Evolutionary policy making


Jason Collins


June 16, 2012

Project Syndicate has published one of the last pieces by Elinor Ostrom, in which she gives her views on the upcoming Rio+20 summit. The article reflects Ostrom’s wariness of blanket, top-down solutions:

Inaction in Rio would be disastrous, but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.

Ostrom prefers a more evolutionary form of policy making, and notes that this is occurring in many places.

The good news is that evolutionary policymaking is already happening organically. In the absence of effective national and international legislation to curb greenhouse gases, a growing number of city leaders are acting to protect their citizens and economies.

This is hardly surprising – indeed, it should be encouraged. …

When it comes to tackling climate change, the United States has produced no federal mandate explicitly requiring or even promoting emissions-reductions targets. But, by May last year, some 30 US states had developed their own climate action plans, and more than 900 US cities have signed up to the US climate-protection agreement.

Tim Harford noted in Adapt that for successful evolutionary decision-making, there are two steps beyond experimentation of the type noted by Ostrom. There must be a willingness to decide when policies are failing, and failure must be survivable. Policy experimentation must include a willingness to measure and change.

Harford’s additional steps are particularly important when we note the potential for evolutionary processes to go astray. As I quoted in my last post, Ostrom was aware that evolutionary paths do not always lead to the optimal solution.

Another element of evolutionary policy making worth noting is that for those subject to a new city scale policy, it will not feel as though it is an experiment, and the citizens bear the costs it imposes. Take Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban large soda drinks in New York. It is not a blanket national response and allows for a smaller scale experiment than a national ban would entail. But what might be described as policy experimentation at a national level is top down decree for the residents of the city.