Tag Archives: collaborative governance

Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games

The ‘Ecology of Games Framework’ (EG) combines insights from many approaches to analyze ‘institutional complexity’ and ‘complex institutional systems’.

The focus is on actors learning how to secure ‘mutually beneficial outcomes’, cooperating to produce and deliver agreed solutions, and bargaining within a system over which no actor has control. Therefore, it is worth reading the posts on game theory, the IAD, and SES first (especially if, like me, you associated ‘game’ with tig, then Monopoly, then The Wire).


Insights from three key approaches

EG connects Norton’s ‘ecology of games’, the IAD, and insights from complexity theory to reinforce the idea that institutional arrangements are not simple and orderly.

In simple games, we need only analyse the interaction between a small number of actors with reference to one set of self-contained rules providing clear sanctions or payoffs. In real world policymaking, many different games take place at the same time in different venues.

Some policy games may be contained within a geographical area – such as California – but there are no self-contained collective action problems:

  • Examples such as ‘biodiversity’, ‘ecology’ or ‘environmental’ policies command a collection of interdependent policies relating to issues like local planning, protected species, water management, air pollution, transport, energy use, and contributors to such policies or policy problems in other areas of government (such as public services).
  • Each contributor to policy may come from different institutions associated with many policymaking venues spread across many levels and types of government.

Consequently, many games interact with each other. The same actor might participate in multiple games subject to different rules. Further, each game produces ‘externalities’ for the others; the ‘payoffs’ to each game are connected and complicated.

A focus on ‘complex adaptive systems’ suggests that central governments do not have the resources to control – or understand fully – interaction at this frequency and scale. Rather, policymaking influences are:

  • Internal to the game, when actors (a) follow and shape the rules of each institution, and (b) learn through trial and error.
  • External to the game, when physical resources change, or central levels of government change the resources of local actors.

Insights from the wider literature

The EG brings in wider insights – from theories in the 500 and 1000 Words series – to analyse this process. Examples include:

Consequently, we have come a long way from simple assumptions about human behaviour outlined in our first post in this series.

As with the IAD, the EG emphasis is on (a) finding solutions to complex (largely environmental) policy problems, with reference to (b) initiatives consistent with self-organising systems such as ‘collaborative governance’. Like most posts in this series, it rejects a naïve attachment to a single powerful central government. Policymaking is multi-centric, and solutions to complex problems will emerge in that context.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: it’s time for some game theory

Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD (the older post for the 1st edition)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?



Filed under 500 words, public policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

The IAD provides a language, and way of thinking, about the ways in which different institutions foster collective action. The language is so complicated that I have cheated by summarising key terms in this box (and describing polycentric governance in a different post) to stay within the 1000 words limit:

IAD box 2.2.19

Governing the Commons

For me, the best way to understand the IAD is through the lens of Governing the Commons (and the research agenda it inspired), which explains how to rethink ‘tragedies of the commons’ and encourage better management of common pool resources (CPRs).

Ostrom rejects the uncritical use of rational choice games to conclude – too quickly – that disastrous collective action problems are inevitable unless we ‘privatize’ commons or secure major government intervention (which is tricky anyway when global problems require international cooperation). The tragedy of the commons presents a too-bleak view of humanity, in which it would be surprising to find cooperation even when the fate of the world is in human hands.

Alternatively, what if there is evidence that people often work collectively and effectively without major coercion? People are social beings who share information, build trust by becoming known as reliable and predictable, and come together to produce, monitor and enforce rules for the group’s benefit. They produce agreements with each other that could be enforced if necessary.

The IAD helps us analyse these cooperative arrangements. Ostrom describes 8 ‘design principles’ of enduring and effective CPR management shared by many real world examples:

  1. CPRs have clear boundaries. Users know what they are managing, and can identify legitimate users.
  2. The rules suit local conditions. Users know what they (a) are expected to contribute to management and (b) receive from CPRs.
  3. The actors affected by the rules help shape them (at low cost).
  4. CPR monitors are users or accountable to users. They monitor (a) the conduct of users and (b) the state of the CPR. The costs of mutual monitoring are low, and their consequences felt quickly.
  5. The penalties for rule-breaking are low if the choice is a one-off and understandable under the circumstances (to avoid alienating the user). The penalties are high if the choice is part of a pattern which makes other users feel like ‘suckers’, or if rule-breaking would be catastrophic.
  6. Conflict resolution is frequent, rapid and low cost.
  7. Users have the right to self-organise without too much outside interference.
  8. Many projects are connected geographically and at different scales – local, regional, national – in ways that do not undermine individual projects.

These design principles help explain why some communities manage CPRs successfully. They allow users to share the same commitment and expect the long-term benefits to be worthwhile.

However, Ostrom stressed that there is no blueprint – no hard and fast rules – to CPR management. There are three particular complications:

  1. Trust

Good management requires high trust to encourage norms of reciprocity. Trust is crucial to minimizing the costs of compliance monitoring and enforcement. Trust may develop when participants communicate regularly, share an understanding of their common interests, reciprocate each other’s cooperation, and have proven reliable in the past.

Design principles are important to developing trust and solidarity, but so are evolutionary’ changes to behaviour. Actors have often learned about rule efficacy – to encourage cooperation and punish opportunism – through trial-and-error over a long period, beginning with simple, low-cost operational rules producing quick wins.

  1. Rules, rules on rules, more rules, then even more rules

Institutions contain a large, complicated set of rules that serve many different purposes, and need to be understood and analysed in different ways.

Different purposes include:

  • how many actors are part of an action situation, and the role they play
  • what they must/ must not do
  • who is eligible to participate
  • who can move from one role to another
  • who controls membership, and how
  • how many participants are involved in a choice
  • what will happen if there is no agreement
  • how to manage and communicate information
  • the rewards or sanctions
  • the range of acceptable actions or outcomes from action.


We also need to analyse the relative costs and simplicity of different rules, and the rules about the other rules, including

  • ‘operational’ rules on day-to-day issues (such as specific payoffs/ sanctions for behaviour)
  • ‘collective choice’ rules about how to make those rules
  • ‘constitutional’ rules on who can decide those rules and who can monitor and enforce, and
  • ‘metaconstitutional’ analysis of how to design these constitutions with reference to the wider political and social context.


  1. The world is too complex to break down into simple pieces

By now, you may be thinking that the IAD – and analysis of resource management – is complicated. This is true, partly because each case study – of the physical conditions and social practices regarding resource management – is different in some way. We can use the IAD to compare experiences, but accept that a profoundly successful scheme in one context may fail miserably in another.

Simplicity versus complexity: the world is complex, but should our analysis follow suit?

Indeed, this is why we need to think about rational choice games and the IAD simultaneously, to understand the analytical trade-offs.

Game theory laboratory experiments – built on simple rules and relatively small numbers of parameters – produce parsimonious analysis and results that we can understand relatively easily.

We may reject simple games as unrealistic, but what if we take this criticism to its extreme?

IAD in-depth field studies embrace complexity to try to understand the key dimensions of each study’s context. When we put them all together, there are too many concepts, variables, global applications, and variations-by-context, to contain in a simple theory.

The IAD addresses this trade off by offering a language to help organize research, encouraging people to learn it then use it to apply many different theories to explain different parts of the whole picture.

In other words, it is OK to reject simple models as unrealistic, but to embrace real-world complexity may require a rather complicated language.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: it’s time for some game theory

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD (the older post for the 1st edition)

Policy Concepts in 100 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework

Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?




Filed under 1000 words, public policy

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

Swann Kim

This is a guest post by William L. Swann (left) and Seo Young Kim (right), discussing how to use insights from the Institutional Collective Action Framework to think about how to improve collaborative governance. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Collective Action_1

Many public policy problems cannot be addressed effectively by a single, solitary government. Consider the problems facing the Greater Los Angeles Area, a heavily fragmented landscape of 88 cities and numerous unincorporated areas and special districts. Whether it is combatting rising homelessness, abating the country’s worst air pollution, cleaning the toxic L.A. River, or quelling gang violence, any policy alternative pursued unilaterally is limited by overlapping authority and externalities that alter the actions of other governments.

Problems of fragmented authority are not confined to metropolitan areas. They are also found in multi-level governance scenarios such as the restoration of Chesapeake Bay, as well as in international relations as demonstrated by recent global events such as “Brexit” and the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. In short, fragmentation problems manifest at every scale of governance, horizontally, vertically, and even functionally within governments.

What is an ‘institutional collective action’ dilemma?

In many cases governments would be better off coordinating and working together, but they face barriers that prevent them from doing so. These barriers are what the policy literature refers to as ‘institutional collective action’ (ICA) dilemmas, or collective action problems in which a government’s incentives do not align with collectively desirable outcomes. For example, all governments in a region benefit from less air pollution, but each government has an incentive to free ride and enjoy cleaner air without contributing to the cost of obtaining it.

The ICA Framework, developed by Professor Richard Feiock, has emerged as a practical analytical instrument for understanding and improving fragmented governance. This framework assumes that governments must match the scale and coerciveness of the policy intervention (or mechanism) to the scale and nature of the policy problem to achieve efficient and desired outcomes.

For example, informal networks (a mechanism) can be highly effective at overcoming simple collective action problems. But as problems become increasingly complex, more obtrusive mechanisms, such as governmental consolidation or imposed collaboration, are needed to achieve collective goals and more efficient outcomes. The more obtrusive the mechanism, however, the more actors’ autonomy diminishes and the higher the transaction costs (monitoring, enforcement, information, and agency) of governing.

Collective Action_2

Three ways to improve institutional collaborative governance

We explored what actionable steps policymakers can take to improve their results with collaboration in fragmented systems. Our study offers three general practical recommendations based on the empirical literature that can enhance institutional collaborative governance.

First, institutional collaboration is more likely to emerge and work effectively when policymakers employ networking strategies that incorporate frequent, face-to-face interactions.

Government actors networking with popular, well-endowed actors (“bridging strategies”) as well as developing closer-knit, reciprocal ties with a smaller set of actors (“bonding strategies”) will result in more collaborative participation, especially when policymakers interact often and in-person.

Policy network characteristics are also important to consider. Research on estuary governance indicates that in newly formed, emerging networks, bridging strategies may be more advantageous, at least initially, because they can provide organizational legitimacy and access to resources. However, once collaboratives mature, developing stronger and more reciprocal bonds with fewer actors reduces the likelihood of opportunistic behavior that can hinder collaborative effectiveness.

Second, policymakers should design collaborative arrangements that reduce transaction costs which hinder collaboration.

Well-designed collaborative institutions can lower the barriers to participation and information sharing, make it easier to monitor the behaviors of partners, grant greater flexibility in collaborative work, and allow for more credible commitments from partners.

Research suggests policymakers can achieve this by

  1. identifying similarities in policy goals, politics, and constituency characteristics with institutional partners
  2. specifying rules such as annual dues, financial reporting, and making financial records reviewable by third parties to increase commitment and transparency in collaborative arrangements
  3. creating flexibility by employing adaptive agreements with service providers, especially when services have limited markets/applications and performance is difficult to measure.

Considering the context, however, is crucial. Collaboratives that thrive on informal, close-knit, reciprocal relations, for example, may be severely damaged by the introduction of monitoring mechanisms that signal distrust.

Third, institutional collaboration is enhanced by the development and harnessing of collaborative capacity.

Research suggests signaling organizational competencies and capacities, such as budget, political support, and human resources, may be more effective at lowering barriers to collaboration than ‘homophily’ (a tendency to associate with similar others in networks). Policymakers can begin building collaborative capacity by seeking political leadership involvement, granting greater managerial autonomy, and looking to higher-level governments (e.g., national, state, or provincial governments) for financial and technical support for collaboration.

What about collaboration in different institutional contexts?

Finally, we recognize that not all policymakers operate in similar institutional contexts, and collaboration can often be mandated by higher-level authorities in more centralized nations. Nonetheless, visible joint gains, economic incentives, transparent rules, and equitable distribution of joint benefits and costs are critical components of voluntary or mandated collaboration.

Conclusions and future directions

The recommendations offered here are, at best, only the tip of the iceberg on valuable practical insight that can be gleaned from collaborative governance research. While these suggestions are consistent with empirical findings from broader public management and policy networks literatures, much could be learned from a closer inspection of the overlap between ICA studies and other streams of collaborative governance work.

Collaboration is a valuable tool of governance, and, like any tool, it should be utilized appropriately. Collaboration is not easily managed and can encounter many obstacles. We suggest that governments generally avoid collaborating unless there are joint gains that cannot be achieved alone. But the key to solving many of society’s intractable problems, or just simply improving everyday public service delivery, lies in a clearer understanding of how collaboration can be used effectively within different fragmented systems.


Filed under public policy