Insights from new book: Why are so many potentially beneficial policy changes not adopted? The case of forest policy in Canada

George Hoberg

New book from Luckert, Haley and Hoberg

September 20, 2011

Policy analysts and advocates frequently are left scratching their heads when policy changes that seem self-evidently superior to the status quo are not adopted. Forest policies in Canada are a fascinating example. Implemented mostly in the mid-20th century, most forest policy analysts believe that the current system is now anachronistic and unable to meet the aspirations for sustainable forest management in the 21st century. This month, a new book on Canadian forest policy was released by UBC Press that explicitly makes this case: Policies for Sustainably Managing Canada’s Forests: Tenure, Stumpage Fees, and Forest Practices. The book was authored by two forest economists, Marty Luckert (University of Alberta) and David Haley (professor Emeritus from UBC), and a political scientist, me. We provide detailed comparisons of policies for tenure, stumpage, and forest practices across the Canadian provinces. It nests these comparisons within an analytical perspective of property rights theory and a concern for advancing sustainable forest management.

Barriers to Change

One set of insights emerging from the analysis is the barriers to innovative policy change. The book develops five categories of barriers to change:

  1. Intellectual barriers refer to the fact that even when there is widespread consensus on the failure of existing policies, there may actually be significant disagreements among analysts about what would constitute superior alternatives to the flawed status quo. These differences can arise because of value differences, where analysts put different weight on what the most important consequences of policy are (e.g., economic efficiency vs. environmental protection). They can also stem from significant uncertainties about the outcomes of alternative solutions to policy reform.
  2. Political opposition from those benefitting from the status quo can occur even if proposed changes are clearly in the public interest overall. Policy change inevitably alters the distribution of costs and benefits, so any meaningful policy change creates losers as well as winners. When these potential losers have substantial political power, they can be a formidable barrier to change.
  3. Decision rules that advantage opponents to change can also thwart policy changes. Rules that require government to compensate the forest industry for lost tenure rights, for example, can discourage change in some circumstances.
  4. Institutional mismatch occurs when there is an inconsistency between the jurisdiction promoting policy change and other governments. In Canadian forestry, for example, the provinces dominate forest policy, but the federal government has significant powers that it could exercise if it so chose. So a province’s efforts to embark on a significant change could be thwarted if the federal government disagreed.
  5. Path dependence refers to the phenomenon that “once a policy or institutional path is established, entrenched mindsets, interests, and institutions make departures from the status quo difficult to envision” (p. 170)

These five barriers to change have proven quite formidable in the case of Canadian forest policy, but are also an effective way to think about the challenges to adopting new policies in other fields as well.

The book is now available for purchase, and UBC Press has made the introductory chapter available on-line.

The cover photo is of Pemberton Valley, 170 km north of Vancouver, from the amazing Mark Richards in Whistler.

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