Thursday, March 3, 2016

The scale and complexity of institutional change

Now that nationalists in places like the UK, Hungary or other places want to fix everything using referenda, it is helpful to read the late Elinor Ostrom on the complexity and variety of ways to introduce institutional changes addressing the complex scale of constitutional reform. When talking for example about the reform of river basin institutions, she said: "The arrangements that have been developed in these locations over the past seventy years vary considerably. Even in physically similar, neighboring basins facing similar threats over the same period, individuals can develop substantially different yet workable responses. In the Southern California cases, however, the results of institutional experiments being conducted nearby did feed back into the judicial decision-making process and affected (sometimes quite markedly) the design and adoption of institutional changes. Thus, learning from one case helped the participants in nearby locations to craft rules that experience with similar rules had shown to be workable in practice but that differed in ways important in a particular setting. Such adaptability is essential since dynamic social and ecological systems such as human-used water resources lack ‘‘correct’’ solutions that can be designed and implemented once and for all. Sustained governance of those systems therefore depends critically upon the capability to assess institutional performance, consider institutional alternatives, and adopt modifications." And: "We are also interested in understanding what factors contribute to design and adaptation of robust institutional designs. Robust institutions would be those that can adapt to changing economic, political, social and ecological conditions that may threaten the performance of rules designed and implement at one time period in later eras. All other things being equal, we are willing to argue that: (a) institutional diversity, which yields richer information about institutional performance, combined with (b) the availability of institutional arrangements through which people can monitor and modify their institutional experiments based at least in part on that richer information base, would be associated with greater prospects for institutional robustness. Conversely, the absence of either (a) or (b) would contribute to institutional vulnerability."

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