My research spans international development, legal sociology, and organizational behavior, and asks how countries can enforce labor, environmental and food safety regulations in competitive and sometimes fragile business environments. This is an important and difficult problem: heavy-handed enforcement increases costs, reduces output and hinders growth. Lax enforcement, however, can lead to devastating outcomes [for recent examples, click here, here, and here].
How can compliance and competitiveness be reconciled?
To examine this question, I employ qualitative methods to study how auditors, inspectors, prosecutors and other local authorities enforce regulations on the ground, under real-life constraints. In contrast to other researchers who assume that compliance is a matter of choice, I have found that compliance often requires complex and/or risky changes in business practices that managers are unwilling or unable to undertake on their own. Compounding the problem, compliance sometimes requires that private-sector managers empower their subordinates to an extent that many are reluctant to do.
Successful enforcement authorities respond to this challenge in two ways. In some cases, they act within the targeted business to help it upgrade its practices so it can afford or even profit from compliance. At other times, enforcement agents “stitch together” a network of public, private and non-profit organizations willing to cover some of the costs and accept some of the risks associated with the required changes. Through this process, these agents help produce local institutional arrangements that make compliance easy and sometimes even desirable to those involved. In hindsight, some of these institutional arrangements seem so obvious and their pieces fit together so naturally that a naive observer would not guess they were produced by careful intervention rather than impersonal market forces.
I have already published some of these results (see links below), and continue to work on related topics, including public sector reform and accountability, with a particular emphasis on Brazil.