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Adaptive Governance

Ron Brunner

September 3, 2013

Category: Society > Government and Politics

Americans are frustrated by gridlock in response to climate change and other issues. But we have overlooked a possible transition from scientific management, one historical root of gridlock, and toward adaptive governance for advancing common interests on otherwise intractable issues.

Scientific management in the U.S. emerged in the 1880s from time-and-motion studies, differential piecework wages, and related practices introduced to increase efficiency in mass production. Scientific research sought the ''one best way'' to perform each task more efficiently, thus fragmenting and technically rationalizing work. (The stopwatch became a hated symbol among factory workers.) Frederick Winslow Taylor integrated these practices into a centralized system of technocratic control. In 1911, Taylor renamed it ''scientific management'' for testimony in federal hearings on railroad rates. The claim that efficiency could obviate rate increases set off a national efficiency craze.

According to historian Judith Merkle, "Scientific Management, translated into politics, advocated the development of the state as an organ of national planning and allocation … in place of the weak democratic forum that compromised among the interests of power groups." Early efforts to elevate policy above politics on a scientific foundation catalyzed opposition by grass-roots groups. Scientific management nevertheless worked well enough for those in control to be diffused and adapted worldwide under 20th-century social conditions. It is now largely unnoticed.

Scientific management and its limitations are exemplified in the international regime formalized by ratification of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1994. The regime centralized decision-making from the top down through national governments to prevent dangerous concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It relies on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess pertinent scientific knowledge. And it developed the Kyoto Protocol, a technically rational policy specifying mandatory targets and timetables to reduce emissions. But Kyoto was mandatory in principle only, allowing concentrations to rise above dangerous levels. Emissions reductions have been mostly stymied by evolving social conditions, especially fragmenting power as groups in unprecedented numbers organize to defend their interests.

Meanwhile, many local communities focused independently on their own climate-related problems, each more tractable scientifically and politically than larger-scale problems. Some have contributed to mitigating climate change: The Danish Island of Samsø, in about five years beginning in 1998, prevented more CO2 emissions than it released and grew its economy, mostly by developing wind energy. Others, including Soldiers Grove, WI, Tulsa, OK, and Napa Valley, CA, have succeeded in reducing their losses to flooding while advancing other local interests, partly by relocating people and property. Miami-Dade County, FL is a model for reducing hurricane damage to buildings; Ruidoso, NM is a model for reducing vulnerability to wildfires; and so on. But there is no "one best way." Each case is unique.

These are examples of adaptive governance, characterized by decentralized decision-making from the bottom up, procedurally rational policy, and intensive inquiry. It opens additional opportunities for advancing common interests by focusing on particular problems in particular contexts, enabling participation by more groups in making policy decisions directly affecting them, and, in response to diverse circumstances, stimulating policy innovations selected according to what works in practice. What works anywhere tends to be scaled out through networks for voluntary adaptation in similar communities elsewhere, and scaled up to inform and influence higher-level decisions.

Adaptive governance is no cure-all, but it is a promising strategy of reform. The open question is whether it will attract enough attention to help advance common interests at each level of governance.