What do we understand by "reflexive governance"?

In recent decades there has been a significant shift in understanding processes of decision making, policy making and policy implementation. This can broadly be described as a shift from a primary focus on the top down activities of government, whether operating through regulatory, financial or ‘educational’ instruments, to governance, which recognizes a much broader mix of actors and locations involved in the policy making (and implementation) process. These actors are active in various governance levels ranging from global to local with often overlapping and conflicting jurisdiction. It is through networks around government ministries on regional, national and local levels responsible for a policy sector that policy gets formulated and implemented. Or in the absence of effective government, then 'development' happens any way (or not) as the result of the actions of a broader mix of actors.

Conditions for policy making and implementation take shape in multi-level governance processes, as governance arrangements at different territorial levels (both supra-national and sub-national) interrelate and interpenetrate with one another. Such arrangements have been seen as particularly important for environmental problems whose causes and manifestations frequently cross-cut local, regional and global scales. This raises important questions around the sources of coordination, steering and accountability in complex networks of governing actors operating across levels.

Many of the problems in the realm of urban sustainability can be understood as 'wicked': in the sense that they are difficult to define, they are contested, they are ever changing and the understanding of their nature, causes and solutions varies among stakeholders. Wicked problems pose significant challenges to well-established approaches to governance. They require innovative, comprehensive solutions that can be modified in the light of experience and on-the-ground feedback. Part of the solution to wicked problems involves changing the behavior of groups of citizens or all citizens. Other key ingredients in solving or at least managing complex policy problems include successfully working across both internal and external organisational boundaries and engaging citizens and stakeholders in policy making and implementation.

So-called 'reflexive' and 'adaptive' forms of governance can enable stakeholders to frame and tackle wicked problems in collaboration. This includes seeing the potential of individuals, organisations and agencies to apply flexible, collaborative and learning-based approaches to governance. This means breaking away from routines that are no longer appropriate to the problem, and experimenting, adapting and reviewing new measures in a search for more resilient social-ecological relations. This includes viewing the policy process as much about shared problem construction as it is about collective solutions. Since ‘various groups of people conceive of the world in different ways’, different actors will frame the ‘object’ of governance and its boundaries differently. How these different framings are interactively and mutually negotiated has an important bearing in reflexive governance.