Coming Clean and Cleaning Up: Is Voluntary Disclosure a Signal of Effective Self-Policing?

by Michael W. Toffel & Jodi L. Short

Overview — This paper demonstrates some of the benefits and limitations of industry self-policing programs. Many self-regulation programs are operated exclusively by the private sector, often in the hope of garnering goodwill with consumers or staving off more stringent government regulation. Less well known are voluntary self-regulation programs operated by government regulators seeking innovative approaches to further regulatory objectives and to stretch shrinking agency budgets. Little is known about the effects of these programs, or how they might contribute to the overall effectiveness of a regulatory regime. Michael Toffel and Jodi Short seek to determine whether the self-policing required under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Audit Policy affects the behavior of regulators and participating facilities and the relationship between them. Specifically, the researchers examine whether self-policing is associated with improved environmental performance at these facilities and whether regulators reduce their scrutiny over self-policing facilities. Key concepts include:

  • Among the facilities that participated in this self-policing program, only those with superior compliance records actually improved their environmental performance.
  • Regulators rewarded self-policing facilities that already had clean past compliance records with an inspection holiday, but they did not significantly decrease scrutiny of self-policing facilities that had poor past compliers.

Author Abstract

As regulators increasingly embrace cooperative approaches to governance, voluntary public-private partnerships and self-regulation programs have proliferated. However, because few have been subjected to robust evaluation, little is known about whether these innovative approaches are achieving their objectives and enhancing regulatory effectiveness. In the context of a federal government program that encourages companies to voluntarily self-police and self-disclose regulatory violations, we examine how participation affects the behaviors of regulators and regulated facilities. We find that on average, facilities that committed to self-police experienced a decline in abnormal events resulting in toxic pollution, and that regulators reduced their scrutiny over self-policing facilities. Upon closer examination, we find strong evidence of these effects among facilities with clean past compliance records, but find no such evidence of among facilities with more problematic compliance histories. These findings support the theoretical promise of meaningful self-policing practices and suggest that voluntary disclosure can serve as a reliable signal of future compliance-but only among a subset of facilities.

Paper Information