A Mediating Role of the Public Sector in Sustainable Development?

By John BristowComments Off on A Mediating Role of the Public Sector in Sustainable Development?

In this paper, delivered at a conference of the Political Studies Associaton, Adrian discusses the need greater public involvement in the transition to more sustainable living, and more opportunities for people to be heard when conflicts arise between economic development, environmental sustainabilty and the needs of people both locally and nationally. He suggests that there is a need for a mediator who can understand different positions and world views, and that this role could be located in the public sector, or an independent agency supported by it. All relevant to the new localism. Please send any comments by returning to the innovations tab and I will forward them to Adrian. As with all papers you can click on the pdf icon at the end of the document to read it on your laptop, ipad or Kindle.

Embed, Regulate or Mediate? What should government do about sustainable development in the UK?

Adrian Robertson, Researcher in Education for Sustainability, London South Bank University

Abstract The UK Sustainable Development Strategy is predicated on the idea of ‘embedding’ sustainable development in numerous sectors and activities, yet open contention between different state actors over ‘economic growth’ demonstrates that thisnecessary aspiration is not sufficient. Principles and cases from the socio-technical transition literature are discussed to show that where niche principles oppose or contradict incumbent regime models conducive conditions are not created for ‘embedding.’ Impasse is more likely than market transformation. A socio-technical analysis is argued to touch upon but not explore the more difficult and all important questions of power, justice and ‘victim-assailant claims’, issues and disputes that often arise in sustainable development cases. This preferred term is put forward to highlight the presence of economic justice matters in the public domain, although ‘justice’ aspects tend to be downplayed or even removed altogether in ‘embedding’ (eco-modernization) discourse. Critical questions emerge in situations where ‘victims’ (ecosystems, indigenous peoples) may be silent or invisible (or rendered so), or unable to make a ‘legal’ case in situations where harms can only be diffusely associated with a clear cause. Lyotard’s applied justice concept of differend is proposed as an potentially useful explanatory model for taking account of justice, power and conflict dynamics present in sustainable development cases. The differend concept is argued to help frame cases more holistically, especially in hard-to-contain public disputes such as airport expansion and large renewable energy siting applications. State sponsored capabilities are argued to needed to develop sensitivity to the presence of differends, and to design and convene social processes to work on them co-operatively. Bold and innovative social experiments in public decision-making and commissioning such as citizens’ juries suggest innovative and workable ways to hear and discern amongst conflicted and complex narratives in sustainable development cases.

Introduction  ‘Something which is everybody’s problem is nobody’s responsibility.’ (Fictional British Ambassador in the Honorary Consul by Graham Greene)

This paper is a reflection on government-led sustainable development policy between 2005 and 2010. The view expressed is that this was a period of at best modest progress in laying foundations for a society to ‘live within environmental limits.’ State led policy has been too managerial and operational, not sufficiently encompassing the wider fairness and justice concerns of sustainable development. The author wants to encourage debate around these issues and hopes to contribute to stronger more imaginative future progress.

 Overture Recently.. Aqqaluk Lynge, a Greenland Inuit Leader spoke against UK airport expansion. He said that the flying of jet aircraft contributes to global warming, which already threatened the basis upon which his people could predict the weather, enabling them to travel safely on the sea-ice to hunt food (seals, whales, walrus, and polar bears). Lynge appealed to ‘our neighbours in the south’ to greatly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to prevent further melt of permafrost, shoreline erosion and harm to the Inuit way of life.(Independent Newspaper, 30th May 2007)

Disputes arose between local residents and energy companies in rural England over the siting of wind turbines. People objecting to the construction of a facility in a particular locality were called NIMBYs (not in my back yard) by industry planners and central government officials. Local residents wanted to talk about how much they loved the surrounding landscape, its moods, the memories it evokes and the inspiration it provides. The energy company wanted to talk in statistical terms about energy productivity and costs and benefits. Local officials were caught awkwardly between the two, somewhat lost for words (Guardian, 5th January 2007)

In Australia a construction company wanted to build a new leisure development on an island. However, a group of aboriginal women claimed the island to be an ancient religious site. A judge will hear the case. If the ruling favours the women, the development must stop and the company will have to swallow the sunk costs, go into administration and lay off staff. The judge states that the women’s claim can only be allowed if they can prove in court that the site is sacred. The women’s lawyer replies that according to ancient tribal law the sacred meaning of the site can only be discussed as an intergenerational secret by women of the tribe, passed down from mother to daughter. If the secrecy is violated so is the sacred nature of the site. The women say they are damned whatever they do. If they reveal the secret of the site to defend their case they violate and dishonour an ancient tradition, causing an irreparable loss to their community. However, if they don’t speak out the site will be violated and destroyed by the construction work. The judge also feels trapped, with no way of assessing the reliability of evidence and testimony, some of which cannot even be presented. Whichever way the decision goes it will be cast as unjust. (Based on a case outlined in Malpas, 2003)

Sustainable development – reflecting on UK policy     A UK Company encourages its clients to ‘embed sustainability in every part of your organization.’ This was built on a cue from the UK Government’s own Sustainable Development Strategy (Defra, 2005) which makes numerous references to ‘embedding’ (or ‘integrating’) sustainable development in various sectors of the economy and society. This aspiration, with some adjustment, has been incorporated into a recent Environmental Audit Committee report (EAC, 2010). It also appears in the ‘Government’s Vision for ‘Mainstreaming Sustainable Development’ (Defra, 2011). This paper questions if ‘embedding’ is a sufficient aspiration to hold? Can sustainable development straightforwardly be ‘embedded’ into all kinds of activities?

The original 1987 original formulation of sustainable development was rooted in principles of justice.

‘…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ (UN Documents, 2011)

Since then it has become one of the most controversial and contested ideas in human experience. The point is not to inflate controversy. What matters is that sustainable development recognizes certain problems (needs of the poor, environmental limits) that the pursuit of prosperity through capitalism has tended to overlook or ignore. The accepted term being ‘externality.’

There is no easy agreement that problems with ‘externalities’ can be solved by ‘flipping’ the problem over and ‘embedding’ sustainable development into existing ways of operating. McQueen (2003) argues that ‘capital can be slowed for a while, but it will not survive if it stops growing.’ He sees a critical task of being able to ‘deflect…the juggernaut..away from being the destroyer of the world.’

UK sustainable development policy has evolved as a least line of least resistanceapproach. This may be understandable, and may reduce ‘pushback’ from some industries and sectors. However, there has been adverse comment on progress from the Sustainable Development Commission (2007), National Audit Office (2005) and the Environmental Audit Committee (2009, 2010).

Disputes between different parts of government have occurred. This is evident in a November 2009 paper published by the Government Economics Service (Price and Durham, 2009) :

‘… existing guidance on the application of sustainable development is long on exhortation to do things differently, but short on practical help for people trying to take or advise on policy decisions. Secondly, the repeated assertion that the paraphernalia of economic analysis used in government is somehow ‘fundamentallyincompatible’ with sustainable development has become increasingly unhelpful. This criticism ranges from careful critiques of intertemporal discounting, to tirades against economic growth. It is often in the context of lobbying for or against a specific policy decision. Typically it lacks any real clarity on what the supposed flaws in the approach are, or how they could be addressed. This often heated debate has generated very little insight.’ UK elections in 2010 returned a coalition government. This government made a number of early statements in favour of ‘sustainable development’ (Cabinet Office, 2010) and has asserted that it will be ‘the greenest government ever.’ However, an early move to announce the abolition of the UK Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) drew a fierce response from its outgoing chairman:

‘… ministers are now claiming that sustainable development has been embedded in every department. In other words, no specialist capability at the centre is any longer required, simply because the government “gets it”…..’ ‘Like hell it does. To hear [the] secretary of state in Defra make such a totally fatuous claim after a few weeks in power is irritating beyond belief.’ (Jonathon Porritt, Guardian Newspaper, July 23rd 2010)

The publication of ’The Government’s vision’ (Defra 2011) announces measures that many will welcome such as a commitment to sustainability in policy-making, decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts, a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the planning system, a carbon price floor and the ‘Green Deal’ sponsored by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC, 2011).

The concern in this paper is that the anchor concept of ‘embedding’ is too weak to build a new and needed public culture of dealing with the tough questions of justice and transformation that are always present where sustainable development cases are pressing to be heard in economic decisions about housing, transport, health, urban planning and much more.

Sustainable development is increasingly a hard-evidence derived set of concerns about scarcities, unfair distributions, catastrophic ecosystem harms and how these could contribute to governability failures of whole societies and regions. Justice and scarcity concerns need to be more visible in sustainable development cases, and wherewithal found to face and address the disputes that arise rather than sidestep them and allow congenial ideas such as ‘embedding’ to dominate. The scarcity point was made in one of the Commission’s last published papers – Prosperity without Growth (Jackson, 2010) which, in effect cast doubt on the whole project of economic growth as practiced across the world, and measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product). As the report says:

‘The idea of a non-growing economy may be an anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is an anathema to an ecologist.’

The ‘decoupling’ idea has been recognized by government and the need for ‘tough decisions’ and ‘empowered communities’ stated. What is not clear is if government sufficiently anticipates the conflicts and dilemmas that lie in a shift from old to newer, greener ways. Sustainable development brings both visionary and difficult issues to the policy table that demand more than something like easing-in or embedding.

The extract above from the Government Economics Service is evidence of impasse. Sustainable development policy workers may have been overly strident in stating their case. However, their concern, or frustration, may be that government is not preparing the public sector to take a capable enough role in the coming transition.

Beyond embedding niche-regime transitions  A critical development in sustainable development thinking and practice is that human societies need to undergo a transition or ‘phase change to a more sustainable state (Kotke, 2005) (Hopkins, 2008). Yet how can we to go about this transition sensibly and skillfully, and without getting waylaid by underspecified ideas?

Smith’s (2007) niche-regime analysis suggests that ‘embedding’ underestimates the nature of the work in sustainable development cases. He examines the endeavours and struggles of the ‘eco-housing’ and ‘organic food’ niche sectors to influence the incumbent regimes of established industry practices.

In ‘mainstream’ house building (the regime), a house is but one unit of many, built to scale volumes with similar bulk supplied materials. Units are each and all griddependent in that they are not viable unless wired and piped in to water, energy and sewage systems. Labour is subcontracted and generically skilled, although rarely specialist, making fast and repetitive builds viable and return on investment with profits predictable within 2-3 year time windows. Consumers are passive in relation to overall building design, materials used and the supply of utilities. Building regulations are adhered to although often to minimum specification and there may be lobbying from developers for less stringent environmental standards.

By contrast ‘eco-housing’ (the niche) starts from oppositional first principles. Housing units are built to be autonomous, off-grid as far as possible with ‘input efficiency’ and ‘whole life costs’ high priority. Local, recycled or specialist materials are preferred tobulk aggregates and imported timbers, and specialist builders are needed. Houses  produced individually or in clusters lose the benefits of mass production, but gain in distinctiveness (but may be more expensive). There is likely to be a desire to enhance not constrain environmental performance, and plans submitted include ‘green’ specifications and installations that planning officials may have no experience of.

Smith argues that ‘green niches are constructed in opposition to incumbent regimes’, and herein lies the problem that ‘embedding’ does not address. The sheer difficulty of getting all new homes built to ‘Code 6’ (Code for Sustainable Homes, DCLG, 2010) by 2016 (the government’s aspirational objective) has been ‘a standard developers so far have been slow to embrace despite a raft of building regulations..’ (LES, 20111).

There is a critical question is how much embedding or integrating is possible and also not merely trivial (such as placing cycle sheds in an apartment development built only to minimum building regulations). Although the BREAMM scheme (Building Research Establishment 2010) and sustainable homes code are credible attempts to develop industry practices, there is no possibility of applying a ‘year zero’ principle to the industry without making existing housebuilders go out of business. The transition is at least tricky, with difficult choices and conflicts likely.

The issues are further illustrated by organic farming. Smith notes that since the 1940s ‘the regime for food has been underpinned by socio-technical practices built upon chemical fertilizers and pesticides, mechanization, animal feeds and vaccines, product specialization, industrial rearing sheds, and larger farming units.’  These trends were promoted by government policy, with farmers under strong industry pressure to conform. Over time this system gave rise to a worldwide system of processing, packaging, distribution and retailing. The organic niche, however, is based around crop rotation, manuring, composting, encouragement of predator species, careful crop selection and mechanical weeding. Animal herds are smaller, with minimal drug use and low intensity production. Food is consumed local to its point of production with decentralized distribution and consumption:

‘The organic farm is idealized as a cyclical system embedded in its environment, supplying fresh food for local consumption. This contrasts vividly with the spatially dislocated, high input system of the conventional food socio-technical regime.’

Smith proposes a three levels model of niche-regime ‘translation.’ As a starting principle in eco-housing he notes that the niche is ‘beginning from a second-order position that reframes the whole question of housing.’ Much the same could be said for organic food.

1) Technical – mostly regulation driven – which is ‘relatively undemanding’ and ‘does not encourage deeper learning’ because ‘standards and codes are piecemeal rather than holistic, and are negotiated on the basis of what is judged to be a reasonable demand, given mainstream socio-technical practices.’

2) Intermediate – In Smith’s terms where niche and regime operators collaborate together on real physical projects and need to learn to accommodate each others issues. This is beyond level 1 because face-to-face co-operative working is involved. Smith cites the BedZED project as a case of intermediate learning in action.

3) Institutional – In Smith’s terms ‘intermediate developments’ have not ‘been able to instigate wider institutional change’ and ‘translation is thin.’ In effect market or sector transformation is as yet a faint prospect.

Level 3 is more of aspiration than reality. For example, Smith notes that ‘organic produce was not transforming the food regime; it was simply a new, high value ingredient threading its way into conventional food socio-technical practices.’

There may also be ‘false dawns’ in that ‘tensions’ in an incumbent regime may create openings for niche methods. However, whilst openings may be created (by say energy price hikes or foods safety scares), these must not be mistaken for readiness on the part of a regime to flip irreversibly into another state.

 The missing discussion about justice and power Smith’s examples show how level 1 and 2 transitions might be effective. He points at the issues involved in more problematic level 3 transition:

‘A gulf exists across every socio-technical dimension..any lessons about, say, technologies favoured by niche actors or user relations essential to niche performance, will be interpreted under the very different circumstances of the regime and considered in comparison with existing technological practices, or skills attributes, or market base, and so on.’

He goes on to suggest power and inequality issues in the niche-regime interplay:

‘…translation is rarely a process between equals…There is a power relation influencing how socio-technical practices that ‘work’ in the context of the niche are subsequently interpreted, adapted and accommodated within the incumbent regime.’

The concept of socio-technical transition is useful, although ways are needed to conceptualize and address justice and power issues in sustainable development cases. When the niche seeks a hearing the presentation must take place on terms dictated by the regime. The regime dictates the proof criteria, admissability ofevidence and the language or idiom in which a case may be presented.

Smith’s eco-housing and organic food examples are examples of sustainable development cases, which, because of the wider concerns and issues they encompass, amount to more than socio-technical transition cases. Looked at in this way, sustainable development cases tend to have the following characteristics:

  • • People and ecosystems are suffering (as victims) the impacts of economic externalities such as pollution, over-extraction of natural resources and labour exploitation
  • • These are matters of justice, although cause and effect may be diffuse and non-specific.
  • • Victims may be people, animals, plants and watercourses, although may have no means, opportunity or venue to present a case, and even if they could may be unable to pinpoint a specific source or cause, (which could amount to a complaint against a specific offender or assailant).
  • • It may be impossible for an ‘victim’ to become a plaintiff other than by very indirect means, such as a niche presenting a case to an incumbent regime in a sector such as housing or food.
  • • The presentation of a case by a niche to a regime will be in terms dictated by the regime. Niche actors may feel this to be unfair, as well as any broader justice values they may be standing for. Regime actors may assert they are being victimized by over-eager regulation.
  • • Broader issues of justice are likely to be submerged, not mentioned explicitly and may be deemed irrelevant in terms of the permitted ‘technical’ criteria determined by the regime.
  • • In effect the ‘victim’, may desire or deserve to be a plaintiff, but have no legitimated or discernible voice by which a case could be made to the regime.
  • • The victim’s case may be attenuated into a niche-regime advocacy exercise, yet still stand little chance of being taken seriously. The deeper point is that the ultimate victim who suffers the harm is silenced, yet the picture complicated by layers of victim-assailant justice claims.
  • • The victim, and the niche (as approximate proxy) are subject to the economically orientated ‘time compression’ governing principle of the regime. Victim and niche need time to state their case, but the regime does not want to grant the time needed to hear fully what is being said.
  • • As a result of the above factors institutional (level 3) transformation is prevented.

A further twist to this problem complex is exemplified in Devine-Wright’s (2010) work on public participation in the siting of renewable energy facilities (such as wind farms). Planning applications for large renewable energy facilities can quickly turn into a bitter conflict between industry developers and public officials (who want to apply criteria of technical and economic performance) and local residents (who want to apply more aesthetic and emotional ‘place’ values).

There may be multiple victim claims. The energy company may present itself as progressive sustainability advocate. The interests of people and ecosystems suffering the impacts of economic externalities such as pollution, over-extraction of natural resources and labour exploitation are in effect represented by the energy company, although probably in attenuated terms. The company may be cast as assailant by local residents, who may feel their interests and concerns are defined as irrelevant or out of scope according to planning law and industry performance criteria, which deems their sense of love or reverence for place as not relevant. In effect sustainable development versus sustainable development.

Anybody who has been involved in planning disputes knows that technocratic language of planning officers may thinly overlay feelings of justice and even outrage that local people may be experiencing.

The differend The differend as proposed by (Lyotard, 1989) is suggested as an approximation, an embryonic or interim concept, to help state sponsored leadership of sustainable development develop the narrative beyond ‘embedding.’ The concept of differend focusses on justice and conflict in complex victim-assailant cases:

‘A case of conflict between at least two parties , that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy.’

A case of differend between two or more parties takes place when the ‘regulation’ of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while ‘the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom.’ Lyotard says ‘the differend is signalled by the inability to prove.’ He was concerned that there were many differends ‘embedded’ in the human predicament. This is surely the heart of the matter for the Greenland Inuit, windfarm protestors and the Australian aboriginals. Smith’s niche-regime examples, although less dramatic, present similar problems.

Lyotard’s language resonates with Smith’s language of ‘regime.’ Lyotard’s concept of ‘phrase regimen’, as with ‘regime’, denote forms of containment in that they exclude or disallow rules and principles deemed inconvenient, untimely or impractical. In Lyotard’s terms each regime has its own homogenous genre of discourse: things may only be said in a certain way to be valid. And for Lyotard ‘time compression’ is a definitive characteristic of the ‘economic genre.’ And under such time, efficiency and performance pressures, the regime has little tolerance for hearing different worldviews. Or as Lyotard prefers ― ‘heterogenous genres of discourse.’

Lyotard says ‘the animal is the paradigm of the victim.’ This is a highly succinct summary of the problem of sustainable development. A female seal with brominated fire retardant in its breast milk cannot make its case before a ‘tribunal’. As Lyotard says ‘ the animal is deprived of the possibility of bearing witness according to the human rules for establishing damages.’ Lyotard was concerned with situations where the permitted ‘official’ rules for determining a dispute demanded that the least powerful party made their case in the terms dictated by the most powerful party. This surely is the quintessential problem in any sustainable development case, although there may be complex twists, as we have seen. It is exactly the kind of problem that only state authorities can mediate or try to resolve. It is certainly a market failure, and a long way from ‘embedding.’

Lyotard argues that people are witnesses to differends―dealing with them is a matter of public justice, not private lobbying or routine ‘stakeholder engagement.’

The differend is a concept that helps us become aware of the ethics and consequences of failing to address the concerns of sustainable development in the terms in which they were originally expressed. The differend gives us more purchase on the dynamics of situations by enabling us to see more clearly how issues of power, inequality and an inability to gain a hearing in a governing regime corrode even the most committed attempts to bring sustainable development to life in the real world.

Developing the capabilities and courage to recognize and tackle differends is a critical public service skill that needs to be developed quickly. Without this Smith’s ‘Level 3’ transformation will probably always elude us.

Leading sustainability at state level Sustainable development cases as understood here do not envisage a world of congenial technical embedding where the ‘new’ blends in smoothly with the existing circumstances. Different and even oppositional values may be involved, with several parties crying ‘foul’ at once. The socio-technical formulation is not sufficient to recognize and characterize issues of justice and conflict present in sustainable development cases. New public service capabilities are needed to identify and mediate differends.

Working with the concepts in this paper the author conducted a short research enquiry into UK state led sustainable development in the first decade of 21st century.(Robertson, 2010).

A ‘prototype senior leadership programme’ oriented around sustainability principles was designed and presented it to a group of thirteen experienced civil service trainers and lecturers. The ‘data collection’ consisted of recording their reactions, andthen trying to make some sense of reams of material in the accustomed manner of the qualitative researcher.

The purpose was not to produce yet another leadership programme, more to enquire into what it is about sustainable development that seems to create difficulties of the kinds noted in this paper. Most trainers believed that civil servants, especially senior ones, understood perfectly well the basic concerns of sustainable development. The problem was one of believing ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’ rather than not caring, not knowing or not wanting to know. In other words, many of the regime’s players may well be in sympathy with how niche advocates see the world, but see no way of taking meaningful action from a regime or mainstream position. And the career risks are illustrated by the UK Prime Minister’s interest in measures of happiness as an alternative or corollary to GDP (BBC, 2010). Ridicule from parts of the press followed, (Daily Mail, 2010).

The question of what is the real ‘currency’ of measurement in a capitalist economyinterested Lyotard. As indicated earlier, he was concerned with what he saw as the‘economic genre’ always being concerned with having ‘gained some time.’

‘Thus, the economic genre of capital of capital in no way requires the deliberativepolitical concatenation, which admits the heterogeneity of genres of discourse. To thecontrary, it requires the suppression of that heterogeneity.’How far is the UK Civil Service institutionally reluctant to explore familiar topics from alternative first principles? This is an important question in a system pre-occupied with efficiencies. And according to some of the research respondents, there is already a long established tendency to exclude anything that might be deemed esoteric or disruptive. If the regime demands immediate practicality, scalebility, track record, evidence, low risk, uniformity of process, cognitive orthodoxy and narrow remit focus it will have low tolerance for all the fumbling and apparent downtime that might be involved in engaging with unconventional ideas. Lyotard articulates a directly relevant challenge:

‘But what assurance is there that humans will become more cultivated than they are? If culture (culture of the mind, at least) requires work and thus takes time, and if the economic genre imposes its stakes of gaining time on the greater part of phrase regimens and genres of discourse, then culture, as a consumer of time, is out to be eliminated.’

Lyotard, anticipating the growing potency of efficiency forces, asserted that the ‘contemporary global finance-oriented capital investor is happier with ‘currency speculation, which short circuits production.’ Going to the trouble, for example, of finding a host location for a factory, gaining planning permission, winning sponsors, engaging with communities, building infrastructure, negotiating with unions, or anything that involves the dead time consumed by interaction with other people becomes increasingly inefficient as the economy progresses.

If time compression and efficiency are strong qualities of a governing system, andthese are ever more sought after, then how does a ‘niche’ idea⎯which cannot even explain its basic principles without consuming regime time⎯ever get a hearing? The problem of getting a hearing may, in the end, turn out to be definitive one of sustainable development.

A corollary of time compression and efficiency is pragmatism. Although often cited as a virtue, the limits of pragmatism are not questioned enough. The preference of the UK Civil Service for this approach is well documented:

‘The role taken by the Civil Service in policy formation is therefore critical in that civil servants will attempt to shape the nature and purpose of a policy decision from start to finish, but, in order to understand the bureaucratic approach, it is necessary to know that the Civil Service sees its own role entirely from the perspective of a policy’s practical application, based on pragmatism rather than principle.’ (Pilkington, 1999)

Ministerial memoirs from an earlier era suggest that these themes are durable over time. Former Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman (1965) observed:

‘We have always been unwilling to base our actions upon a philosophy of life….Theory, for us, is not the foundation upon which practice should be built, but an instrument to be employed in the achievement of given ends.’

An incumbent regime, in any sustainable development case, may not even believeitself to be operating from any sort of philosophy or theory.

The public as re-enlivening agent  Springett (2006) distinguishes between ‘managerialist’ and ‘emancipatory’ narratives of sustainable development. She asserts that the ‘business case’ framing (as widely used in government) serves to ‘discipline’ how sustainable development is discussed in the public domain, and ‘calls for experts, administrators and politicians to govern the discourse.’ The ‘the radical fire is largely consumed by the turn to specific action plans for eco-efficiency – business initiatives, such as triple bottom line and indicators and processes of monitoring and reviewing progress.’ A ‘technocratic elite’ of government and business has captured, disciplined and rendered efficient the whole conversation about sustainable development. For Springett, the messiness that would follow from a more open-ended public debate on social justice, inequality, reform and accountability of multi-national institutions and companies are examples of ‘silences’ missing from managerialist discourse. As Lyotard says, ‘a differend is a moment of silence, a stutter in the flow of language, where the right words will not come.’

In 2008 the UK Government appointed a ‘chief sustainability officer.’ The focus ofthis post was on asset operating efficiencies, with a particular focus on the consumption and flow-through of physical resources and the production of wastes. This was an expression of the managerialist position, an example of Smith’s Level 1 socio-technical change. Original sustainable development is an appeal to put the whole picture together, to hold our nerve whilst the difficult issues are wheeled on. A dominant focus on asset efficiencies is somewhat estranged from these foundational concerns.

As Springett implies, the public have been largely absent from developing the discourse on sustainable development, even though the issues are fundamentally ones of public justice, not technical adjustment or ‘steady-state’ management. The very stuff of sustainable development⎯ the divides and differends⎯ operate as submerged conflicts in cases where the wider public have limited opportunity to be in the decision-making loop.

This paper argues that sustainable development as a government project has been,albeit inadvertently, distanced from its founding ideas, and rendered marginal or ‘discretionary’ in mainstream policy thinking. However, if damaged ecosystems and suffering peoples are silenced voices, our sciences indicate that a period of severe reckoning faces us.

As we have seen there are sustainable development cases, and there is a case fororiginal sustainable development that works from a desire to struggle with justice,  decency, compassion, humanity, fair play and responsibility in economic affairs. However, the audience for advocacy for profound change has been big business and public service elites in rich countries operating from a business efficiency and growth mindset. Sustainable development is public business although the public has been strangely absent from the debate, leaving an elite stratum to allow the differends to run unchecked. 

Some proposals The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC, 2010) recommends that ‘a new Sustainable Development Strategy should be developed to revitalise Government engagement on this essential foundation for all policy-making’ and that ‘top level political leadership must be brought to bear’ to give ‘new impetus to the sustainable development agenda.’ The Government’s response has been noted (Defra, 2011).

Recent developments include proposals that could make a positive difference. However, the thinking remains within Smith’s Level 1 and to some extent Level 2 ranges. The kinds of issues raised in this paper, for example by Springett, are underdiscussed. It looks as if the sustainable development agenda will continue to be over-disciplined by the technocratic paradigm. Graham Greene’s fictional British Ambassador said that ‘something which is everybody’s problem is nobody’s responsibility.’ In its core policies (localism and Big Society) the UK coalition government has raised concerns that the UK has spawned a civic culture of reluctant and complacent citizenship which it wants to transform. It wants to see an upsurge in people coming forward to volunteer and contribute in solving problems at community level. It wants much more public involvement in town planning — surely an area where many differends have been lurking for decades.(BBC, 20102).

If a technocratic approach is allowed to keep the public at arm’s length, Devine– Wright (2010) alerts as that this can lead to bitter civic conflict. He expresses concern that policy officials sometimes hold ‘deficit’ models of the public, viewing the public as ill-informed and lacking sophistication, serving to justify stereotyping its members as ‘target audience’ or ‘objectors.’

An important question is can the public, in matters of justice that might involve working with complex information, be trusted to make decisions? The answer to this question surely has to be ‘yes.’ The jury system shows that, albeit imperfectly, the public can play active roles in real decision-making.

Walker and Cass (2010) argue that the public could occupy much richer and more meaningful roles in renewable energy facility planning, for example as active customers with choices, financial investors, project supporters or participants, technology hosts or energy producers.

As Springett suggests, our best chance with sustainable development is to admit thepublic into the conversation, and let the messy issues of justice be put before them, including the difficult job of sifting multiple victim-assailant claims. This could happen in thousands of local decisions and deliberations about how we deal with waste, generate energy, build houses, provide for the poor and so on. The jury system evolved in these islands, although we seem reluctant to allow the principle to be tried in other areas, such as real decisions where public questions of economic justice are present. Perhaps surprisingly, there have been only a few small scale attempts to introduce ‘Citizens Juries’ into the UK. These amount to interesting and informative social experiments mostly around health policy questions (Coote and Lenaghan, 1997) and street level police roles in relation to drink and drug use in Lancashire (Wakeford et. al 2004). Coote and Leneghan’s study indicated the kinds of issues and questions that would arise in any initiative to develop citizens’ juries :

  • • How would people be recruited in fair and representative ways?
  • • How could a jury work in a community of multiple and minority languages?
  • • How will questions be picked and framed?
  • • Will verdicts or decisions be by consensus or majority?
  • • What moderation or agenda setting skills are needed?
  • • How will ‘deficit theories’ of publics be addressed?

Because there have been so few initiatives of this nature there is little practice experience to draw from, and there are certainly no perfect answers. However, Wakeford et al.’s study suggests that these kinds of questions can be worked through, and are not show-stoppers.Wakeford et al. set up an oversight panel of members of statutory and community organizations which oversaw a recruitment process whereby 20 volunteers were selected from 180 people who responded to invitations. Steps were taken to cover the electoral wards in the ‘pilot’ area (Blackburn and Darwen) and some recruitment from people not registered to vote. The project did not attempt to achieve flawless statistical representation.

The jury was of mixed background although a high degree of mutual respect and collaboration was reported. A multiple language environment could have been challenging, although was not reported as a significant problem Picking and framing questions is a tricky area. Wakeford et al. argue that where jurors have themselves set the question they are more ‘likely to feel ownership of the process.’ Simply handing down a question in a ‘top-down’ manner is likely to put people off, so at least some sort of negotiation with a public jury over the agenda and question is needed otherwise an sense of agency will be lost.

Verdicts or decisions were arrived at by jurors voting on recommendations, with some adoption of majority verdicts and secret ballots. The report indicates that jurors were briefed, informed and facilitated carefully, with the opportunity to question witnesses.

The question of ‘will the public understand?’ was addressed by Burral and Shahrokh(2010), in a report of a series of public engagement exercises on a range of controversial public policy questions. Although this work did not amount to a community level citizen’s jury, the report is nonetheless clear that ‘the public have shown that understanding complex information is not a problem and that they are willing and excited to be involved in deeper levels of debate’ provided there is a well designed dialogue or deliberation process.

Experience related in these studies suggests that there are many difficult and challenging issues to be addressed in innovation of this nature, and the effort is expensive in terms of the organization of time and resources. Nevertheless, the legal jury system developed over centuries of trial and error, and there is no reason why greater use of public decision-making panels should not be attempted. Moreover new and exciting roles are suggested for imaginative and forward thinking public officials, and judges-at-law could develop new areas of practice and expertise. Projects of this nature could be tried as town planning innovations. For example, there has been little incentive or challenge to housebuilders to place development proposals before public groups and local residents affected by schemes, with the onus on the developers to make a positive case, rather than the kinds of adversarial game playing so often seen. Such posturing could be transformed with imaginative processes for members of local publics to have a decisive say in what kinds of housing get built where, and to what standards and specifications. Moreover, issues such as aesthetics or place identity could be included in the deliberations and not excluded as being ‘not planning grounds.’

Practice of this nature begins to go some way beyond public relations, corporate communications or even ‘public engagement’ and perhaps closer to Hind’s idea of public commissioning. Hind argues, mostly in the field of information and media, that the industry is organized such that journalists are fearful of being investigative because of the ownership and control arrangements of newspapers, broadcasters and publishers. There are no mechanisms for the public, in well conducted and reasonable ways, to be clients and funding sponsors of journalistic enquiry and reporting. Hind argues that for these reasons Britain does not have a public that is in a position to inform and enlighten itself, as far too much power resides in professional decision-makers. Perhaps too many sustainability ‘professionals’ want to educate the public, whereas the public, given the means, is perfectly capable of educating itself by commissioning its own investigations. Hind makes enactment proposals for regional commissioning arrangements whereby public panels would be appointed and people would serve for limited periods. Initiating these kinds of arrangements would no doubt throw up all kinds of difficulties, and would amount to major public realm innovation.

What may be emerging here, albeit diffusely, is the germ of an idea that could take sustainable development as a public led project into a more fertile phase. We would be designing processes, methods and capabilities to deal publicly with the differends of sustainable development rather than leave them unheard.

Sustainability capable public servants How can public officials be equipped to commission decision processes in real sustainable development cases where the original principles are seriously applied rather than ritually uttered? At the very least ‘embedding’ needs to be understood as Level 2 change. It is a form of necessary incrementalism (for example in procurement), although not sufficient to create Level 3. For example, if government introduced legislation that required all food products have a carbon label this would be a level 1 change, although as Beattie (2010) observes unlikely to change patterns of industry or consumer behaviour. At a moreintermediate level (2), supermarkets may modify how they engage with food growers or local publics in planning applications. Village halls may be rebuilt as part of planning and construction arrangements. This deserves applause, but the unchanged industry model is still one that thousands of trucks a day on the road in a competing sector. From a sustainability viewpoint this is sub-optimal in terms of the energy return on investment of the caloric value of the food in the customer’s trolley. The pattern of energy consumption is structurally unaltered, and the deeper victim and justice problems barely touched upon.

Re-thinking the design and dynamics of an industry sector means raising our game to one of deep co-operation around articulating and working with differends. This is a job for state officials backed by politicians with an keen eye for socially responsible strategic innovation. The energy inefficiency of food is well known, although justice issues little explored. For example, An Inuit elder is surely justified in complaining that ice softening is caused by a global accumulation of unreformed production and consumption practices across the developed world. Yet as a plaintiff he has a vanishingly small chance of being heard by ‘our neighbours in the South’— at least under current arrangements.

Food policy is an area where the ‘highly valued’ customers have little or no way of being ‘publics’ enquiring about what happens to food in terms of its production, processing, supply chains and so forth. However matters could be very different. Public commissioning panels could be granted powers, even at local levels, to specify the kinds of information provided on food labels or displays, or could lay down conditions and standards for sourcing of food. This is the kind of work public officials could be usefully employed in making possible―and it would constitute a new discipline of public participation. A new public service capability profile may begin to emerge, as outlined below. Something like a new role of ‘transition officer’ could be created.

  • • Courage and desire to get involved with difficult and challenging applied justice ideas such as the differend and explore the kinds of social processes needed to address conflicts and disputes that emerge from sustainable development cases in any sector.
  • • An understanding and even a strong grounding in technocratic and managerialist ways of tackling problems, yet an open-minded willingness to look beyond business-tidy ‘shrinkwrap’ protocols such as project management and work with less orderly and constrained social processes in which the public play real decision-making roles.
  • • A capacity to think deeply about the role of the public in sustainable development, not just as ‘target audience,’ stakeholders or a set of objects who need to be trained into adopting new forms of behaviour, but as a set of citizens better equipped than any expert, bureaucrat or scientist to decide on matters of justice, ethics and values in economics.
  • • A desire and capacity to work with and apply structured forms of thinking such as Smith’s levels of socio-technical translation and to be able to reason through critical differences between level 1 change (technical, legislative, compliance driven), level 2 (exploratory niche-regime mutual learning) and level 3 (profound institutional change).
  • • A commitment to unearthing and articulating the power, justice and victimassailant complexes in any sustainable development case before drawing conclusions that a particular problem might be amenable to embedding, legislating or more conventional technocratic solution.
  • • Vision, skills and stamina to commission public hearing and deliberation processes in sustainable development casework.

Public officials who could operate in this way would be doing pioneering work in founding and developing a new set of public capabilities. These could be construed as ‘Big Society’ skills, and those working to acquire them would be facilitating public commissioning exercises and numerous decisions in fields such as town, transport, health, education, energy and health planning. In time we would be inventing a major new national practice of public empowerment (localism).

Impacts and safeguards The jury system gives us confidence the sky does not fall in when the public are the key decision-makers. Many departments and capabilities of state will have important roles to play. There will be legislation and guidance to draft, delivery, evaluation and research exercises to commission.

As with any system of justice, not everyone will be happy. Some people used to getting their own way will have to work harder in making their case before public panels. And the public will for the first time have a real role in, for example, transforming town planning from a desultory exercise in ‘development control’ to something where matters of aesthetics, necessity, decency, proportion and scale can be properly discussed. For example, the public would be able to put a brake on situations where ‘dead asphalt’ town centre sites remain derelict whilst developers buy up decent quality houses and back gardens and cram high density flats onto them. Local publics, in all likelihood, would be better judges of what constitutes appropriate and needed development than developers and planning professionals. And there will need to be safeguards that enable elected politicians to insist on further deliberation or in extreme (and definable) circumstances to veto a public decision if it is likely to lead to a bizarre outcome.

Conclusions We were never going to get sustainable development right first time. It is human nature to want to make something inconvenient as easy and possible. The embedding’ road has made its case, although review and re-thinking is needed. This paper has asserted that this approach has worked to underplay the original power, justice and equity concerns of sustainable development, and how these are played out in real decision cases. A future national sustainable development strategy must show state level capacity to grasp these issues and address them in real cases. Public voice must be central to this. We need public officials who know a differend when they see one, and are willing to work hard to create social processes where people can explore the issues as members of a mature public of citizens, not as sides in futile win-lose battles. A carefully convened local citizen’s jury may be best qualified to hear testimony from an Inuit elder that the expansion of a local airport will increase the global cloud of fossil fuel pollution that threatens the survival of his people. Rather than something for journalists or industry spokespersons to dismiss it as ‘apocalyptic…green spin’ (LES, 2007), such a testimony could play a party in communities around the world seeing their fates as being intertwined. This would be a step change in developing a wider sense of empathetic imagination that is surely essential for tackling climate change. A little reading around the subject reveals that there is nothing new or even surprising about that state’s difficulties with sustainable development. There has been a long term lack of constructive engagement between ‘the state’ and ‘green’ thinking (Paterson, et al, 2006). This may have been the biography of sustainable development so far, but we must get over these difficulties. Future human security depends on it. The public official who takes on a sustainable development remit is not picking a soft option. It is perhaps the biggest of all market failures, and the marked preference at government level to deal with it as variations on a theme of operations efficiency (predicated on ideas such as ‘embedding’) must be re-thought. Sustainable development should always be dealt with as variations on a theme of justice, otherwise the ‘radical fire’ needed will be dampened. This was under-represented in the original 2005 sustainable development strategy, and again it seems in the recent review by a committee of MPs (EAC, 2010) and government response (Defra, 2011). Unlike ecosystems, economies are public property. However, economies have been evolving with destructive side-effects on publics and ecosystems around the world. When it comes to matters of fairness, decency and good sense, we need to ask the public, for example, if they are prepared to see the Greenland Inuit as our neighbours (in the North)? A public panel or jury might dismiss the idea, but then again there is always a chance that they will distress the repose of those who call Aqqaluk Lynge an ‘apocalyptic green spin’ merchant. Bring on the public!References                                                                                                                            Greene, G. (1975) The Honorary Consul. Penguin.                                                Independent (2007) Aqqaluk Lynge: Global warming is not just a theory to us. 30th May.                                                                                                                                       Guardian (2007) Nimbys can’t be allowed to put a block on wind farms. 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TSO.(Page 16 – Strategy) (Page 20 – reference to embedding)                                   Environmental Audit Committee (2010).                                                              Environmental Audit Committee – First Report                                                      Embedding sustainable development across Government, after the Secretary of State’s announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development Commission. www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmenvaud/504/50402.htm   DEFRA (2011)                                                                                                           Mainstreaming Sustainable Development – The Government’s vision and what this means in practice.http://sd.defra.gov.uk/documents/mainstreaming-sustainabledevelopment.pdf                                                                                                       UN Documents (2011) Our Common Future, Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm                                                    McQueen, H. (2003) The Essence of Capitalism. Black Rose Books.                       Sustainable Development Commission (2007) Building Houses or Creating Communities. Sustainable Development Commission. UK. (This is one example of several reports quite critical of government performance. The Sustainable Development Commission website is kept up to date an other examples areeasily found : www.sd-commission.org.uk/ )                                                                                 National Audit Office (2005) Sustainable procurement in central government. TSO.                                                                                                                                   Environmental Audit Committee (2009). Greening Government. House of Commons, TSO 19                                                                                                                        Price, R. and Durham C. (2009) Review of the Economics of Sustainable Development. Interim Report. Defra 2009. (Foreword)                                                Cabinet Office (2010) The Coalition: our programme for government. www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/409088/pfg_coalition.pdf                                       Porritt, J. (2010)  Guardian Newspaper 23rd July, 2010. The greenest government ever? Don’t make me laugh                                                                                                           DECC (2011) Department of Energy and Climate Change. The Green Deal.www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/what_we_do/consumers/green_deal/green_deal.aspx  Jackson,T. (2009) Prosperity Without Growth : The transition to a sustainable economy. Sustainable Development Commission. UK. (Foreword)                            Kotke, W. (2005) Garden Planet: The Present Phase Change of The Human Species. Authorhouse.                                                                                                                         Hopkins, R. 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Evening Standard (London)                                                                                                                                  Building Research Establishment (2010) Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method. www.breeam.org/page.jsp?id=66                        Devine-Wright, P. (2011) Renewable Energy and the Public : from NIMBY to participation. Earthscan.                                                                                                           Lyotard, J.F. (1989) The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. University of Minnesota Press.                                                                                                                                       Robertson,A. (2010) First Steps in Developing an Education for Sustainability Programme for State Level Officials in the United Kingdom. London South Bank University, Education for Sustainability programme.                                                       BBC (20101) Plan to measure happiness ‘not woolly’ – Cameron. 25th November 2010. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11833241                                                                      Daily Mail (2010) Mail Online. Melanie Phillips. 30th November 2010. www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1333922/Cameronshappiness-index-just-cynical-attempt-controlminds .html                                                                                                                              Pilkington., C. (1999) The Civil Service in Britain Today. Manchester University Press                                                                                                                                               Crossman, R. (1965) Planning for Freedom. London Hamilton.                                  Springett, D. (2006) Managing the narrative of sustainable development: ‘discipline’ of an ‘inefficient’ concept. International Journal of Green Economics 20 2006 – Vol. 1, No.1/2 pp. 50 – 67.                                                                                                 BBC, 20102 Pickles promises ‘people’s planning power.’ www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11780918                                                                                                                           Walker, G., and Cass, N. (2011) Public roles and socio-technical considerations : Diversity in renewable energy deployment in the UK and its implications. (In Devine-Wright Op. cit).                                                                                                           Coote, A., and Lenaghan, J. (1997) Citizens’ Juries : Theory into Practice. Institute of Public Policy Research                                                                                                           Wakeford T., Murtuja, B., and and Bryant, P. (2004) Using Democratic Spaces to promote Social Justice in Northern Towns www.ncl.ac.uk/peals/assets/publications/rowntreejuryfinal.pdf                                      See also Newcastle University Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences web pages www.ncl.ac.uk/peals/research/project/851                                                                       Burrall, S. and Shahrohk, T. (2010) What the Public Say : Public Engagement in Decision-Making. Science Wise UK Government Business, Innovation and Skills.;                                                                                                                                            Hind, D. (2010) The Return of the Public. Verso.                                                              Beattie, G. (2010) Why Aren’t We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist’s Perspective. Routledge.                                                                                                                                            LES2 (London Evening Standard (2007) Eskimo accused of ‘apocalyptic green spin’ in row over Stansted expansion. London Evening Standard. 22nd July 2007. www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-23405311-eskimo-accusedof-apocalyptic-green-spin-in-row-over-stansted-expansion.do                                                                                                                                   Paterson et al (2006) Cited in Hay, C., Lister,M., and Marsh., D. (2006) The State : Theories and Issues in Chapter 7, ‘Green Theory’ Paterson, M., Doran, P., and Barry, J.

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