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Why polycentricity is good

How might a polycentric order be better than the bureaucratic alternative?
© Adam Smith Center, Singapore

The reason why a polycentric system outperforms a centralised administration is because polycentricity allows for both localised and efficient public institutions.

Localised public institutions in turn are beneficial because certain goods and services, such as patrolling in the context of police industries, are better provided on a local scale. I quote from a 2006 interview with Lin: “For patrolling, if you don’t know the neighbourhood, you can’t spot the early signs of problems, and if you have five or six layers of supervision, the police chief doesn’t know what’s occurring on the street.”. Autonomous local public institutions also fare better because they are directly accountable to the local citizens and not the central administration. This makes institutions more responsive to people’s needs, rather than to the bureaucratic demands of central government. Lin observed all these factors in her field studies.

For example, Lin remarked that “Many of the officers in very big departments do not see themselves as responsible to citizens. They are on duty for specific hours and with an entirely different mentality…. When you are in a police car for eight hours with officers from a big department, you learn that they really do not know the area they are currently serving since they rotate so frequently. When I was in a police car with an officer from a moderately sized department, they would start telling me about the local community, where there are trouble spots, and where few problems occur. They watch trouble spots that they see potentially emerging. They would sometimes take a juvenile to their home in order to discuss problems they are observing. They do not put kids in jail the first time they observe behaviour that is problematic. In the big cities, officers tend to charge juveniles who have been seen to commit small offences right away.”. Therefore, a polycentric system reaps the benefits of localised public institutions.

At the same time, polycentricity is efficient because individual units work together to address issues of a larger scale. In Lin’s study, that is exactly what smaller police departments did when they formed interdepartmental arrangements to provide large-scale goods like crime lab facilities. However, the true brilliance of polycentric arrangements lies in its ability to flexibly address issues of varying scales. Individual units join together in varying configurations depending on the scale of the issue, unconfined by the rigid bureaucratic structures of centralised administrations. In the latter, on the other hand, if the scale of an issue is larger than the scale of administrative unit A, the responsibility for resolving the issue goes to the larger and higher-level administrative unit B, but B’s scale can never fit exactly all the problems that are larger than A’s scale. As a result, polycentric systems tend to be more efficient than centralised administrations.

Economist Vlad Tarko aptly sums up the argument for polycentricity by writing that “everywhere where politics works fairly well, that is, where the public sector is fairly responsive to citizens’ needs and desires, we are bound to observe polycentric governance, rather than hierarchical governance.” Lin’s study of police departments powerfully defended such polycentric governance systems.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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