A woman is working in a rice field, embodying adaptation policy innovations.

Robbert Biesbroek (Wageningen University); Guy Peters (Pittsburg University); and Jale Tosun (Heidelberg University)

If there is anything clear from policy innovation studies, it is that innovations are not constructed and implemented in a vacuum, but are challenged by existing policy structures, cultures and practices. Adaptation to the impacts of climate change – understood here as the intentional and substantive policy efforts to manage the unavoidable impacts of future climate change1 – is not different in this respect; novel adaptation policy initiatives are confronted with existing structures, cultures and practices that shape the decision making and implementation preferences of policy actors for certain types of adaptation policy innovations and practices.

Many studies on adaptation policy have argued that globalization, digitalisation, neoliberalism, policy diffusion, international policy agreements and other mechanisms have pushed for convergence on how adaptation policy innovation takes place across countries. While this is certainly true from a distance and in some instances, closer analysis reveals the importance of public bureaucracies in how policy innovation, adoption and implementation of adaptation policy within a country takes place.2

Adaptation has been and continues to be driven mostly by the state3 which makes the role of administrative traditions extremely important when unravelling how adaptation progresses over time and across contexts. Administrative traditions are best described as distinctive structural-institutional and cultural features of public bureaucracies and administrations that influence the modes of public governance, how policy goals are defined, which policy choice options exist, and set the implementation preferences of actors.4 Administrative traditions are often portrayed at the legacy effects of past choices and actions. Mismatches between the administrative tradition and the policy innovation is known to undermine policy progress and successful implementation.

So far, the literature on climate change adaptation has hardly discussed the role of public bureaucracies: a quick search in the Scopus database (‘bureaucrac*’ AND ‘climate change adaptation’) reveals only 8 papers (two were not relevant), and replacing ‘bureaucrac*’ with ‘administration’ yielded 39 papers.i Most studies on adaptation consider government institutions and public bureaucracy to act as barriers to social and private adaptation initiatives by creating more “red-tape” rather than creating an enabling institutional environment. Consequently, such poor understanding is reducing complex cause-effect processes of how states decide and implement policy innovations in their administrative system to simplified conclusions that administrative traditions are hampering progress on adaptation.5

Thus there are crucial questions that are of key importance if we are to better understand if, why and how adaptation policy innovation takes place and what is important to consider when designing adaptation policy innovations. These pertinent questions include:

  • Do adoption and implementation patterns differ across countries with different administrative traditions?
  • Do certain families of administrative traditions lead to better or more effective adaptation policy output/outcomes?
  • To what extent do behavioural or structural characteristics of administrations explain, for example, different policy instrument choices for the design and implementation of adaptation?
  • Does (mis)alignment of policy innovations and the administrative tradition influence the success of policy implementation?
  • What is the relative importance of administrative traditions versus broader social and political forces to shape adaptation policy innovation?

These questions were central during the “Administrative traditions and climate change adaptation” INOGOV workshop (19-20 April 2016, Amsterdam, the Netherlands). In total 12 papers from authors with different backgrounds resulted in two days of intense discussions about the role of administrative traditions on adaptation policy.

Empirical cases from African and European countries, Bangladesh, Canada and New Zealand showcased the importance of administrative traditions in a globalizing world.

The discussions showcased the importance of administrative traditions in the formation, decision making and implementation of adaptation policy innovations. Key themes discussed during the two days included how administrative traditions shape the type of policies designed (for example more legalistic or managerial), how science is embedded and acted in public bureaucracies, how state-society relationships are organized to ensure transparency and policy implementation, which administrative traditions influence the formation and diffusion of policy innovations, how different types of policy instruments are selected to implement adaptation policy, and how implementation preference of non-state actors is shaped through administrative traditions. Various conceptual frameworks were discussed to operationalise the various dimensions of administrative traditions in the study of adaptation policy innovation. While the discussions emphasised the importance of administrative traditions generally, it was also concluded to consider administrative traditions in the wider set of forces that shape if and how states adapt to climate change impacts.

The contributions to this workshop will lead to an edited volume in a peer-reviewed journal (mid 2017).


i The search was conducted on 01-06-2016


1 Dupuis, J. and Biesbroek G.R. (2013) Comparing apples and oranges? The dependent variable problem in comparing and evaluating climate change adaptation policies, Global Environmental Change, 23(6), 1476-1487

2 Vink, M.J., Benson, D., Boezeman, D., Cook, H., Dewulf, A., Termeer, C., (2015). Do state traditions matter? Comparing deliberative governance initiatives for climate change adaptation in Dutch corporatism and British pluralism. J. Water Clim. Change 6 (1) 71–88.

3 Lesnikowski, A., Ford, J.D., Biesbroek, G.R., Berrang-Ford, L. and J. Heymann (2016) National-level progress on adaptation, (Letter) Nature Climate Change 6, 261–264

4 Painter, M., and Peters, B.G., (2010). Tradition and Public Administration. Palgrave Macmillan, USA

5 Biesbroek, G.R., Dupuis, J., Jordan, A., Wellstead, A., Howlett, M., Cairney, P., Rayner, J., and D. Davidson (2015) Opening the black box of adaptation decision making (Correspondence) Nature Climate Change 5(6), 493-494

Photo credit: CIAT/Flickr

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