Polycentric governance systems’ perceived impact on learning in north-central US lake and watershed organizations

Eve L. Castille, Marco A. Janssen, Christopher T. Solomon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Adapting to social and environmental change requires learning and governance that span ecological levels, political jurisdictions, and management challenges. Governance of these challenges is often comprised of public and private sector actors with overlapping jurisdictions that work together—termed polycentric governance. Polycentric governance systems have been found to improve adaptability through learning. In this paper, we compare how local organizations perceive a governance systems’ function and structure to help them learn and adapt to change. In our interviews with organization leaders in three north-central US states, we used expert elicitation to compare the degree to which the organizations’ partners help them experiment and learn to adapt to challenges. The challenges most frequently identified included social challenges like sharing knowledge and funding as well as ecological issues related to the resource. The associated polycentric governance systems’ structures varied by state. Independence and jurisdictional overlap—measures of polycentricity—differed by partner type, while consideration of partners’ best practices was similar for all partner types. Most partners were said to provide helpful information and respond to queries facilitating learning, but government partners were not always encouraging innovation or flexible implying less space for experimentation. We found that in each of the three states there is a mixture of actors at multiple scales partnering with the lake organizations at different frequencies and modes of interaction. We conclude that polycentric governance is beneficial for learning and experimentation, and that different structures may be beneficial to adapting within different contexts or problems definitions. The challenge for these systems is controlling areas of risk while providing flexibility to experiment and adapt to changing conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number109
JournalRegional Environmental Change
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2023


  • Adaptation
  • Experimentation
  • Learning
  • Polycentric governance
  • Watershed conservation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change


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