Reforming the Environmental Audit Committee
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of East Anglia
Unit of AssessmentPolitics and International Studies
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Policy and Administration, Sociology
Summary of the impact
Research conducted by John Turnpenny shaped the recommendations of the
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). In 2010, the EAC
addressed the need to embed sustainable development across government
policy-making. This followed the closure of the Royal Commission on
Environmental Pollution (RCEP) and the end of funding for the Sustainable
Development Commission (SDC). The EAC determined to change how it engaged
with experts, while reaffirming and expanding its role in the overall
scrutiny of government sustainability policy. Turnpenny's findings formed
the basis of two of the thirteen headline recommendations in the EAC's
2011 report Embedding Sustainable Development Across Government.
In addition his suggestions helped influence significant changes in the
way that the EAC operates, and contributed to its wider impact among other
Turnpenny's Nuffield Foundation-funded research examined the creation and
uses of evidence in policy-making, focusing on how the EAC collected and
deployed evidence in evaluating and advocating policy. The research built
on Turnpenny's long-standing interest in how 'boundaries' are drawn
between evidence and politics, experts and advocates, and about who draws
them, how and why. These are key questions within policy and political
science, geography and science studies. The research sought to explain how
this process of demarcation affects the legitimacy granted to policy
actors, enabling or disabling `ownership' of key issues. The central aim
was to test and clarify understanding of these boundaries through a close
empirical case-study of the EAC. It involved detailed content analysis of
21 EAC reports and 19 interviews with key actors. These formed the basis
for a study of how the EAC drew boundaries and, more broadly, of the
context, consultation processes, roles and influence of the EAC.
The research demonstrated that the EAC straddled boundaries between:
- evidence and policy-making generally, confronting government with
diverse sources of information
- different experts with diverse interpretations of data (thus becoming
a site of conflict between scientists)
- environmental interests, other interests and government
- what is seen as a `realistic' and what `not a sensible' perspective;
this affects who is called to give evidence by the EAC, and filters the
presentation of evidence
- institutions: between central government and parliament, for example
- Whitehall departments themselves, enhanced by the cross-cutting nature
of the EAC
More broadly the research showed that the EAC takes four roles:
a) As knowledge-broker: acting as an intermediary between
original researchers and policy- makers; an umpire between different
arguments, legitimating contributors' positions by considering them
`worthy' of inclusion in a report (which in turn amplifies certain ideas
in wider policy circles).
b) As entrepreneur: the EAC sits at the intersection of
`problems', `policy ideas' and `politics', enabling it to raise the
profile of particular problems, analyse and give credibility to potential
policy solutions, and shift the political climate in ways that increase
the likelihood of government action.
c) As persuasive advocate: the EAC disseminates ideas
(e.g. the results of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) and helps -
through its role as a credible voice - to ensure their wider acceptance.
There is a clear synergy (and potential clashes) with the knowledge-broker
d) As scrutiniser: the EAC holds government to account. Although
its remit is limited the EAC can `shame' government or be a `critical
friend' highlighting inconsistencies in policy.
The EAC research was carried out between 2008 and 2010. The researchers
were John Turnpenny (Senior Lecturer, School of Political, Social
and International Studies, University of East Anglia), Duncan Russel
(Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Exeter), and Tim
Rayner (Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia). The elite
interviews were carried out between July 1st 2009 and 30th
September 2010 with the support of the Nuffield Foundation Social Science
Small Grants Scheme. The Principal Investigator for the grant was John
Turnpenny. Turnpenny and Rayner have been at UEA since before the start of
References to the research
The research was facilitated by a grant (£7477) from the Nuffield
Foundation's Social Science Small Grants scheme (SGS/37317) (1 July
2009 - 30 Sep 2010).
Outputs - Peer-reviewed articles in leading journals:
• Turnpenny, J.R., Russel, D.J., and Rayner, T.J. (2013) The complexity
of evidence for sustainable development policy: Analysing the boundary
work of the UK Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee. Transactions
of the Institute of British Geographers, 38 (4): 586-598
• Russel, D., Turnpenny, J., and Rayner, T. (2013) Reining in the
Executive? Delegation and Parliamentary Impact on the UK Government's
Environmental Policy. Environment & Planning C: Government and
Policy, 31(4): 619-632
• Turnpenny, J., Jordan, A.J., Rayner, T. and Russel, D. (2011) Written
evidence submitted In: House of Commons, Environmental Audit Committee
(2011) Embedding Sustainable Development Across Government, after the
Secretary of State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable
Development Commission, Session, 2010-11, 1st Report, HC Paper 504,
ev60. The Stationery Office: London.
• Turnpenny, J., Russel, D. and Rayner, T. (2010) Sustainable
Development and the impact of the Environmental Audit Committee
[Summary report for stakeholders - sent to all interviewees and a range of
other academics (e.g. Susan Owens, Cambridge; Judith Petts, Birmingham)
and senior officials within and beyond the UK (e.g. David Stanners, EEA;
Gareth Fenney, Scottish Parliament)]
• Turnpenny, J.R., Russel, D.J., and Rayner, T.J. (2010)
Institutionalising evidence-based policy-making? The Roles Played by the
UK Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee and the Drawing of
Boundaries. Paper at the IBG-RGS Annual Conference, London, 2 Sep
• Turnpenny, J. and Russel, D. (2009) Connecting Science and Policy:
The Impact of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee on the
implementation of sustainable development in the United Kingdom.
Paper presented at the Science in Society International Conference,
Cambridge, 5-7 August
Justification of quality: The research was funded by the Nuffield
Foundation, and the outputs were subject to rigorous peer-review in
leading journals. The Transactions paper was chosen to be part of
a Virtual Issue on `New geographical frontiers', the theme of the 2013
Royal Geographical Society Annual International conference (www.rgs.org/FrontiersVI).
According to the Managing Editor (Journals) of the Royal Geographical
Society, "this collection brings together a selection of the best recent
articles published in the RGS-IBG journals on this theme and presents an
opportunity to freely access key articles in the field in a new way" (see
section 5, E2).
Details of the impact
Overall, the research has had a significant impact on the conduct of
policy at `the boundary', affecting the conduct and organisation of a key
government committee, changing its relationship to the larger
environmental and sustainability policy community. It has thus had - and
continues to have - an impact on the environmental policy-making process
The impact process
Following the closure of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution
(RCEP) and the end of funding for the Sustainable Development Commission
(SDC) in 2010, the EAC addressed the need to embed sustainable development
across government policy-making through two sequential inquiries.
Based on the above research, a detailed `summary for stakeholders'
briefing was prepared, as was a written submission to the EAC's first
inquiry. Consequently Turnpenny and Russel were called to give oral
evidence to the EAC on 17th November 2010.
The evidence presented the challenges of integrating sustainable
development into the machinery of government, and outlined recommendations
for how the EAC might operate in the future. Among the research team's
recommendations were that the EAC should:
- focus on fewer issues, while minimising overlap with other Select
Committees, to enable greater depth of analysis
- revitalise its cross-cutting role, enabling it to challenge
established `world views' of departmental Select Committees
- maintain the credibility, legitimacy and salience of the evidence it
presents by drawing on the latest evidence, rather than just on familiar
- develop its `entrepreneur' and `persuasive advocate' roles, filling
the vacancy caused by the abolition of the RCEP; it should be a
legitimate and credible advocate of sustainable development across
Whitehall, not `captured' by any department's agenda or accepted norms
- be significantly better-resourced, particularly the Secretariat and
specialists, with, for instance, support for more in-depth analysis for
each inquiry. This would imply a more `staff-driven' committee, so it
would be important to maintain support of members to ensure EAC's
legitimacy and accountability.
This evidence formed an important part of the EAC's inquiry report (EAC
2011a), and the basis for two of its thirteen headline recommendations to
government (paras 73 and 78). The subsections on `Parliamentary Scrutiny'
(paras 63-69) and `Wider Stakeholder Scrutiny' (paras 70-73) directly
referred to Turnpenny et al's recommendations for greater engagement with
a wide range of expertise at an early stage in the policy process to
`assist [government] in developing more innovative ways of addressing
sustainability issues' (para 73/Recommendation 12). The fourth section of
the report on `A New Sustainable Development Strategy' was framed around
Turnpenny et. al.'s arguments for a coherent strategy to `revitalise
Government on this essential foundation for all policy-making' (para
78/Recommendation 13), including embedding sustainable development in the
Treasury manual for policy appraisal, and potential use of sanctions for
In its official response (HMG 2011), the Government agreed with
Recommendation 12, but offered no clear mechanism for embedding the
perspectives of such expertise in policy-making. The Government disagreed
with Recommendation 13, arguing that overarching commitment to high- level
principles of sustainable development and transparency allow `both public
and parliament to scrutinise our progress' (HMG 2011, Response to Rec 13).
In reply, the EAC acted directly on Turnpenny et al.'s research findings
1) Committing to improve links with academic institutions and the
appointment of two specialist advisers (EAC 2011b, para 21).
2) Forming a sustainability knowledge network. This feeds diverse
academic research directly into EAC inquiries, and advises on appropriate
topics for inquiry. This network meets annually with the EAC under the
auspices of the British Academy.
3) Pursuing a more `seminar style' format in which different experts
debate ideas, alongside its more traditional adversarial inquiry format -
based on Turnpenny et al.'s recommendations to enable more in-depth
discussion of ideas.
4) Considering a sequential approach to wide ranging topics with long
time horizons (such as the measurement and auditing of wellbeing).
5) Reaffirming its `scrutiniser' role, committing itself to monitoring
`changes in ... legislation and regulations and examine these where they
might dilute sustainability' (EAC, 2011b, para 13) and to monitoring the
`development of ... impact assessment tools' (para 14) - i.e. appraising
both policy and the instruments of policy appraisal.
6) Confirming the importance of international leadership on
sustainability, and set out its role in this.
The Special Advisor to the EAC confirmed: "the recommendations of the
Turnpenny team have proved influential for the new ways of working of
the Committee, which is continually exploring innovative approaches to
its ways of working" (email E1).
The research has also helped the environmental policy and research
community by broadening the sources and depth of the evidence base upon
which the EAC draws. For example, the Head of International Cooperation at
the European Environmental Agency (email E4) reported that the research
addressed issues of concern to the EEA, particularly in relation to the
`science-policy interface'; Policy Analysts at the House of Commons
library (email E5) circulated it to other committees because they `may be
able to learn some lessons from it'; and the Sustainable Development
Scrutiny Officer at the Scottish Parliament (email E3) asked for
recommendations for Scotland based on the research.
Sources to corroborate the impact
EAC [House of Commons, Environmental Audit Committee] (2011a) Embedding
Sustainable Development Across Government, after the Secretary of
State's announcement on the future of the Sustainable Development
Commission, Session, 2010-11, 1st Report, HC Paper 504, ev60. The
Stationery Office: London.
EAC [House of Commons, Environmental Audit Committee] (2011b) Embedding
Sustainable Development: The Government's Response, Session 2010-12,
4th Report, HC877. The Stationery Office: London.
HMG [Her Majesty's Government] (2011) The Government's Response to
the Committee's First Report (March 2011)
E1. Special Advisor to the EAC
E2. Managing Editor (Journals) of the Royal Geographical Society
E3. Sustainable Development Officer, Scottish Parliament
E4. Projects Officer, European Environment Agency
E5. Policy Analyst, House of Commons Library