A world of rules

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On the occasion of his inaugural lecture at  Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre UCL on February 4th 2020, Claudio granted us an interview where he explains what regulation means, with all its implications. Living in a world of rules is a conversation with the audience on why laws and regulations save lives and protect the environment but can also stymie growth and trigger corruption. Claudio explains how he became concerned and scientifically interested in regulatory reform and how this scientific interest led him to regulatory encounters with the worlds of regulatory guillotines, regulatory czars, regulatory management and international organizations that promote reform and management of public rules. 

Hi Claudio, so tell us: what’s the purpose of your inaugural lecture?

It’s not to inaugurate anything! It is an opportunity to reflect with the audience on my research agenda and what the research projects I carried out on the topic of regulation mean to me. Finally it is a way to say thank you and share with people who have worked so hard with me over the last five years, my colleagues and my family.

Can you explain the title?

The title is Living in a World of Rules. It has two important meanings. First, we focus on ‘the world of rules’. There is a world of rules in which we citizens live. Regulation sets obligations, limit behaviour, constrain us in our economic or social activities, but we also have rules that give us the right to evidence-based policy, to see how science matters in public decisions for example. There are also important rules that give us access to what government does and allow us to stop regulatory behaviour that is unfair or inappropriate. Other rules are fundamental in giving us some degrees of trust in the public protection of health standards, biodiversity, and sustainability. This is the world I live in as citizen and researcher. I want to explore how regulation and regulators can be made accountable, transparent, measurable, and fair.

Then, let us talk about my own ‘living’ in this world.

Indeed there is a second meaning of “Living in a World of Rules”. It is about how I live my experience of researcher, most importantly when I relate my findings to the informed public, policy-makers, and international organizations. As I say in my lecture I do not see this life inside the world of real-world regulation as the life of a pizza delivery man. I am not delivering products to those who order them. I engage with policy-makers but always by bringing to them an original narrative. I take for granted that they know what they do and why they do, so if they need basic research and measurement they can produce it in house or launch a tender. The latter is the pizza delivery format.

Instead I relate to policy-makers by engaging with their concerns and motivations, and by providing an original narrative with the intent of changing their interaction. Policy-makers live in a context of dense interaction where they exchange resources such as knowledge, legitimacy, reputation, and economic resources. The best research we produce as social scientists should have this purpose: to become a knowledge-based resource with the potential to modify the interactions in the policy process. Not in the way we expect, perhaps! But I always say that our best research is like a narrative or a mirror. We put our mirror (data, case studies, findings, causal stories) in front of the policy-makers and we tell them: “this is you, but with a 30-degree angle, I inclined the mirror by 30 degrees. Those this new angle allow you to see something different and learn? Does this change something”. Thus, the second meaning of the title is about how I live in the world of real-world regulation as social scientist, how do I see my mission. Other researchers are entirely critical, they throw away the mirror or show it only to other academics. Yet another group prefers to deliver pizza all the time. There are choices we make. All I say in the lecture is – let us be mindful of the choices we make.

Regulation sets obligations, limit behaviour, constrain us in our economic or social activities, but we also have rules that give us the rights

In what ways is your research relevant?

Regulation saves lives and the environment, you should see the photos of the American landscape before environmental regulation entered on the scene. But bad regulation hinders productivity, facilitates corruption, erodes trust in government. It’s important to strike a balance between red flags and red tape. But how is this done by governments and regulators? What are the instruments governments deploy (or should adopt) to manage regulation and make it accountable to us?

My research agenda is on this particular dimension of ‘governing regulation’. For tax and public expenditure, the main governance tool we have is the public budget. But to write a rule on arsenic in water the government does not need the money. So no-one will stand up and say ‘hey, where is the money we need for this regulation? Do we spend less on schools to save the environment?” I think we live important times in which collectively, as policy-makers, citizens and researchers, we are trying to find out what a regulatory session in parliament might be (a regulatory budget?), where it should be only about costs and benefits. And much more: how regulatory accountability may emerge from new policy instruments, beyond what happens in parliament, for example in the early stages of policy formulation and design of regulations.

What is Protego?

Oh, let us start with the acronym: Procedural tools for effective governance. Protego reminds us of ‘protection’ hence the themes of trust in government, control of corruption, sustainability and business regulation that feature high in the project. It also reminds us of Harry Potter of course!

In essence, Protego is an advanced ERC project I run with a co-Principal Investigator that has been closely associated to the development of my ideas on regulation and public policy: Claire Dunlop. We also have a rigorous and imaginative data-steward, Jonathan Kamkhaji, who is never afraid of getting into new approaches to theory and data. At UCL I work with Gaia Taffoni who is a political scientist with a background in administrative law – the ideal person to provide research assistance, legal context, and fresh ideas on the diffusion and transfer of policy instruments from the EU to the member states, and between one government and another. Alessia Damonte is our core partner in Milan, especially for the techniques but also the overall framework of the project. We also have an international advisory team with two lawyers (Herwig Hoffman and Jacques Ziller) and one political scientists (Claudius Wagemann). Claudius is so close to our project that he has actually authored a paper with me and is authoring another one with us.

What is the distinctive, original contribution that Protego makes to the debate on regulation?

Protego looks at these new instrumentations of regulatory governance I was on about a minute ago. Specifically we have data on how the EU 28 countries design administrative transparency, consultation, freedom of information, impact assessment of proposed legislation, judicial review, and the ombudsman procedure. We ask the question: how do these instruments work together? Do they trigger contradictory instruments? Does one instrument feed into the others? Then with our data we answer the second question: what are the various combinations of these instruments that in some countries (but not in others) are sufficient for a country to fall in the basket of low corruption, high trust in government, high quality of the business environment and sustainability? Of course corruption and growth have many determinants. We are not interested in all the possible causes of these phenomena. Instead, we are looking at the effects of ‘regulatory governance’ so the effects of a ‘cause’ which in Protego is always a combination of how the instrumentation of regulatory governance is designed. Note that I always said ‘combinations’ (plural) and ‘some countries’. This means that in our population of 28 countries there is always more than one way to achieve an outcome, and that the pathway to low corruption is not necessarily the mirror image of high corruption. Essentially we study these pathways, both positive and negative. You can think of these pathways as the empirical manifestation of mechanisms that cannot be observed by themselves but can be theorized at least as far their observable implications are concerned. OK I stop here because it’s getting complicated.

Is regulation the only topic that features in your research agenda?

I have other interests – learning in public policy is a fundamental component of my research agenda, whether it applies to regulation or other topics. Over the last ten years Prof Claire Dunlop at Exeter and I have produced several research papers on learning as lens on the policy process. It’s another way to look at politics. Politics isn’t all about powering. You may well say that today learning – including policy narratives, evidence-based and evidence-free politics – constitute the most important terrain of power. I am also studying the mechanisms of de-Europeanization and re-Europeanziation – this goes back to my interest in how the EU shapes domestic politics. Finally, with Dr Roberto Baldoli I am writing a suite of normative papers on the role of nonviolence in politics.

Protego reminds us of ‘protection’ hence the themes of trust in government, control of corruption, sustainability and business regulation that feature high in the project

Tell us a little about your research…

I research how different governments (and citizens) manage the formation, adoption and delivery of regulations by imposing obligations on those who make the rules and by giving voice to citizens and interests that are worth-protecting in rule-making.

Why is your research important?

Because good rules can save lives and protect the environment, but bad rules create burdens, facilitate corruption and erode trust in institutions.

What inspires you in your research?

The possibility to leverage my comparative research findings to the benefit of students, engaged citizens and policy-makers, especially when it comes to balance values and use robust evidence in public decisions. Another fundamental source of inspiration are the research teams I have led in my projects and the fabulous colleauges I have at UCL.

What has been your most memorable career moment so far?

It was when I was trusted to carry out the first-ever EU study of how regulatory performance could be measured, communicated and shared with citizens and the business community.

What passions/hobbies do you have outside of work?

I love different types of non-mainstream music, from progressive to electronic, ethnic and some varieties of metal. Every year I publish my playlist but get very few likes from my friends.I also love swimming in the old Porchester pool near Bayswater and running in Hyde Park. Hobbies aside, I am passionate about the role of nonviolence in political life and I engage with organizations informed by this vision. I am also engaged with a new organization called Science for Democracy. I push for the creation of fora where social scientists can explain to natural scientists how the policy process works – as well as trying to explain to politicians how science works.

What book is currently on your bedside table?

I enjoyed After the ecstasy, the laundry by Jack Kornfield, so I am now through the first 150 pages of his other book A path with heart but this one is more ‘doctrine-based’ with fewer memorable stories and anecdotes.