Policy integration: don’t break down those silos just yet

This post is written by Åsa Persson, Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute

Grain Silos in Dogon Village, Mali - Emilio Labrador/Flickr

Grain Silos in Dogon Village, Mali – Emilio Labrador/Flickr


Policy integration has become one of the buzzwords of Agenda 2030. It has long been a “holy grail” for governments – really since the limits of the ideal bureaucracy envisaged by Max Weber and company became apparent. Basically, policy integration means a way of organizing policy processes that resolves conflicts and inconsistencies between diverse policy goals, and exploits synergies. Agenda 2030, with its set of deeply interlinked Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), has only stoked interest in policy integration.

As a social scientist, I have been studying this phenomenon for some time, most recently as part of a taskforce on the concept of “environmental policy integration” convened by the international research project Earth System Governance. In preparing to address the Integration Segment of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) last month, to give a scientific perspective on policy integration in relation to Agenda 2030, I had a chance to reflect on my own views. I realized that while I do believe in the search for “rational” integrated policy solutions, and value the progress made, I can’t help thinking we’re in danger of getting carried away. Before “break the silos” becomes the Eleventh Commandment, a few things are worth remembering.

Nothing new under the sun

While the 2030 Agenda has focused attention on policy integration (and the need for more of it), it has a long history. There are plenty of (salutary) lessons to learn from earlier experiences. For example, policy integration for sustainable development was one of the key messages of the Brundtland Report Our Common Future back in 1987. In Europe, it became legally codified in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and an ambitious implementation programme in the European Commission was launched with the 1997 Cardiff Process.

Many national governments have also tried out different processes and structures to enhance policy integration and coherence. In the world of development cooperation, concepts and methods for achieving policy coherence – for example between development and investment policies – have also been tested out, spearheaded by bodies like the OECD.

No cure for politics

Policy integration may sound like a technical, administrative exercise – and, indeed, it can seem like rather low-hanging fruit compared with the transformative development and big changes demanded by Agenda 2030. But it can never take the politics out of policy, however much we might want it to. If anything, scientific research on policy integration tells us that all the interdepartmental taskforces and formal policy assessment procedures in the world are useless without political will. If integrative structures and tools are engines, political will is the fuel; without it, you get nowhere.

And policy integration doesn’t make trade-offs disappear. There will be difficult choices, and the priority given to competing policy interests and objectives, even when they are “integrated”, is an inherently political choice.

As Oran Young, one of the most experienced global environmental governance scholars, recently pointed out, sustainable development is nothing less than classic interest politics.

From thought to action

Policy integration will never stick unless policy-makers, implementers and the electorate accept a new narrative – that is, they understand how the policy areas are linked and why the solutions should be coordinated and integrated. This takes time.

A while ago, I was part of a study that looked at environmental policy integration in the agriculture and energy sectors in Sweden over the past three decades. We found that it wasn’t organizational changes and procedural tools that got things moving; rather it was convincing decision-makers that environmental protection could be a fundamental aim for their particular sector. This internalization came through long processes of joint learning and debate.

At the global level, the New Climate Economy is an example of an initiative that has tried to change the prevailing narrative to inspire more integrated policy approaches. It frames decarbonization as an economic development and investment opportunity. By doing this, it can change how decision-makers understand problems and where they look for solutions. The internalization of new narratives is an important complement to downstream “safeguard” tools, such as Regulatory Impact Assessment, which are meant to ensure that existing policies are coherent.

Don’t break down those silos just yet

Policy integration is only valuable if it helps us find (and implement) practical and specific solutions. And sometimes it won’t. With the renewed focus on policy integration under Agenda 2030, bureaucratic specialization and policy silos are often being cast as the root of all evil. This is foolish, and even dangerous. Specialization has its benefits; it is not just about tunnel vision, but also offers concentrated expertise, strong mandates, and clear lines of accountability. As a participant at the ECOSOC meeting insightfully commented, “we shouldn’t break the silos, but make them communicate better”.

By the same token, while integration can exploit synergies and optimize trade-offs, the flipside of policy integration is policy dilution. A case in point is the EU Emissions Trading System – on paper, a successful integration of energy and environmental policy objectives, but it is widely recognized that in trying to balance these interests, we were left with allowances that were far too generous in the first phase, so the environmental aims were not achieved.

I believe policy integration has an essential part to play in realizing the 2030 Agenda. The SDGs demand that we confront the sometimes troubled relationships between policy areas. And a coordinated approach will help to exploit many synergies and settle trade-offs. But we should be wary of assuming that policy integration is always the right approach; and remember that even when it is, the technical tools and structures are only part of the solution.

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