Governments are too conservative in using innovative governance tools

Governments are too conservative in how they use innovative governance tools.
Street view Robin Hood’s Bay, UK

In comparing how governments exactly participate in innovative governance tools for urban sustainability and resilience I realised that their involvement is very conservative. This, I argue, leaves opportunities of such innovative governance tools unexplored.

I discuss this insight in a recent paper (currently under review). The paper seeks to better understand why and how governments are involved in voluntary environmental programmes (VEPs). From here on I can then further explore whether particular government involvement in VEPs is related to particular VEP outcomes, such as attracting participants or contributing to a more sustainable and resilient built environment.

In the paper I compare a sample of 40 VEPs from the full set of VEPs that I have studied. The VEPs that I study in the paper are from Australia (13), the Netherlands (8), Singapore (4) and the United States (15). I left out the VEPs from India and Malaysia in this paper.

In the paper I carefully unpack government involvement in these VEPs in four roles, building on the current VEP literature. These roles are:

  • Initiating and leading: Governments are often considered in the right position to initiate VEPs and to take up leading roles in these. This to ensure that (prospective) VEP participants find each other and the VEP, reach relevant and effective solutions to particular problems, and to ensure cohesion of the VEP and its participants.
  • Monitoring and enforcing: It is often argued that without monitoring and enforcement VEPs are unlikely to achieve meaningful results. Similar critique is expressed to VEPs that rely on self-monitoring by their participants. Governments are considered to be in a good position to monitor and enforce VEP participants’ behaviour because of their long standing experience with such tasks.
  • Supporting: Governments are further considered in the right position to support a VEP, even if they do not take up either of the above roles. Such support can be direct, for instance financial support or staffing support. Such support can also be indirect, for instance when governments require their suppliers of goods and services to participate in a VEP, or to at least meet comparable requirements as a particular VEP sets.
  • Assembling: With VEPs gaining popularity governments are sometimes considered to be well suited to maintain an overview of these, to ensure their cohesion, and make sure that they do not conflict with existing law and regulation. Governments may further seek synergies between different VEPs.

The first two roles discussed in the VEP literature are fairly traditional. They reflect how governments are involved in direct regulatory interventions, such as building codes and subsidies. The latter roles are more novel, and fit ongoing governance debates that the role of the state in governing has shifted towards facilitating and supporting.

In my paper I assess that assumption by looking closely at how governments are involved in the 40 VEPs. I find that in the majority of the 40 VEPs studied governments have taken up traditional roles (73 per cent), often in combination with novel roles; and only in a small number of cases governments had taken up novel roles only (23 per cent). In only two VEPs (5 per cent) governments have not taken up any role at all.

This goes slightly against the claim that the role of the state in governing has shifted. It seems more likely that, at least in the 40 VEPs studied here, governments have embraced these innovative governance tools, but use them in a rather traditional manner (through initiating, leading, monitoring and enforcing these VEPs) to achieve public goals.

For an understanding of how well VEPs perform this is a relevant insight. Governments seem to leave opportunities unexplored in how they can be involved in VEPs. For instance, in none of the VEPs studied governments have taken up a sole assembling role. Yet, in a series of close to 140 interviews with VEP participants and administrators I learnt that this particular role for governments was highly appreciated. An assembling role appears a relatively undemanding role for governments in terms of funds or staff required, but it may yield considerable results (although this assumption needs further testing). Assembling also appears a role that governments can take up over the lifecycle of one or more VEPs, and may help to boost VEPs that perform poorly.

To conclude, my paper highlights that ‘government involvement’ in VEPs can mean a variety of things. More importantly, it shows that government involvement in VEPs is not a blunt intervention that goes against the idea of these governance tools being ‘voluntary’. Such government involvement can be subtly tailored to the need of VEPs and their context, which may help to improve VEP performance.

More research is necessary to test whether different forms of government involvement in VEPs are indeed related to different VEP outcomes. That will be the topic of a future paper. Stay tuned.

At the moment I am visiting the London School of Economics (LSE Cities) and the University of East Anglia (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research)I would like to take the opportunity to thank both universities for hosting me throughout the European Autumn.

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