Description of the video:
Hi, I’m Mike McGinnis, Professor Emeritus in Political Science at Indiana University in Bloomington. I’m also a Senior Research Fellow and former Co-Director of the Ostrom Workshop. This video is the first of a series on the concept of Polycentric Governance. Yes, this term is an awkward construction, and it may be off-putting, but it does a superb job ofencapsulating THE core concept at the heart of the Bloomington School of Political Economy, or Institutional Analysis, whichever you prefer. I’ve prepared a few power point slides to help lay out my argument; a print-friendly version should be available on the Ostrom Workshop website. —  —
Polycentric Governance, or PG for short, is an abstract and very complicated concept. Here I’ll only be able to outline its basic meaning. Along the way I’ll mention topics covered in detail elsewhere, and I hope to give you a sense of just how powerful this concept can be, substantial enough to support a whole superstructure of social science and policy analysis.
So what, exactly, is this cornerstone of the Bloomington School? —  — Technically, it’s just a two-word phrase, with the first word, polycentric, — [2a] — serving as an adjective or adverb modifying the second word, governance — [2b] — which makes it the more fundamental. So let’s start with that second word, governance, which is typically thought of as an active process (or verb) but can also be an abstract thing (or noun).
There is no widely-accepted definition of governance as an analytical concept, so I’ll give you my best shot: — [2c] — governance encompasses “all the processes which determine the range of acceptable individual or collective choices available to members of the associated group or community.” That may sound like a lot, and it is. There is a lot buried within this definition.
Before digging deeper, it’s worth a digression into what I mean by the terms collective choice or collective decision. The idea that an individual can make a decision is straight-forward, but a collective decision is a more abstract concept.
Members of a group must meet together, or communicate via some other means, to discuss their common situation and arrive at a consensus choice among the options available to them. Agreement is by no means the end of the story, not if that decision is meant to have a demonstrable effect. Groups will have to implement their decision, by delegating tasks to particular members or to outside agents who will act on their behalf. A critical next step is enforcement: the behavior of group members will need to be monitored, and sanctions imposed on those who don’t live up to the terms of their agreement. Finally, members will observe the effects of their action, compare it with what they hoped to accomplish, re-evaluate the situation, and, if necessary re- convene to re-consider the situation, and maybe choose to try some other way to accomplish their shared goals.
Clearly, successful collective action is no simple task. But the concept of governance takes all this to a higher level of abstraction, and complexity, because governance decisions are meant to determine which modes of collective action, by that group and others, will be considered to be legitimate, or acceptable, or legal, and which modes of action require discouragement, or even punishment.
The scope of governance is broad. Governance decisions shape the options which individuals, groups, and organizations will have available to them in future situations. Typically, groups who share some interests in common will also be pursuing their various private interests, and each group will be making decisions on a wide range of practical matters, many closely inter-connected, in the sense that resolving one problem may help alleviate another problem, or make that problem worse, or, have mixed effects on many other matters of ongoing concern. Community members are likely to bring multiple normative perspectives and social expectations to bear on their evaluations of current conditions and proposed solutions, and limits on their future options may turn out to have long-term consequences, perhaps leading to additional problems down the road, or providing citizens with expanded opportunities to cope with emerging challenges.
This level of complexity need not be taken as a reason for despair. Since governance is itself a form of collective decision, we can invoke the same general sequence of steps: discussion, making a decision, implementation, enforcement, and reevaluation. An additional twist is that the limits of choice imposed need not be restricted to the group making that decision. Far from it, actually, since one of the most appealing ways for the members of one group to deal with a perceived threat is to work together to prevent another group from carrying out the harm they are threatening. As a consequence of this temptation to use one’s control over processes of governance to unfairly restrict the actions available to others, attention must be paid to how this temptation can most effectively be controlled.
You may think I’m making this way more complicated than it needs to be. But I’m not. —  — Governance can take many forms, as shown here. In self-governing groups or communities, the groups imposing the restrictions and the groups being restricted (or empowered) are mostly one and the same. In systems of representative democracy, the basic logic is that citizens elect representatives to make decisions regarding their governance, hopefully in ways that will serve both their personal interests and those of the public as a whole. But we must also allow for the possibility that governance can be imposed, by domestic or foreign rulers with little reason to care what arrangements the targeted groups most prefer.
Next, we must carefully distinguish governance from government. —  — To many citizens, and unfortunately to many of my fellow political scientists, governance is simply what governments do. Well, governments do indeed do a lot of different things related to governance. But they don’t do everything. In today’s world, too many of us have a simplistic vision of governance as something that someone out there – the government, or the state – does to us, but the Bloomington School vehemently denies that view. To paraphrase the renowned philosopher/cartoon character Pogo, “we have met the government and they are us!”
The biggest step towards understanding the concept of polycentric governance is recognizing that governance involves MANY, MANY TASKS, only a few of which we can safely leave in the hands of public officials alone. The rest of society also needs to be engaged, including executives and workers in private corporations, leaders, donors, and volunteers in non-profit voluntary organizations, officers and members of professional associations, and influencers operating from the national level all the way down to community leaders and ordinary citizens.
The diversity of parties involved in governance is clearly visible within government itself. —  — In fact, there really is no single thing that can be called “the government,” instead governments are complex networks of specialized public agencies, bureaus, councils, departments, legislatures, etc. Each unit has partial authority over certain matters, and the agents of different unit are incentivized to pursue different goals. Many different kinds ofgovernment officials pass laws or write regulations, monitor compliance, adjudicate disputes, and enforce rulings by some form of sanctions. Other officials specify duties assigned to particular offices, and how individual office-holders can be elected, appointed, promoted, or removed from office. Still other authorities determine and oversee rules on how changes in rules, legal procedures, or constitutions can be proposed, debated, approved and implemented, and who plays what kinds of roles in each steps.
But it’s not just about the government. — — If you are at all familiar with the way policy works in the U.S., or in other advanced industrial democracy, then you know that many different kinds of non-public actors routinely play critical roles in the formation and implementation of laws, regulations, and other details of public policy. For example, private corporations and professional associations influence policy outcomes through campaign donations, lobbying, and advising regulators on how to regulate their own industries, non- profit organizations deliver public services through food banks, private schools, and community health clinics, and religious leaders often lead campaigns for political reform. In short, all kinds of governance activities routinely involve individual and organizational participants reaching well beyond the public agencies that have legal jurisdiction over such matters.
— — This slide summarizes the critical distinction between government (as organizational actors) and governance (as multi-faceted processes). Formal and informal processes are deeply intermeshed throughout, and the range of institutional diversity can be quite spectacular.
Let’s put these pieces together to get an answer to What is PG? —  — First, governance involves many tasks, second, a government is composed of many different pieces, each specializing in making decisions regarding specific tasks, and third, governance typically involves non-public as well as public organizations in completing required tasks. Finally, since “poly” means many, the meaning of polycentric governance emerges naturally: a system of governance in which many centers of decision making authority are needed to cover the full range of governance tasks.
All this has been just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complexity involved in polycentric governance. Before wrapping up this video, I’ll give you a glimpse of what lies ahead, should you decide to dig more deeply into the Bloomington School. —  — As you can see here, the inclusion of public, private, voluntary and community-based organizations is only one of at least five dimensions of institutional diversity found in PG systems. And this slide does not exhaust the full range of pieces that go into the full concept of PG, not by a long shot.
I’d like to close by giving you a sense of the critical importance of Polycentric Governance to the Bloomington School, and the broad scope of what it gives those of us working within that tradition. —  —
First, polycentric governance offers us a way of describing processes of governance in operation in the real world, by acknowledging and embracing their intrinsic complexity.
Second, it provides a framework for our individual and collaborative research programs
by directing our attention towards certain research questions and shaping our expectations. For example, we expect that most governance systems that have been resilient enough to remain in place for decades will have most and maybe all of the kinds of properties we associate with PG, like the complete list on the previous slide.
Third, the components of PG as an analytical concept provide us with the building blocks for constructing and testing explanatory (causal) models of the performance of PG in different settings. Frankly, this is an area in which we need to do a lot more work, and fortunately some very bright young scholars are engaged in exactly this project.
Fourth, polycentric governance stands as a normative ideal, a mode of governance that we have come to associate with securing both individual liberty and effective governance in pervasively multi-cultural societies that nonetheless continue to nurture a shared sense of broader community. It also promises to enable governance systems to be more flexible in responding to changing circumstances, since it more effectively brings local information to bear on making appropriate adaptations.
Fifth, the components that go into making a system of governance polycentric give us a rich menu of topics for consideration when we engage in policy analysis and advocacy in our own lives as citizens in the many communities within each of us lives and works. As I noted earlier, governance is not something that happens to us, and we consider polycentric modes of governance to be the way we should work together with others in our own communities.
Finally, PG is a major contributor to a general sense of shared optimism that the Ostroms instilled into the DNA of the Bloomington School. We’re not Pollyannas, but thanks to their influence, we do tend to see politics primiarily as exercises in shared problem-solving, rather than the struggles for domination emphasized in media or historical accounts. We also have a lot of faith that individuals and communities are much more capable of governing themselves than is generally realized. Whenever we encounter groups who don’t have the resources they need to govern themselves effectively, then that’s a problem we should try to help them fix.
Understanding how all this works out in practice is a much longer story. If my talk has piqued your interest in learning more, I encourage you watch the follow-up video A Few Key Examples: PG in Theory and Practice, in which I show how this concept has been fine-tuned to fit the different circumstances found in different real-world settings. Then check out my other videos, and especially those my colleagues have posted on the Instructional Resources page of the Ostrom Workshop website. We’re still early in the process of posting instructional materials, so stay tuned for coming attractions.
Now I’m pleased to inform you that, because you have watched to the very end, you have now been officially welcomed —  — into the wide, wild world of polycentric governance in the Bloomington School, and beyond! I hope you enjoy the journey.