Part I: 2020:
The Good, the Bad,
and the Ugly
Peter J. Robertson is an associate profes-
sor in the School of Policy, Planning, and
Development at the University of Southern
California. His research and teaching focus
on improving the capacity of organizations
to successfully accomplish their objectives
while attending to the needs and interests
of the individuals and communities with
whom they interact. More generally, he is
interested in institutional reforms that will
support a societal transition to a path of
Taehyon Choi is a doctoral candidate
in the School of Policy, Planning, and
Development at the University of Southern
California. His primary research interests are
group learning and decision making and
Ecological Governance S89
Peter J. Robertson
University of Southern California
Ecological Governance: Organizing Principles
for an Emerging Era
e signiﬁ cant reforms being implemented in governance
systems around the world reﬂ ect a broader transition
of society from the modern to a new emerging era.
is transition is framed in terms of a shift from a
mechanistic to an ecological worldview, stimulated by a
number of developments during the twentieth century
and the last decade. In contrast to the mechanistic
orientation toward reductionism, prediction and control,
and competition, an ecological worldview emphasizes
the interconnectedness, self-organizing capacity, and
coevolutionary dynamics of all natural systems. is
emergent worldview yields useful insights regarding the
purpose, design, process, and relationships characteristic
of organizational systems that strive to play an eﬀ ective
role in the future governance of society. e discussion
outlines speciﬁ c organizing principles pertinent to
these four areas, identifying some compatible practices
that are already being adopted by public and private
organizations. e authors address the possibility that the
continued transition to ecological governance may not
reﬂ ect just a long, slow process of incremental change, but
also could entail a sudden, systemic reorientation that
results in a faster transformation of the extant institutions
of public administration.
A signiﬁ cant trend in the ﬁ eld of public admin-
istration at present is the broadening of its
focus, with attention now being given to the
more expansive notion of governance, in contrast to
the ﬁ eld’s primary emphasis historically on the more
limited issues of government (Bingham, Nabatchi,
and O’Leary 2005; Milward and Provan 2000). After
a quarter century of devolution, decentralization,
downsizing, and debureaucratization, coupled with
privatization, contracting out, and the adoption of
business management techniques, growing interest
in issues of governance reﬂ ects the fact that much of
the work in the public arena takes place not just by
government organizations but through partnerships
and networks involving public, private, and nonproﬁ t
organizations, with greater involvement and/or scru-
tiny by a wide range of interest groups and concerned
Much attention has been given to the kinds of changes
that public organizations and managers must make
in order to be eﬀ ective actors in these cross-sectoral,
multilevel governance systems (e.g., Bryson, Crosby,
and Stone 2006; McGuire 2002). A key theme in this
literature is the importance of establishing structures
and processes that facilitate collaborative dynamics
among diverse participants, which, in turn, can en-
hance the quality of decisions made and implemented.
Numerous examples of eﬀ orts to establish participa-
tive, collaborative processes that contribute to the
eﬀ ective governance of organizations, neighborhoods,
communities, and regions have been documented
(e.g., Berry, Portney, and omson 1993; Imperial
2005; Weeks 2000). In short, the emergence of new
systems of collaborative governance (O’Leary, Gerard,
and Bingham 2006) is already well under way.
e starting premise of this paper is that the reform
processes apparent over the last few decades can fruit-
fully be viewed as a manifestation of a deeper and
subtler transformation under way in society, namely,
the transition out of modernity into a new, emerging
era. On one hand, the philosophical foundations of
the modern era have been challenged, if not under-
mined, during this period by postmodern critique
and “deconstruction,” such that modern-era institu-
tions have lost some of their legitimacy and are now
frequently expected to incorporate a more diverse
set of perspectives and values (Bogason 2001; Fox
and Miller 1995). On the other hand, an eclectic
“new paradigm” literature posits the emergence of a
new worldview that is superseding the now-outdated
modern worldview (e.g., Dennard 1996; Elgin 1993;
Harman 1998; Hubbard 1998; Laszlo 2001; Wood-
house 1996). Many observers suggest that this new
paradigm is essentially an ecological worldview (Capra
1996; Frenay 2006; Metzner 1999), replacing the
mechanistic worldview on which modern society was
Just as the arrival of modernity transformed the
dominant institutions of premodern society, it is
S90 Public Administration Review • December 2010 • Special Issue
Mechanistic versus Ecological Worldviews
e emergence of modern civilization is typically acknowledged as
a result of the Enlightenment-era philosophy of seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century Europe, especially the work of René Descartes
and Isaac Newton. e Newtonian-Cartesian worldview is essen-
tially mechanistic in nature, in that the universe is conceptualized
as a perfect machine that operates according to a set of precise
mathematical laws. e modern mechanistic worldview is charac-
terized by three ideological orientations that serve as useful points
of comparison with the emerging ecological worldview. e ﬁ rst is
an orientation toward reductionism, which refers to the belief that
systems can be best understood through analysis of their component
parts. Philosophically, the emphasis on reductionism gave rise to
the individualistic orientation embedded in modern political and
economic theory, in contrast to the more collectivistic attitudes
dominant in premodern societies. Modern systems of governance
and administration reﬂ ect these tendencies in that they are divided
into distinct branches, jurisdictions, spheres of activity, and orga-
nizations, each of which is expected to focus exclusively on its own
issues and concerns, without much regard for the larger systems of
which they are a part.
e mechanistic worldview also places a high emphasis on predic-
tion and control. is emphasis, and the related goal of maintaining
a steady-state equilibrium, was reﬂ ected in the design of modern
administrative systems as well, with the Weberian bureaucracy serv-
ing as a prime example. e desire for control over the increasingly
complex organizations arising in modern industrial society supported
the reliance on hierarchical systems designed according to presumably
scientiﬁ c or general principles. Finally, the modern paradigm focuses
on the competitive dynamics underlying evolution. e inevitabil-
ity of human competitiveness and the primacy of self-interest are
taken for granted, with modern political and economic institutions
designed according to this premise. As a result, the large organizations
that emerged as dominant actors in the political and economic realms
incorporated this competitive, self-interested orientation as well.
e last century witnessed a number of developments that served
to undermine the mechanistic mind-set of modernity and lay
the foundations for a new paradigm. In the realm of science, the
discoveries of quantum physics and research on the brain and mind
have yielded insights that contradict the mechanistic worldview
(Capra 1991; Talbot 1991). e development
of systems theory (von Bertalanﬀ y 1968)
provided a theoretical foundation for study-
ing systems as integrated wholes, with a focus
on the interactions among their parts and
with the larger environment in which they
are embedded. e study of systems gave rise
to the new ﬁ eld of complexity science, which
explores the properties of complex adaptive
systems, in which qualities of the system as a
whole emerge spontaneously and unpredict-
ably from the dynamic, nonlinear interac-
tions among system components (Waldrop 1992). Life sciences
research has clariﬁ ed that the diverse species in ecological systems
engage in various types of interactions or relationships, rang-
ing from parasitic and competitive to collaborative and altruistic
natural and inevitable that contemporary institutions founded on
the premises of modernity will undergo transformation to reﬂ ect
the new ecological paradigm. One primary institution of modern
society is the Weberian bureaucracy, the mechanistic organizational
form that has served as the dominant template for public and pri-
vate organizations for at least a century. e growing obsolescence of
the bureaucratic model is reﬂ ected in a considerable literature argu-
ing for the adoption of new organizational forms (e.g., Ashkenas
et al. 1995; Fradette and Michaud 1998; Hock 1999; Pasternack
and Viscio 1998; Pinchot and Pinchot 1994; Purser and Cabana
1998; Robertson 1999; Strebel 2000). Among the ideas being
oﬀ ered regarding the new forms of organization needed to function
eﬀ ectively in the complex conditions of a global, postmodern world,
there is growing recognition of the value of adopting an ecological
perspective on organizational systems. For example, Tracy (1989)
outlined the characteristics of a living organization, de Geus (1997)
discussed the idea of a living company, Miles et al. (1997) developed
the notion of a cellular organization, and Cook (2000) examined
the evolution of organizations into a new, more “organismic” form.
More generally, Hawken (1993) analyzed the ecology of commerce,
and Hansen (1995) and Moore (1996) focused on the value of
ecological thinking in business.
It is our contention that the momentum behind these reforms
is powerful, and that the next decade will see even more sweep-
ing changes in the organizational and interorganizational systems
through which collective decisions that aﬀ ect the well-being of com-
munities and society are made. Whereas emergent systems of col-
laborative governance struggle to succeed in the context of a modern
worldview and an institutional context biased toward self-interest and
competition, acceptance and adoption of the principles and practices
of collaboration will happen more readily as ecological consciousness
(Uhl 2004) diﬀ uses throughout modern society. is transformation
will be further stimulated by the failure of modern institutions of
governance to eﬀ ectively address the severe challenges confronting a
growing global population. With the inadequacy of many contem-
porary institutions becoming ever more apparent, we anticipate that,
in the future, much public policy will be decided and implemented
through newly developed systems of “ecological governance.”
e primary objective of this paper, after a brief comparison of the
mechanistic and ecological worldviews, is to specify a set of organiz-
ing principles that can guide the development
of ecological governance systems. e discus-
sion is descriptive, predictive, and normative
all at the same time: the model of ecological
governance developed here incorporates ideas
and approaches that are already being put
into practice; it is based on the premise that
contemporary organizational systems will
continue to evolve in this direction, incor-
porating more and more of the features of
ecological governance; and it clariﬁ es the types
of reforms that these systems should strive to
implement if they want to become more compatible with the condi-
tions and challenges of the emerging ecological era. Implementation
of the required changes will not be easy, of course, and the conclu-
sion addresses the viability of making signiﬁ cant progress toward
widespread adoption of ecological governance.
e primary objective of this
paper, after a brief comparison
of the mechanistic and
ecological worldviews, is to
specify a set of organizing
principles that can guide the
development of ecological
Ecological Governance S91
to transform the modern bureaucracy into a more participative,
collaborative, adaptable, and responsive system of governance. It
provides a framework for rethinking how best to organize the activi-
ties of the people and organizations involved in the governance of
public aﬀ airs, regardless of sector.
Because an ecological approach suggests thinking about organiza-
tions as living systems, the notion of a cellular organization (Miles
et al. 1997) provides useful language for discussing organizational
characteristics and dynamics. Cellular organizations are composed
of cells, which can be thought of as individuals, groups, or depart-
ments, or even whole organizations participating in an interorga-
nizational network—any constellation of people who can be seen
as having a distinct role or function in a larger system. e activity
of and interactions among the cells give rise to the system, and the
system’s activities in the context of its environment shape cellular
activity. In this sense, an ecological perspective requires consider-
ation of the individuals who are the primary parts of organizations
as well as the environments in which organizations function.
Principle 1a. Interconnected actors or “cells” in ecological
governance strive to add value to the larger systems of which
they are a part while trying to avoid negative externalities.
In an ecological governance system, the purpose of every organiza-
tion, its raison d’être, is to add value to the larger system(s) of which
it is a part, while maintaining its own health and vitality in sustain-
able ways (Maynard and Mehrtens 1993). As a cell in a system
(e.g., a government, an industry, a community, a network), each
organization serves one or more roles or functions that contribute
to the well-being of the collective, such that society should be better
oﬀ in some way as a result of organizational activities. Ecological
thinking also suggests that organizations should operate eﬃ ciently
in the sense of maximizing the ratio of beneﬁ ts or productive out-
comes to the amount of waste (i.e., nonproductive or dysfunctional
outcomes) generated by their activities. It is reasonable to expect
organizations in an ecological governance system to be responsible
and accountable for the negative externalities they create rather than
leaving these costs to be paid for by society (Daly and Cobb 1994;
Principle 1b. Self-organizing and self-managing activity
within an ecological governance system is guided by its mis-
sion and regulated by shared principles.
e basic purpose of a system can be opera-
tionalized in terms of its mission (Weiss and
Piderit 1999). Articulation of a well-deﬁ ned
purpose and mission together with an explicit
set of operating principles or core values (Ker-
naghan 2003) helps clarify the basic param-
eters or “program rationale” (Mandell 1994)
guiding the activities of the system’s many
diverse cells (Cleveland 2000). It is important
that the many cells that compose an ecologi-
cal governance system act in ways that are
congruent with these parameters of missions
and operating principles, and thus it is helpful
Mechanistic assumptions as applied to organizations were further
challenged by developments in the social sciences, including a
resurgence of humanistic ideology in the mid-twentieth century
(Maslow 1954), the development of open systems theory (Katz
and Kahn 1966) and contingency theory (Lawrence and Lorsch
1967), the postmodern recognition that organizations are “socially
constructed realities” (Berger and Luckmann 1966), and critical
perspectives pointing to the dysfunctional consequences of the
materialistic, individualistic, and control-oriented ideology embed-
ded in modern institutions (Denhardt 1981). Finally, increased
awareness of the environmental damage caused by modern in-
dustrial society has led to greater recognition that humanity must
become more ecologically minded, viewing ourselves as part of and
interdependent with the natural world rather than as separate and
distinct from it with the right to abuse it for our own purposes
Collectively, these developments provide the conceptual and empiri-
cal foundation for an ecological worldview, which can be described
in terms of three key orientations that distinguish it from the
modern mechanistic worldview (Harder, Robertson, and Wood-
ward 2004). e ﬁ rst is an emphasis on interconnectedness (Laszlo
2003). In contrast to a reductionist focus on the parts of a system,
an ecological orientation is more holistic in nature, recognizing that
a thorough understanding of any system requires knowledge of the
nature of the interactions among its parts as well as the nature of its
interdependencies with other parts of the larger system(s) in which it
is embedded. Second, in contrast to a mechanistic perspective, which
assumes the necessity of centralized control to insure system perfor-
mance, an ecological worldview recognizes the self-organizing capac-
ity inherent in all natural systems (Jantsch 1980). Ecological systems
are self-managing and self-regulating in that their distinct and diverse
parts engage in patterns of interaction that maintain a dynamic
equilibrium and the homeostasis of the system, even though speciﬁ c
patterns of behavior cannot be predicted in advance (Kauﬀ man
1995). ird, an ecological worldview emphasizes the coevolutionary
dynamics through which systems evolve along with their environ-
ments in a mutually reinforcing pattern of inﬂ uence. Whereas the
mechanistic paradigm assumes that progress occurs through competi-
tion among independent and self-interested entities, the health of
ecological systems is actually maintained through complex patterns
of both competitive and cooperative interactions among interde-
pendent elements that pursue their purposes while also contributing
to, and not detracting from, the well-being of the system as a whole
(Capra 2002). rough the cumulative pattern of these interac-
tions, a system, its parts, and its environment
coevolve together in a continuous, reciprocal
process of mutual adaptation.
e characteristics of ecological governance
are discussed in terms of four categories of
organizing principles—namely, purpose,
design, process, and relationships—and
examples are provided of practices being
implemented that are compatible with these
principles. Taken together, these features
outline a generic model of organizing, that
is, a new “ideal type,” that can guide eﬀ orts
e characteristics of ecological
governance are discussed in
terms of four categories of
purpose, design, process, and
are provided of practices
being implemented that
are compatible with these
S92 Public Administration Review • December 2010 • Special Issue
An eﬀ ective network has a relational structure (Kahn 1998) and pat-
terns of interaction that give rise to the self-organizing, self- managing,
and self-regulating qualities of natural systems. Despite the absence
of a control mechanism, these systems display a considerable level
of regularity, stability, and adaptability (Capra 1996). ere has
been growing recognition of the potential value to organizations of
self-organizing dynamics (Wheatley 1992) and self-managing cells
(Kalliola 2003; Yang and Guy 2004). Eﬀ orts to ﬂ atten organizational
hierarchies reﬂ ect an awareness of the need to give frontline person-
nel and lower-level managers more authority and responsibility to
make timely decisions in a responsive manner. Attempts to transform
organizational structures from rigid hierarchies into more responsive
systems suggest that large-scale organizational change occurs primarily
through a continual process of organizational self-redesign, reﬂ ecting
an ongoing series of incremental adjustments to new contingencies
(Mohrman and Cummings 1989).
Principle 2c. Collaborative dynamics in an ecological govern-
ance system facilitate adaptability and innovation through
experimentation and novelty.
In complex, fast-changing environments, it is imperative that
governance systems become and remain ﬂ exible, responsive, and
innovative, demonstrating the capacity to readily reconﬁ gure and
redeploy resources in order to respond to new opportunities and
challenges (Fradette and Michaud 1998). Eﬀ ective teams and col-
laborative alliances are increasingly recognized as useful tactics for
improving organizations’ innovative and adaptive capacity (Alter
and Hage 1993; Powell, Koput, and Smith-Doerr 1996). Innova-
tion also requires a willingness to try new approaches and activities,
which means that system design should take into account ongoing
needs for new knowledge and the exploration of novelty. Because
creativity invariably requires experimentation and risk taking,
ecological governance operates at “the edge of chaos,” where there
is enough order and stability to maintain the integrity of the system
yet suﬃ cient chaos and unpredictability to produce the needed
novelty and innovation (Strebel 2000).
Principle 3a. e process of making decisions in an eco-
logical governance system is participative, democratic, and
In order to determine what is to be accomplished (purpose, mission,
and goals) and how it will be accomplished (strategy, operations,
and administration), ecological governance systems require deci-
sion processes that are essentially democratic (deLeon and deLeon
2002), based on open participation and eﬀ orts to achieve consensus.
Generally speaking, the various cells in the system have the right
and responsibility to participate in decisions that pertain to and/or
have an impact on them (Collins 1997). Inclusion of all relevant
cells that have a stake in the outcome and thus a claim on participa-
tion in the process helps to ensure that the full range of beneﬁ ts and
costs associated with system activity is considered. e adoption of
more inclusive decision processes to address complex public prob-
lems is resulting from such factors as governmental devolution and
decentralization, greater involvement of citizens in public decision
making (Box 1998; Roberts 2004), the growth of the nonproﬁ t or
third sector (Burbidge 1997), the increased focus on participative
for all cells to understand clearly how their roles ﬁ t into the bigger
picture (Bradford and Cohen 1984). To the extent that continued
pursuit of the mission is perceived as worthwhile, the requisite
resources needed to accomplish it (e.g., material, ﬁ nancial, human,
intellectual, and social capital) should ﬂ ow to the system. Yet the
scope and scale of the mission should also be compatible with the
resources available to pursue it—cells should not be expected to do
more than they are capable of in light of resource constraints.
Principle 1c. System eﬀ ectiveness is deﬁ ned and assessed
broadly in terms of its responsiveness to the multiple stake-
holders impacted by system activities.
e success of an ecological governance system is a function of the
extent to which it responds adequately to the needs, demands, and
expectations of various stakeholders (Svendsen 1998). It is clear
that employees, customers, clients, community members, and
many other interest groups are paying closer attention to organiza-
tional decisions and actions than they used to, resulting in growing
demands for organizations to become more socially responsible
(Wilson 2000). Public organizations have been subject to increased
pressure in recent years to measure their performance so as to dem-
onstrate more clearly whether they are providing the beneﬁ ts desired
or expected by important constituents (Heinrich 2002). Because
the purpose of organizations in an ecological governance system is
to provide these beneﬁ ts while minimizing the harm caused, it is
useful to get input and feedback from all relevant stakeholders as to
the overall eﬀ ects, both positive and negative, of the organization’s
Principle 2a. e primary form of an ecological governance
system is a dynamic network of relationships among inter-
dependent cells, with diverse roles integrated into a coherent
In ecological governance, the network replaces the hierarchy as
the fundamental organizational form (Lipnack and Stamps 1994).
In essence, network is to ecological governance as hierarchy is to
bureaucracy—just as not all hierarchies are bureaucratic, not all
networks are ecological. e nodes in the network are the many
cells that carry out a particular set of tasks that help the system to
accomplish its purpose. Role diﬀ erentiation results in considerable
diversity in the types of cells that constitute any such system. Role
diversity is useful when the system capitalizes on the diﬀ erences in
information, skills, values, and attitudes reﬂ ected in a diverse mem-
bership (Cox and Blake 1991). Furthermore, the eﬀ ectiveness of the
system is a function of the extent to which its diversity is integrated
into a coherent unity, a challenge being addressed by many organi-
zations through the use of diversity management programs (Kel-
lough and Naﬀ 2004). While shared commitment to purpose and
principles help establish a foundation of commonality, the level of
system integration is ultimately a function of the dynamic structure
reﬂ ected in the pattern of relationships among the organization’s
cells (Hock 1999).
Principle 2b. Self-organizing, self-managing patterns of inter-
action among cells enable the system’s continual adjustment
to new circumstances.
Ecological Governance S93
Greenleaf 1977). Such leaders act in service to the organization’s
purpose and are willing to be held accountable for the well-being
of the system as a whole. ey take action after identifying the best
way to proceed to serve the highest purpose of all involved (Daft
and Lengel 1998).
Principle 4a. Positive relationships among the cells in an
ecological governance system, based on mutually beneﬁ cial
reciprocity, build social capital that contributes to system
A web of positive, reciprocal relationships supporting collaborative
interactions is key to the adaptive capacity of ecological governance.
e success of an organization and the eﬀ ectiveness of its cells are
a function of its internal web of relationships as well as its external
web with other cells and organizations in the environment (Feldman
and Khademian 2002). e development of more positive relation-
ships is the basic idea behind the concept of social capital (Putnam
1995), which is thought to be highest in communities of people
who trust each other, usually based on their shared values, history,
and identity and reinforced by the norm of reciprocity. Because
competition readily undermines the trust underlying network
eﬀ ectiveness, cells that are helpful and fair in their dealings with
others are better able to maintain reciprocal relationships that are
mutually beneﬁ cial over the long run. Such relationships can often
lie dormant for quite some time and yet be activated easily when
circumstances warrant it, facilitating the self-organizing dynamics
needed to respond readily to signiﬁ cant environmental ﬂ uctuations
(Landau 1991; Moynihan 2007).
Principle 4b. Value alignment between a system and its cells
enhances motivation and commitment to mutual well-being.
Participation by a cell in ecological governance is conditional on
its agreement to serve the system’s purpose and adhere to its core
principles (Hock 1999). While some cells (e.g., paid employees)
may not have any intrinsic interest in the system’s purpose or
principles, those that do are likely to have more meaningful and
eﬀ ective participation. is kind of identiﬁ cation or internalization
constitutes a primary basis of organizational commitment (Balfour
and Wechsler 1994; O’Reilly and Chatman 1986) and provides the
foundation for mutually beneﬁ cial relationships in which a system
is committed to promoting the health and development of its cells
in return for the cells’ commitment to the
well-being of the system. Cells should beneﬁ t
from their involvement in the system, just as
their participation should beneﬁ t the system
as a whole. Evidence indicates that organi-
zations in which members feel valued and
appreciated tend to perform better (Pfeﬀ er
1998), possibly because this generates more
“citizenship behavior” (Organ 1988), which
contributes to the overall functioning of the
Principle 4c. Evaluation and feedback
from interdependent others contribute to
the ability to learn and adaptively coevolve.
community development (Henton, Melville, and Walesh 1997),
and the emerging emphasis on collaborative planning (Booher and
Innes 2002; Healey 2006). Given the participatory nature of these
processes, cooperative/collaborative approaches to decision delibera-
tion and conﬂ ict resolution (Isenhart and Spangle 2000) are more
constructive than competitive/adversarial approaches. In particu-
lar, a consensus-based decision process strives to integrate various
perspectives and preferences in order to achieve a synthesis that
addresses the broadest range of concerns and thus more successfully
reﬂ ects the collective interest (Susskind, McKearnan, and omas-
Principle 3b. Authority in ecological governance is ﬂ uid,
expertise based, and task bound, with everyone responsible for
their own and the system’s success.
Each cell in an ecological governance system is self-managing and
independent in that it possesses the right and the obligation for its
own “management” functions, such as planning operations, ensur-
ing output quality, interfacing with other cells, and responding to
external demands (Miles et al. 1997), but cells do not have authority
over or responsibility for any other cell (Semler 1989). Whenever a
cell’s activities are interdependent with those of other cells, how-
ever, an inclusive decision process is utilized, in which case cells are
expected to act in ways that are compatible with the interests of
the larger system. In the inevitable situations in which it is useful
for one cell to have ﬁ nal authority for a particular decision, such
authority is expertise based and task bound, meaning that who is “in
charge” in a given situation depends on the demands of the decision
and the relative knowledge, skills, and abilities of those involved
(Barry 1991). us, authority is much more ﬂ uid and focused than
the broad, perpetual “position authority” found in bureaucratic
hierarchies (Mohr 1994).
Principle 3c. Coordination among the diverse cells in an
ecological governance system is achieved through mutual
adaptation, with leaders serving as stewards and managers
acting as facilitators.
e many tasks and activities carried out by the myriad cells in an
ecological governance system are coordinated primarily through
processes of mutual adaptation enabled by the pattern of relation-
ships composing its network structure (Chisholm 1989). In the
dynamic, ﬂ exible conditions of ecological governance, adherence
to prescribed plans and rules is less valu-
able than successful adjustment to real-time
contingencies based on timely information
from relevant others (Cleveland 2000; Weber
and Khademian 2008). Likewise, the func-
tion of “management” shifts from a focus on
coordination and control to an emphasis on
facilitation and development (Bradford and
Cohen 1984; Orth, Wilkinson, and Benfari
1987), essentially an enabling function that is
oriented toward helping cells carry out their
activities and accomplish their objectives more
eﬀ ectively. Similarly, the leadership orienta-
tion most appropriate for ecological systems
is the notion of stewardship, or servant leadership (Block 1993;
In the dynamic, ﬂ exible
conditions of ecological
governance, adherence to
prescribed plans and rules is
less valuable than successful
adjustment to real-time
contingencies based on timely
information from relevant
S94 Public Administration Review • December 2010 • Special Issue
decision making; various types of large-group interventions that
stimulate dialogue, deliberation, and consensus-building (process);
and (4) use of 360-degree performance assessments to enhance the
quality of employee feedback and development; adoption of qual-
ity circles, total quality management, parallel learning structures,
benchmarking, and other approaches intended to facilitate con-
tinuous improvement and organizational learning (relationships).
Greater diﬀ usion of such practices will help infuse ecological prin-
ciples into existing organizations, facilitating and stimulating further
development of systems of ecological governance.
Obstacles to Reform
ere are, of course, signiﬁ cant obstacles to the widespread develop-
ment and diﬀ usion of a new model of governance. It is clear that
large-scale systemic change is very diﬃ cult to achieve, at least in
part because of the considerable institutional inertia that impedes
eﬀ orts to initiate and maintain reforms in the practices and patterns
of interaction through which a system operates. Research on the
evolution of institutions clariﬁ es the path-dependent nature of this
process (Pierson 2000; elen 1999), and the notion of institu-
tional or policy “stickiness” (Boettke, Coyne, and Leeson 2008; Kay
2006) refers to the fact that it is very diﬃ cult to generate signiﬁ cant
change in policy or institutional arrangements because of a complex
array of interests and factors that serve to block any eﬀ orts to deviate
from the status quo. ose actors with the greatest vested interest
in existing arrangements are most likely to resist any reform eﬀ orts
that threaten those interests. Because this often includes the people
and organizations with the most power in the relevant context, their
resistance to change could seriously impede progress in the evolu-
tion toward ecological governance.
A particular challenge for ecological governance systems is how they
will comport with existing legislative bodies, which currently have
the formal, legitimate authority to determine policy and monitor its
implementation. In terms of implementation, Congress, state legisla-
tures, and city councils may be duly reluctant to yield responsibility
for these activities to ﬂ uid, dynamic, “nobody-in-charge” (Cleveland
2000) systems, and hesitant to support more ﬂ exible and adaptable
regulatory mechanisms that could be manipulated or “captured” to
serve special interests. As for policy formulation, legislative bodies
tend to address issues and problems in a fragmented way, and thus
typically are not capable of taking the more holistic perspective asso-
ciated with an ecological orientation. On one hand, then, ecological
governance mechanisms could be used to develop policy proposals
that relevant legislative bodies would then have ﬁ nal authority to
modify and ratify, preserving their legitimate function in existing
democratic systems. On the other hand, the evolution and diﬀ usion
of ecological governance may ultimately require more fundamental
changes in the framework of democratic government, without which
it would be unlikely to become the primary form of governance.
Underlying much of the resistance to ecological governance is the
widespread, deep-seated belief that hierarchical arrangements are
necessary to maintain adequate control over organizational sys-
tems and thus to ensure adequate oversight and accountability.
e ecological perspective challenges this premise, and suggests the
possibility that complex social systems can function according to a
diﬀ erent set of parameters. For example, instead of assuming that
accountability must be achieved through top-down mechanisms,
Eﬀ ective evaluation and feedback based on a collective assessment of
cell performance by others in its network can serve as an important
mechanism through which to bring about cell development and
improvement in cell performance (Antonioni 1996). Cells need this
feedback so that they can understand why and how their activities
or outputs need to change to meet the expectations of those with
whom they are interdependent (Mausolﬀ 2004). e ability to make
such adjustments reﬂ ects an important facet of an eﬀ ective learning
system that enhances system capacity to adaptively coevolve with
the environment. Interest in becoming a “learning organization”
has grown rapidly in recent years (Dilworth 1996; Easterby-Smith,
Araujo, and Burgoyne 1998; Senge 1990). Eﬀ ective learning pro-
cesses improve an organization’s ability to take self-correcting actions
through which to accomplish goals, solve ill-deﬁ ned problems,
and innovate more readily (Bushe and Shani 1990; Nonaka and
Takeuchi 1995). Double-loop learning enables a system to identify
whether its goals, mission, and/or basic purpose and principles are
still appropriate or worthwhile given current circumstances (Argyris
1977; Isaacs 1993). Organizational transformations driven by rec-
ognition of the need to change core purpose and/or principles (Levy
and Merry 1986; Nutt 2004) reﬂ ect an inherent systemic capacity
for self-(re)organization, and, in turn, inﬂ uence the subsequent
evolution of the larger systems in which they are embedded.
The Viability of Transformation
e organizing principles outlined here are compatible with the
three key orientations of an ecological worldview. ey reﬂ ect the
interconnectedness of people and organizations, sectors of society,
and the human and natural worlds; they acknowledge the self-
organizing capacity of people and their social systems; and they
promote the coevolutionary dynamics that enable a more symbiotic
relationship between a society and its systems of governance. An
assessment of the viability of these principles should begin with the
question of whether organizing principles associated with natural
systems can be applied successfully to the design and management
of purposive social systems. Obviously, the answer remains to be
seen, as it is unlikely that any medium or large organization has yet
attempted to function in accordance with the full set of principles
outlined here. While this is most certainly true in the public sector,
there are a few large private organizations (e.g., W. L. Gore, Whole
Foods, SAS, VISA) that have taken rather signiﬁ cant and sometimes
quite remarkable (e.g., Semler 1989) steps to operate in ways diﬀ er-
ent from traditional hierarchy and more compatible with ecological
principles. eir success demonstrates that it is possible to create
and/or transform organizations so as to incorporate some of these
principles into the very essence of their identity.
Further evidence of their applicability is that many organizations,
across sectors, have already adopted a variety of practices compatible
with these principles, such as (1) development of mission and vision
statements, and eﬀ orts to build organizational cultures that reﬂ ect
more humanistic values; adoption of a stakeholder approach in stra-
tegic management; use of a balanced scorecard and other tools for
promoting organizational social responsibility (purpose); (2) move-
ment toward team-based organizational designs and other practices
intended to enhance horizontal capacity; widespread involvement
in partnerships, alliances, and networks (design); (3) eﬀ orts to cre-
ate high-involvement organizations with empowered employees;
inclusion of clients, customers, and other outsiders in organizational
Ecological Governance S95
how to function eﬀ ectively in the context of the kind of collabora-
tive network that constitutes the basis of ecological governance. It is
easy to imagine that, in the long run, it would become increasingly
clear which activities should be organized in traditional hierarchical
mode and which should be organized through ecological governance
Potential for Discontinuity
While this scenario of continued incremental reform seems prob-
able, the possibility of more rapid and radical transformation should
not be discounted entirely. Historical institutional analysis indicates
that “critical junctures” ( elen 1999) exist in the development of
institutions and policy agendas, at which point choices can be made
that shift the trajectory such that the future path of development
is no longer as dependent on the patterns of the past. Similarly,
research indicates that social systems can display a “punctuated
equilibrium” pattern of change (Gersick 1991; Romanelli and
Tushman 1994; True, Jones, and Baumgartner 1999), in which long
periods of relative stability are interrupted by short periods of rather
sudden, systemic reorientation that can position them to respond
better to the demands and expectations of their environment. is
discontinuous change tends to occur when systems confront more
environmental complexity than their structural dynamics can eﬀ ec-
tively handle (Leifer 1989). Indeed, systems at many diﬀ erent levels
of analysis, when operating at “far-from-equilibrium” conditions,
can reach a bifurcation point at which the system either deteriorates
and fails or spontaneously reconﬁ gures itself so as to be able to
handle greater complexity (Capra 1996). is pattern of discontinu-
ous change can be seen in the sudden collapse of societies (Diamond
2004), and in the evolution of human civilization as it has devel-
oped through several major epochs and eras (Elgin 1993).
Given what appear in hindsight to be previous cultural transfor-
mations, the idea that society is now in the midst of another one
should not seem implausible. Contemporary global society may
well be reaching a bifurcation point that could result in some kind
of systemic reconﬁ guration that transforms, for better or for worse,
some of the fundamental structures and patterns of society. A num-
ber of factors can be identiﬁ ed that, added together, may be propel-
ling humanity into a new era more quickly than realized. We focus
here on three broad forces driving this process, corresponding to the
need, means, and demand for change, all of which are important
mechanisms facilitating a process of systemic transformation.
A decade into the new millennium, the array of global challenges
and threats faced by humanity is rather disconcerting: overpopula-
tion and ungovernable mega-cities, widespread poverty and lack of
access to basic necessities, environmental destruction and the pos-
sibility of climate change, massive natural disasters and the poten-
tial for nuclear holocaust, the war on terror and the war on drugs,
inadequate health care systems and the risk of global viral epidem-
ics, corporate dominance and a collapsing economy. ese prob-
lems and their interrelated consequences have greatly increased the
complexity of human civilization and generated the more chaotic
conditions we now confront. As a result, the governance systems
created in and for simpler times have been pushed to capacity, with
growing awareness that existing institutional arrangements, at all
levels of scale, are not able to address or resolve these problems eﬀ ec-
tively (cf. Comfort 2007; Farazmand 2007). Exacerbated by various
there is growing recognition that, in the context of uncentralized
networks, it takes place more eﬀ ectively through bottom-up and
peer-based approaches. In fact, the whole concept of accountability
expands in this context, to include such functions as identifying
partner expectations, aligning goals, adjusting strategies, assessing
implementation, communicating performance, and facilitating
learning (Acar, Guo, and Yang 2008). While ecological thinking
clearly challenges the hierarchical mind-set, the point is not that
ecological governance would always and inevitably be superior to
the bureaucratic mode of organizing activities. Rather, the claim
here is that human society in the next decade and beyond will ben-
eﬁ t from the development of eﬀ ective ecological governance systems
to supplement, and in some cases to replace, existing hierarchical
systems. With both types of institutions available, the appropriate
form could be selected to match the key contingencies of the con-
text for which it is being utilized.
Rather than resisting its emergence, then, it would make more sense
to take steps to encourage and enable the development of ecologi-
cal governance. Because many organizations and key stakeholders
are unlikely to make signiﬁ cant changes in the absence of some
incentive and/or pressure, broad policy reforms could be adopted to
create an institutional environment that motivates actors to incor-
porate new practices and operate according to a new set of norms.
Many insightful ideas have been proposed regarding institutional
changes that would support the transformation to a more ecologi-
cally conscious society (e.g., Daly and Cobb 1994; Daly and Farley
2004; Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins 1999; Henderson 1996; Jones
2008). For example, one powerful notion is that tax policies should
be revised to put higher taxes on whatever we want less of (e.g., pol-
lution) and lower taxes on whatever we want more of (e.g., income).
Likewise, accounting rules and standards could be revised to require
organizations to internalize the costs of some of their externalities.
More generally, institutional reforms should serve to instill a new
ethic in which it is no longer legitimate and acceptable for hu-
man and organizational actors to behave in a purely self-interested
manner without taking into account the broader systemic conse-
quences of their actions. is shift in perspective, with self-interests
deﬁ ned relative to the well-being of the larger systems within which
the actor is operating, is essential to the emergence of ecological
In light of the foregoing considerations, a cautious estimate—that
is, what would seem to be the most likely scenario for the coming
decade—is that there will continue to be slow, incremental devel-
opment and diﬀ usion of the principles and practices of ecological
governance, but not any fundamental transformation of the system
itself. Use of these new approaches will spread, primarily to address
relatively circumscribed challenges and largely at the local or
regional level, and participants will slowly but surely acquire a better
understanding of what is required for them to succeed. As this
process unfolds, most organizations are likely to keep many of their
hierarchical features, while simultaneously experiencing on-going
pressure to debureaucratize and become more eﬃ cient, ﬂ exible,
and innovative. While maintaining some degree of autonomy, most
organizations are also likely to participate in a growing number of
alliances and networks in which they may need to subordinate some
of their preferences for the greater good of the collective. rough
their involvement in these systems, participants will gradually learn
S96 Public Administration Review • December 2010 • Special Issue
ousands of organizations—making up “the largest movement in
the world” (Hawken 2007)—are already actively engaged in the pro-
cess of developing or diﬀ using innovative practices and approaches
that are compatible with a shift to a sustainable, ecological paradigm
(Henderson 2006). As these innovations prove eﬀ ective on smaller
scales, demand for their implementation on a wider basis is likely
Albert Einstein reportedly once said that the signiﬁ cant problems we
face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when
we created them. e “wicked problems” confronting humanity,
the legacy of the modern era, cannot be solved by modern ways of
thinking and the institutions grounded in this
mechanistic mind-set. As the need for reform
becomes clearer, the means of transitioning
become more prevalent, and the demand for
change becomes more potent, the conver-
gence of these factors could lead to a rapid
diﬀ usion of ecological consciousness that
would diminish attachment to the principles
and practices of modernity and enable the
development of ecological governance to pro-
ceed much more quickly. Just as resistance to
modernization would have been futile, it may
soon become apparent that the momentum
behind this transformation to the ecological era is essentially un-
stoppable. It will be interesting to see, in 2020, how much progress
we have made in this direction.
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and educational institutions in recent years, the populace seems to
be losing faith in the value or eﬀ ectiveness of many of our dominant
institutions. Because the problems facing the planet are not getting
any easier, the mismatch between their scope and complexity and
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people and organizations around the world.
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networks (Castells 1996), and begin to obviate the need for hierar-
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on tasks in which their information and input can contribute to
organizational decision making (Tapscott and Williams 2006). e
increased accessibility to information, and the concurrent diﬃ culty
in keeping anything secret, contributes to organizational transpar-
ency and thus the potential to hold actors accountable. In short,
by enabling new patterns of information aggregation, analysis, and
dissemination, the new technologies of postindustrial society are
providing useful means through which to carry out activities in an
ecological governance system.
A last factor that should be taken into account when considering the
possibility of transformation is the public will, and the depth and
breadth of desire and demand for meaningful reform. In the United
States, recent political protests on both the left and the right signal
that the federal government is not doing a very good job of address-
ing the interests of either side of this political continuum, nor is it
very responsive to the large number of Americans who make up the
“radical center” (Halstead and Lind 2001), or to the many “cultural
creatives” (Ray and Anderson 2000) whose values are not necessarily
compatible with those of mainstream society. When a large majority
of people are dissatisﬁ ed with the status quo, the pressure for change
can stimulate the political momentum needed to enact signiﬁ cant
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many people and organizations around the world who see the pres-
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for a “revisioning” of society’s path of development (Olson 1995).
e arrival of the “information
age,” with the rapid
development of information
technologies, is . . . having an
impact on society in ways that
are facilitating the transition to
the ecological era.
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