Responsive regulation (1): A review of the international academic literature

Previously, we have explored how insights from the behavioural sciences, insights from studies on risk, and ideas on systems thinking can help the development and practice of regulatory governance. Over the next weeks, we will look at one of the significant regulatory theories that have dominated discussions on good regulation since the 1990s: responsive regulation.

The idea of responsive regulation was first described in a book by the same title, Responsive Regulation: Transcending the Deregulation Debate, published in 1992 by Ian Ayres and John Braithwaite. This book has, arguable, achieved the status of being a cornerstone in the regulatory literature.

This series of blog posts will be a little different from the three earlier series. Those earlier ones were addressing broad themes within the regulatory literature (systems thinking, risk, and human behaviour) that have different starting points and different initiating authors. This series of blog posts will deal with a bounded regulatory theory, introduced (and further developed) by only two authors—but followed by a large number of scholars and governments around the globe.

Understanding responsive regulation

From January 2020 until July 2020, the Chair in Regulatory Practice will focus on responsive regulation (as conceptualised by Ian Ayres and John Braithwaite). The responsive regulation strategy introduced in the book has become one of the most discussed regulatory strategies in the academic literature. It is also widely followed in regulatory practice around the world.[i] Yet, it remains unknown:

  • Whether (on average) responsive regulation outperforms the (counterfactual) regulatory strategies it replaces (i.e., traditional government-led command and control regulation, or laissez-faire market competition); and,
  • Under what circumstances responsive regulation works best.

To help fill these knowledge gaps the Chair in Regulatory Practice will carry out a systematic evidence synthesis of the empirical literature on responsive regulation. The aim of this evidence synthesis is to evaluate the effectiveness (and lack thereof) of responsive regulation applied to real-world situations. To this end, this evidence synthesis will answer the following questions:

  1. What is the breadth, purpose and extent of research activity on responsive regulation?
  2. Compared to the (counterfactual) regulatory strategies that responsive regulation replaces (i.e., traditional government-led command and control regulation, or laissez-faire market competition), what is the (average) comparative effectiveness of responsive regulation in achieving regulatory goals?
  3. What are the advantages and limitations of responsive regulation compared to the strategies it replaces (i.e., traditional government-led command and control regulation, or laissez-faire market competition)?
  4. For questions 2 and 3, if heterogeneity is found in studies on responsive regulation: Under what circumstances, in what situations, and for whom does responsive regulation provide better outcomes than the strategies it replaces (i.e., traditional government-led command and control regulation, or laissez-faire market competition)?

The challenge of an evidence synthesis: selecting source material

An evidence synthesis “extends the analysis of the characteristics of individual research studies … to [an] analysis of the results of studies – individual and in combination – to investigate what they mean as a collective body of knowledge. (…) Synthesis is an analytic activity that generates new knowledge and understanding in response to the review research question; new knowledge that is grounded in the information gleaned from the individual research studies included in the review. While grounded in the studies that it contains, [an evidence] synthesis is often more than simply the sum of its parts.”[ii]

Perhaps the most challenging task of an evidence synthesis is the selection of the individual research studies that go into the collective body of knowledge that is analysed. The book Responsive Regulation has been cited more than 5,000 times since its publication. It goes without saying that it is impossible to analyse all the publications that cite the book. A meaningful sample of this set must be drawn.

For this evidence synthesis, the PICO criteria (participants, interventions, comparators, outcomes) were used to select individual research studies.

In selecting the source material for the evidence synthesis, we have not set restrictions by time, length, or repetitions (including no repetitions) of studies to include in the evidence synthesis. We also have not set restrictions by the setting(s) of studies, but we have only included articles reported in English. Also, we have only included published peer-reviewed articles, including ‘online first’ and ‘early access’ publications. We acknowledge the limitations of excluding non-published academic work and academic publications other than peer-reviewed articles.[iv]

The blog posts that will follow

The first selection of source material resulted in 1,012 unique peer-reviewed journal articles. After removing articles that were not empirical, were not explicitly engaging with responsive regulation, or were not assessing the performance of responsive regulation, we were left with 65 peer-reviewed articles that explicitly assess the performance of responsive regulation. Of these, 30 articles presented direct observations, and the remaining 35 articles presented indirect or counterfactual observations about the performance of responsive regulation.

In the blog posts that will follow, this set of 65 articles and a series of publications on responsive regulation by Ian Ayres and (mainly) John Braithwaite are evaluated. We will explore the evolution of responsive regulation, examples of its applications, evidence of its performance, as well as the ethical and epistemic challenges that come with this approach to regulatory governance and practice. Stay tuned.

[i] Braithwaite, J. (2011). The essence of responsive regulation. University of British Columbia law review., 44(3), 475-520.; Parker, C. (2013). Twenty years of responsive regulation: An appreciation and appraisal. Regulation & Governance, 7(1), 1-151.

[ii] Gough, D., Oliver, S., & Thomas, J. (2012). An introduction to systematic reviews. London: Sage.

[iii] Braithwaite, J. (2002). Restorative justice and responsive regulation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[iv] Vevea, J., Coburn, K., & Sutton, A. (2019). Publication bias. In H. Cooper, L. Hedges, & J. Valentine (Eds.), The handbook of research synthesis and meta-analysis (3rd ed., pp. 383-429). New York: Russel Sage Foundation.

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