Polycentric governance networks – how do they work in metropolitan planning organizations?

Asim Zia
Asim Zia

Asim Zia, University of Vermont, discusses the background to his article in the latest issue of Policy & Politics, Scale and intensity of collaboration as determinants of performance management gaps in polycentric governance networks: Evidence from a national survey of metropolitan planning organisations (MPOs)

This article represents convergence of two theoretical streams in the public policy, political science and public management literature: on the one hand, Elinor Ostrom’s stellar career laid the foundations for the notion of ‘polycentric governance’; on the other hand, advancements in network governance and collaborative governance theory led to the notion of ‘governance networks’ that use methodological rigor of network science and systems analysis to unpack decision making dynamics in various public and public-private action arenas. In this paper, we develop the theoretical notion of ‘polycentric governance networks’ and study their manifestation in the world of ‘metropolitan planning organizations’ (MPOs).

In our social-ecological gaming and simulation (SEGS) lab, which I co-direct with Professor Chris Koliba, empirical investigation and the simulation of a large variety of governance networks is one of our primary research agendas. In addition to MPOs, we study watershed partnerships, food networks, health planning and so forth. Study of MPOs, has been one of our first and longstanding focal areas.  We have employed a large number of methodological tools to understand the network structure, decision-making dynamics, performance management and accountability ties in MPOs. These tools have ranged from participant observation of technical advisory meetings in MPOs, interviews and surveys of MPO officials to agent-based simulation models of intergovernmental networks in which MPOs are embedded. In this paper, we present analysis of a national level survey of MPOs in the US that was conducted by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2009.

The idea for this paper came in a fascinating meeting organized by the global governance club in Netherlands. Professor Jacob Torfing and Professor Chris Ansell, who are the leaders of global governance club, pitched the idea of editing this special issue on scale and collaborative governance. Our SEGS lab has been interested in issues of scale both within and across governance networks. Professor Chris Koliba and Professor Jack Meek helped me conceptualize the theoretical and methodological questions pertaining to the scale and intensity of collaboration in MPOs as polycentric governance networks and we figured out novel ways to measure these constructs in the GAO survey data and assess their effects on the performance management of MPOs through the estimation of regression models. Our brilliant MPA student, Anna Schulz, was instrumental in keeping this paper afloat through its numerous rounds of revisions.

Empirical findings from the survey data uncover very interesting patterns about how large-scale MPO’s perceive their performance measurement systems and whether more collaboration with vertical and/or horizontal sector actors/agencies improves the MPO manager perception of their respective MPOs’ performance management.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and response on the theoretical foundations of polycentric governance networks and their practical manifestation in the network structures, decision making dynamics and performance management of MPOs in the US. Similar regional scale transportation, land-use and environmental planning governance networks are appearing in EU, Asia and elsewhere. We hope this paper will make available a rigorous and replicable methodology to the broader research community in policy and management sciences for unpacking and investigating polycentric governance networks across a range of socio-political contexts and policy domains.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you may be interested in ’Governance network theory: past, present and future’, by Erik-Hans Klijn and Joop Koppenjan.

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