Panel Paper: Adaptive Governance: Models of Top-Down / Bottom-Up Hybrids

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 1:45 PM
Plaza I (Ritz Carlton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Karen Baehler and Daniel Fiorino, American University
Environmental sustainability problems occupy a particular niche among “wicked problems” due to their long timescales, geographic diffusion, and hyper-complex webs of interacting factors, all of which make predicting future policy impacts more difficult than usual.  Under these circumstances, policymakers are often well advised to focus on designing institutional arrangements that can manage problems on an ongoing, trial-and-error basis, rather than searching for one single-best policy solution.  Interest in these types of institutions has grown rapidly in recent years, thanks in part to Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s path-breaking work on the diversity of common-pool resource management arrangements around the world. 

This paper seeks to advance the conversation about optimal governance arrangements for sustainability through a synthesis of overlapping findings from six distinct areas of research: 

  1. The rapidly developing field of complex adaptive systems offers compelling evidence that the ideal organizational form for many complex systems appears to be a hybrid of multiple, distributed, semi-autonomous agents loosely coordinated by a central mechanism that sets goals, facilitates information sharing among units, and ensures availability of vital resources – in other words, a dynamic network with something like a brain. 
  2. A variation on this hybrid ideal can be found in the organizational literature on high-reliability organizations (HROs), such as aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants, which are characterized by very low tolerance for error. Case studies have shown that successful HROs manage risk and complexity by shifting between decentralized and hierarchical forms of operation depending on the tempo of work.
  3. Elements of the hybrid ideal also can be found in cross-sectional studies by political scientists of the impact of national governance arrangements on environmental outcomes. For example, neo-corporatist governance regimes appear to perform better on some environmental indicators than their more pluralist counterparts. This may be due to neo-corporatist norms that call for consensual decision-making by groups with broad constituent bases and well-integrated visions of the public interest.
  4. According to the ecosystems management literature, multilevel governance has achieved some success in the practice of adaptive management and co-management of vulnerable natural ecosystems such as watersheds and forests.  Ostrom’s work sheds light on these trends.
  5. Findings from urban planning and metropolitan studies research have highlighted the role of social capital in accelerating sustainability transitions.
  6. Finally, research findings from the field of integrated coastal management have pointed to the importance of integrating horizontally across policy sectors (e.g., economic, transportation, land use, energy), vertically among levels of government, and between local officials and experts who understand the science and economics of coastal management.

The paper will set the stage for the case study papers to follow by sketching a theoretical framework for adaptive governance based on key points of intersection and convergence among these diverse sources.  The framework does not seek to identify one ideal hybrid model, but rather a range of models suited to different contexts and settings.