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Self-Governance and Polycentricity: Beyond Markets and States

What are the conditions under which self-governance arises? In this video Professor Mark Pennington explains the role of polycentricity.
We’ve seen in the course so far that the Ostroms’ work shows there to be much greater scope for self-governance solutions to social problems than has previously been recognised. We’ve also looked at the role of public entrepreneurship and co-production in generating successful self-governance solutions. What we haven’t done so far in the course is to look at the broader political or institutional context that may enable self-governance solutions to take place; or conversely, to prevent them from developing. Elinor Ostrom’s work and that of her husband Vincent has been very significant in this area too, pointing out how the scope for self-governance institutions depends very much on a broader political or constitutional framework that favours what they call ‘polycentric’ institutions rather than ‘mono-centric’ institutions.
So, do they mean by the term polycentric institutions? In brief, a polycentric arrangement is one where the supply of a good or service, or the response to a particular social problem, is not controlled by any single organisation or agency. Rather, it is divided between many different individuals, groups, and organisations. To illustrate, take the example of urban parks. A society in which all parks in the country concerned are managed by a single organisation or hierarchy would in the Ostroms’ terms be a monocentric regime. A polycentric regime for managing parks, by contrast, will be one in which the responsibility for managing the urban parks is divided between private, voluntary as well as public organisations.
In the UK for example, the management of urban parks is much closer to a polycentric rather than to a monocentric regime. The responsibility for managing parks is divided between local governments, which pursue different policies in managing the parks under their own jurisdiction, and also between various private and voluntary organisations that own and manage different parks. So why is polycentricity important for self-governance? A first reason is that local actors cannot exercise self-governance if all decisions first have to be approved by a central hierarchy. In a polycentric regime where there are many different groups and organisations with decision-making authority, then, other things being equal, it will be easier for citizens to take the initiative and try a new approach.
Whether we are talking about private individuals, voluntary organisations or local government bodies, if there is a sphere or jurisdiction within which people can take decisions without requiring the permission of a central hierarchy, then we’re much more likely to see examples of public entrepreneurship and self-governance in action. This argument holds even if a monocentric regime is controlled through democratic means. For self-governance to function, it is essential that minorities or smaller groups of citizens can take decisions relevant to their circumstances without first having to persuade a national majority. Successful public entrepreneurs are those who spot an opportunity to address a particular problem before others have seen the potential for a particular institutional solution to that problem.
In order for that public entrepreneurship to be exercised, it’s essential that minority actors have the scope to try out new decisions without first requiring the permission of high-level authorities. Public entrepreneurship, therefore, is fundamentally dependent on a situation where there is polycentricity in the institutional setting. A second reason to favour a polycentric approach is an argument from incentives – if at any point in time the decisions taken by local actors in response to the problems that they perceive can simply be overturned by a higher-level authority or jurisdiction, then what would be the point in agents taking responsibility for their decisions?
There’d be no incentives for agents to try to address their own problems if those decisions can be overturned by high level agencies. Let’s go back to the Guerrilla Gardening example that we’ve looked at in previous sessions. Part of the success of these projects reflects the fact that the people involved in them haven’t had to sit through endless committee meetings before starting. They simply had a good idea and got going. Then gradually, as the value of the idea started to become recognised by other people in the community, the idea started to spread.
If local authorities had tried to take over these projects, then much of that dynamism would have been lost and people would have been disincentivised from taking responsibility for the management of their environment.

In the previous sessions, we looked at a number of case studies highlighting how public entrepreneurs provide governance solutions to local collective action dilemmas, working side-by-side with public authorities to make their communities safer and more resilient.

These kinds of community initiatives wouldn’t be possible if ordinary people were not given the opportunity to implement their ideas. In this video, we discuss the importance of creating spheres within which individuals can try out new governance solutions without impediment.

The institutional environment that grants individuals this kind of autonomy is called a polycentric order.

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The Ideal of Self-Governance: Public Policy Beyond Markets and States

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