The discretionary politics of water policy implementation in New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment

Authors: Marc Tadaki*, Cawthron Institute
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Australia and New Zealand, Environment
Keywords: Environmental state, bureaucracy, agency, environmental politics, governance, policy
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2020
Start / End Time: 10:15 AM / 11:30 AM
Room: Plaza Court 4, Sheraton, Concourse Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Contemporary accounts of the environmental bureaucracy often present a ‘closed’ view of politics in one of two ways. Either the bureaucracy is considered arbitrary and indifferent, or the bureaucracy is considered capable of exercising discretion in that reproduce existing relations of economic and political power. Whether bureaucrats are destined to obey arbitrary rules or to reproduce wider power differentials in society, they are not considered to have political agency. Consequently, some prominent environmental scholars and activists are giving up on efforts to seek social and ecological justice within and through the state.

This paper re-engages prospects for doing politics within the state by unpacking the discretionary politics of bureaucrats charged with implementing water policy. Drawing on interviews and two months spent within New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment, I describe the relational constraints and discretionary capacities of bureaucrats as they designed their implementation projects, navigated organisational mandates, and built new connections with civil society. I show how discretion exists at the level of individuals as well as teams and the Ministry at large thorough the budgetary process. I identify key choices that bureaucrats made about water policy implementation that were not prescribed by the government and yet which had significant democratic implications. By understanding how bureaucratic discretion exists and how it works, perhaps a revitalized agenda for seeking progressive change within and through the state can be envisioned and pursued.

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