Polycentric Governance

Polycentric governance is a crucial concept in the work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom. It is difficult to pinpoint a concrete definition of polycentric governance, as both Elinor and Vincent worked on the concept throughout their lives and the definition changed. Nevertheless, it is possible to narrow down the idea of polycentricity to the following: it is a complex form of governance with a distributed form of leadership and citizenship that protects the integrity of the system and multiple centers of decision making, where each center has a certain degree of autonomy. The idea of polycentric governance rests of the eight pillars: 1) existence of multiple decision centers; 2) autonomy of decision-making authorities; 3) different decision centers have/share overlapping jurisdictions; 4) decision centers are engaged into processes of mutual adjustment; 5) there are emergent patterns of behavior, an emergent order, that are shared across decision centers; 6) low entry and exit costs; 7) existence of an overarching system of rules, values, norms; 8) existence of means for effective coordination at all levels (whether at the level of a decision center or the system as a whole).


Polycentric Governance (or PG for short) is a core pillar of the Bloomington School of Political Economy (or Institutional Analysis). The basic idea is simple: many tasks need to be completed if societies are to define acceptable modes of behavior by individuals and collective entities acting within that society. In practice, the processes of governance are exceedingly complex, since completion of all the necessary tasks requires the participation not only of public officials acting in their official capacity, abut also private corporations, professional associations, non-profit organizations, community leaders and individual citizens. In this series of video presentations, Mike McGinnis, a senior research fellow and former co-director of the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University, highlights the most important simple ideas that help us make sense of this complexity.

Suggested Viewing Sequence: These videos may be watched in any order, but viewers new to this concept are encouraged to begin with the first two videos.

  1. What is Polycentric Governance? A Quick Answer
  2. A Few Key Examples – PG in Theory and Practice
  3. Emergence is Not Enough – PG Sustainability and Distributed Stewardship
  4. A PG by Any Other Name? Popular Aliases for Polycentric Governance
  5. Breaking Bad – Exploring the Dark Side of Polycentric Governance
  6. Defining Polycentricity and Other Dilemmas of Governance Science