Six key conceptual areas have been driving my research
- Ethics, attitudes and norms
- Information in policy processes
- Participation, representation and governance
- Policy evaluation and appraisal
- Equity and social justice
- Science and society
Public policy and social institutions play upon a range of motivators, such as ethical beliefs, attitudes, and norms, which act as causal mechanisms influencing individual and group behaviour. An exclusive focus on the individual in economic models of choice leaves unanswered the meaning of social choices that are more than an aggregation of individual choices. One aspect of my research has been to define and measure individual motives within the context of environmental policy and value expression while looking towards the role of attitudes, norms and ethics that go beyond the simple preference utilitarian behaviouralism of mainstream economics. This moves the focus away from the individual and toward social structures and institutions (i.e., conventions, norms and externally sanctioned rules).
Information in a traditional scientific methodology is equated with truth and objectivity. In a policy process this can be taken to mean those lacking specialised expert knowledge who disagree with a given policy prescription are regarded as ignorant of the truth and require educating. This naïve objectivism can easily lead to technocracy and elitist agenda setting. Uncertainty and complexity are themselves ignored along with differences in values and context, which determine how information is interpreted. My research sees the importance of different types of information (qualitative and quantitative) as expressed by different actors (e.g., experts, vested interest groups, the concerned general public) within different institutional contexts. The need to understand how people interact with and interpret information has implications for the type of society our institutions create and the values they perpetuate. In addition this raises the need for developing institutions for expressing knowledge, values and concerns in different forms.
Different regulatory tools and methods of aiding project and policy decisions exist and imply different forms of governance. Top down approaches (relying upon experts to legitimate decisions made in closed government circles) can be contrasted with bottom up local initiatives driven by lay knowledge. My research accepts that a range of approaches are necessary, dependent upon context, and aims to analyse how these perform and can be improved. The dangers for democracy of experts and elites talking power into their own hands are ever present. Regulatory capture is a major concern in the environmental field and elsewhere. The powerful vested interests of corporations and financiers is able to feed directly into the economic structure of a modern industrial society and so command the attention of political (and other) actors. The counter to such power is offered by participatory deliberative processes, inclusiveness, identifying responsibility, holding the powerful to account for their actions (and failures to act) and upholding human rights. A strong tension remains, especially in environmental governance, over the need for authority over the individual to achieve wider public interest and the expectation that individuals should be the controlling force in society.
Policy instruments recommended by economists have typically focused upon efficiency despite a recognised policy need for other goals (e.g., effectiveness and equity) to have equal and often greater importance. Public policy must be designed to meet multiple desired policy goals. This challenges the common belief that simply applying textbook economic policy instruments (e.g., taxes, emissions permits) will solve all environmental problems by getting the prices right. Economists are wrong to believe that theoretically efficient tools should be the most preferred. Research here needs to link with our understanding of human behaviour and values to show the impacts that different policy instruments and designs have on the multiple values people hold and how they impact on human behaviour. Rather than assuming a favoured instrument can be implemented off-the-shelf, attention is need to the often unexpected ways in which things work in practice. Policy evaluation and project appraisal are too often reduced down to technical exercises relying upon black box metrics. Evaluation also needs to focus on process as well as end goals.
Aspects of equity and social justice are highlighted by the literature on sustainability but have tended to be disconnected from or only loosely connected to economic and environmental analysis. My research aims to explore specific issues of inequity and consider how they interact with environmental and economic factors. This leads to concerns over resource extraction and use, exploitation of workers, imperialism, land grabbing, resource wars and the spread of property rights, trade and markets to the detriment of traditional owners, local practices, the environment and alternatives for communal living. This framing clearly moves power relationships into the foreground and emphasises the structural links between the modes of societal reproduction and the institutions of governance and the market place. The growth society is then one in which capital accumulating institutions are promoted over and above all others. There is today a clear conflict between the promotion of narrowly defined economic interests promoted through national and international trade organizations and legislation that protects workers, consumers and the environment.
New knowledge and technologies are more rapidly transforming our society than in the past. Innovations are seen as offering great hope for the future, leading to increases in human well-being. At the same time there is grave concern over the unforeseen consequences of rapid innovation and growing recognition that some innovations pose threats to economic and ecological systems. A range of issues come together in this context including conflicts between different value systems, beliefs in forms of progress, treatment of risk and uncertainty, and communication between ‘experts’ and the general public. As environmental problems become more severe so the prevalence of technological ‘solutions’ rises, despite the fact that the cause of the problems we face is not a technical issue but rather a matter of values and societal-Nature relationships.