Home Blog The Coronavirus in Times of Polycentric Governance – A comment

The Coronavirus in Times of Polycentric Governance – A comment


I am in the last phase of my PhD and I have recently been reflecting on the parallels and differences between my Ph.D. topic, ‘Polycentricity in the Implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive in Germany’, and the COVID-19 crisis. I had several exchanges with colleagues across the world, which reported very similar experiences of how their life is governed for stemming COVID-19. This contrasts with my Ph.D. findings, where the German federalism produced a vast plurality of water governance approaches to reach a good water status. In both cases, the COVID-19 crisis and WFD implementation, different governance systems governing the same issue have to cope with similar problems. However, in COVID-19 a tendency for standardization can be observed, while approaches for WFD implementation stayed plural for the last 20 years. Why? There are several parallels between water and actual public health governance:

First, both public health and good water status are large scale common goods, which are affected by multiple independent decision-making centers at various levels. Decisions to be taken within both fields of governance vary a lot: closing playgrounds or providing sufficient beds in hospitals, fertilization management or the provision of financial resources for renaturation and many more.

Second, within both fields of governance decision-makers have various fields of expertise. This happens when upcoming tasks are assigned to existing actors instead of establishing new actors or redistributing responsibilities for reflecting new conditions. Staying with the playground example: Should the power to open or close playgrounds moved from community/ district officials, which exercise their established local self-organization tasks, to any state (or national) health department because open playgrounds may foster spreading COVID-19? Or, should managerial fertilization decisions, the exercise of economic freedom, in future be taken by environmental authorities, because nutrient pollution is causing a bad water status? It is easier to assign decision-making power than withdrawing it. Therefore, besides decision-makers with specific expertise, health, or water governance, there are plenty of other relevant, but independent, decision-makers without this specialization of expertise influencing the same common good (path-dependency!). Third, independence in decision-making plays out in weighting facts and expert’s opinions differently and deciding based on personal convictions – within the given discretionary boundaries. Public health and water governance have in common that there is no common sense about the necessary measures and their effectiveness. Additionally, there is some level of uncertainty in the knowledge base. Both foster independent decision-making. What defines independent decision-makers is that their decisions may be restricted but not determined by other agencies. For example, supermarkets may require or not require wearing masks within their stores by exercising their property rights, as long as no higher agency establishes stronger rules by requiring wearing masks. The sum of the settled, individual changes to the various governance systems is incremental or substantial. The result resembles plural experimenting. Polycentric governance is perceived as advantageous because the occurrence of experiments supports social learning. 

However, public health and water governance differ in velocity and public awareness.

First, media coverage generates awareness and urgency. Every decision regarding COVID-19 is reported in media prominently and immediately. Everybody is exposed or knows somebody who can directly feel the outcome of these decisions. Therefore, many people develop an opinion on the chosen governance approaches.

Second, the velocity of the crisis drives the speed of the decision-making turnaround. Can we wait whether closing shops and restaurants is sufficient or do we start with the next measure just to reduce the risk of failure? Decision-making for governing common goods is usually not a single event but a continuous weighing up, or a repetitive event. For every new decision, new knowledge, power constellations, and capacities are considered. Due to the established routines of policymaking, implementation, evaluation, and adjustments, changes happen over a long period of time. The same issue, such as water governance, only gets public awareness with high spatial and temporal differentiations impeding large public opinion-making. In contrast, the velocity of the COVID-19 crisis allows many people to easily observe, through media and personal experience, compare and discuss decision-making at the same time everywhere. This creates the necessary momentum for social movements and lobbying aiming to influence the actual decision-making which is, therefore, more rapidly adjusted than without the crisis.

Third, decision-makers are, more or less depending on their independence, forced to consider publicly stated opinions (such as petitions) and decision-making behavior by other decision-makers – especially if they are held accountable, e.g. by voters, members or customers. Does uncertainty in the available knowledge, independence, and simultaneous public awareness drive decision-makers into a prisoner’s dilemma? Deciding differently to other decision-makers can be an advantage if single decisions, later on, prove to be more appropriate than others. However, decision-makers also risk the highest sanction if only their decisions will be proved inappropriate for stemming COVID-19. In contrast, the risk of being individually held accountable for a decision is reduced if all decision-makers choose similar governance approaches. The knowledge base could have not allowed better decisions. Therefore, collective risk-minimization on being ‘sanctioned’ later on fosters a standardization of independent decision-making tackling COVID-19.

Although both fields show similarities in their polycentric nature, velocity and public awareness are missing for WFD implementation and foster the standardization in public health governance. The crisis-laden situation leads to increased decision-making activities and opens windows of opportunity for change regarding the common good under crisis. We should be aware that without this pressure, not sufficient favorable decisions would be taken because other goods receive higher priorities. However, the velocity of a crisis may suppress experiments and prevent learning from them. Do we have strategies to combine the advantages – experiments for learning and pressure and urgency at every level of decision-making in favor of the common good – of both kinds of governing situations in polycentric systems?

Let’s not forget the environment during the COVID-19 crisis!

Nadine Jenny Shirin Schröder

Research Group Governance, Participation and Sustainability

Leuphana University Lüneburg


Image Credits:
Corona-Virus (Sars-Cov2) by Alissa Eckert, MSMI; Dan Higgins, MAMS

Featured Image Credit:
Corona-Virus (Sars-Cov2) by Alissa Eckert, MSMI; Dan Higgins, MAMS