Environmental Policy As Learning: A New View of an Old Landscape

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  • 322 Public Administration Review May/June 2001, Vol. 61, No. 3

    Daniel J. FiorinoU.S. Environmental Protection Agency

    Environmental Policy As Learning:A New View of an Old Landscape*

    Environmental policy in the United States has always been characterized by high levels of politicalconflict. At the same time, however, policy makers have shown a capacity to learn from their ownand others experience. This article examines U.S. environmental policy since 1970 as a learningprocess and, more specifically, as an effort to develop three kinds of capacities for policy learning.The first decade and a half may be seen in terms of technical learning, characterized by a highdegree of technical and legal proficiency, but also narrow problem definitions, institutional frag-mentation, and adversarial relations among actors. In the 1980s, growing recognition of deficien-cies in technical learning led to a search for new goals, strategies, and policy instruments, in whatmay be termed conceptual learning. By the early 1990s, policy makers also recognized a need fora new set of capacities at social learning, reflecting trends in European environmental policy,international interest in the concept of sustainability, and dissatisfaction with the U.S. experience.Social learning stresses communication and interaction among actors. Most industrial nations,including the United States, are working to develop and integrate capacities for all three kinds oflearning. Efforts to integrate capacities for conceptual and social learning in the United Stateshave had mixed success, however, because the institutional and legal framework for environmen-tal policy still is founded on technical learning.

    *The views expressed in this article are those of the author and notnecessarily those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    Daniel J. Fiorino is the director of the Performance Incentives Division in theOffice of Policy, Economics, and Innovation at the U.S. Environmental Pro-tection Agency. He directs projects on performance-based environmentalmanagement, performance measurement, and regulatory innovation and isthe program manager for the EPAs National Environmental PerformanceTrack. He is the author of Making Environmental Policy (California, 1995)and a co-author of Managing for the Environment (Jossey-Bass, 1999). Email:Fiorino.Dan@epamail.epa.gov.

    Do governments and institutions learn? Are policy mak-ers, activists, experts, and others capable of drawing les-sons from their experiences and applying it to problemsthey face? A persuasive literature in public policy arguesthat institutions and people within them do learn, and thata learning model is a useful way to understand and explainpolicy change. This learning approach has been proposedto complement more traditional approaches to policychange that are based on political conflict, approaches thatdepict government and policy as driven largely by societalconflicts and pressures.

    Approaches to policy change based on a learning modelgenerally hold that states can learn from their experiencesand that they can modify their present actions on the basisof their interpretation of how previous actors have fared inthe past (Bennett and Howlett 1992, 276). A learningmodel suggests a more positive view of policy making thandoes the traditional, conflict-based model. The notion that

    governments and policy makers learn over time suggests apurpose to policy making. A learning approach stressesknowledge acquisition and use. Policy makers are seen lessas passive forces driven by political and interest group pres-sures than as sources and implementers of ideas, informa-tion, and analysis that influence choices.

    This article applies a learning model to U.S. environ-mental policy, with a focus on pollution control. Environ-mental policy making is knowledge intensive and com-plex, involving scientific, technical, legal, policy, and socialissues. How people obtain, evaluate, and use knowledge isimportant. Many aspects of politics and policydefini-tions of problems, analytical tools and methods, differencesbetween lay and expert perceptions, perceived conflicts

  • Environmental Policy As Learning: A New View of an Old Landscape 323

    between economic and environmental goalshavechanged over time. Nations at similar stages of develop-ment face similar issues and move through comparablephases in environmental problem solving (Janicke 1996;Janicke and Weidner 1997). Thus, environmental policypresents an opportunity to examine how policy makers haveor may be able to learn from their experience.

    The Foundations of a Learning ApproachWhat does it mean to view public policy making as a

    learning process? An early application of a learning ap-proach was Hugh Heclos Modern Social Politics in Brit-ain and Sweden (1974). In that work, Heclo challengedthe prevailing view among political scientists that changesin public policy were largely the product of societal con-flict, arguing that an approach focused on knowledge ac-quisition and utilization could yield better explanations andunderstanding about policies than existing conflict-basedtheories (276). Although the resolution of conflicts amongsocietal interests may explain periods of fundamentalchange, much of what occurs in between may be seen asefforts by policy makers to learn and to apply the lessonsof that learning.

    Heclo described policy learning as a relatively endur-ing alteration in behavior that results from experience(306). Policy makers learn in response to changes in theexternal policy environment: As the environment changes,policy makers must adapt if their policies are not to fail(277). Similarly, in a book on lesson drawing, RichardRose presents learning as a response to dissatisfaction,which in turn stimulates a search for solutions: actionsthat will reduce the gap between what is expected from aprogram and what government is doing (1993, 50). Dis-satisfaction with the status quo may come from manysources: changes in problems, the emergence of new con-stituency groups, a catastrophic event, globalization ofdomestic issues, budget constraints, and so on. What mat-ters is that there is enough of a sense of disruption thatpolicy makers are led to search for ways to reduce dissat-isfaction within the policy system.

    Of course, the differences between conflict-based andlearning-based models are not always clear cut. Any policysystem will experience periods of conflict, especially whendissatisfaction produces demands for fundamental change.These periods of change may redefine the context in whichlearning occurs. In U.S. environmental policy, for example,especially high levels of conflict between the executive andlegislative branches in the early 1980s (when a Republi-can president was paired with a Democratic Congress) andmid-1990s (when the reverse situation existed) stimulatedefforts to shift from one to another kind of policy learning.The point of this article is not to deny that conflict shapes

    policy, but that viewing policy making primarily in termsof conflict undervalues the substantial amount of construc-tive learning that occurs in a policy system over time. Be-neath the obvious political conflict, a great deal of learn-ing has been going on.

    Thinking of policy making as a learning process raisesseveral questions (Bennett and Howlett 1992). First, who isdoing the learning? Should we think of learning as some-thing that occurs only among government officials, or is therea broader set of influential actors who are part of the learn-ing process? The literature suggests a range of answers, fromonly elected officials, to appointed and career governmentofficials, to a much broader set of nongovernmental actors(lobbyists, advocacy groups, litigators, journalists) andepistemic communities of policy experts. This article takesa broad view, including anyone who may have influenceover policy choices as part of the learning process. In theenvironmental arena, this includes elected officials and staff,political appointees, agency staff, the media, advocacygroups, researchers, regulated firms, and international bod-ies such as the United Nations Environment Program.

    Second, what is learned? A principal issue is whetherpolicy makers learn only about the means or instrumentsof policy or whether they learn about the ends or goals ofpolicy as well. This article proposes a broad conception ofwhat is learned. Certainly the participants in environmen-tal policy making have shown a capacity to learn aboutmeans and instruments. Examples in the United States arethe growth of emissions trading, application of alternativedispute resolution to environmental issues, and improve-ments in risk communication over the last 20 or so years.But policy makers have shown a capacity to learn aboutgoals as well. The goal of pollution control was expandedto encompass pollution prevention and risk managementin the 1980s. Since the Brundtland Commission report in1987, and the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, peoplerecognize the concept of sustainable development as a new,more inclusive goal for environmental policy.

    Third, what are the results of learning? This article takesthe view that learning does not occur unless there is somekind of policy change which results from the learning pro-cess (Bennett and Howlett 1992, 285). An organizationmay have effective mechanisms for collecting intelligenceabout shortcomings in existing policies, but it may not havemechanisms for translating this intelligence into new formsof behavior or structures that allow for changes in behav-ior. For example, policy systems founded on what is de-scribed as technical learning may possess mechanisms forgaining feedback about the effects of policies, but may lackthe flexibility to respond. In particular, this article arguesthat the prescriptive environmental statutes passed in the1970s and 1


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