Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 17, 2013

Polycentric Resilience

Filed under: Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 17, 2013

Reflections on resilience emerging from the shutdown:

You probably saw the story where the State of Arizona did a deal to reopen the Grand Canyon to tourists.  New York and South Dakota made similar arrangements for the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.

In Utah and Wyoming visits to state parks exploded after nearby national parks were closed.

Over the last two weeks I have been busy working with state and local homeland security officials preparing for a big regional exercise in late October.  (Admittedly important federal funds had already been transferred.)

According to the Global Post, some Chinese envy the resilience of American society in the midst of the federal government shutdown:

Since the shutdown began nine days ago, Chinese social media have been full of wistful, almost admiring remarks about how the shutdown could only happen in a democratic country with a resilient economy and responsive political representation… 

Many posts discussed how such a shutdown could never happen in China, because the country would immediately be plunged into chaos. The fact that many state and local government functions have continued despite the shutdown was a particular object of marvel. One Chinese author who resides in the US expressed wonder that “in the days since the government closed, everybody is unconcerned.” 

“The reason is simple,” he continued. “Just because the federal government shut down, that doesn’t mean the local government is shut down. The various levels of government do not depend on each other.” Alluding to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” he concluded that “by understanding local autonomy, you understand America.” 

Some see federalism as an inefficient way to govern a modern nation.  But as seen during the shutdown,  diversity of jurisdictions can be a source of resilience.  Moreover, several studies have found that “polycentric” political structures are often more efficient than most centralized systems.

In her 2009 Nobel Lecture, the late Elinor Ostrom reported:

The most efficient producers supply more output for given inputs in high multiplicity metropolitan areas than do the efficient producers in metropolitan areas with fewer producers… Metropolitan areas with large numbers of autonomous direct service producers achieved higher levels of technical efficiency… We demonstrated that complexity is not the same as chaos in regard to metropolitan governance.  That lesson has carried forth as we have undertaken further empirical studies of polycentric governance of resource and infrastructure systems across the world. (Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems)

Part of what’s happening here, it seems to me (but I have never read Dr. Ostrom suggesting anything similar), is an echo of the Jeffersonian notion that government closest to the governed is the most  efficacious government.  What has surely been found is that governance does not always involve government.

Elinor Ostrom and colleagues have found — and confirmed again and again — that communications, trust, and mutual monitoring are crucial in sustaining any resilient system. From the same Nobel Lecture:

Where individuals do not know one another, cannot communicate effectively, and thus cannot develop agreements, norms and sanctions, aggregate predictions derived from models of rational individuals in a  non-cooperative game receive substantial support… On the other hand, the capacity to overcome dilemmas and create effective governance occurred far more frequently than expected.

In particular cooperation and shared compliance with self-generated boundaries and rules increase when six specific conditions are achieved.  (See page 433 of the lecture text and my final paragraph below.)  Having observed these outcomes in a wide-range of different contexts and cultures, Dr. Ostrom concludes her lecture with:

A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.  We need to ask how diverse polycentric  institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.

More resilience emerges from more communication — especially face-to-face communications — with people who know each other or are at least familiar with each other’s backgrounds, where each person’s contribution can be significant and each can come and go without much risk, yet where long-term engagement has a reasonable opportunity for generating greater value than disengagement (regardless of how value is defined), and those involved can largely self-sustain a sanctioning system for boundaries and norms mutually accepted.

What does the evidence of the last three weeks tell us regarding the state of polycentric resilience in the United States?

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9 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 17, 2013 @ 1:07 am

The Underground Economy of the USA is huge. Untaxed and unregulated its resilience is largely as a cash based society.

Pingback by U.S. Federal Shutdown is Over! | Recovery Diva

October 17, 2013 @ 4:32 am

[...] Worth noting are the comments of fellow blogger Phil Palin — see his thoughtful remarks on resilience in the U.S.  in his posting today titled Polycentric Resilience. [...]

Comment by John Plodinec

October 17, 2013 @ 6:37 am

In a statement to a National Academies panel, Ron Carlee said “The purpose of government is to build community.” In doing that, trust, respect and resilience will follow.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 17, 2013 @ 8:30 am

Wondering how many governments think building their communities a purpose. Thanks John P. for the quote.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 17, 2013 @ 8:48 am

I suggest that one of the creative (or not) tensions alive in our culture revolves around whether the purpose of government is to build community or if community is the organic preexisting society which government is intended to protect.

A great deal unfolds from assumptions based on a conceptual continuum between these two takes on reality.

Comment by J. Fred Muggs

October 17, 2013 @ 9:19 am

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

Winston Churchill

Comment by Quin

October 17, 2013 @ 9:59 am

I think the key question not answered was sustainability which I think is also a key part to reslience. Could these short term measures, like States paying to reopen parks, be sustained over the long term? If yes, then maybe there is some value in moving more of those functions to States after all. But if not, it may provide evidence they should remain at a Federal level. But (luckily) things didn’t last long enough to really find out. I believe I saw a figure quoting Standard & Poors that the economy had a hit to the tune of $24 billion. Substantial, but not a huge bite for our overall economy, though some areas of course suffered more than others.

Also, to your point of government building community versus an organic preexisting society, I would be interested why you think they are mutually exclusive? My first thought that came to mind was to see them as symbiotic rather than competing.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 17, 2013 @ 11:11 am

Quin: In response to your second paragraph, I think that puts you smack in the middle of the continnum. My personal view is not too far from you… but I am emotionally (culturally?) predisposed toward the pre-existing community rather than the community to be created.

Intellectually, I think it depends on the community. I was raised in an organic community that did not need much government… and certainly did not need it to create community. I have, however, spent much of my professional life in places that are not in any meaningful use of the term a “community.” I’m not sure that government has a particular expertise in creating community, but in such places government can especially help or hurt in what it undertakes (as Ostrom empirically confirmed).

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Preparedness is different than planning

November 7, 2013 @ 12:10 am

[...] I especially disagree with the conclusion suggested by the title of his piece (How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters).  I am too much a disciple of Elinor Ostrom to reduce such manifold problems to jurisdictional diversi…. [...]

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