Renewing governance through decentralisation and experimentation
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Renewing governance through decentralisation and experimentation

An excerpt from Kevin Morgan and Charles Sabel’s contribution to our Radical Visions of Future Government collection.

In The Experimentalist Polity, Professor Kevin Morgan and Professor Charles Sabel propose a broad set of principles to help governments introduce democratic change and innovation. Drawing on lessons from devolution in Wales, the essay argues for a form of co-governance in which local areas are able to design, test and re-design their own policies and services. It is a vision for an experimental and user-centric system of government which is better able to meet citizens’ needs and which is more resilient to future threats and opportunities.

EP listing image

The Experimentalist Polity illustration by Whatever Design

Experimental Governance - the Principles

With both the legitimacy and efficacy of democratic governments currently in question, the only enduring response is to re-imagine new, more effective and accountable forms of democracy and democratic governance. We propose that Experimental Governance (EG) – a form of multi-level organization in which goals are routinely corrected in light of ground-level experience of implementing them – is already re-imagining delivery of public services and regulation in ways that take up this challenge.

Our engagement with sectors central to social and economic wellbeing – including affordable housing, dignified eldercare and sustainable food provisioning – suggests that the most successful national and sub-national governments are those in which the jurisdictional authority abandons the pretence of command and control. Instead, rules are subject to revision, to be corrected when challenged by compelling argument and evidence. This new understanding goes hand-in-hand with the advent of porous organisational structures that are more transparent and more open to participation by outsiders than traditional hierarchies.

These new forms of government are, in fact, forms of co-governance, in which officers of state and members of civil society work together to overcome the traditional and self-limiting division of labour between experts and government officials. Citizens and stakeholders in EG governance help redesign policy, recreate trust in the public realm, and re-imagine their own identities as subjects rather than objects of the state.

"This makes hope practical in ways that contribute to more sustainable forms of development and deeper forms of everyday democracy."

The Devolved Polity

Decentralisation to local governments has been one of the major governmental trends of the past 50 years, signalling a ‘silent revolution’ in the governance systems of both developed and developing countries – the most tangible result of which has been the proliferation of the devolved polity and its growing significance in economic and social development.

The role of devolution is misconceived in two contradictory ways, both of which distort the relation between levels of government as seen by EG. In the conventional misconception, the lower levels are the worker-bee agents charged with passively implementing the policy designs of higher-level principals. But this view supposes, incorrectly, that the principals have precise and reliable ideas of what to do and how to do it. This kind of unerring foresight is simply impossible in an age of uncertainty. For this reason, the process of local policy implementation must be a creative, problem-solving activity, not a passive execution of higher policy designs.

The top-down view acknowledges this obliquely, conceding that although sub-national governments have inferior political status, they are closest to the citizen and by far the most knowledgeable about local problems. This recognition, together with the continuing failures of top-down government, explain why devolution has gone so far, but also why we need more of it.

"Those who feel the immediate pinch of their problems should be empowered and encouraged to better utilise their unique knowledge and experience in solving them."

But the second, bottom-up misconception is to think such empowerment is sufficient for successful devolution. It isn’t. The ground-level actors know best what their problems are; indeed, it’s hard to imagine effective solutions at all without their participation. But that doesn’t mean local experience and initiative is all that’s needed. Local actors have to learn from what’s worked and hasn’t elsewhere, from the pooled experience of actors beyond their immediate ken. EG is designed to do that: it is a form of democracy in which the experience of the “higher” levels is corrected by the “lower” ones, and vice versa, in a continuing cycle that allows the initial, provisional goals to be adjusted in the light of experience.

EG, then, is neither top-down nor bottom-up. It does not aim to replace a failing form of government with an alternative, however appealing, that suffers mirror-image defects. At its most ambitious, EG is democracy in which legislation is in continuing and close touch with lived experience and the popular sovereign – commonly depicted as asleep except for periodic elections – is finally awake.

Explore a selection of the other contributions as part of our Visions of Government 2030 feature.


Professor Kevin Morgan

Kevin Morgan is Professor of Governance and Development in the School and also the Dean of Engagement for Cardiff University.

Professor Charles Sabel

Charles Sabel is a professor of Law and Social Science at Columbia Law School and was previously Ford International Professor of Social Science at MIT.