Friday, May 14, 2010

Big Problems, Small Solutions: Polycentric Governance and the Power of Mass Localism

Today's columnist is Stephen Huddart from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. Stephen writes:

Marlo Raynolds, Executive Director of The Pembina Institute, a national environmental think tank, commented to me after the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change that for the first time in his professional life, he had come to the conclusion that our best efforts at adapting to the inconvenient truth of climate change are insufficient. “We’ve made good progress on all kinds of big issues up to this point ”, he explained, “from protecting endangered species to putting limits on pollutants. But this is different. It’s time to press ‘reset’ – we need new strategies”.

For central governments wrestling with persistent and pernicious problems like climate change, escalating health care costs, or school dropout rates, the question is where to find the policy lever that will introduce transformative change before it’s too late. Anything too drastic, or ‘top down’ and the likelihood of electoral defeat looms. There is also the problem that a decision at this level commits huge resources to a limited set of alternatives, with consequent escalation of risk, and rigidity arising from fear of failure. The contemporary paradox is that our challenges have become too big to address at anything less than a global level, but that to a worrying degree, we lack the means to effect meaningful change at this scale.

Political scientist Elinor Ostrom has devoted her life to addressing this dilemma and was recognized for her efforts in creating 'Polycentric Governance' with one half of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics. Her work is as good a starting point as any for understanding that our environmental and economic crises are inextricably related, and that solutions that address the common good must take account of this. Her prize speech should be required viewing for every municipal, provincial and federal politician and policy maker. And as a basis for educating the next generation to do a better job than we have at managing the planet, 'Design Principles for Long-Surviving Systems', cited in the same lecture, would be a good place to begin.

One of Ostrom's observations is that small to medium sized cities are more effective monitors of program performance and cost than larger centres. In a wonderful illustration of this principle, the UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) recently ran a contest called The Big Green Challenge for communities to come up with the most effective means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In a paper titled Mass Localism: a way to help small communities solve big social challenges, NESTA’s Public Services Lab documents the results: the three winning communities and one runner-up achieved reductions of 10 to 32% in a very short time span, and shared a one million pound prize.

This type of community-led innovation involves an open approach. At the outset the goal is not to scale local solutions up to the national level, but to support locally determined projects at numerous sites, which deliver their own solutions and learn from one another. To participate in the Big Green Challenge it wasn’t necessary to be incorporated as a charity or municipality. As a result, 20% of the entrants were groups of people who wanted to work on something together, thus diversifying and expanding the pool of ideas.

NESTA points out that central governments pay little attention to local solutions in the misguided belief that they are marginal to today’s social and economic challenges, which from their perspective require massive and costly intervention. Furthermore, concerns about perpetuating inter-regional disparities often produce ‘one size fits all’ solutions that undermine local ownership.

NESTA outlines five principles for successful local initiatives:

1. Establish and promote a clear, measurable outcome.

2. Presume community capacity to innovate.

3. In the early stages, challenge and advice are more valuable than cash.

4. Identify and remove barriers to participation.

5. Don’t reward activity, reward outcomes.

It is worth emphasizing the last point. For national politicians, funding local activity is politically expedient, but it leads to dependency and a lack of confidence that anything significant can be accomplished. The Big Green Challenge rewarded results.

Is this a way to design interventions in the social sphere? In Canada, the ALLIES (Assisting Local Leaders with Immigrant Employment Strategies) program takes a similar approach to integrating skilled immigrants in urban labour markets. ALLIES is a partnership between Toronto’s Maytree Foundation, which co-founded ALLIES predecessor and partner, the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council; The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation; and Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Groups are provided with small grants that enable them to document the challenges facing foreign-trained professionals in their community (defined as a Census Metropolitan Area). They are then supported in creating a working coalition that includes the private sector, government as employer, and the community sector. At this point they can apply for program funding to introduce one of an available list of programs for mentoring, organizing temporary placements, and so on, or to create their own local versions of such programs.

In addition to constituting a framework for action on multiple levels of scale, ALLIES is a peer network, a learning community, a policy originator, a platform for continuous program innovation, and a growing marketplace for ideas and toolkits for employers.

One of the features of such programs is their relatively low cost. Engaging citizens and leaders from all sectors in generating solutions to complex challenges is by order of magnitude less expensive than many alternatives, including that of doing nothing.

For more on this theme, and in particular on how it can be applied to civic participation in government, see Accenture’s paper on e-governance.

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