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Sometimes the most commonplace and uninteresting tools demand close attention because their mundane nature means that their role is misunderstood. The use of computer technology by government – specifically, by environmental regulators – is one such instance. Information and communications technology (ICT) is increasingly deployed in bureaucratic and regulatory processes throughout the developed world; as in commerce and industry, software code and databases are becoming the invisible ‘glue’ that interconnects the various actors in the regulatory system and weaves an invisible web of control between decision-makers, regulated entities and ordinary citizens. Nonetheless, this topic has received only disconnected academic attention, perhaps because there is little that seems intrinsically interesting about a database.
The issues which ICT raises are not always obvious but nonetheless significant if we are to make the best use of these new tools without unwittingly sacrificing important principles. There is now a substantial body of literature on regulation and ICT. However, this focuses on either ‘information’ or ‘communications’, rarely on both together or on the use of ICT for regulation rather than something to be regulated. There are few theoretical or practical perspectives on the role of ICT in environmental regulation. This paper applies both in combination, developing a values-based, analytical and empirically grounded framework in order to contextualise the use of ICT as a regulatory tool.
The ever-increasing deployment of ICT in homes and offices, the built environment and the world at large creates significant opportunities for achieving better environmental outcomes but this new and poorly-understood development also raises questions about the proper operation of the rule of law by an increasingly computerised state. This research explores how the widespread implementation of ICT is altering power relationships in the system of environmental regulation. It asks to what extent this new capability of large-scale information capture leads to more or less control on the part of regulators, whether existing balances and imbalances of power are altered by these new tools (even when they are seen as neutral) and what happens when the ‘glue’ hardens and installed technology makes policy change difficult.
The paper critically reviews the operation of the rule of law in digitised government. It combines theoretical perspectives from sociology, chiefly actor-network theory, with insights from semi-structured interviews with staff in regulatory agencies, non-governmental agencies and regulated entities, to build a thematic network model of how the use of ICT for information-gathering, as a means of control and as a conduit for communications is perceived by practitioners of environmental regulation. It uses this to sketch the contours of a new field of study, ‘e-regulation’, centred around the core values of the