Principle seven

Promote polycentric governance

Polycentricity, a governance system in which multiple governing bodies interact to make and enforce rules within a specific policy arena or location, is considered to be one of the best ways to achieve collective action in the face of disturbance change.

Key messages

Collaboration across institutions and scales improves connectivity and learning across scales and cultures. Well-connected governance structures can swiftly deal with change and disturbance because they are addressed by the right people at the right time.

Although there are many ways in which collective action can be achieved, polycentricity is considered unique. Classic studies on the sustainable governance of social-ecological systems highlight the importance of so-called “nested institutions” (the norms and rules governing human interactions). These are institutions connected through a set of rules that interact across hierarchies and structures so that problems can be addressed swiftly by the right people at the right time. Nested institutions enable the creation of social engagement rules and collective action that can “fit” the problem they are meant to address.

In contrast to more monocentric strategies, polycentric governance is considered to enhance the resilience of ecosystem services in six ways, which coincide elegantly with other principles in this publication: it provides opportunities for learning and experimentation; it enables broader levels of participation; it improves connectivity; it creates modularity; it improves potential for response diversity, and builds redundancy that can minimize and correct errors in governance. Another reason why polycentric governance is better suited for the governance of social-ecological systems and ecosystem services is because traditional and local knowledge stands a much better chance of being considered. This, in turn, improves sharing of knowledge and learning across cultures and scales. This is particularly evident in local and regional water governance, as in watershed management groups in South Africa or the management of large-scale irrigation systems in the Philippines, where polycentric approaches have facilitated participation by a broad range of actors and incorporation of local, traditional and scientific knowledge.

Nevertheless, the appeal of using polycentric thinking is hampered by the lack of clear principles for how to operationalize it. There are several examples of various aempts at cross-scale collaboration but very few analyses assessing their impact on governance. Polycentric governance also raises three challenges, which could weaken rather than strengthen the resilience of ecosystem services. The first is the need to balance redundancy and experimentation with the costs of involving members of multiple governance bodies and interests. For instance, South Africa’s National Water Act advocates integrated water resource management and is working toward an improved institutional fit, but it also acknowledges the realistic need to balance breadth with costs. A second challenge is that of negotiating trade-offs between various users of ecosystem services. These trade-offs often lead to the third challenge, which is not only about dealing with resolving political conflict and the potentially skewed benefits of common resources, but also so-called “scale-shopping”, where groups dissatisfied with politics at one scale simply approach a more favourable political venue in which to frame their interests.