Analyzing Policy Interactions: A Chat with Sabine Reinecke

On August 28, I headed to Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg to meet with Sabine Reinecke, then a Ph.D. candidate (and now a post-doc) in the Chair of Forest and Environmental Policy. Her work examines climate change and biodiversity governance, in particular the interactions between different governance settings. During our meeting, we talked about various strategies for understanding environmental governance interactions. For context, we drew upon two of her studies: (1) an analysis of the REDD+ Partnership, an independent transnational exchange platform beside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and (2) a case study analysis of climate science and policy in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UK.

The Networked Governance Perspective

In her REDD+ Partnership analysis, Ms. Reinecke uses the networked governance perspective. This approach envisions governance as a web of relations, where each node represents an actor in the governance process and every edge between two nodes represents an interaction between the corresponding actors. This “web” can be constructed through interviews, text analyses, and observation.

One advantage of the networked governance perspective is that it gives all actors agency, in principle, viewing governance interactions as “flat” rather than hierarchical. This “flat” perspective contrasts with international regime theory (the “classic international relations approach”), which views policy-making as a top-down process. In international regime theory, agendas are set at the international level and then rules/norms based on these agendas are implemented at lower (i.e. national and subnational) levels. The problem with such a hierarchical view is that it implies higher governmental levels are superior to lower ones, and that policy only flows in a certain direction. It also doesn’t account for the policies, structures, and momentum that exist at lower governance levels or in non-governmental settings. As Ms. Reinecke put it colloquially, “International agreements aren’t made in an empty room.” Networked governance accounts for the fact that rule-making occurs at multiple governance levels, with higher-level rules concretized (and potentially significantly changed) at and through the lower levels. By doing so, networked governance acknowledges the principal importance of all actors’ agency.

Another advantage of networked governance is that it accounts for the complex relationships/interlinkages in and between different governance levels and non-governmental actors. These interlinkages can take many forms, for instance cooperation or competition, physical co-presence in a negotiation process, exchange of ideas, or direct involvement in another actor’s policy actions. They can be analyzed at the micro-level (i.e. between each and every actor) or at the structural level (i.e. between different groups of actors). In this context, a critical question may be how interactions between different governance levels are institutionalized. Networked governance therefore presents an advantage over another perspective called global governance, which does acknowledge the agency of different actors at various governance levels but doesn’t analyze the interactions between these actors.

The web (or webs) of relations for a networked governance analysis can be constructed and analyzed in various ways. For instance, Ms. Reinecke did her analysis on the organizational level, constructing separate actor-networks for the UNFCCC and for the REDD+ Partnership. She considered these networks jointly to better understand the processes that occurred in each, and to understand why certain ideas were taken up or rejected. She also looked at these different settings as interrelated networks, i.e. as a “whole,” to recognize if actors do not interact with each other. This analysis is important, since lack of interaction also affects policy outcomes, e.g. leading to fairly independent trajectories. For instance, although both agriculture and forestry closely relate to climate change, they’re housed in separate negotiation tracks under the UNFCCC and within different negotiating communities.


Non-Governmental Actors

However, as Ms. Reinecke pointed out, the relationships between state and non-state actors (such as NGOs, businesses, and science) often remain out of view. She therefore went one step further in her REDD+ Partnership analysis to understand how “new types of non-classical actors with political agency” (in her words) interact with classical state-led processes, such as the formal negotiations under UNFCCC.

Ms. Reinecke explained that the UN is generally very “elite,” but the actors that set up the REDD+ Partnership (at conferences in Paris and Oslo) realized the UNFCCC needed to learn from existing experiences to identify gaps in forest policy finance and implementation. The country delegates therefore solicited technical and practical information from independent non-governmental sources, such as NGOs and research experts, which were invited to the partnership as “equal partners.” While some of the delegations resisted opening the process to non-governmental actors, many UNFCCC delegates present in the partnership liked the frank, undiplomatic language that the practitioners used, which sparked discussion about whether official UNFCCC dialogue should also be more open and frank.


Science as a Non-Neutral Actor

Ms. Reinecke further explained that not only political agencies/institutions or politically active non-state actors qualify as political actors. More neutral or technical actors, such as from science or administration, can also be viewed as policy agents. Science does not simply provide information to policymakers, and instead (as Ms. Reinecke contended) more or less intentionally “takes sides” in policymaking. She posed that this is particularly critical in cases of ignorance. Ignorance is not only the absence of knowledge, but also implies conflicts over values and certainty that occur and are often intermingled. In other words, some people are skeptical of certain science at least in part because they don’t want to act on it, not only because they don’t consider it credible. Given this view, science certainly plays a non-neutral role in the policymaking process. For instance, certain scientific information or actors may be strategically included or excluded during the process. Where there’s uncertainty, different scientific analyses may produce different results (e.g. in the case of climate change predictions) used to inform and justify different political positions and actions.

Ms. Reinecke sought to understand science-policy interactions in her climate science policy case study, so I asked her specifically how the role of science varied across different governance levels. In some sense, Ms. Reinecke said, it’s easier to arrive at evidence-based agreements at the international/global level than at the local level. International players only have to decide on principles, and representation in international meetings is often based on fairly broad common grounds where a plethora of very different views may be “black boxed” without problems. However, lower governance levels have to actually deal with concrete implementation, and thus a myriad of different value conflicts within the diverse, complicated web of actors. “Knowledge brokerage institutions” (KBIs), which facilitate the exchange between science and policymaking, therefore have the toughest time at the local level. Informally speaking, Ms. Reinecke called KBI advising at the local level “like putting a stick into a hornet’s nest.” Formally speaking, KBIs may have to navigate settings with climate skeptics as mayors, strong industrial presence, or neighborhoods that believe upper levels of government are trying to rob them of their rights and resources in the name of science. It can be challenging to balance science with other (valid) competing interests and ways of knowing.


Applications to Smart Grid Policy

There are many actors involved in environmental policymaking, EU Smart Grid policy included.  These actors include governments, non-governmental institutions, and (as Ms. Reinecke pointed out) also science. By using analytical frameworks such as networked governance, one can try to understand the factors influencing vision and implementation at various governance levels.

(Note: The interviewee reviewed the above writeup before its publication.)

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