Institutional Navigation for the Common Good

Institutional Navigation for the Common Good

Policy networks matter for sustainability. But how can policy makers effectively pursue their goals in complex, polycentric governance systems? We examine institutional navigation in San Francisco Bay, California and the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, and develop some practical ideas for individual actors pursuing complex sustainability goals in polycentric systems.

In our new Perspective, we analyze how individuals pursue their policy goals within polycentric sustainability governance [1]. It’s worth noting that complex systems aren’t inherently bad. A polycentric approach – which literally means “multiple centers”, instead of a single governing body – can be equitable, innovative and flexible. Most governance is now polycentric; therefore, the important question does not relate to which governance model is most appropriate, but rather how polycentric governance varies across social–ecological contexts to facilitate cooperation and learning [2].

Answering this question requires analysis of how individual agency interacts within complex institutional structures to produce sustainability governance outputs and outcomes. Unfortunately, individual agency rarely features in analyses of polycentric systems, which are still dominated by normative structural perspectives that describe and often prescribe the connective possibilities of polycentric governance.

Yet, every individual or organization, whether they are a policy practitioner or a scientist, navigates different values, attitudes, beliefs and decisions every day [3,4]. Surprisingly, this established repertoire is rarely examined in a systematic manner, despite influencing on-the-ground outcomes.

We therefore set out to develop a theoretical framework for navigating polycentric governance, focusing on four critical elements: knowledge, relationships, strategies, and decisions and implementation.

How did we arrive at this framework? Part of the answer is science sociology.  The co-authors met via a workshop hosted by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), which is funded by the US National Science Foundation and aims to build interdisciplinary networks to advance sustainability science. Our workshop was part of a 2-year pursuit led by Graeme Cumming and Graham Epstein on extending Elinor Ostrom’s frameworks [5].  

During after-hours conversations over beers, crab cakes and oysters (a SESYNC tradition), the authors were lamenting about the lack of focus on individuals, and the continuing obsession with collaborative rules and structures. For an interesting explanation of this obsession, read Jane Mansbridge’s 2014 essay on The role of the state in governing the commons [6].

Another part of the answer is the reality of basic and applied research on polycentric governance. Polycentricism is everywhere. Decision makers are facing it. Our own research experience and policy engagement in California’s San Francisco Bay [7] and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,  and Queensland’s Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef [8] is testament to this reality.

So we developed the institutional navigation framework which poses four critical questions (Fig. 1):

  • Knowledge: how do actors cultivate awareness of the science, venues, players, politics and indeed self?
  • Relationships: what does it mean to develop trust, avoid over-commitment, select partners and leverage different types of social capital?
  • Strategies: how do actors choose or shift venues and how do they approach externalities, goal setting, cooperation and leadership allocation?
  • Decisions and implementation: can actors explicitly identify and sequence their sustainability goals and, more broadly, is uncertainty a fact of complex institutional life or a quality to be minimized?

The concept of institutional navigation allowed us to connect and test new ideas across theories of institutional structure (including polycentric governance, institutional analysis and social–ecological systems) and the policy process (including venue shopping, policy entrepreneurship and actor-centred institutionalism) [9,10]. It enabled us to ask what kinds of actors use different strategies of institutional navigation, how often, and what are the consequences for the capacity of polycentric systems to achieve sustainability?

We explored the utility of the framework by comparing climate adaptation in two longstanding and intensively studied cases: San Francisco Bay, California (SFB) and the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland (GBR), drawing on our own research experience and policy engagement in these cases [11, 12].

Initial application revealed a normative problem: institutional navigation can be used for “evil” as well as “good.” By evil, we mean individual scientists and decision-makers pursuing self-interested goals at the expense of the collective welfare of other actors. By good, we mean scientists and decision-makers using institutional navigation to pursue the common good in an equitable manner, which in the case of climate change adaptation means increasing resilience and adaptive capacity.

In Australia, for example, a group of actors was using their substantial funding to incentivize weaker actors in the system to support technology-led adaptation solutions and symbolic or placebo policy [13].  In contrast, the Bay Adapt process in San Francisco Bay is developing a regional climate adaptation strategy starting from principles of equity, inclusion, and collaboration. Resolving this normative conundrum means training scientists and decision-makers to use institutional navigation for good. We could start by reinforcing professional norms of integrity and a public service ethic, both of which have been in freefall in many polities in recent times [14].

But we also need better knowledge about the link between the institutional navigation strategies of individual actors, the structures of institutions, and wider political cultures and ecological contexts. Fully articulating these interactions, and providing evidence-based recommendations, requires deeper social science both within and across multiple social-ecological observatories.

Image Credit: Dr. Greg Torda, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Australia.


  1. Lubell, M., & Morrison, T.H. Institutional navigation for polycentric sustainability governance. Nature Sustainability, , (2021).
  2. Morrison, T.H. et al. The black box of power in polycentric environmental governance. Global Environmental Change 57, 101934 (2019).
  3. Henry, A. et al. Belief systems and social capital as drivers of policy network structure: the case of California regional planning. Public Adm. Res. Theory 21, 419–444 (2011).
  4. Lemos, M.C. et al. Technical knowledge and water resources management: a comparative study of river basin councils, Brazil. Water Resources Research, 46(6) (2010).
  5. Ostrom, E., Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  6. Mansbridge, J., The role of the state in governing the commons. Environmental Science & Policy, 36, 8-10 (2014).
  7. Lubell, M.. et al. Network structure and institutional complexity in an ecology of water management games. Ecol. Soc. 19, 23 (2014).
  8. Morrison, T.H. Evolving polycentric governance of the Great Barrier ReefProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,114, E3013-E3021 (2017).
  9. Anderies, J. M. et al. A framework to analyse the robustness of social–ecological systems from an institutional perspective. Ecol. Soc. 9, 18 (2004).
  10. Cairney, P. The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (Springer, 2016).
  11. Lubell, M. The Governance Gap: Climate Adaptation and Sea-Level Rise in the San Francisco Bay Area (Univ. California, Davis, 2017).
  12. Morrison T.H. et al. Political dynamics and governance of World Heritage ecosystemsNature Sustainability, 3:947-955 (2020).
  13. Morrison, T.H. et al. Advancing coral reef governance into the Anthropocene. One Earth 2, 64–74 (2020).
  14. Colloff, M.J. et al. Scientific integrity, public policy and water governance in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. Australasian Journal of Water Resources, 1-20 (2021).

Citation Gap Statement: Much recent research shows a citation gap in environmental and policy scholarship [1-4]. In writing this blog, we actively reflected on these patterns in our Nature Sustainability manuscript and what can be done to address them. We found that without being consciously discriminatory, cited first authors in our published manuscript included 68.33% white males, 30% white females, 1.67% male BIPOC, and 0% female BIPOC. These figures only slightly improved when we counted all authors. While these patterns can be partly attributed to the historical dominance of white males in the relevant fields, they reinforce the need to expand efforts to recognize the global talent pool upon which science depends. As a result of this process, we are both expanding our professional and scientific goals accordingly, for example through checking gender representation in journal article bibliographies and syllabi (e.g. using Sumner’s Gender Balance Assessment Tool [5], mentoring, sponsoring and collaborating with minority scholars, and avoiding so-called ‘parachute science’ [6]. We encourage our colleagues across the biophysical sciences and policy sciences to do the same.

  1. Giakoumi, S. et al. Persistent gender bias in marine science and conservation calls for action to achieve equity. Biological Conservation, 257, 109134 (2021).
  2. Cooke, S.J. et al. Contemporary authorship guidelines fail to recognize diverse contributions in conservation science research. Ecological Solutions and Evidence 2, e12060 (2021).
  3. Maliniak, D. et al. The gender citation gap in international relations. International Organization, 67, 889-922 (2013).
  4. Mitchell, S.M. et al. Gendered citation patterns in international relations journals. International Studies Perspectives, 14, 485-492 (2013).
  5. Sumner, J.L. The Gender Balance Assessment Tool (GBAT). PS, Political Science & Politics, 51, 396 (2018).
  6. Stefanoudis, P.V. et al. Turning the tide of parachute science. Current Biology31, R184-R185 (2021).


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