The fine art of environment policy

Designing the right policy mix for any given situation is an art, not a science. Our failure to master this art may be partly due to the way we view policy. Obviously there are many choices to be made about the right mix of policy mechanisms to apply over different scales or to different issues. The current policy maker’s dilemma is how to make these decisions using the best theoretical and practical information available. Policy ‘scientists’ would argue that the main choices are based on a variety of criteria concerned with the effectiveness of the policy in achieving the desired outcomes and implementation issues such as monitoring and resource requirements. Unfortunately environment policy is not so straightforward in real life.

The sorts of mechanisms used in environment policy have shifted over recent years but most would use one or more of the following:

  • R&D and Monitoring
  • Communication and information
  • Education and training
  • Consultative
  • Agreements, conventions
  • Statutory
  • Common law
  • Covenants
  • Assessment procedures
  • Self-regulation
  • Community involvement
  • Market mechanisms
  • Institutional change
  • Change other policies
  • Reasoned inaction

(Dovers 2001, 198)

Like other ‘wicked’ policy problems, many environment issues are chronic and, when depicted as problems, such as loss of biodiversity or salinity, seemingly impossible to solve (Brennan 2003). The lack of resolution may lie at least partly in the articulation of the ‘the problem’ and partly because we are simply not doing good policy. Both are of course related issues.

The Productivity Commission Report on the evaluation of the implementation of ecologically sustainable development (Productivity Commission 1999) suggests that ‘boundedness’ and dealing with problems was important for policy implementation. The report identifies the NRM Strategy covering the Murray Darling Basin as a good example of policy success in meeting multiple stakeholder objectives, establishing partnership agreements, and aiming for integrated long term outcomes. Unfortunately, as we are beginning to realise, these achievements have failed to safeguard the future of this once mighty river system.

Most importantly the report identified a general lack of good practice in policy making, including the lack of routine performance monitoring, lack of long term focus and lack of data (over the long term). The Commission makes recommendations to improve policy development processes:

  • Generally improve the policy making practices within departments,
  • Improve coordination between agencies, and between Commonwealth agencies and other stakeholders,
  • Require regular monitoring and review of policy initiatives,
  • Encourage longer term strategic thinking,
  • Develop a longer term commitment to monitoring environmental indicators (comparable to the existing commitment for economic and social trends).

However that report still maintained that the way to develop and successfully implement Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) was to focus on the problems to be solved. It is this approach which I believe is the root cause of much of Australia’s well documented ongoing environmental decline (State of the Environment Committee 2001). In identifying and defining environmental issues or problems there are several complications which are not immediately apparent. These include imbalances of power and the complexity of the systems that we are attempting to manage.

Even in these days of greater stakeholder involvement and consultation over environmental issues it is still usually those with power who define the problem (Lukes 1974). The resultant policy is thus likely to represent the interests of those with property or resource rights and will tend to maintain the status quo. Imbalances of power also occur within government where physical scientists and economists with their more normative tools tend to out shout the (often) token social scientist. At best, policy makers attempt to juggle competing legitimate values with no real tools for undertaking this task and with various parties attempting to apply political pressure to achieve their desired outcome.

In an ideal adaptive management framework (and adaptive management is necessary for environmental management and its attendant uncertainties), policy development is a part of the management cycle. Dovers (2003) identifies five principles for adaptive policy: persistence, purposefulness, information-richness and sensitivity, inclusiveness, and flexibility. In this frame, policy is explicitly experimental, mechanisms are selected based on the best available information about the social and ecological systems and feedback loops are established to provide information on the outcomes of policy mechanism choices. The main difference between adaptive policy and more traditional policy development processes (policy mechanisms are still selected based on anticipated or proven effectiveness and the ability to implement them) is that while the outcome is anticipated, it is always monitored. Of course policy outcomes are broader than simple changes in environmental conditions so monitoring must also include the social system and the performance of the institutions involved.

On one level we still have few real choices to make within ‘environment’ policy. To date physical scientists and economists have been over-represented in influencing environmental policy. An initial improvement would be to recognise the fundamental interconnectedness of social and ecological systems, thus raising the need for input from the diversity of the social sciences. The next step is accepting that social systems are abstract systems and that discursive and deliberative processes are required (Fischer 2003). Most important however is the role of the policy makers, who need to see that their work is an art and that their job is to create something beautiful from the diverse materials and rich experiences already available. Many artists say that they do not create their work; their art is created through them. Like artists, policy makers’ work will be judged by both present and future generations.


Brennan, A. 2003. Biodiversity and agricultural landscapes: Can the wicked policy problems be solved? Presentation for the Society and Environment Study Group, University of Western Australia.

Dovers, S. 2001. Informing Institutions and Policies. Pages 196-221 in J. Venning, and J. Higgins, editors. Towards Sustainability: Emerging Systems for Informing Sustainable Development. UNSW Press, Sydney.

Dovers, S. 2003. Reflecting on Three Decades: A Synthesis in S. Dovers, and S. Wild River, editors. Managing Australia’s Environment. The Federation Press, Sydney.

Fischer, F. 2003. Reframing Public Policy: Discursive Politics and Deliberative Practices. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Lukes, S. 1974. Power: A Radical View. Macmillan Press Ltd, London.

Productivity Commission. 1999. Implementation of Ecologically Sustainable Development by Commonwealth Departments and Agencies. Page 212. AusInfo, Canberra.

State of the Environment Committee. 2001. State of the Environment. CSIRO, Canberra.

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