Policy Innovation for an Uncertain Future: Regulating Drone Use in Southern California Cities

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Over the past six years, the use of drones for recreational and commercial purposes has increased dramatically. There are currently over one million registered drones in the United States, and

Over the past six years, the use of drones for recreational and commercial purposes has increased dramatically. There are currently over one million registered drones in the United States, and this number is expected to increase in the foreseeable future. For now, drones are a local phenomenon. The operational limitations prevent them from long range activity and federal policies prevent them from operating beyond the visual line of sight of the controller. The localized nature of drone operation makes them a particularly salient issue at the local regulatory level. At this level, cities must contend with the uncertainty of drone operation and a complex regulatory environment. Within a single metropolitan region, there are cities that may attempt to restrict the use of drones through various local ordinances while neighboring cities may have not even considered, let alone adopted, any type of regulation. The reasons behind these policy choices are not clear.

In an effort to understand the factors involved in the decisions to adopt a local drone use policy, this dissertation leverages qualitative methods to analyze the policy process leading to local decisions. The study capitalizes on rich contextual data gathered from a variety of sources for select cities in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. Specifically, this study builds a conceptual framework from policy innovation literature and applies it in the form of content analysis. This initial effort is used to identify the catalysts for policy discussion and the specific innovation mechanisms that support or detract from the decision to adopt a local drone use ordinance. Then, qualitative comparative analysis is used to determine which configuration of factors, identified during the content analysis, contribute to the causal path of policy adoption. Among other things, the results highlight the role that uncertainty plays in the policy process. Cities that adopt a drone use ordinance have low levels of uncertainty, high numbers of registered drone users, and at least two neighboring cities that also have drone use policies. This dissertation makes a modest contribution to policy innovation research, highlights how a configurational analysis technique can be applied to policy adoption decisions, and contains several recommendations for regulating drone use at the local level.