Source: upsidedownworld.org

By Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco), Centre for Economic Research and Training

Governance is such an elusive concept to define, even though public policy scholars have been drawn to it almost naturally. My first exposure to the literature on governance occurred while I was studying for my PhD comprehensive exams. I became obsessed with the work of British scholar R.A.W. Rhodes, perhaps the best known proponent of governance as a scholarly subject. Rhodes’ 1997 book, Understanding Governance, has been cited more than 5,100 times (at least by the counts of Google Scholar). Nevertheless, defining governance remains an interesting challenge for public policy scholars, and continues to be debated. Even Francis Fukuyama has recently chimed in on what we should understand as governance.


The mere idea that the act of governing can occur and improve through devolution (i.e., through a change in institutional architecture that transforms a hierarchical governing structure into a policy network) sounds appealing in and of itself. Governance thus becomes an act of citizen empowerment. We begin to talk about networked governance, or governing by networks. At the same time though, the current structure of states and societies doesn’t lend itself easily to a generalized shift in governing architectures. We can live in federalist systems, where many governing responsibilities are devolved to states and municipalities/cities. But, in many sector-specific cases, the ultimate decision-making body will undoubtedly be the federation. This is certainly the case in the Mexican water policy sector.

For the last few years, I have been exploring questions of shifts in policy paradigms in the water sector. More specifically, I have been grappling with the question of whether water policy (in general, and Mexican water policy in particular) can benefit from applying the governance literature to better understand and design policy interventions that can improve water access for people in vulnerable communities and regions. Ideally, we want citizens to be more involved in how water policies are designed and implemented; after all, it is these citizens who will be dealing with the consequences of poorly designed and implemented policies. This citizen involvement paradigm is predicated on the assumption that citizens will have enough quality information that they can help policymakers make the best decisions on policy design and implementation.


Implementing a networked governance paradigm seems easy enough, because society is apparently eager to participate in policy design, decision-making and implementation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though our current participatory models are robust enough. This is certainly the case with the oft-praised model of citizen involvement in water policy: the river basin council. While the jury is still out on whether river basin councils are the right model of governance for water resources, the empirical evidence on their success is still scant. And, by extension, so is the evidence on whether governance is the right conceptual model of governing to implement in the water resources sector.


There are good reasons for the existence of this gap in water governance scholarship. One of them, already indicated by Francis Fukuyama in his 2003 piece on what governance means, is that we know very little about how we can measure governance. Empirical measurements for a networked model of governing become excruciatingly difficult to create and implement. How can we measure “degree of devolution”? How can we quantify “degree and quality of participation”? And, how can we correlate degrees of participation (or how engaged water users are) with overall improvement in water quality, access and/or measures of water stress?


These are the kinds of questions I’m currently grappling with, and the kind of challenges I foresee applied public policy scholars will be facing. How can we effectively measure and implement governance? To tackle this issue, I have been working with the literature on polycentric governance, especially as championed by the late Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom. A polycentric order, as defined by Ostrom (1971) is “one where many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments for ordering relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts with independence of other elements.” Thus, polycentricity involves, at the same time, self-organization, relationship re-ordering and a high degree of devolution where nodes in the polycentric system all have similar degrees of authority with regards to each other.


In my own research, I have engaged the work of Elinor Ostrom and explored the impacts her scholarship has had on Mexican resource governance research. While her earlier work on institutional analysis in resource governance has been extensively applied in Mexican case studies, I found that her work on polycentric systems has been less popular and not yet implemented.


One of my current projects examines whether water policy in Mexico could move towards achieving some degree of polycentricity. I’m fond of the polycentricity literature, as I have a personal connection with the Ostroms. (I studied with them during my PhD in 2002.) In my research, I find that current water governance models are ill-equipped to achieve polycentric governance. Through the analysis of a dataset of river basin councils, I find that the river basin council model as it is currently implemented in Mexican water policy is rather inefficient in its intent to empower water users in governing processes, as well as policy design, decision-making and implementation. I thus argue that the Mexican government will have to overcome its tradition of a hierarchical, top-down, regulatory approach to governing resources if it is to achieve true polycentricity.


This challenge isn’t unique to Mexican water policymakers. I foresee that many centralized systems will need to find ways to break down current barriers to citizen and resource user participation in order to really achieve true networked and/or polycentric governance. This is an interesting issue and fertile ground for public policy scholars to tackle. The promise of polycentricity theory is yet to be fully explored, and I look forward to seeing what research on this topic will other policy scientists undertake.

One thought on “What is the Future of Water Governance Scholarship?

  1. A very thought-provoking post! One aspect of water governance that seems to get too little attention is the “why” of particular forms of governance. Why is it important for citizen stakeholders to be involved? Unless we are clear about that (which is a question of ethics), then we will become confused about what governance options are most desirable, or even acceptable. For example, in the irrigation sector, reforms to promote greater management participation from farmers’ organizations were a central tenant of World Bank investments, based partly on the transfer model developed by Mexico in the early 1990s. But the conceptual frame for why participation was being promoted had little to do with strengthening rural social capital (though this was sometimes mentioned), It was seen primarily as a cost-saving and performance-enhancing measure. Participation was seen as good for management effectiveness, and any social benefits were incidental. Yet in the few programs where social development was a clear priority (e.g., the early irrigation participation programs in the Philippines, and the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Gilgit and Hunza, Pakistan in the 1980s) the technical and management successes of the investments were inescapably linked to the strengthening of local social institutions. I would suggest that a similar dynamic may be operating in current efforts to promote river basin councils. If the councils are “framed” as a form of investing in participatory social capital, their creation will be become a priority, and if they seem to be not working, reforms will be proposed to find alternative ways of enabling stakeholder engagement at the basin level. But if the councils are seen as a way to placate local communities without really changing the water governance system, the slightest problem will topple the new councils. They will lack the resilience of true polycentric systems. Sustainable governance reforms, in other words, start with clarity about the ethical goals.

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