Policy Learning and Adaptation in governance; a Co-evolutionary Perspective

AuthorKristof Van Assche,Raoul Beunen,Stefan Verweij,Joshua Evans,Monica Gruezmacher
Published date01 August 2022
Date01 August 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(7) 1226 –1254
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211059165
Policy Learning
and Adaptation in
governance; a Co-
evolutionary Perspective
Kristof Van Assche1,2, Raoul Beunen3,
Stefan Verweij4, Joshua Evans1,
and Monica Gruezmacher1
This paper introduces the concepts and ideas that frame this special issue
on co-evolution in governance, and their implications for policy learning
and adaptation. It offers a brief overview of co-evolutionary approaches to
governance and their elementary connections with systems theories, post-
structuralism, institutionalism, and actor-network theory, and explores
how they are connected to co-evolution in governance. Co-evolutionary
approaches differ from other influential understandings of knowledge and
learning in policy and governance. It furthermore presents a typology of
learning in governance and systematically discusses how each type is affected
by patterns of coevolution in governance.
co-evolution, governance, learning, policy, adaptation
1University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
2Bonn University, Germany
3Open University of the Netherlands, Heerlen, The Netherlands
4University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Monica Gruezmacher, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta,
1-26 Earth Sciences Building, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E3, Canada.
Email: gruezmac@ualberta.ca
1059165AAS0010.1177/00953997211059165Administration & SocietyVan Assche et al.
Van Assche et al. 1227
Introduction: Co-evolution and Learning in
The scholarship on governance, administration, and organization increas-
ingly gives weight to processes through which different systems or subsys-
tems co-evolve and mutually adapt to each other. Co-evolutionary approaches
to governance are not new (De Roo & Boelens, 2014; Kemp et al., 2007;
Koza & Lewin, 1998; Nelson, 1994; Rip, 2006; Underdal, 2013; Van Assche
et al., 2017a), but the arguments that have been accumulating in diverse and
disparate literatures have not always been considered together. As a conse-
quence, the value of co-evolutionary approaches—both in the analytic and
normative sense—has often been underestimated. Furthermore, the potential
implications of co-evolution for governance have not been fully grasped by
the community of scholars working in public policy, public administration,
and planning. Those implications are substantial, since a co-evolutionary per-
spective offers a different understanding of the ways in which different gov-
ernance elements are connected and changing in an ongoing interplay (Van
Assche et al., 2014a), and because it presents a different understanding of
how discourses and social systems constantly reconstruct an image of their
environment and adapt to changing circumstances in a self-referential man-
ner (King & Thornhill, 2003; Luhmann, 1995).
Since knowledge plays a pivotal role in governance systems (Bennett &
Howlett, 1992; Dunlop & Radaelli, 2013; Folke et al., 2005; Gerlak et al.,
2018; Moyson et al., 2017; Van Buuren, 2006), processes of learning are
immanent to co-evolution. In the literature, learning has referred to many
things. One can analyze the processes of acquiring and disseminating new
information, knowledge, and skills, the formation of new ways of seeing and
understanding things, or changing beliefs. We add that an intention is not
necessarily a requirement. That is, learning in a governance perspective can
occur both intentionally—for example, through active attempts to acquire
new knowledge or skills via search processes (Aldrich, 1999), or through
deliberate attempts to change beliefs through institutional design (e.g., Klijn
& Koppenjan, 2006)—and blindly—for example, as a consequence of unin-
tentional mistakes, surprises, or misunderstandings (Aldrich, 1999). One
can learn as an individual, as an organization, and as a governance system
involving many organizations. Furthermore, although learning in general
has a positive connotation, it is important to emphasize that governance sys-
tems, just as individuals, can also draw incorrect conclusions from their
observations, that lessons learned are skewed by politico-ideological frames,
positions, and interests, and that new knowledge can also be used to under-
mine public goods and interests.

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