Can Global Goals enhance integration on the national level? The transformative potential of the Sustainable Development Goals on the governance architecture in Germany
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With the agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, states are assigned a key role in the implementation and ultimately in the achievement of an international aspirational agenda. The approach of “governance through goals” challenges national governments to introduce changes in their institutional architecture targeted at strengthening its inherent capacity for an integrated implementation. However, only limited data are available to evaluate the potential of the SDGs to transform integration on the national level. Studying the SDGs’ impact on Germany’s political system is particularly interesting in this context because the mandated increase of policy coherence is impeded by the strong departmental divide between German ministries (known as the Ressortprinzip) and its federal structure, with strong powers being devolved to the 16 German “Länder”. Thus, this paper conducts a detailed country study with a mixed-methods approach to assess and explain the capacity of the SDGs to enhance integration through modified cooperation in the institutional framework of German sustainability governance. Change processes on the macro-level of the institutional architecture in the period of 2012 to 2019 are mapped in an extensive network and quantitative analysis that build on press releases from the 14 federal ministries. Additionally, a series of semi-structured interviews elucidates the internal micro-level perspective of ministerial SDG coordinators in order to explain the variety and conditions for integration effects. Overall, an increase in integration of the German sustainability governance architecture after 2015 is revealed. Specifically, the inclusion of non-governmental stakeholders is strengthened. However, there is no conclusive evidence for the SDGs to trigger a system-wide transformation process. This paper contributes thereby both empirically and conceptually to the existing knowledge regarding the analytical problem of architecture and agency identified as crucial in the 2018 Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan. More generally, the paper advances our understanding of the transformative potential of global governance through goal-setting.