Empirical research on polycentric governance: Critical gaps and a framework for studying long-term change

Elizabeth Baldwin, Andreas Thiel, Michael McGinnis, Elke Kellner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Polycentric governance (PG) describes governance systems characterized by multiple, interdependent centers of decision-making, offering an alternative to centralized governance models. PG is often assumed to be effective at helping policy actors address complex collective action problems, but burgeoning empirical literature on PG shows that it is not a panacea – PG is associated with both positive and negative governance outcomes. In this article, we ask: what do we know about why PG performs well in some cases but not in others? We start with a systematic review, synthesizing findings that provide empirical support for positive and negative features that are theorized to accompany PG. Our review reveals a critical gap in relation to our understanding of PG: the existing empirical literature largely fails to address change and evolution over time in PG systems, undermining our understanding of why PG works – or does not– across different contexts and over time. To fill this gap, we propose a “Context – Operations – Outcomes – Feedbacks” (COOF) framework that draws explicit attention to the interplay between context, operational arrangements, outcomes and identifies feedback pathways and adjustment mechanisms that drive dynamic change and evolution over time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPolicy Studies Journal
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • environmental governance
  • institutional analysis
  • long-term change
  • policy feedbacks
  • polycentric governance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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