The role of government in voluntary programs

1979 Jeroen
This is me, years ago, being very excited about my Christmas presents.

Voluntary programs are to policy makers what a Christmas presents are to children (and adults alike, for that matter). A voluntary program seeks to stimulate people to voluntarily improve their behaviour beyond governmental regulation. For instance, well-known best of class building benchmarking tools such as LEED, BREEAM and Green Star challenge developers to build buildings that are more sustainable than what is required by building codes in respectively the USA, the UK, Australia, and a wide range of countries that have introduced these benchmarking tools.

It goes without saying that policy makers love this type of programs. They sound like a free lunch. The programs seek ‘beyond compliance’ behaviour without the force of law. The government does not have to develop regulations and enforce these, which saves time and costs. Because people are not forced to join voluntary programs they are also likely more willing to comply with these. Finally, people may complain less about these programs than about more adversarial mandatory building codes. How great is that for policy makers?

Strikingly, however, governments appear highly involved in voluntary programs. In my current research project I have studied over 50 voluntary programs in Australia, India, Malaysia, the Netherlands, the United States and Singapore. In all of these programs governments are actively involved. I traced at least four specific roles for governments in voluntary programs.

First, governments may initiate or lead a program. Second, they may monitor and enforce a program. Third, they may support a program financially, administratively, or simply by participating in it. Fourth, they may ensure coherence between the program and existing legislation, or seek to achieve synergy between groups of programs. Often governments take up more than one role in voluntary programs, I found.

These roles of government in voluntary programs were not well understood. In other words, how does government involvement affect the outcomes of voluntary programs?  It may be expected that government involvement will attract more participants to the program. Government involvement may give the program more credibility. Participants may think that they can get some form of governmental support. Or, they consider participation a great way to build close relationships with policy makers.

Also, government involvement may be expected to ensure that the arrangement actually achieves meaningful results, for instance in terms of buildings built with high levels of environmental performance. After all, governments are a significant ‘consumer’ of office space. They can act as launching customer in a voluntary program. They also have the experience with monitoring and enforcing building codes. This may help in the enforcement of the voluntary program.

I do, however, not find strong evidence that the involvement of government in voluntary programs does indeed have such positive effects. Yet, in the large set of voluntary programs that I have studied I find that government involvement may have a positive effect if governments become smarter in their involvement in these programs.

To give two examples. First, in Singapore I studied a voluntary program along the lines of best of class benchmarking tools. Yet, this program has an intriguing twist. All new buildings in Singapore have to meet at least the lowest level of the program and may voluntarily seek higher levels of performance. This makes that all builders in Singapore are exposed to the program. In other countries I noticed that voluntary programs often have difficulty in attracting participants. The smart twist of the Singapore program has overcome this.

Second, voluntary programs often operate in isolation. Yet, the number of these voluntary programs seems to be growing and growing. If programs are developed in such a way that they reinforce each other then the whole of these programs may be larger than the sum of their parts. In the Netherlands policy makers have well understood this and launched two agencies at some arm’s length from government to study existing voluntary programs and start up new ones. These agencies seek to fill in gaps in the landscape of voluntary programs and to link existing ones, aiming to create synergies between them.

In two weeks from now I will present a paper on this part of my research at a conference in the Netherlands. Please send me an email if you are interested to know more about.

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