Defining and regulating the environment: an inside view of the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research

Note by Edoardo Guaschino, PhD Student and Teaching Assistant at the Laboratory for Analysis of Governance and Public Policy in Europe (LAGAPE) at the University of Lausanne

Regulatory agencies are one of the most trendy topics in regulatory studies. Their complexity, and adaptability to several disciplines keep scholars tirelessly studying them and the topic is far from going out of print.

This very brief article sheds the light on the importance of focusing on agencies in ‘social regulation’ from an insider perspective. In particular, this article aims at attracting attention to a fieldwork experience as an observer at the Italian agency of environmental protection (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale; ISPRA).

It might be evident and also prosy to say that in our modern society we must pay attention to key institutions dealing with the issues that (potentially) shape our daily lives. What is less evident is which institution(s) and why. As for Carpenter in his ‘best seller’ Reputation and Power, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is an object to be decorticated, to be understood and to make it understandable. In the European context, national agencies in social regulation have reached undeniable importance in managing the main environmental and health risks to which we are confronted. From a political perspective, getting a better and global understanding of these agencies could have great and positive impact on policies and on the organisations as well. In particular, having a view from inside allows the researcher to decorticate each ‘piece’ of an agency and make sense of the agency from a scientific perspective, for the good and for the bad. For example the very known book Telecommunications Regulation: Culture, Chaos and Interdependence inside the Regulatory Process by Hall, Hood and Scott give us a great example of an agency day by day. The authors show that an insider perspective is a great way to capture the functioning, the practices and all the finesse of regulators in their routine. Hence, the advantage of getting into the agencies is to observe the daily practices, how regulators think, and how regulators influence our thinking.

These considerations brought me to spend one full month at ISPRA for my PhD research. Needless to say that this inside perspective allowed me to open the “black box” of a social regulatory agency and plunge into the subject I had read about for a long time. This very open minded agency, that counts more than one thousands people, provided me with a desk and full access to documents and meetings I was interested in.

ISPRA, was born in 2008, is just the latest result of a cost-cutting program and merging institutions that bridges essentially two cultures: a managerial one (typical of agencies or authorities) and a scientific one (typical of research institutes). More generally, many consider ISPRA as the ‘technical arm’ of the Ministry of Environment, to which it ‘depends’. Leaving aside the technical aspects of my field of research, I will list a set of reflexions and observations that I gathered during my stay. In particular, my focus was to observe the capacity (or not) of ISPRA to introduce an environmental frame in the formulation of policies, a crucial aspect of the policy process. The premise here is very simple. Environmental issues must be defined as such for formulating and implementing solutions towards the protection of the environment. Alternative definitions and consequently alternative solutions could affect the state of it. Hence, the role of environmental protection agencies is inter alia raising awareness about environmental issues. The insider perspective I adopted was particularly helpful not only to explore the way ISPRA operates but also to provide concrete solutions and suggestions for a more desirable impact on environmental issues.

In particular I list four elements that emerged from observing daily practices and talking to the staff. I will end up by proposing a potential solution to the encountered problems. However, this example aims at principally showing the advantages of exploring social regulatory agencies from inside and its practical implications that are more difficult to reach from a farther perspective.

The first element that has triggered my reflexions is the staff perception of the agency’s policy goals. More precisely, it concerns the different interpretations that staff members give to ISPRA goals, which are essentially two: one that is science-based and sees the agency not concerned by politics. In this case staff member believe that the agency should strictly behave as a ‘pure’ institute making research, which is not necessarily finalized to the formulation of policies. The second strand of the staff members’ thinking is more oriented to formulating policies and responding to politicians and ministerial need or requests. In this case staff members see ISPRA more as a political entity. This disparity visibly affects the possibility of reaching a common vision of ISPRA’s policy goals by the staff. This inevitably produces inefficiency and weakens the role of ISPRA in environmentally oriented policies formulation.

A second element that emerged from my stay refers to the ‘institutional competition’ to which ISPRA is confronted. Observing from inside different policy processes, a larger set of similar institutions emerges to which the delegation of drafting policies is also possible. In fact, usual research institutes, universities, or other agencies could alternatively be delegated work according to the ministerial or political priorities. In others words, issues could easily move from one venue to another and staff could be ‘antagonized’ at other potential venues, diminishing the accessibility and the capacity of ISPRA to formulate issues and policies as environmental matters.

However, both the elements mentioned above could also not take place. Thus, we can see ISPRA being asked to draft any form of regulations or policies, and so overtaking any risks of being irrelevant in policy formulation. In this situation, it emerges that staff sometimes tend to soften the formulations of policies to please the demanding institution. This trend (although not systematic) necessarily weakens the strength of environmental argumentation on issues.

A fourth and last element that emerged is the impact of Italian political instability on the institution efficiency. Observing day-by-day work makes evident the staff’s need to adapt due to numerous re-organizations of the last decade. A common practice (and sometimes a frustration) is to adopt new competences, learning and responses to new organizational commitments. As for the first element, this could also reduce the capacity of ISPRA in imposing environmental frames in regulations.

After listing these four elements, the advantage of an insider perspective helps the researcher to propose more appropriate solutions. Observing in practice these four elements, the environmental awareness could be raised by re-considering one common aspect; namely, the institutional design. As ISPRA has two potential connotations, one that refers to the ‘research institute’ and one to the ‘agency’, I consider here a preferable institutional configuration.

In fact, the majority of national regulators in Europe are conceived as ‘authorities’ or ‘agencies’; would an institutional reconfiguration toward a univocal ‘agency’ model raise ISPRA’s capacity to strengthen the environmental frame in the policy-making? It is hard to establish such a direct causality. However, this would at least clarify a common staff perception of the ISPRA policy goals (element one). In addition, a typical ‘agency’ or ‘authority’ design would represent a unique case in the Italian institutional panorama, removing ISPRA from any potential institutional overlapping (second element). Again, would a more ‘classical’ design such as an ‘authority’ or ‘agency’ model raise ISPRA’s capacity to frame issue as environmental ones? The answer is still complex. However, considering the third element mentioned above, it could encourage the staff to formulate policies paying less attention to any political or ministerial dissatisfaction. In fact, traditionally and normatively, ‘authorities’ or ‘agencies’ are supposed to be more independent of the political sphere. In addition, a shift to this kind institutional design would probably make ISPRA less sensitive to government instability (fourth element). Thence, for the last time I ask the question: would a change of institutional design raise ISPRA’s capacity to ‘crystalize’ environmental frames in policies? Taking these elements one by one, the answer is still tricky; however, from a holist perspective of all the elements, the answer could probably be positive.

To conclude, environmental protection agencies should be capable of imposing environmental frames, especially of those issues sensitive to other potential definitions. Highlighting the internal functioning of these agencies is becoming essential to finding obstacles in policies formulations and for proposing reparatory solutions. What is even more important is the methodological approach: an internal perspective let the ‘black box’ become opened and let light be shed on ‘the dark side’ of institutional and political features. As the national agencies in social regulation differ from each other, a comprehensive mapping is more reachable with a shared approach in studying agencies, in the agencies and for the agencies, and also for environmental protection.

(Edoardo Guaschino, PhD Student and Teaching Assistant at the Laboratory for Analysis of Governance and Public Policy in Europe (LAGAPE) at the University of Lausanne)