Honey, I confused the concepts!

By Dave Huitema – The movie “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and its equally interesting sequel “Honey I blew up the Kids”, provide for a certain amount of feel good 1980s nostalgia and pleasure for a rainy day when watching a DVD seems a good option. Movie titles like these are catch phrases that ideally have a certain level of stickiness. Even somebody who has never watched these movies might have an awareness that they were once around. Such catch phrases are useful in politics too: think of Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid!” in beating Bush senior in the 1990s. The catch phrase here, “Honey, I confused the concepts!”, stems from my own frustration about the way debates about governance and instruments are mixed and often confused. To put it very simply, there is quite a common tendency to treat modes of governance and instruments as one and the same thing whereas they are not.

With modes of governance we essentially refer to the types of actors that are responsible for the delivery of (public) goods. These can be states, market parties and civil society actors. With instruments we refer to the type of mechanism that these actors can use to influence the behavior of others. Such mechanisms include communication (one or multi directional), regulation, and incentives. The application of such mechanisms assumes certain relations between parties involved, and certain role patterns (regulator and regulatee, speaker and audience, etc.). It is common knowledge that various types of instruments go hand in hand (regulation without communication is difficult for instance, and rule breaking might be punished by incentives). In my opinion it is however also important to realize that all types actors (states, market parties, civil society members) can apply each of these instruments. The figure below shows this with examples:

Basic mechanism→                           (“instruments”)↓Applied by(“mode of governance”) CommunicationTransfer information ExchangeA.o. of money RulesRequirements and prohibitions
Government actors Government information, consultation, participation, govt. certification schemes Subsidies, levies, quasi markets Legal rules, permits, covenants
Market parties Advertizing, Education through industrial representatives Prices, insurance premiums Requirements and rights specified in contracts
Members of a community Meetings, conservations, gossip Mutual support Rules for members, social control


Exactly because all instruments can be applied by all types of actors, we should be careful not to conflate certain modes of governance with certain instruments. Indeed, the state is more than a set of regulations, and market parties apply more than mere incentives. Indeed, anyone who is active on the internet is familiar with the long pages of conditions one has to sign before installing software on the computer. The option of not agreeing to these conditions is always there, yet it doesn’t really feel like a real choice… 

The second error that is often made concerns what we could call “styles of application”. Comparative analyses of government regulation for instance show that the application of rules is done in a wholly different fashion in the US than it is done in the UK or in continental Europe (see for instance David Vogel’s work of 1986). Whereas in the US, government agencies are apparently under close oversight and legally obliged to be very stringent, the oversight on regulators is much more trust based and regulators in other countries have much more discretion in applying rules. Thus the image of regulation as “command and control” might be correct in the US, but often not in other countries (and even in the US regulation of certain sectors might actually be lenient too). In other words: the actual performance or shape of instruments can differ quite substantially across countries and between situations and one can thus not simply assume that a “command and control approach” is always associated with the state as a mode of governance, or with regulation as an instrument. Indeed, communication can de done in quite top-down fashion too, and incentives can equally leave very little choice for the ones affecting them and can be applied without any considerations of individual circumstances. The work by Vasna Ramasar on South African water users who are regularly cut off from drinking water supplies because water bills need to be paid in advance can attest to that.

What is the relevance for the debate on water governance? We should guard ourselves against rhetorical strategies that suggest states can only be involved in governing through regulation, and can only apply these regulations in a common and control way. It is time for more nuanced arguments about the roles states, markets and civil society can play, taking into account the full spectrum of instruments each mode of governance can apply. Attention is warranted for the way non state actors fulfill their public roles too.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.watergovernance.eu/policy-instruments/honey-i-confused-the-concepts/

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