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DEFRA: Incremental Progress Towards Sustainable Development

Defra’s Administrative Rationalism

Incremental progress towards sustainable development

Created through departmental mergers in 2001, The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the principal UK government department responsible for policy-making, regulations and co-implementation for sustainable development (SD), whose broad portfolio includes the natural environment, environmental protection, food, farming, animals, fisheries, rural communities, sustainable development and ‘green economy’ (Defra, 31/05/2012, 27/06/2012). Defra’s SD-specific roles include: consultation/engagement, NGO/GO coordination, research/publications, licensing and payments (ibid.).


Above image, illustrative of an engaging but somewhat rudimentary attempt to communicate complex SD issues to a wider audience, courtesy of and with great thanks to EnvironmentAgency/Flickrrrr.

Initial observation of their wider responsibilities suggests that SD is somehow portrayed as separate from environment and welfare issues, a concern Defra recognise themselves and seek to resolve by ‘mainstreaming’ SD and its’ integration as a “core strategic issue” (Defra, 05/12/2011).

A modestly progressive democratic government department, Defra might be considered prosaic, moderately-reformist and policy-driven, employing an ‘environmental problem-solving’ approach that takes “political-economic status quo as given but in need of adjustment to cope with environmental problems, especially via public policy” (Dryzek 2005:15).

Defra’s principal SD claims, found in a website sub-sub-section and somewhat evident throughout, are encapsulated not only in their re-working of Bruntland’s SD definition, but also their recognition of its’ interconnectedness, alongside aspirations to: “enhance well-being” and ‘protect and enhance the environmental resources’ that underpin “strong, sustainable and balanced growth” whilst “paying due regard to social needs” (Defra, 05/12/2011).

Defra’s coalition-set SD priorities (Defra, 30/07/2012a) include: developing British farming, encouraging sustainable food production, environmental and biodiversity enhancement to improve quality of life, and supporting a strong and sustainable green economy. Oddly, Defra also indicate they will continue delivering “our other major responsibilities” (ibid.), reinforcing an already prevalent ‘us-them’ relationship. Similar statements with ambiguous provenance, (i.e. Defra or coalition) make discourse analysis challenging. Evidence also suggests divergent priorities and SD-environment dissociation.

Several statements employ familiar economy-greenwash rhetoric, such as: “Green Economy is essential for delivering sustainable development and long-term growth” (Defra, 04/09/2012). Their continuous invocation of economic growth in SD discourses conveys either ignorance or disregard of planetary boundaries and limits to growth (Defra, 05/12/2011; 30/07/2012a; CSCR, 2012).

Well-intended environmental narratives and ideological sub-texts result from, and are sometimes curtailed by, their co-production with prevailing socio-political conditions; Defra remains responsible to their currently challenged political masters. Government’s green-growth misconceptions are clearly affecting Defra’s strategies and policies – these discourses are increasingly embedded institutionally, providing “the context for […] interaction, on a par with formal institutional rules” (Dryzek, 2005:12).

With Defra’s wider promotion of sustainability as a strategic issue, they employ a ‘Strategic Framework’ explicitly illustrating foundations and goals for the government and Defra’s sustainability implementation, providing background for integrating wider discourses and approaches (Defra, 2005; Defra, 05/12/2011).

Defra’s messages and practices convey discourses concurrent with administrative rationalism, commensurate with Dryzek’s discourse classifications (2005). This manifests in Defra’s business-like management structure; reliance on expert advisers and administrators delivering coalition priorities; dependence on “human problem-solving” as ‘superior’ to nature; their “[motivation] by public interest, defined in unitary terms” and their “mixture of concern and reassurance” evident throughout their website and elsewhere (Defra, 2011,2012; Dryzek, 2005:89; Defra, 05/12/2011, 30/07/2012a; CSCR, 2012).

Can requirements for a 10,000-person government department (Defra, 04/09/2012) with significant responsibilities alongside current political and economic climates only result in hamstrung, incremental change?

Previously Defra operated a centralised, hierarchical mode of governance (Adger & Jordan, 2009), however human and environmental diversity demand a plurality of localised approaches, lending themselves to multiple, ‘flexible-pathways’ (Leach, 2010). Benefits flow from ‘opening up’ their processes allowing greater interdisciplinary integration and cross-sector participation; continued public transparency; and allowing locally-determined environmental narratives to define policy initiatives (Forsyth, 2003). This requires a more responsive institution embracing dynamic approaches to ‘sustainability’, as opposed to ‘sustainable development’ equated with the sustained growth attributed to our industrialism-committed political ideologies (Dryzek, 2005).

List of References

Adger, W.N. and Jordan, A. (2009) Sustainability: exploring the processes and outcomes of governance, in Adger, W.N. and Jordan, A. eds. Governing Sustainability, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 3-31.

Bryant, R.L. (1991) Putting Politics First: The Political Ecology of Sustainable Development, Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters, 1(6):164-166.

Carrington, D. (2011a) ‘Defra’s big issues: From forests and farming to badgers and biodiversity’, The Guardian, 15th February 2011; viewed 23rd January 2012.

Carrington, D. (2011b) ‘Sustainable development: The UK’s ‘vision’ looks weak’, The Guardian, 28th February 2011; viewed 23rd January 2012, .

Civil Service Capability Reviews (CSCR) (2012) Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Capability Action Plan, Civil Service, UK.

Defra (2005) Securing the future: Delivering the UK sustainable development strategy, The Stationery Office, Norwich.

Defra (2011a) Rural Proofing Policy & Programme Development, Defra, UK.

Defra (2011b) Mainstreaming sustainable development – The Government’s vision and what this means in practice, Defra, UK.

Defra (2012) Business Plan and Annex, Defra, UK.

Defra and Office of National Statistics (2009) Sustainable development indicators in your pocket 2009, Defra, London.

Defra (05/12/2011), Sustainable development, accessed on 24 Jan 2013 at:

Defra (16/03/2012), Sustainable business and resource efficiency, accessed on 24 Jan 2013 at:

Defra (31/05/2012), About Defra, accessed on 24 Jan 2013 at:

Defra (27/06/2012), Who we work with, partners, delivery bodies and agencies, accessed on 24 Jan 2013 at:

Defra (30/07/2012a), What we do: our priorities and business plan, accessed on 24 Jan 2013 at:

Defra (30/07/2012b), A-Z list of delivery bodies, accessed on 24 Jan 2013 at:

Defra (04/09/2012), About us, accessed on 24 Jan 2013 at:

Defra (18/10/2012), Green economy, green business, accessed on 24 Jan 2013 at:

Dryzek, J.S. (2005) The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Forsyth, T. (2003) Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science, Routledge, Abingdon.

Friends of the Earth (17 April 2012), Govt failing to deal with enormous impact of farming on environment, Press Release, Friends of the Earth Trust.

Kaplinsky, J. (2004), Response to the ‘Taking it on’ consultation on developing UK sustainable development strategy, Policy Watch, Institute of Ideas.

Leach, M., Scoones, I., Stirling, A. (2010) Dynamic Sustainabilities: Technology, Environment, Social Justice, Earthscan, London.
Rothstein, H. and Downer, J. (2012) ‘Renewing Defra’: Exploring the emergence of risk-based policymaking in UK central government, Public Administration, 90(3): 781–799.

3 comments on “DEFRA: Incremental Progress Towards Sustainable Development

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This entry was posted on 10 February 2013 by in Environmental Sustainability.

Part of the Problem? or Part of the Solution?

Rampant consumerism.
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Extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
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