Public organizations focus too much on day-to-day work. They must learn how to adapt to environmental changes.

We need adaptive governance. How do we get it?

By Haiko van der Voort and Marijn Janssen

Processing and sharing information can be a matter of saving lives, as is emphasized by the case of terrorist attacks in Belgium. After the Brussels attacks, information about the terrorists seemed to be available to governments in advance and shared between them without being used. Obvious questions are asked by media and politicians: What information was available? Why were the terrorists not arrested? Who was responsible? To us, this example show the risks of not having adaptive governance.

In a new article in Government Information Quarterly, we define adaptive governance as an approach that consists of a range of principles and strategies which takes uncertainty and complexity as a starting point. Adaptive governance is aimed at increasing decision-making speed and the ability to react to changes. The Brussels case shows that the very simple idea of sharing information might be very complex in practice, and affected by a variety of issues — some technical, some organizational, and some political.

Why are governments not able to adapt effectively? The Brussels case shows that in this era of Big, Open and Linked Data (BOLD), the collection of data might not be a major problem, but organizing for processing data and giving meaning to data is a major challenge. The BOLD promise is that better intelligence is just around the corner. However, what is still on this side of the corner, just where we standing right now? On this side we see organizations that have to deal with new types of data that come at a large scale and a variety. Data comes in different formats, from different sources, collected in different contexts with a variety of motives. The data deluge results in an overwhelming overload that need to be dealt with. Processes need to be in place to respond to this inflow which affects all levels. These are technical processes — for example, relating to the manner and format in which information should be submitted. These are also organizational processes, answering questions about who is responsible and who has the budget for processing the data.

A major challenge in creating adaptive governance is balancing the pace and quality of change. A logical response to the new data inflow is to introduce ad-hoc processes. All too often, somebody having limited knowledge is assigned to receive the data and expected to forward the data to the appropriate instances. However, these procedures are often resource-intensive; they may involve path dependencies and require specific kinds of knowledge: To whom should which data be forwarded? For whom might the data be relevant? What if the person cannot handle the increasing volume of data?

Creating adaptive governance is not easy. Central coordination processes to develop and apply information-sharing standards and prevent interoperability issues are usually very slow. Although knowledge on how to collect and process data might have accelerated over the past decade, knowledge about dealing with these data in an organization setting is still immature. We are spending more and more time on reading unstructured data. Adaptation by government organizations is a key issue. A new world of data-information-knowledge-wisdom might be ahead of us, but we can only enter this world if we have the capability and capacity to organize for major changes.

As we say in our just-published article, adaptive governance is a useful framework for thinking about the challenges confronting public agencies. Adaptive governance takes uncertainty as a starting point for governance. Accepting uncertainty and surprise means that neither goals nor means can be defined in advance. Instead, the main features in ‘adaptive governance’ are innovation and learning — including trial and error — in a decentralized institutional landscape.

Organizations need to innovate while the shop is still open. New and proven processes have to run seamlessly at the same time.

This may still sound simple. However, a major challenge is satisfying audiences how have little tolerance for failure, especially in times of uncertainty. For such an audience a ‘trial and error’ approach is not acceptable. This suggests that old and new processes should run in parallel to avoid a social and digital divide. In other words, organizations need to innovate while the shop is still open. The shop needs to look neat and clean too. New and proven processes have to run seamlessly at the same time.

How can innovation and procedures be combined? Processes and systems should be in place to deal with new situations. Just creating ad-hoc solutions is not sustainable. Although they might be useful to solve short time problems, but might run the risks of creating bigger problems on the long run. This might seem paradoxical: do we really need procedures for innovation? After all, don’t procedures and routines usually impede innovations? Procedures and routines are, however, vital for stability. Learning is essential for adaptation, but it also contains risks for continuity. The suggestion is that dealing with BOLD means managing paradoxes.

Typical dilemmas that characterize this paradox include: How do we open the door for many new data analysts without throwing away the valuable, institutionalized knowledge of traditional employees? Which procedures and decisions should be centralized, and which should be subject of deliberation among new knowledge workers? These dilemmas can only be solved with knowledge about the new data inflow, its origin and its philosophy on the one hand, and knowledge about the existing organization including its stakeholders, procedures, routines and legacies on the other hand.

This underlines once more the need for top managers that are knowledgeable about BOLD, and data analysts that understand high-level decision-making processes and respect the history and rationale of procedures. This is a requirement for being able to adapt while ensuring a responsive and stable government. Adaptive governance consists of a range of principles and strategies, as we explain in our article.

Haiko van der Voort is an assistant professor Public Administration at the Technology, Policy and Management Faculty of Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. His publications and teaching are about regulation and governance in a multi-actor public-private context.

Marijn Janssen is Antoni van Leeuwenhoek professor “ICT and Governance” and is head of the Information and Communication Technology section at the Technology, Policy and Management Faculty of Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. He is also honorary visiting professor at Brunel University, London, UK.

This comment is based on M. Janssen & H. Van der Voort (2016). Adaptive governance: Towards a stable, accountable and responsive government. Government Information Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 1–5. DOI: 10.1016/j.giq.2016.02.003.