The Importance of Engaging with Values in Policy

This week, a Nature article was brought to my attention. The article was called ‘Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures’. The key message of the paper is that Australia can continue to experience economic growth while tackling environmental challenges by pursuing technocratic fixes to these challenges. Over on ideas4sustainability, Joern Fischer has already written a very nice post about the flaws of a technocratic approach. He also outlines why these flaws have lead us to put together the Leverage Points project. To not repeat Joern, and to avoid writing a very long post, I have decided to just highlight my concerns with one specific section of the paper.

The section of the paper is called ‘Policy choices are crucial, not changes in values’. The authors argue that economic growth can be achieved alongside environmental improvements by changing policy. These changes in policy however should sit within existing environmental and social values, allowing existing targets (e.g. emissions reductions) to remain, and keeping in line with public opinion. They argue that we need top-down policies to ensure collective choices towards achieving public goods outcomes. So where individual’s personal interests are not aligned with those of public (collective) interest, top-down policies are needed.

Firstly, I find it odd to assert that this doesn’t involve a change of values. Within the policy framework, values are incorporated into deciding what needs to be tackled, setting goals and targets therein, and in deciding how to achieve them. I find Sabatier’s Advocacy Coalition Framework’s distinction of different types of policy beliefs to be a good way into thinking about this. In this instance, the values being changed are around the way in which policy should be formulated and implemented. Top-down policies incorporate implications on the way in which democracy is exercised. It is a move away from current trends towards participatory forms of policy-making and implementation, which seek to empower people and democratize decision making. It is a change in values in this regard.

Secondly, I just don’t think that top-down policies are effective in securing individual behavior change. Examples from my own research show that where individual beliefs or interests do not align with that in policy, individuals will act against a policy. There is a sizeable environmental policy implementation deficit across the EU (and beyond!), and such mismatched interests contribute to this. Indeed, it is an underlying rationale to the participatory turn in environmental governance; by engaging with individual’s interests, we can increase legitimacy, buy-in and efficacy of policy. Without such commitment from individuals, we instead need some way to strongly enforce top-down policies.

My overall discomfort with the article (and specifically this section) is therefore what is implied by the extension and application of this techno-fix rationale. Do we really want to introduce a dictatorship policy approach with strong enforcement (fines, sanctions)? Or would we rather work with people, and specifically with people’s values? I personally feel that engaging with people’s values would be preferable. A specific value to engage with would be the idea that individual’s income maximisation should take precedence over meeting public interest (and/or that economic growth should be our overall goal!).

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