This study re-analysed 14 semi-structured interviews with policy officials from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to explore the use of a variety of regulatory instruments and different levels of risk across 14 policy domains and 18 separately named risks. Interviews took place within a policy environment of a better regulation agenda and of broader regulatory reform. Of 619 (n) coded references to 5 categories of regulatory instrument, ‘command and control’ regulation (n = 257) and support mechanisms (n = 118) dominated the discussions, with a preference for ‘command and control’ cited in 8 of the policy domains. A framing analysis revealed officials' views on instrument effectiveness, including for sub-categories of the 5 key instruments. Views were mixed, though notably positive for economic instruments including taxation, fiscal instruments and information provision. An overlap analysis explored officials' mapping of public environmental risks to instrument types suited to their management. While officials frequently cite risk concepts generally within discussions, the extent of overlap for risks of specific significance was low across all risks. Only ‘command and control’ was mapped to risks of moderate significance in likelihood and impact severity. These results show that policy makers still prefer ‘command and control’ approaches when a certainty of outcome is sought and that alternative means are sought for lower risk situations. The detailed reasons for selection, including the mapping of certain instruments to specific risk characteristics, is still developing.
Policy context Around the world, policy makers choose a range of policy and regulatory instruments to achieve their governments' environmental and economic objectives (Hood et al., 2001; Esty and Porter, 2005). ‘Regulation’, in its broadest sense, includes all forms of social control, including those that harness forces beyond government, such as the influence of businesses and other actors in society (Gunningham and Sinclair, 1998, Gunningham and Sinclair, 1999; Gunningham, 2009, Gunningham, 2011). ‘Instruments’ refer to one component of regulation, such as licensing, taxes or public information campaigns. Instruments include conventional direct regulation based on licensing and inspection; economic instruments such as taxes and subsidies; approaches to changing behaviour through better information provision; and approaches negotiated between government and industry, relying on industry self-regulation and seeking to increase knowledge and capacity. Direct (‘command and control’) regulation has delivered significant environmental improvements in industrialised nations. It has been applied widely for circumstances where a certainty of regulatory outcome is desired; as a back stop to prevent ‘free-loaders’; where there is a need for actors to adopt measures quickly; and to secure public confidence when combined with a system to ensure implementation. However, concern it may inhibit innovation and international competitiveness (Cabinet Office, 1999; Heyes, 2009; Rennings and Rammer, 2011; Iraldo et al., 2011) has led governments to seek alternatives (Obama, 2011; Australian Government Department of Finance and Deregulation, 2013; Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013a, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013b, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013c) and to target regulation using risk-based approaches (e.g. Pollard et al., 2004, Pollard et al., 2008; Hampton, 2005; Gouldson et al., 2009). In practice, instruments rarely operate in isolation; instead forming a complementary mix influencing behaviours through different levers and across multiple actors. Furthermore, the genesis of regulations may dictate the approach to be taken (e.g.) European-derived legislation may require a ‘command and control’ approach to be taken; whereas certain economic instruments, such as taxes, can only be introduced by the treasury of the state; and other approaches may require cross-departmental agreement. With various changes occurring to the mix of instruments used, commentators observe a shift from government to governance, as alternative or mixed strategies are deployed for the protection of environmental goods and services (Jordan et al., 2005; Gouldson, 2008) and for the shared management of public risk and the associated costs (e.g. MacDonald et al., 2011).