Public Policy Decision Making

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Public Policy Decision Making

Public policy decision making refers to actions taken within governmental settings to formulate, adopt, implement, evaluate, or change environmental policies. These decisions may occur at any level of government.

The Scope of Environmental Policy

At the most general level, environmental policies reflect society's collective decision to pursue certain environmental goals and objectives and to use particular means to achieve them. Public sector decision making incorporates a diversity of perspectives on environmental problems, from those of industry to the views of activist environmental organizations. Ultimately, policies reflect the inevitable compromises over which environmental goals to pursue and how best to achieve them.

Private decision making by corporations and individuals also affects society's ability to respond to environmental challenges. Indeed, critics of governmental performance look to the private sector for initiatives. Yet, as a nation, the United States relies heavily on public decision making because only governments possess the necessary financial resources or have the requisite legal authority or political legitimacy.

Environmental policy is complex. Beyond the laws, regulations, and court rulings on the subject, it is strongly affected by agency officials who are charged with implementing and enforcing environmental law. Their decisions, in turn, are influenced by a range of political and economic forces, including the policy beliefs of elected officials, the health of the economy, anticipated costs and benefits of laws and regulations, federalstate relations, public opinion, media coverage of environmental issues, and efforts by corporations, environmental groups, and scientists to influence public policy.

The environmental quality standards that are set in laws and regulations reflect the uncertain and changing base of environmental science, as well as policy judgments concerning the extent of risk from air or water pollution or toxic chemicals that is acceptable to society. How clean is clean enough? A significantly safer or cleaner environment may be harder to achieve with existing technologies. Moreover, the effort may be both more costly and more controversial. Confronting tradeoffs among competing social values lies at the heart of environmental policy decision making.

Environmental policy covers a wide range of issues and has had a pervasive and growing impact on modern human affairs. It also goes well beyond federal and state actions on air and water pollution or control of hazardous waste and toxic chemicals. Increasingly, these actions are linked to decision making in many related areas that also affect environmental quality and human health. These include such disparate concerns as energy use, transportation, population growth, and agriculture and food production. Scientists and scholars use the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development to link these varied human influences on the natural environment. Reports from the 1992 Earth Summit and the President's Council on Sustainable Development firmly endorsed this more comprehensive and integrated view of environmental challenges.

At an even more fundamental level, environmental policy concerns the protection of vital global ecological, chemical, and geophysical systems that scientists increasingly believe to be put at risk through certain human activities. Climate change and loss of biological diversity are examples of such threats. Thus, environmental policy decision making addresses both long-term and global as well as short-term and local risks to health and the environment. For all these reasons, it has become one of the most important functions of government in both industrialized and developing nations.

Evolution of U.S. Environmental Policies

The fundamental framework for U.S. environmental policies, especially those dealing with pollution control, was established during the 1970s with the adoption of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (the major hazardous waste law), and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund), among others. With later amendments, these statutes mandated a public policy system in which the federal government, usually the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), set national environmental quality standards. Together with states, the EPA enforced those standards through direct regulation, or what critics call a "command-and-control" system. These same critics fault the pollution control system for its high costs and inefficiencies, a focus on remedial rather than preventive actions, and its complex, cumbersome, and adversarial rule-making and enforcement processes. Those who defend the prevailing approach cite evidence of its effectiveness and maintain that the decision-making processes on which it depends are essential to ensure fair treatment of all stakeholders. Public opinion has generally supported strong environmental protection activities, and environmental organizations have been reluctant to endorse many of the policy changes favored by industry and political conservatives.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s and into the twenty-first century, new approaches to pollution control have been proposed, debated, and in some cases adopted. For instance, the federal government and states have experimented with market-based incentives such as the use of "green taxes" and marketable pollution allowances or permits, most notably in the acid rain control program established by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. In addition, industry often has advanced the idea of voluntary pollution prevention initiatives, including the use of new environmental management systems and disclosure of pollution information to the public. These are seen as supplements or alternatives to regulation.

The federal government has also encouraged such changes. For example, during the Clinton administration, the EPA attempted to improve pollution control through the use of more flexible and collaborative decision-making arrangements under the banner of "reinventing" regulation to make it "cleaner, cheaper, and smarter." These efforts continued under President George W. Bush, with some in his administration describing them as representing a "new era" in environmental protection. In both cases, emphasis was placed on improving federalstate relations. The fifty states handled most routine implementations of major federal pollution control statutes, although there was wide variation in the ability and commitment of individual states to assume these duties.

The Challenge of Environmental Policy Reform

Despite criticism of existing environmental policies and doubts about the capacity of the EPA and states to achieve the objectives outlined in these policies, reform has proved to be difficult. Studies continue to find fault with conventional pollution control policies and urge the adoption of new approaches (e.g., reports issued by the National Academy of Public Administration). However, conflicting political pressures on members of Congress have led more often to political stalemate than to constructive reform of existing statutes. These policies continue to result in substantial improvements in the nation's air and water quality, and thus in public and environmental health. Nonetheless, environmentalists and the business community usually are in substantial disagreement over most reform proposals, from greater reliance on benefit-cost analysis to increased dependence on the states for environmental enforcement.

The general verdict among both scholars and practitioners is that reform of U.S. environmental policy remains a much desired yet elusive goal. Environmentalists fear that such reform will come at the price of weakened existing laws and regulations. Industry representatives are equally adamant about the imperative to reduce what they believe to be excessively high costs for compliance. Compromise typically is difficult, particularly because few studies can point clearly to the absolute consequences of adopting proposed reformsthat is, whether reforms will improve the regulatory system as anticipated. Thus, policy change is seen as something of a gamble that many defenders of strong environmental protection are unwilling to take.

Despite these important constraints, one encouraging development in efforts to improve U.S. environmental policies can be found in the hundreds of initiatives taken at the state and local levels to reconcile environmental protection and economic development under the rubric of sustainability. Removed from the intense ideological battles in Congress, environmentalists, industry representatives, state and local officials, and concerned citizens have pioneered new collaborative arrangements that offer much promise for the future. These range from actions to promote "smart growth" land use practices, to efforts to improve air quality through better urban design and transportation initiatives, to collaborative efforts to clean up local rivers and bays and restore damaged habitat.

see also Activism; Government; National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs); Public Participation.


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internet resources

Center for American Politics and Public Policy Web site. Available from

National Academy of Public Administration. (2000). Environmental Government: Transforming Environmental Protection for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C. Available from

Michael E. Kraft

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