In an era of increased human pressure on planet Earth, sound environmental governance regimes are more important than ever. Digital technologies are increasingly turned to by environmental regulators to aid governance and communication. We examine the 'behind the scenes' institutional dynamics of a public body in its digital information provision (specifically dynamic river level information). Based on in-depth interviews with staff across a large environmental regulator we have brought to light four pivotal areas of institutional dynamics: (1) institutional priority and path dependency; (2) management and resources; (3) institutional identity and interdepartmental dynamics; and (4) ability and willingness to change. We gained insight into explicit and covert barriers and opportunities in relation to digital information provision that are likely to occur in other public institutions too. Besides identified barriers that were of a technical, structural, managerial or cultural nature, arguably the most important barrier was conceptual, i.e. the prevalence of 'efficiency and efficacy' perspectives on information and communications technology (ICT) amongst staff, in which ICT is primarily perceived as a neutral solution in itself to a wide variety of issues. Opportunities were nonetheless present in the form of enthusiasm and some critical thinking about digital innovation among staff, and an emphasis on the importance of stakeholder inclusion in the design of ICT. We conclude that there is a need to connect institutional social learning with the development of 'conceptual perspectives' on ICT, in which ICT is not seen as a solution in itself, but as a set of tools in a wider transformational process, or as a lens to look at existing or new practices. This is more likely to strengthen cornerstones of contemporary environmental governance, such as improved information access and reconceptualisations of 'traditional' barriers of uncertainty, liability and distrust in relation to information provision.
The authors thank SEPA, as well as all interviewees for their time, effort and openness. We are also grateful to two reviewers for their constructive comments. The research described here was supported by an award (EP/G066051/1) made by the RCUK Digital Economy programme to the dot.rural Digital Economy Hub at the University of Aberdeen. We also thank the ‘Science without Borders Programme’ funded by CNPq, Brazil (314033/2014-9).
- Environmental regulator
- Governance shifts
- River level