Authors: Mary Graham
May 1, 2001
Center for Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government
Since the mid-1980s a wide variety of federal and state laws in the United States have employed structured disclosure of factual information as a means of reducing risks to public health, safety or the environment. These disclosure systems aim to create new economic or political incentives for organizations to improve their products or practices. In effect, they harness the government's enduring authority to command the disclosure of previously private information to create a form of risk regulation. In the past, each of these disclosure systems has been viewed as unique. Each has been separately conceived as a novel response to a pressing problem. No central plan has informed their architecture or increasing popularity. Evidence from four such systems suggests, however, that they represent a cohesive innovation in public policy. They share core characteristics and common roots, display similar strengths and produce similar kinds of conflicts among widely shared values. As some approach maturity, it is also becoming clear that they share common problems. Political compromises can cripple effective design. Primitive metrics can distort incentives. Mismatches between the scope of requirements and the dimensions of risk can create unintended consequences. Adaptation to changes in technology or markets can be problematic. And communication problems can result in public confusion rather than enlightenment. Policy makers face challenges to learn from early experience in using this promising tool of risk regulation effectively in the future.
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