Brief book review – The Government of Risk: Understanding Risk Regulation Regimes

Christopher Hood, Henry Rothstein, and Robert Baldwin, 2001, Oxford University Press, 214 pages.

With The Government of Risk: Understanding Risk Regulation Regimes, Professors Christopher Hood (University of Oxford), Rothstein (King’s College London) and Robert Baldwin (London School of Economics) were among the first regulatory scholars to systematically explore the evolution and growth of risk regulation since the 1990s. They seek to understand why there is so much variety in how risks are regulated across and within policy domains.

What makes the book of specific interest is that the authors are not only interested in risk regulation ‘in the books’ (i.e., standard setting) but also risk regulation in practice (i.e., information gathering and behaviour modification). In other words, they are interested in the different control components that make up risk regimes.

To answer this question, the authors study nine risk regulation regimes in the UK: (1) attacks by dangerous dogs outside the home; (2) lung cancer related to radon gas emissions from the ground or building materials in the home, or (3) the workplace; (4) cancer related to benzene emissions from vehicle exhausts or other sources, or (5) workplace exposures; (6) recidivism in convicted paedophiles; (7) injuries and deaths from motor vehicles on local roads; and, (8) adverse health effects from pesticide residues in food, or (9) drinking water.

The authors argue that a focus on the risk regime’s context and content, as well as the risk control components,  are relevant when analysing risk regimes. To the authors, the regime context is affected by the type of risk to be addressed (say, adverse health effects from pesticide residues in food), the public’s preferences and attitudes towards that risk and how it should be regulated (likely the general public does not want pest residues in their food and wants government to take action), and organised interests affecting that specific risk (consumers organisations, supermarkets, food producers, pesticide producers, etc.).

They consider regime content the interplay of the size of a regulatory regime (how much regulation is in place to regulate the risk), its structure (how regulation is organised, and the resources allocated to address it), and its style (the operating conventions and attitudes of those involved in regulating the risk).

Crossing regime context and regime content provides the authors with a heuristic model that guides the analysis of each of the nine risk regimes under scrutiny

    Control components
    Information gatheringStandard settingBehaviour modification
Regime context Type of risk      
  Public preferences and attitudes      
  Organized interests      
Regime content Size      

Source: The Government of Risk (Hood, Rothstein and Baldwin, 2001, p.29)

Applying this heuristic to the nine cases, the authors find there are substantial differences in how risk is regulated—even within the UK they do not find a uniform approach. This leads them to conclude that broader notions such as Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society do not fully explain the rapid increase in risk regulation observed since the 1990s, nor how and why countries regulate risk. While the book cannot provide a blue-print for an ideal type risk regulation regime (and does not intend to), the heuristic provided and applied in the book is an excellent starting point for evaluating existing regimes and developing those of the future.

Disclaimer In these brief book reviews, I discuss classic and contemporary books that make up the canon of regulatory scholarship. I focus on their central guiding idea or core notions and aim to keep the reviews to around 500 words. Unfortunately, this implies I must sacrifice a considerable amount of detail from the books reviewed.

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