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IDIG Speaker Series 2021-22 Launches with Reflections on Climate Change, Governance and Multiple Crises

17 November 2021

8 mins

Dr Tatevik Mnatsakanyan

Lecturer at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University London.

On 18th October, the IDIG Speaker Series 2021-22 launched by hosting Dr Paul Tobin from the University of Manchester, with a talk on European climate change policy and crisis governance. At a time when the world’s eyes are on the UN COP26 Glasgow Climate Summit, this was a timely discussion, generating a lively rebate among IDIG academics, PhD researchers and Master’s students, as well as academic colleagues from other disciplines.

The Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance hosts the Speaker Series to bring together academics and other professionals to present their latest work and experience on a wide range of topics. Take a look at the events and speakers that are lined up for this year, here.

In the blog below, current IDIG PhD researcher Neil Mortimer presents Dr Tobin’s talk, and shares his insights and thoughts on the subject, linking it to his own research on crisis governance in the context of Covid 19.

Learning from Crisis: Understanding Policy Responses to Climate Change & Governance of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Neil Mortimer

On 18th of October, Loughborough University London and the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance welcomed Dr Paul Tobin (University of Manchester), to kickstart our speaker series for the 2021/22 academic year[1].

Dr Tobin spoke on his cutting-edge research, addressing the need for a “polycentric” approach to improve policymaking via new forms of governance[2]. Dr Tobin focuses on local solutions to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. The project relates to a wider theme in the social sciences, investigating approaches to find, and then share effective governance and policymaking in times of crisis. A search for such alternative approaches is starkly overdue amidst what has been dubbed a “polycrisis” – the ‘simultaneous existence of multiple crises that have arisen in the past decade’[3]. These crises reflect the woes of advanced modernity; and there is a need for new research, to rethink and reshape crisis policymaking. It is time for solutions.

Academics are considering new governance models to reframe and redefine existing policymaking approach(es) to the most demanding and substantial issues. These models are envisaged as qualitatively different from traditional, top-down approaches to governance. With no silver bullet in sight, and increasingly difficult policy problems at stake, alternative governance solutions remain vital. Governance is not easy at the best of times; yet with further research on governance in times of crisis, we can embrace complex diversity and strategic uncertainty, to not only shape the post-crisis era but also how affect governments respond in the future.

Polycentric Pioneers: Climate Change Leadership in Europe

Dr Tobin suggests that while climate science has established a myriad of solutions, ‘climate change has become a political puzzle’[4]. Dr Tobin reiterated his cause for concern: while global leaders pledge to meet ambitious climate targets, these must be met with effective governance.

Polycentricity is an approach to governance that overlaps and encourages multiple actors to engage with one another, within a multi-level architecture[5]. Businesses, NGOs, and government(s) work with some degree of autonomy, before coordinating with one another, ‘striking a balance between centralised, fully decentralised, or community-based governance’[6]. Decision-making centres range between multiple jurisdictional levels (e.g., local, state, and national), who take each other into account, to avoid ‘exploitation by an individual group or organisation’[7].

Drawing from the seminal works of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom[8], Dr Tobin is applying the notion of polycentricity to trace and map polycentric relations in practice. In doing so, his research seeks to determine how and why these models appear, while assessing whether they provide solutions to mitigate climate change.

Dr Tobin introduced his trifold empiricalstudy that examines the UK, Germany, and Sweden. The selection reflects similarly ‘climate ambitious countries, to analyse interconnecting networks of different groups and individuals within six city regions’[9]. Addressing questions over how and why polycentric models develop, Dr Tobin analyses three key factors: ‘the role of the European Union; the impact of a country’s national governance model, such as the presence of federalism; and a city’s status as a country’s capital or not[10].

We are inspired and eagerly await the results of his research, as the debate, argumentation, sources, and subsequent tools will assist further research for academics in the wider research area.

Polycentricity & more during the COVID-19 Pandemic? 

As the writer of this blog piece, I, Neil Mortimer (Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance PhD candidate at Loughborough University London), related to and became inspired by Dr Tobin’s research. Specifically, I was drawn to Dr Tobin’s methodological approach, utilising the case-study method to examine new forms of governance in practice. My research analyses policy experimentation during crisis, studying the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, I have opted for a case-orientated approach that includes countries with shared similarities, showing practical differences in three key factors under exploration.

Governance theory will explain how, why, and where policy experimentation appears, while likening its key features and scope conditions to new forms of governance. The investigation considers three key factors that shape each response, including the fundamental policy problems at stake, the impact of a country’s national governance model and whether decision-makers base decisions on “principled” or “pragmatic” values[11]. The project will map out interconnecting themes of each key factor through experiences of the first and second “wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic, examining select cases within the “anglosphere”[12].

While polycentric governance can be understood as a new governance model, it can be conceptualised further through the theory of “experimentalist governance”, which identifies a distinct policymaking method. Like the solutions pursued by Dr Tobin to mitigate climate change, the COVID-19 crisis requires outcomes beyond a one-size-fits-all approach, towards a cooperative and inclusive model.

Scholars reveal two distinct approaches in COVID-19 policymaking, including a “command-and-control” style and an “experimental style”[13]. Akin to polycentricity, the experimentalist theory as developed by Sabel and Zeitlin in particular adopts a multi-level approach to governance that explores ‘different methods and options and regards outcomes as lessons rather than as failures’[14]. Based around the key elements and scope conditions of polycentric governance, experimentation advocates learning, interaction, trust, and transparency encompassing a broad range of countries and domains[15]. However, as each case in praxis is unique, we need more research to understand the range of the form, effectiveness, or capacity of such experimental approaches.

Closely aligned with Dr Tobin’s calls for polycentricity, pleas to examine the “experimental style” come from similar frustrations with traditional practices and seek to envision a future where crisis is an opportunity to learn both collectively and cooperatively.

It will be interesting to see the results of both studies, to determine the potential for, and the emergence of different governance models in times of crisis.


Concluding Thoughts

Dr Tobin’s research provides support for academics who wish to further the application of new forms of governance. Researchers must (now) move beyond theoretical debates to assess real-world and practical applications.

Research on the experimentalist approach to COVID-19 policy is encouraged by polycentric pioneers such as Dr Tobin, to not only determine, but facilitate potential practices, from theory to reality, and towards the new mainstream.

It’s time to govern crisis differently, so let’s watch this space!

[1] Tobin, D., 2021. IDIG Speaker Series | Loughborough University London. [online] Available at:

[2] Tobin, D., 2021. Polycentric pioneers? Explaining variations in governance models and their impacts on local climate change policy | Research Explorer | The University of Manchester. [online] Available at:

[3] Zeitlin, J., Nicoli, F., & Laffan, B. (2019). Introduction: The European Union beyond the polycrisis? Integration and politicization in an age of shifting cleavages. Journal of European Public Policy, 26(7)

[4] Tobin, P., 2019. Governing climate change: polycentricity in action?

[5] Aligica, P.D. and Tarko, V., 2012. Polycentricity: from Polanyi to Ostrom, and beyond. Governance25(2), pp.237-262.

[6] Carlisle, K. and Gruby, R.L., 2019. Polycentric systems of governance: A theoretical model for the commons. Policy Studies Journal47(4), pp.927-952.

[7] Carlisle, K. and Gruby, R.L., (2019): 2

[8] Ostrom, V., 1999. Polycentricity (part 1). Polycentricity and local public economies, pp.52-74.

[9] Tobin, P., (2021): 2

[10] Tobin, P., (2021): 3

[11] Boin, A., and Lodge, M. (2021). Responding to the COVID-19 crisis: a principled or pragmatist approach? Journal of

European Public Policy, 1-22

[12] Vucetic, S. (2020). The anglosphere. Stanford University Press.

[13]Boin, A., Ekengren, M., and Rhinard, M. (2020). Hiding in plain sight: Conceptualizing the creeping crisis. Risk, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy, 11(2), 116-138.

[14] Sabel, C. F., and Zeitlin, J. (Eds.). (2010). Experimentalist governance in the European Union: towards a new architecture. Oxford University Press on Demand.

[15] McFadgen, B., & Huitema, D. (2017). Stimulating learning through policy experimentation: a multi-case analysis of how design influences policy learning outcomes in experiments for climate adaptation. Water9(9), 648.

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