Shifting Roles and Acceleration in Public Policy Cycles
By Bart Mongoven
The annual meeting of the Global Legislators Organization for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE) wrapped up Feb. 17 in Washington, D.C. GLOBE brings together members of the parliaments of G-8 countries, as well as five other nations, to discuss global environmental issues. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) were among those attending parts of the three-day conference. The meeting ended with a series of pronouncements by the attendees on issues such as climate change and logging. Newspapers around the world reported on statements by the U.S. delegation about their willingness to push for a mandatory U.S. climate change policy.
The most significant aspect of the GLOBE conference was not in the final "position statements" that were issued -- indeed, the conclusions the organization draws are neither strict nor incisive, and tend to be fairly vanilla stuff -- but rather in the way it draws legislators together to share knowledge and discuss priorities in a given issue area. In this way, lawmakers learn from their foreign counterparts about problems and successes, strategies and tactics in addressing environmental issues.
GLOBE is not a new organization -- it was founded in the 1980s -- but its relevance in public policy matters is growing significantly. There is growing recognition that decisions made at GLOBE meetings influence legislative debates in parliaments around the world. Consequently, GLOBE's annual conference drew international media attention this year, for the first time in its history.
The growing salience of GLOBE and other exchanges like it is evidence of a significant trend: Changes in the way governments -- particularly those of industrialized countries -- communicate and cooperate on issues of mutual concern are impacting longstanding assumptions about what could be called the public policy development cycle. Government traditionally has been something of a latecomer to debates that frequently end in the passage of new regulations or laws; issues generally are advanced first by "fringe" groups or activists at one end or the other of the political spectrum. Significantly, the deepening levels of communication between regulators and legislators from different nation-states means that governments now are beginning to develop regulations and remedies for specific problems before domestic political considerations force their hands.
The acceleration in this part of the public policy cycle has far-reaching implications for businesses and public interest groups, particularly those involved with emerging issues of science and business that have not yet been well plowed by regulators. These groups are likely to experience mounting pressures to track and respond quickly to legislative pushes around the globe -- lest they find the coming era of policy change impossible to control.
GLOBE is just one of a growing number of venues -- both formal and informal -- in which legislators and regulators are talking to their peers from other countries. Through these linkages, governments of industrialized countries (especially the G-8) have taken the first step toward catching up to the businesses they regulate and the social and political movements to which they must respond.
In other words, though business and political movements have developed global systems for sharing best practices -- communicating new strategies and aligning tactics in pursuit of a shared goal -- governments have not developed a similarly sophisticated system in most areas. It's not that industrialized countries do not share the same goals -- in many cases they do, at least in a broad sense. The difficulty has been a lack of impetus. The 9/11 attacks, of course, provided impetus for intelligence agencies to share knowledge and strategies, and financial scandals reported in Europe and the United States between 1999 and 2002 spurred greater information-sharing between financial regulators. But in most other realms, government agencies are only now beginning to catch on.
The annual G-8 meeting is probably the clearest example of broadly based intergovernmental linkage in this context. G-8 ministers meet, between numerous and well-scripted photo opportunities, to sign pledges of cooperation on dozens of issues. The pledges lack the force of law, but they inarguably reveal the predominant direction of thinking among G-8 leaders. The pledges emerge from working-group meetings of lower-level government officials, who gather as often as twice a quarter to discuss the stated issues. The meetings are not convened for purposes of determining a political statement -- that is the job of politicians. Those at the lower level gatherings focus substantively on the issues themselves: Deputy ministers have a venue in which to share ideas and experiences on subjects such as border security, freedom of the seas, debt relief, climate change and so forth.
Some governments, particularly those from richer countries, also act as models for others. Developing countries generally turn to the European Union, the United States or World Health Organization (WHO) for guidance on health policy (and WHO policy itself is guided chiefly by U.S. and EU perspectives). Securities regulators, environmental enforcement officials, consumer product safety officials and thousands of other regulators from around the world meet with peers in Washington and Brussels to learn best practices.
Of course, the growing speed of communication and travel are crucial factors in this trend. With email and the Internet, government officials can much more easily gather technical data, correspond with and track the reactions of their counterparts in other countries or regions on problems of mutual concern.
The Credibility Issue
The increased -- and increasingly substantial -- levels of intergovernmental communication now are beginning to play out in a significant way, by shifting the role played by government in developing public policies.
The critical juncture in the development of new public policies (whether at the local, state, national or international level) comes when an organization deemed "credible" by the media or the broader public speaks out on the issue. Until then, the issue is a concern of fringe groups who are talking about something very few "regular" people care about. For instance, the idea that government should step in to curb cigarette-smoking was anathema in the 1930s. And only a small subset of the most dedicated environmental activists were talking about climate change in the mid-1980s. Yet the public's thinking on both issues ultimately changed. In both examples, the seminal event was a pronouncement (or a series of pronouncements) from a "credible" source -- the U.S. surgeon-general in the case of cigarettes; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the case of global warming.
The importance of "credibility" is often an inferred aspect in activism, but recently it has come to be more clearly isolated and defined by issues advocates.
The clearest example currently visible is in the push for more stringent regulation of chemicals in the United States. Nurses and advocates for disease treatment and cures have emerged as some of the most valuable spokespeople for groups advocating a rethink of the U.S. regulatory approach. These groups are sincerely concerned about the issues raised in the chemical policy debate, and more traditional chemical policy reform advocates -- who primarily have been active in public health and environmental issues -- have found they can succeed by providing information and encouragement to the nursing-oriented organizations. The average citizen trusts nurses and disease advocates more than they do either environmentalists or businesses, and organizations like the American Nurses Association and the Learning Disabilities Association of America now are instrumental in pushing chemical policy reform into the U.S. political discussion.
The key point is that, because more technical data and research supporting regulatory decisions now is being shared and discussed, governments themselves are beginning to take on the role of "credible group" in the public policy cycle. If Norway decides to regulate a certain body of chemicals, for example, other countries interacting with Norway (through intergovernmental bodies such as the Nordic Council or GLOBE) will often follow. They can have access to scientific studies commissioned by the Norwegian government in support of its new regulations, and even to model legislation -- which is the same information that any advocacy group would give to them.
This is not mere theory -- it now is becoming practice. In Canada, for example, several environmental organizations on Feb. 16 filed a legal petition asking the government to ban certain chemicals -- citing, among other things, the passage of similar measures in Sweden, Illinois, Maine, and Washington. Those states are being treated by the petitioners as credible groups.
Governments and Experts
The importance of this trend -- that highly politicized actors now are emerging as "credible" groups of influence in the policy cycle -- cannot be lightly dismissed. In short, governments increasingly are playing a role once dominated by scientists and technically focused groups and individuals. That is not to say that scientific and technical organizations are immune from politicization, but they are, at their core, rooted in apolitical discipline.
Governments are rooted in core national interests, but they tend to be strongly swayed by the changing winds of public sentiment. And, as has been established, changes in public opinion are driven by the statements and pronouncements of credible organizations. The ground rules for credibility vary from country to country, of course: A "credible finding" in France might not be convincing to Americans. Greenpeace, as an organization, has little credibility among the U.S. public, but it is a strong, influential lobby in Brussels and many other European capitals.
As a result of such variables, the battle for the attention and endorsement of "credible" groups is beginning to be waged along a number of new fronts. In practice, a group that is concerned about the direction of U.S. policy no longer will be required only to maintain a strong lobby in Washington, D.C.; it must also take into consideration policy developments in numerous countries. And that entails a need to track the activities of groups perceived as "credible" in all major countries of concern.
The effects of all of this are less pronounced in well-established issue spheres such as labor, finance and the environment, because business and major advocacy groups involved with such issues already have a recognized influence in the major world capitals. But the trend poses significant challenges for groups and industries concerned with emerging areas of science and business that essentially represent virgin territory for regulators.
Consider nanotechnology as an example. Many countries are beginning to investigate methods for regulating nanotech applications, particularly with consumer safety considerations in mind, but none yet have put forth a comprehensive regulation. If a successful movement for regulation of nanotechnology develops in Europe or Japan, the precedent would change the situation facing the industry markedly. With that in mind, the U.S. nanotech industry could drum up support for its preferred regulatory structure from a group considered credible in the United States (for example, the Harvard Medical School or the National Research Council), but this would not ensure that a country with greater influence among U.S. legislators (the European Union or Japan) wouldn't be able to sway the course of U.S. policy.
The crucial point, of course, has little to do with the future of nanotechnology regulation, but rather with the fact that industry and other interest groups increasingly will find themselves monitoring social and political events worldwide -- including regions in which they have no market ambitions -- simply in order to shore up their regulatory efforts in the United States or other countries of primary concern.
Until business and advocates find a way to build structures that respond efficiently to the strengthening linkages between governments, regulatory fights (particularly in the G-8 countries) will be full of surprises for all involved, as both sides try to open multiple regulatory debates simultaneously. Acrimony between various factions in regulatory battles almost certainly will increase.
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