Why we should not expect too much from voluntary programmes


Over the last weeks I have analysed my data in further depth. That was pretty exciting to do because it was the first time that I could contrast all the theoretical expectations that underlie my research with the data collected over the last three years. It was further exciting to carry out these analyses because I was finally able to use my renewed QCA skills (qualitative comparative analysis).

Based on the analyses I have written a number of manuscripts for articles that are now under review. I will post the articles once they have been accepted, but I can already give away the major findings.

In one of the manuscripts I am particularly interested to learn whether voluntary environmental programmes are a meaningful approach to stimulate retrofits for existing buildings. I already pointed out in another blog that retrofitting existing buildings is key in improving urban sustainability and resilience, but that regulatory barriers stand in the way for doing so. Because existing buildings are exempted from new regulation (i.e., grandfathering) roughly 98% of our cities remain outside the scope of many good intentions for increased urban sustainability and resilience by governments.

Voluntary action may be needed, and is trialled a lot. In the manuscript I discuss no less than 20 voluntary programmes that seek to improve the environmental and resource sustainability of buildings in Australia, the Netherlands and the United States. I have interviewed over a 100 people to learn more about these 20 programs and studied as much existing documentation on these as I could.

I was particularly interested to better understand if any of the following conditions, or configurations of them are related to positive outcomes of these programmes. That is, have they achieved their expected goals in terms of buildings retrofitted? The conditions that I expected to be related to these outcomes (based on the existing literature) are:

  • Financial gain from retrofitted buildings (either because they can be sold or leased at higher rates, or because their owners or users will face lower energy and water bills).
  • Non-monetary gains (think of information, or the building of close networks with peers and policymakers).
  • Showcasing leadership (leadership may result in media attention, or leadership may be appreciated by clients).
  • Participation criteria (if a programme has strict criteria it may ensure that its participants take meaningful action – yet, it may also scare off participants).
  • Enforcement of
  • Government support (which may give credibility to the programme, may reduce financial risks of participants, or ease participation through overall administrative support).
  • Government participation (as ‘customers’ of buildings governments can demand their suppliers to participate in a building, or as building owner they can participate themselves).

The outcome of this particular part of the study? None of the above individual conditions is necessary to achieve positive outcomes in terms of buildings retrofitted.

Yet, combined they cause their effect. Two combinations of these conditions appear sufficient to achieve retrofitted buildings:

  1. Programmes that are easy and profitable for participant – i.e., those that are characterised by a high financial gain, combined with low participation criteria and enforcement of these and absence of government support.
  2. Programmes that are easy, credible and not-risky – i.e., those that are characterised by strong government support, have low participation criteria (but strict enforcement of these) and come with a high financial gain for participant.

Of course, I was also interested in finding out what binds together the programmes that do not show positive results in terms of buildings retrofitted. Again none of the individual conditions is necessary to achieve negative outcomes in terms of buildings retrofitted.

I found, however, five combinations of conditions that are related to negative outcomes of the programmes studied. These all give low rewards to their participants, but ask them to meet high participation criteria. In other words, participants in these programmes have to do much to get little.

Based on these seven configurations (two related to positive outcomes, seven to negative outcomes) I therefore conclude that in order to have a voluntary program that results in positive outcomes it should have at least the following design conditions:

  • Not too much should be asked from participants.
  • Gains for participating (financially or non-monetary) should be substantial and certain.

Yet, one may wonder, if this particular combination of design conditions is related to the success of voluntary programmes (of the type that I have studied) then what is their point? To overcome grandfathering substantial action should be taken, and it is unlikely that building retrofits will result in significant and short term gains.

All in all, my this part of my research points out that

to overcome the problem of grandfathering and to achieve a significant and timely improvement of urban sustainability and resilience other, more coercive governance approaches are likely needed.


Please sent me an email if you wish to learn more about this part of my research.

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