Regulatory Agencies and Regulatory Change: Breaking Out of the Routine


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Keywords: Participatory Action Research, public participation, regulatory change, holistic decision making, Advocacy-Coalition Theory.

Abstract: From time to time regulators are required by new legislation to radically alter the normative basis of their decisions. Their ability to do so can, however, be undermined both by a lack of appropriate resources and the self-referential nature of regulatory systems. Some aids to adaptation already exist, but, as this paper demonstrates, these either take the forms of reactions to failure, or are inadequate to ensure certainty of result, as they are themselves reliant on the adoption of new norms of behaviour by regulatory agencies. We therefore propose a novel mechanism building on a proven research methodology to break out of this circularity in adaptation: a modified form of Participatory Action Research embedded within regulatory systems.


In the last ten years environmental regulators in the UK have been asked to take on a new role. Where once their work focused largely on technical end of pipe solutions,1 or required them to use management-based approaches to environmental protection,2 more recent changes have required them to adopt holistic approaches factoring social and economic issues into their decision-making alongside scientific information. These changes have arisen as a result of, for example, implementation of EU legislation such as the Water Framework Directive3 through national legislation.

The legislation introducing these new requirements ought to represent a punctuation point in internal policy making4 or a 'third order' change in policy.5 One might therefore anticipate a radical change in working practices within the regulatory agencies following its introduction. While agencies appear to have risen to the challenges the legislation poses,6 evidence indicates that change has been neither as radical nor as prompt7 as might be anticipated. In part this is because the new legislation represents an attempt to introduce new norms of behaviour into a self-referential regulatory system8 the nature of which undermines their adoption. To break out of self-referential decision making the system must both receive the norms introduced by the new legislation and generate new internal norms to direct future decision making.9 We call these internal norms 'regulatory norms'.

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