Policy Transfer and CO2 Emissions

To what extent does DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) account of policy transfer apply to how policies to limit CO2 emissions are formulated and implemented today? You may answer in general or with respect to a specific country case that you are familiar with.

Organizations have a tendency to become similar. A number of theories have been posited as to why this is. We will look at some of these theories and consider how they might explain policy transfer in relation the regulation of CO2 emissions.

One such theory is based on selection, the idea being that organizations that don’t function well tend to die off and go extinct. Certain types of organizations tend to succeed and therefore these organizations continue to exist, and the organizational field becomes more populated with those that can successfully exist within the given context. This is a reasonable theory and won’t be refuted. However, it is notable that organizations that do not appear to be succeeding often do continue to operate in a seemingly failure state on multiple levels of measured inputs and outputs.

Another theory is that elites direct society as a whole and are able to use their influence to decide which organizations will continue to exist, what those organizations will look like, and what those organizations will do. This is a persistent theory because to some extent it is true. However, the wielding of influence is no simple or easy matter. Failure is common in such endeavors, including the creation and destruction of organizations, the structuring and restructuring of those organizations, and the direction of these organizations.

Both the selection theory and the elite theory have some validity, but are also limited and unsatisfactory explanations for why convergence and isomorphism in organizations is a recurring phenomenon. Given a similar environment three more forces come into play.

Regulating groups such as governments can use coercive measures to force organizations into similarity. For instance, a local government will require a business to file certain paperwork, a state government will require certain paperwork, and a national government will require certain paperwork. This similarity in paperwork, and therefore the process for generating and reporting such paperwork, is thus chosen by these governments rather than the organizations. Normative forces such that people in certain fields are trained in the same or similar organizations, have continuing interaction and require a shared conceptual framework and lexicon for communication to be possible, and move jobs between organizations doing similar work with other people doing similar work that they must be able to integrate with, also has a tendency to cause this similarity in organizations. There is a mimetic tendency in humans in that we tend to copy each other. This occurs to a very large extent in humans in that we not only copy behaviors and mannerisms, we also imitate thoughts, beliefs, and desires. This also contributes to organizational isomorphism.

All five of these ideas can be considered in the case of CO2 regulation policy. Organizations that are not able to garner enough support in the given context to continue to find funding to further their existence will cease to exist. So, to some extent, selection pressures require that organizations pushing for or against any specific CO2 policy have to find willing support from somewhere or they will cease to exist, and it may be that certain types of organizations garner the greatest support and will therefore become similar. To some extent elites use their influence in an attempt to set standards and organizational structures in the field that will exert some control into the future over CO2 policy. Governments will require that organizations are structured, function, and operate in certain ways that integrate with the currently existing form of governmental institutions. People interested in CO2 policy are trained in the same or similar educational institutions, use the same or similar language to talk with others doing the same or similar jobs, and this becomes the culture of the field that will determine policy and therefore be similar. And, people will copy each other. They will copy what others are doing, and they will copy what others are trying to do. All of these forces are intermingled and drive toward a similarity in organizations with similar problems in a similar environment in a similar way.

Any change in each of these areas can cause an organization to deviate from the norm, and can cause changes in other organizations because of that. However, these deviations are usually quite limited in scope. For a significant outlier a greater change must occur. This can happen in the short term by an outsized transition. For instance, a single large donor may form a think tank with a different perspective that works to change a local or state policy which is then endorsed by a celebrity and is therefore copied by other organizations. This can work as a self-reinforcing feedback mechanism of change. Such actions are difficult to achieve success with and predicting key mover decisions ahead of time is unlikely. 

DiMaggio, Paul; Powell, Walter (1983) The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1983), pp. 147-160.



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