Time for participatory regulation?

Category: NGOs & Government
Published on Feb 13, 2009

Recent events have got me thinking about regulation and just how strained and ineffectual our current systems have become. It’s not just the global financial crisis, although this alone illustrates what can happen when both markets and regulators fail. Issues as diverse as climate change, emerging technologies, international trade, food safety, infectious disease, and human rights demand novel approaches and I think wikinomics could be part of the solution.

Some of the issues that challenge today’s regulators include the sclerotic pace of rulemaking, increasing international interdependency, the lack of transparency in industry and government, the corrosive influence of “junk science” and money and an insufficient capacity for oversight. 

After dismantling or circumscribing centralized regulatory agencies in the 1980s and 1990s, I think many governments will find they are ill equipped to deal with these challenges. In most sectors, deregulation was a cue for regulated industries to start designing and enforcing their own regulations. Decentralized rulemaking was intended to help make regulation more responsive to the needs of industries that were evolving quickly and becoming increasingly global in scope. Governments were to be the “regulators of last resort”—stepping in only after self-regulation was deemed to have failed. But in practice most instances of pure self-regulation have deficiencies and governments (for the most part) have proven unable or unwilling to take swift action when market failures became evident.

The upshot: without transparency, oversight and accountability, self-regulation is clearly inadequate. At the same time, the speed, interdependency and complexity of today’s world makes a return to centralized rulemaking and enforcement increasingly implausible. All this makes me think that the kinds of organizational innovations that make the Linux community, twitter and wikipedia remarkable could help regulators address some their challenges. 

The big opportunity initially may be to foster greater citizen or stakeholder participation in monitoring and enforcing regulations that already exist. Naturalists and recreational users could be enlisted to help document abuses on public lands, just as individuals and organizations around the world are able to bring human rights abuses to global attention using new channels like YouTube or Winess’s Hub.

But citizens and other stakeholders could also help design and promulgate new rules, particularly where there are gaps in existing legislation. The consumer advocacy movements that currently police the social and environmental performance of industry are a good example. More governments could eventually sanction initiatives like these, while insisting on mandatory corporate sustainability reporting and other forms of transparency would bolster the efforts of citizen monitors.  

The technological foundation – including RFID, satellite imagery, cheap personal video recorders and other Internet-connected devices – already exists to distribute the power and authority for designing and enforcing regulations to a broader network of participants. And I think that in the right niches and within certain communities of interest there is ample desire on the part of citizens to play a role in enforcing the rules they care about. I’m not sure that same enthusiasm exists within government and industry, which is why my preliminary research suggests that most new forms of participatory regulation are emerging completely outside traditional regulatory bodies.  

I’ll be following up this post with a series of nascent examples. If participatory regulation is of interest to you or if you know of other examples, I would love to hear about it.

Be Sociable, Share!


[…] XHTML ← Time for participatory regulation? […]

[…] are some examples of participatory regulation where workers, employers, NGOs, and citizens collaborate to help monitor and enforce workplace […]

[…] Participatory regulation is arguably the best way to surface and defeat corruption in government and industry. I’ve highlighted a range of impressive efforts below. They range from Transparency International’s more top-down survey and index approach to the bottom-up Wikileaks site where anybody can post documents that uncover instances of corruption. You can add your examples in the comments. […]

[…] Participatory regulation is arguably the best way to surface and defeat corruption in government and industry. I’ve highlighted a range of impressive efforts below. They range from Transparency International’s more top-down survey and index approach to the bottom-up Wikileaks site where anybody can post documents that uncover instances of corruption. You can add your examples in the comments. […]

[…] at least three forces are opening up the regulatory process to a much broader global audience. […]

[…] at least three forces are opening up the regulatory process to a much broader global […]

[…] his introductory posting, he writes […]

Great post! I agree that the two big developments over the past decade which are demonstrating the possibility for better ways of governing collective action are (1) the ‘wikinomics’ revolution of networked, instant interactivity and (2) the emergence of ‘civil regulation’ – participatory development and enforcement of standards that reach the places where regulation is failing. (see for example: http://tinyurl.com/afdpzb).

Participatory collaborations between citizen’s groups, business and governments have emerged to overcome all sorts of market and government failures, in areas ranging from opening up global markets to the ‘next 4 billion’ to securing basic human rights at work to the development of new rights and markets for ecosystem services.

But this first wave of d.i.y. regulation is now coming up against problems – fatigue and overstretch amongst the civil society organisations that often stand in and are gatekeepers for real citizen involvement, proliferation, confusion and competition between different initiatives and the issues they address (There are, for example, at 17 civil regulation standards on forestry alone, while other participatory regulation initiatives address climate, food, energy, global trade as if these were all independent issues). Perhaps most importantly these initiatives are coming up against problems of ensuring their own accountability, transparency and responsiveness as they try to go to scale (see http://tinyurl.com/bgnzow) .

Apart from a few notable exceptions I don’t think many participatory regulation initiatives have grasped the opportunities that many-to-many connectivity offers for governing collaboration in new ways. Too many are setting up structures that look more like the UN Security Council than wikipedia.
I think it is definitely time for participatory regulation, and I think there is a huge opportunity to accelerate progress by bringing the kinds of organizational innovations used by Linux community, twitter and wikipedia into collaborative partnerships.

posted by Maya Forstater on 02.27.09 at 11:37 am

Maya, thanks for the really insightful comments. The scalability and sustainability of these initiatives (along with the more general fragmentation of knowledge, effort, and capability) are some of the big challenges in this new paradigm. Would love to talk with you and your associates about these issues. I’ll email you separately to set up a conversation.

posted by Anthony D. Williams on 02.27.09 at 1:21 pm

[…] love this example of participatory regulation. Marc Bohlen, an “artist-engineer” at the University of Zurich, has designed a floating […]

Anthony – and Maya,

I am sorry that I have just seen this a year or so after it was originally posted. I have been working on voluntary standards for a long time – as Maya knows – and have come up against most of the constraints typical of this world. Most recenlty, with an organisation called AccountAbility, we revised the voluntary standard used to provide assurance (published late 2008) for the sustianbility reports you refer to in your original post. To try to breakout of the ISO/ UN Security Council mode of working, we used a wiki platform for the collaborative drafting of the revised standard (the first time such a process had been used for this I believe). We found that this was very useful for developing a community of interest and providing access to a process that typically has more barriers to acces than Westminster. However, only about 7% of people who joined the community actually contributed. I understand this is fairly typical. Also, more people tried to go thru the back door than the front door. They wanted anonymity. So they sent us comments offline. We tried to lead them back to the front door – but, especially for those working for large companies and notably the big four, this was not always successful. So irronically a method chosen to enable greater transparency and more equitable engagement – and to develop a product that was all about transparency – struggled to convince key players to play transparently. This was not unexpected, but it was dissapointing.

I am currently involved in a much larger initiative that is being convened partially by the Prince of Wales Accounting for Sustainability group. It is looking at how to develop a more holistic approach to reporting – an approach that integrates financial and non-financial reporting. One of the issues that we now face is the realisation that the old isntitutions are not up to it and that to develop something that really adds value will require a radical rethink of the development process. At the same time the old institutions are all over it.

It would interesting to get your thoughts on how to explode these entrenched and sclerotic structures and enter the co-creative space with this initiative. The stakes are not insignificant.


posted by Alan Knight on 03.12.10 at 7:01 pm

Leave a comment