What lessons on the governance of corporate responsibility fall from states' varied COVID responses?
COVID has prompted various reflections on how law is used (and abused) during crises*.
This blog-site focuses on the regulation of responsible business conduct, but this post reflects on more general, higher-order questions about the nature of any regulatory undertaking. (I would like to think my 2015 book was doing the same!).
What strikes me most about the COVID-law-regulation nexus is not the patterns we can see about how powerful state and corporate actors 'never waste a crisis' to pursue all manner of agendas calculated to entrench, advance or indeed obscure that power. Many colleagues'* response to the COVID crisis is, in effect, plead at this time for adherence to legal frameworks e.g. for global cooperation. This is perhaps a plea for law's 'regulatory relevance' (Findlay 2017), yet too often insufficiently couched in analysis of how law is used to regulate crisis -- but selectively or in service of non-inclusive agendas.
This brings me to what strikes me most about law and regulation w.r.t COVID.
This is the huge diversity in the regulatory postures or responses of national governments to what is, after all, a pan-global phenomenon, a pandemic of a virus that itself is non-diverse in that it is essentially the same virus everywhere. (The extent to which those responses rely on law-based rather than other forms of regulation is a separate issue).
Haines has written (2019) on how and why regulation does / does not change in the face of crisis. (She happened, incidentally, to be writing on responses to a factory fire tragedy -- a 'regulation of responsible business' issue).
Her concept of 'regulatory character' is related to what strikes me most about regulation + COVID: how legitimate and effective regulation (and related institutions) is typically not simply about the right technical models and frameworks and standards. It is about underlying economic, social and political idiosyncracies. These shape how regulation actually looks and works. Cultural context shapes regulatory design and response. It is 'responsive' at least in that sense (although, as above, power dynamics shape regulation too, of course!).
Some states have regulated COVID social distancing fairly lightly (e.g. without deploying criminal penalties). In those cases, some of those governments have regulated lightly apparently confident that they can rely and draw upon something relative intangible in the national 'character' about voluntary compliance, cooperation, self-regulation, social cohesion and responsibility -- without necessitating sanctions and penalties.
If I am right, these societal characteristics provide what I might call a regulatory 'resource'. This means the regulator's toolbox (including in crisis) does not just comprise various models and approaches with various merits, trade-offs, etc. It also potentially comprises the repository of societal compliance (etc.) characteristics and inclinations. These must be decisive not only in whether any regulatory intervention gains traction or purchase, but also in how one designs the regulatory response (here, to crisis) in the first place.
Elsewhere (e.g. here) I have reflected -- in the context of regulating responsible business conduct -- that existence and degree of a critical mass of ethically-minded consumers is a principal regulatory 'resource' for regulatory design. Indeed without it, it may not matter how sophisticated (etc.) the regulatory regime otherwise appears.
COVID strikes me that I was potentially onto something. That's all! Scholars of responsible business and its regulation ought perhaps pay more attention to regulatory 'character' and cultural context, including -- in strategy terms -- to better identify the nature and extent of regulatory 'resource' that proposed governance models might seek to take advantage.
* = see here (for example) some short essays by ANU Law colleagues on (international) law and the COVID crisis.
[This is the first post after a 6-month hiatus].