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Earlier this week I went to hear Prof John Benington from Warwick  University give Treasury’s Guest Lecture.  His topic was ‘Leadership, Governance and Public Value in an Age of Austerity‘. Not as dry as you may think.

One of the issue’s he highlighted was what he called a “Copernican” revolution in society, driven by economic, environmental, societal, political, technological and organisational changes. Nothing new there for seasoned futurists. Although I would dispute whether the current trends and changes are as profound as the existential implications resulting from Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the universe. And societies have been through some equally, or arguably greater, changes during the last two hundred years (think industrial and green revolutions, not to mention world wars).

But I’m not writing to quibble about analogies. Prof Benington spent some time talking about the difficulty for governments to address complex problems through the traditional hierarchical nature of  government processes. He illustrated this with work he was involved with at trying to reduce alcohol and drug problems in Leicester City, and how what he calls “Polycentric Networked Governance” may be a better way of dealing with systemic problems. This is where a traditional top down hierarchical approach, where central (or local) government provide the solution, won’t work. The polycentric model is where a range of different organisations and actors need to work together to define the problem and the solution. He covers this in his book Public Value: Theory and practice.

The first time I came across “polycentric” was just last month when I referenced Elinor Ostrom in 12 trends post-Christmas (part 2). However, the concept is decades old, being applied (with various levels of success) to, for example, resource management, urban planning, security, economic issues and new technologies. The polycentric model isn’t new to New Zealand, though the name may be.

While promising, polycentric governance isn’t necessarily a replacement for good old hierarchies. Discussion at the seminar wondered how sustainable polycentric governance can be, and how meaningful accountability can be assured. Benington’s view is that hierarchical, networked and market-based governance models all have a place, we just need to be aware of when it is most appropriate to use each of them.

Internal disputes within the network, or failure to get some critical actors involved, can hamper successful polycentric governance. Europe has been a fan of a polycentric approach but they seem to be retreating from this, at least in regard to spatial planning (and undoubtedly, management of national financial accounts).

Rather than governments (and other organisations) embracing new or different ways of governing under uncertainty, there seems to be the strong temptation to maintain (or go back to) the old and familiar command and control approach, or just shifting accountability elsewhere – austere governance in a broader sense. In times of change  - or revolutions – we need to think more expansively.