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Robert M. La Follette
School of Public Affairs
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Last updated:
September 26, 2013


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Wisconsin Style: New Approaches to Regulatory Innovation


Conference explores Wisconsin, international environmental regulatory innovations

International innovations in environmental regulation brought together environmentalists, policy-makers and businesspeople from seven states and six countries on January 31, 2005, in Madison, Wisconsin, for a rare three-way exchange to share ideas and open lines of communication regarding environmental policy regulation.

Innovation and cooperation were the focus of the Environmental Law in a Connected World conference, the largest ever organized by the La Follette School of Public Affairs. Conference participants from Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, China and the United States highlighted international innovations in environmental protection that encompass state government, business and private partnerships. The gathering engaged people from around the world to share ideas about how to improve the environment without deterring economic development, to look to more than a hierarchical set of minimal environmental standards and to provide incentives for companies to excel.

Conference speakers contrasted traditional environmental policy models that focus on minimum compliance with those like Green Tier, which emphasizes providing businesses with flexibility in regard to environmental performance to help them compete better in times of changing technology and markets. The newer approaches also emphasize public involvement and reporting as ways to increase confidence in business and public policy.

“By bringing together international experts to explore common problems and successes with innovative environmental standards, this conference will have an important, far-reaching impact on regulatory policy,” said Graham Wilson, professor of public affairs and chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The conference was part of a three-year research project he is leading with funding from UW-Madison’s Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment. Wilson’s research encompasses Wisconsin’s new results-based environmental policy called Green Tier, which was a focus of the conference. Green Tier rewards businesses for environmental performance that improves the quality of air, water, land or natural resources beyond the minimum standard required by law. Green Tier allows the state to differentiate among good environmental actors and those performing at or near the regulatory minimum.

The conference followed up on two milestones in 2004. The first was passage and signing of Green Tier into law. The second was a fact-finding mission to Bavaria, Germany, a world-wide leader in innovative public-private pacts that address environmental policy. There a Wisconsin delegation examined innovative technologies, "green building" practices and new directions in environmental governance. The broad-based Wisconsin group explored how the Green Tier law (modeled, in part, after Bavaria’s environmental pacts) could encourage companies to improve environmental performance while boosting productivity and cutting costs.

Regulatory innovation like Green Tier can only come about through exchanges such as the Madison conference, Emilia Müller, the Bavaria state secretary of the environment and former member of the European Parliament, told conference attendees.

“The objective of such networking is to efficiently develop and exchange across borders good practice in climate protection as well as to launch joint projects. My vision is of global cooperation over all continents,” Müller said. “It is my sincere desire, particularly on this occasion, to promote improved management standards and regulatory innovation.”

The sharing of information among speakers and attendees was valuable for many.

“I come to these discussions hoping to find the tools that encourage a new way for industry and business and the public at large to think about and speak to each other and to regain trust and to open the opportunities for creativity,” said conference speaker Linda Bochert, an environmental attorney with Michael, Best and Friedrich’s Land and Resources Practice Group in Madison and a former policy-maker with the state of Wisconsin. She served on the committee that drafted Wisconsin’s Green Tier legislation.

Nearly every speaker and panel discussant emphasized that while strict top-down government regulation can be a component of a flexible overall environmental policy, minimum standards cannot be the sole method by which successful policy is achieved. Cooperation among all constituencies is imperative, evidence from around the world demonstrates.

Bavaria’s regulatory pacts emphasize cooperation between economic and ecological agendas and involved about 4,800 participants, Müller said.

China is looking toward this European regulatory model, former China environmental policy-maker Hongjun Zhang said. Major manufacturing firms now self-manage supply chains environmentally for quality, efficiency and financial sector value.

The role of government increasingly is to steer and not to row, said environmental regulation and law expert Neil Gunningham of Australian National University. New tools and actors now fill the space that government once occupied alone.

Third generation environmentalists are building on the success of early conservationists (the first generation) and the 20th century’s environmental movement that raised consciousness about environmental degradation. Third generation environmentalism builds on the successes of these earlier waves.

These environmentalists are not outsiders, said Tom Burke, a co-founder of Third Generation Environmentalism, a London organization that emphasizes the use of communication technology to help environmentalists to work together better across the institutional and political boundaries.

Third generation environmentalism comprises people in all levels in bureaucracies, corporations, universities, trades unions, professional associations, voluntary organizations and elsewhere throughout the world. They are for solutions rather than against problems. They know that no one nation, organization or person can deliver lasting environmental change. They will work with anyone, anywhere, who has something better to offer the environment, Burke said.

“We come to the table with the attitude that there’s going to be development, and we embrace development, as long as that development is consistent with local plans that protect the natural environment,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, a land-use group that seeks to protect and enhance Wisconsin’s urban and rural landscapes by providing citizens with the inspiration, information and tools they need to participate in decision-making.

Conference participants also recognized the difficulty of making regulatory standards more flexible and in creating a system based more on trust and goodwill.

“It’s about innovation and investment,” Burke said. “These are going to be about political choices much more than in law and regulation. And that’s a lot harder to address.”

The balance of innovation with regulation is tricky to maintain, Wilson said. The challenge is to craft good governance, a transparent, flexible policy process that guarantees excellent environmental performance and exceeds the minimal standards that simple governing through the politics of decision-making establishes.

 “How do we get the fit between encouraging a corporation or a trade association to dosomething in its own right while still keeping a framework of regulation? How do we involve the NGOs (non-government organizations) and have them campaign while at the same time assuring that we have a fruitful dialogue between the NGOs and the business community?” Wilson asked. “How do you combine dialogue and conversation with campaigning? So putting it all together is harder than it sounds when you come up with this catch phrase, ‘from governing to governance.’”


Degrees of Risk -- Regulation in the 21st Century, presentation slides by Chris Howes, acting head of modern regulation, Environment Agency. To be presented at Environmental Law in a Connected World conference, Jan. 31, 2005.

Beyond Compliance, Beyond Covenants: Comparing Dutch Legal Practice with Wisconsin's Green Tier, a paper by Jurgen van der Heijden, University of Amsterdam. To be presented at Environmental Law in a Connected World conference, Jan. 31, 2005. Presentation slides.

Reconfiguring Environmental Regulation: The Future Public Policy Agenda, a paper by Neil Gunningham. To be presented at Environmental Law in a Connected World conference, Jan. 31, 2005. Presentation slides.

Management-Based Strategies for Improving the Private Sector's Environmental Performance by Cary Coglianese and Jennifer Nash. This paper is related to Coglianese's presentation at Environmental Law in a Connected World conference, Jan. 31, 2005.

Faster Permitting or Greener Thinking is a presentation by Rob Kramers, a presenter at the Environmental Law in a Connected World conference on Jan. 31, 2005, in Madison, Wis. (This presentation was not shown at the conference.) Kramers is a senior adviser with InfoMil, the national information center for environmental licensing and enforcement in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment has a project, Exploring New Approaches, that emphasizes new ways of regulating industrial installations. These new approaches can lead to better and/or more cost-effective environmental performance and contribute to sustainable development.

The Wisconsin-Bavaria Regulatory Reform Working Partnership highlights innovative environmental regulation taking place in Bavaria, Germany, and in Wisconsin. Bavaria is home to pervasive "green thinking" in government and business management that could be applied in Wisconsin under the 2004 Green Tier law.

Wisconsin's Green Tier law rewards superior environmental performance that improves the quality of air, water, land or natural resources beyond the legally mandated minimum. Green Tier allows the state to differentiate among good environmental actors and those performing at or near the regulatory minimum.

Innovation, Management Systems and Trading Committee Newsletter, American Bar Association, August 2004
Issue highlights recent state and federal innovation initiatives, including pieces on Wisconsin's Environmental Cooperation Pilot Program, Wisconsin's Green Tier law, and Environmental Management Systems Developments.

News and opinion articles