Self-governance From Above: Principles of Polycentric Governance in Large-Scale Water Infrastructure
Governance of complex social-ecological systems is partly characterized by processes of autonomous decision making and voluntary mutual adjustment by multiple authorities with overlapping jurisdictions. From a policy perspective, understanding these polycentric processes could provide valuable insight for solving environmental problems. Paradoxically, however, polycentric governance theory seems to proscribe conventional policy applications: the logic of polycentricity cautions against prescriptive, top-down interventions. Water resources governance, and large-scale water infrastructure systems in particular, offer a paradigm for interpretation of what Vincent Ostrom called the “counterintentional and counterintuitive patterns” of polycentricity. Nearly a century of philosophical inquiry and a generation of governance research into polycentricity, and the overarching institutional frameworks within which polycentric processes operate, provide context for this study. Based on a historically- and theoretically-grounded understanding of water systems as a polycentric paradigm, I argue for a realist approach to operationalizing principles of polycentricity for contribution to policy discourses. Specifically, this requires an actor-centered approach that mobilizes subjective experiences, knowledge, and narratives about contingent decision making.
I use the case of large-scale water infrastructure in Arizona to explore a novel approach to measurement of polycentric decision making contexts. Through semi-structured interviews with water operators in the Arizona water system, this research explores how qualitative and quantitative comparisons can be made between polycentric governance constructs as they are understood by institutional scholars, experienced by actors in polycentric systems, and represented in public policy discourses. I introduce several measures of conditions of polycentricity at a subjective level, including the extents to which actors: experience variety in the work assigned to them; define strong operational priorities; perceive their priorities to be shared by others; identify discrete, critical decisions in the course of their work responsibilities; recall information and action dependencies in their decision making processes; relate communicating their decisions to other dependent decision makers; describe constraints in their process; and evaluate their own independence to make decisions. I use configurational analysis and narrative analysis to show how decision making and governance are understood by operators within the Arizona water system. These results contribute to practical approaches for diagnosis of polycentric systems and theory-building in self governance.