Study finds that monitoring of local governments by NGOs improves compliance with environmental regulations

A large-scale study conducted by scholars from the UC Santa Barbara and Nanjing University has found that monitoring of Chinese local governments’ environmental performance by NGOs improves their compliance with the central government’s regulations, without at the same time increasing public dissatisfaction about pollution.

The study, entitled Non‐Governmental Monitoring of Local Governments Increases Compliance with Central Mandates: A National‐Scale Field Experiment in China and published in the American Journal of Political Science, was co-authored by Sarah E. Anderson, a UC Santa Barbara associate professor of environmental politics in the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, Mark Buntaine, an assistant professor of environmental institutions and governance at the Bren School, and Professor Bing Zhang and Liu Mengdi, from Nanjing University’s School of Environment.

The study is based upon the work of the IPE (Institute of Public Environmental Affairs), a Chinese environmental organisation founded in 2006 by Ma Jun, perhaps China’s most well-known public environmentalist. Among its other activities, the IPE monitors and ranks local governments’s compliance with central mandates to disclose information about the management of pollution. Their monitoring is based upon the PITI (Pollution Information Transparency Index), developed jointly by the IPE and the NRDC in 2008.

The researchers looked at 50 local governments around China over the course of three years. 25 of them, chosen at random, were informed that they were being monitored about their compliance with transparency rules, and the remaining 25 were not. The study is notable for its scale and depth. Every one of the 50 cities involved was rated three times, requiring a week of work on the ground. After three years, it was clear that on average the governments informed of the monitoring were complying with the rules better than the ones that were not.

Analysing discussions in social media, media reports on pollution and transparency, and the feedback received by local environmental protection bureaus, the researchers found that the public monitoring did not increase public dissatisfaction with the local government or affect the level of media attention on the issue of pollution. They also found that the IPE’s work constitutes a useful complement to the central government’s monitoring of compliance by local governments. As Anderson is quoted as saying in UC Santa Barbara’s report, “it’s an example of an NGO taking advantage of an opportunity when their goals are consistent with the central government”.

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