From the end of 2015 to November 2016, through Foxgloves Consultancy, I provided analytical advice and support to the Make it Work project on smarter environmental reporting. The results fed into the Commission’s Fitness Check on Environmental Reporting, the results of which were published last Friday (9 June).
This project was in my first line of business, which is EU environmental policy and governance.
European environmental policy?
If it is not your professional field, environmental policy-making might sound rather daunting. Where to start, how can you make it effective in the face of all those tough problems? And in Europe, where nothing seems to work, it’s all a black box in Brussels and Strasbourg with those enormous bureaucracies, there’s lots of corruption, and it all runs so extremely slowly! It must be all terribly boring, and how can you ever know you have a positive contribution as an individual?
Many people I speak to don’t really see how it can be interesting to work ‘in Europe’, to contribute to the European project. To me this is always a question of the glass being half empty or half full.
Sure, it all works very slowly (typically, changing something in a European law might take up to ten years). All the institutions (Commission, Parliament, Council and their different parts and units) have to have their say and have to be talked to and influenced. And there’s the other bodies such as the Committee of the Regions, the Economic and Social Committee, the business organisations, NGOs. All 28 nationalities all milling around doing their thing and stating their opinions. Chaos. Sometimes nothing goes.
But that same hubbub of nationalities and languages and interests can be extremely inspiring and exhilarating. The many parts of Europe bring their knowledge and experience to the table, and the circle of learning and improvement is much larger. All parts of Europe profit from the steps taken at one end of the continent. The quality of discussion is often extremely high. And once you get heard, you might have a much wider influence than at home. That’s the positive side.
Not everything runs smoothly in Europe. A lot needs to be changed. On balance for me the glass is half full.
Environmental reporting – what’s it about?
So back to those environmental laws: once they’ve been made, how do you know they are working? This is where reporting comes in. Citizens, business, parliaments and policy-makers all want to know whether environmental laws and policy are effective and delivering their intended results. Are water and air quality improving, are the impacts of our economic behaviour being sufficiently offset to protect the environment in the long run?
For effective policy-making it has long been recognised that a cycle should be used of gathering knowledge, assessing the impact of policy on the ground, and improving policy and legislation. Both European and national environmental policy (ideally) work this way.
Monitoring and reporting underpin the knowledge base for the policy cycle. But is the effort required to report the information always in proportion to the results? And do policy-makers get the right information at the right time and in the right form? In other words, is reporting effective and efficient, or can it be made more so?
Two actions at European level, more or less in parallel, were launched more than a year ago to review this. One was the Reporting project by the Member State initiative, Make it Work; the other was the European Commission’s Fitness Check of Environmental Reporting.
Commission Fitness Check – the results & action plan
Last Friday (9 June), the European Commission launched its action plan to improve environmental reporting. It proposes actions in five areas:
- getting the right information in the right form at the right time including through changing or repealing reporting obligations;
- streamlining the reporting process by using new technologies to provide rapid and geographically specific evidence;
- promoting active dissemination of environmental information so that citizens can better understand the state of the environment they live in;
- exploiting other data sources and alternative approaches, e.g. from the EU earth observation programme Copernicus;
- improving cooperation to make sure that data reported to the Commission is used as widely as possible.
Much of the action plan will have to be implemented in specific policy areas. On the specific findings and proposals, the Commission made some good use of the input from Make it Work, as mentioned throughout its documents, which can be found on the Commission's website: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/legal/reporting/fc_overview_en.htm
Make it Work drafting principles on smarter environmental reporting
Make it Work already finalised its project at the end of November last year, so its results could be used by the Commission as input for its Fitness Check.
Though Make it Work acknowledged the clear benefits of reporting in general, it also pointed out a range of perceived or experienced problems related to existing environmental monitoring and reporting. Current environmental reporting by Member States to the EU often requires considerable effort and does not always provide the right information.
The process and method followed by MiW was different from that of the Commission. MiW took the actual experiences of practitioners from the Member States in the field of monitoring and reporting as its starting point, and conducted several in-depth discussions in the workshops to improve understanding as well as fine-tune possible suggestions for improvements.
Make it Work drafting principles
Make it Work developed a set of six questions. Because the need for and intended use of information is not always clear, this should be examined first. The next step is to be sure about the type of information needed (figures, text, or just a web link) and the amount of detail, quality etc. that should be delivered. In practice, currently, actual reports do not always adequately match the need. And because at present some of the reported information is not passed on at the right time or in the right form, or is not comparable to information from the previous year or another Member State, this is also important to look at. Before asking for information, checking what is already there is also a very important point—even though it looks so self-evident. Making the whole system much smarter, e.g. by using electronic tools, combining different sources, matching different obligations etc. can all make reporting so much easier for those who have to do it, while at the same time delivering similar or better results. Using these questions systematically in this order can help to understand better what reporting aims to deliver, and can assist all those engaged in developing, reviewing or revising environmental reporting at EU level. The final report can be found on the Make it Work project website: http://www.ieep.eu/work-areas/environmental-governance/better-regulation/make-it-work/subjects/2015/08/monitoring-and-reporting
Supported by Foxgloves Consultancy
The project was supported by two consultants, Andrew Farmer (IEEP) and myself. I provided analysis, organised active and fruitful workshops which attracted constructive participation from well-informed experts from Member States and EU institutions, and contributed to the final report.
It was a very important project, delivering ideas for practical improvement for practitioners and policy-makers alike. Cooperation with experts from Member States, Commission and other institutions (EEA, JRC), and think-tank IEEP was very enjoyable and contributed to my knowledge and understanding of the workings of the European Union and how these can be improved. Yes, to me the glass is still half full!
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