
  • Goals can’t be measured; objectives can be measured.

DEFINITION. A goal is a statement of general direction or intent. Goals are high-level statements of the desired outcomes that you hope to achieve. Goals provide the umbrella for development of all other objectives and reflect the principles upon which subsequent objectives are based.


Examples of MSP goals include:

  • Conserve or protect marine resources;
  • Conserve ecological structure—at all levels of biological organization—to maintain biodiversity and natural resilience of the marine management area;
  • Protect ecologically valuable areas;
  • Restore degraded areas;
  • Ensure sustainability of economic uses of marine space;
  • Promote appropriate uses of marine space;
  • Reduce and resolve conflicts among current and future human activities;
  • Reduce and resolve conflicts between current and future human activities and nature; and
  • Ensure economic return to the public from the use of ocean space.
“Management by objectives works, if you first think through your objectives. Ninety percent of the time you haven’t.”
–Peter Drucker, 1909-2005, American management author and consultant


Once you have drafted goals for your marine spatial plan, it’s time to think about objectives and management actions that you will need to accomplish them. Objectives are derived from goals. They are the “stepping stones” toward the achievement of goals. Goals can have more than one objective. For example, a goal of maintaining marine biodiversity, could have objectives related to both species, including those that are threatened or endangered, and habitats.

DEFINITION. An objective is a statement of desired outcomes or observable behavioural changes that represent the achievement of a goal.


Why are measurable objectives important?

Measurable objectives play a critical role in evaluating performance, reducing uncertainty, and improving MSP over time. Because management objectives are used to guide decisions in managing human activities in marine areas, they should be more specific than “broad brush” statements or overall management purposes. For example, generic statements such as “maintain marine biodiversity” or “improve water quality” are general statements (goals) about why management has been undertaken, not measurable objectives that can help guide decision-making.

Objectives are derived from goals. Goals can have more than one objective. For example, a goal of maintaining biodiversity, could have objectives related to both species and habitats.

Goals are aspirational; objectives are operational. Goals are qualitative; objectives should be quantitative to the extent possible. Good objectives are are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, i.e., SMART.

Characteristics of SMART objectives
SPECIFICIs the objective concrete, detailed, focused, and well-defined?Does the objective define an outcome?
MEASURABLECan we measure what we want to do?Can the objective be expressed as a quantity?
ACHIEVABLECan the objective be attained with a reasonable amount of effort and resources?Can we get it done? Do we have or
can we get the resources to attain the objective?
REALISTICWill this objective lead to a desired goal?Does sufficient knowledge, authority
and capability exist?
TIME-BOUNDWhen will we accomplish the objective?Is a finish and start date clearly defined?

Ideally, MSP objectives should have the characteristics identified in the list below. Monitoring and evaluating progress toward the achievement of desired outcomes can only be measured when objectives are specified in this manner. Often objectives will be preliminary and indicative when you draft them for the first time, and more specific when re-examined later in the MSP process (See Step 7, Developping the Plan and Step 9, Evaluating Performance).


What are some examples of SMART objectives?

Examples of SMART objectives include:

  • Achieve 20% of the overall energy demand in the marine region from offshore renewable sources by 2020;
  • Protect 90% of essential habitat for diving birds by 2018;
  • Ensure that adequate and appropriate marine space is available to produce 25% of energy needs from offshore sources by the year 2020;
  • Implement a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012; and
  • Reduce the time required to make decisions on marine construction permits by 50% by 2015.

Are there examples of SMART objectives being used in MSP practice?

Well-specified and measurable objectives, i.e., SMART, are few and far between in MSP practice. However, a few examples exist. Scotland, for example, has several SMART objectives for aquaculture in its draft marine plan:

  • By 2020, increase the sustainable production of marine finfish at a rate of 4% per year to achieve a 50% increase in current production;
  • By 2020, increase the sustainable freshwater production of juvenile salmon and trout by 50%; and
  • By 2020, increase the sustainable production of shellfish, mussels especially, by at least 100%.

The United Kingdom is legally committed to delivering 15% of its energy demand from renewable sources by 2020. Its Climate Change Act requires the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 despite an increase in electricity demand of between 30-100% by 2050.

Under Germany’s Renewable Energy Law, by 2020, 10,000 megawatts (the output of 10 nuclear power plants) will be connected to the grid and the share of renewable energies in the German electricity mix will move from 12% to 20%. Germany has opened up 20 areas in the North and Baltic seas for the construction of wind farms to achieve this objective.

Tips for Writing SMART Objectives

These ideas may seem simple, but often it’s the simple things that get lost or overlooked.

  • Make sure you sort out the differences between goals and objectives; specify as many objectives as you think you will need to meet each goal;
  • You don’t have to follow the SMART order; usually it will work best to begin with “Measurable” (how can you measure what you want to achieve?); “Measurable” is the most important consideration. What evidence will you use to define success?
  • “Achievable” is linked to measurable. There’s no point in defining an outcome you know you can’t realise it, or one where you can’t tell if or when you’ve finished it. How can you decide if it’s achievable? Do you have the necessary resources to get it done? These are important questions;
    • The devil is in the details. Does everyone involved understand your objectives? Are they free of jargon? Have you defined your terms? Have you used simple language?
    • “Timely” means setting deadlines. You must have deadlines or your objectives will not be measurable;
    • Specifying SMART objectives is a difficult task. But it will be worth it. You will actually know you have accomplished something.

Adapted from: Andrew Bell, “Ten Steps to SMART Objectives”.


Objectives should be written in an active tense and use strong verbs like deliver, conduct, and produce, rather than learn, understand, encourage. Objectives can help focus the plan on what matters—real results or outcomes.

SMART objectives play a critical role in evaluating performance of the management plan, reducing uncertainty, and improving planning and management over time. Because objectives are used to guide decisions in managing human activities in marine areas, they should be more specific than “broad brush” statements or overall management purposes. For example, generic statements such as “maintain marine biodiversity” or “improve water quality” are general statements (goals) about why management has been undertaken, not measurable objectives that can help guide decision-making.


Any pre-planning should include an assessment of the risks of what could go wrong during the planning process. Questions to consider include what could delay or undermine key steps and tasks in the MSP process, what is the critical path among steps that should be taken, and what contingency measures might be available to address identified risks?One example would be what if stakeholders cannot agree on a common set of goals and objectives or could not do so during an agreed period of time? In some cases this situation could be pre-empted by narrowing the range of issues, and therefore stakeholders, addressed in the plan, particularly around contentious issues. For instance, in Massachusetts fisheries is explicitly excluded from the plan being produced (see the Massachusetts Ocean Act). While this may seem an attractive option, it raises a wider and longer term risk that the resulting marine spatial plan is neither comprehensive nor integrated. Furthermore, the issues of concern will need to be addressed anyway at some point.

Other foreseeable risks might include specific events that change the context of the MSP process. In Norway, for example, a general election was held in September 2009. The management plan for the Norwegian sea was therefore pushed through the approval process at a much faster pace than the previous Barents Sea plan in order to be presented prior to the election. As a result, it was decided that the impact assessment stage would be undertaken more quickly than would normally be the case. This reduced the time for thorough quality control and public consultation.

Useful References

Bell, Andrew, updated. Ten steps to SMART objectives. Available at: %20objectives.pdf

UNESCO's Step-by-step Approach for Marine Spatial Planning toward Ecosystem-based Management" offers a 10-step guide on how to get a marine spatial plan started in your region. Explore the guide by choosing steps here.

Download Guide
(PDF 1.5MB)