This essay introduces and frames the contributions to the special issue on learning and co-evolution in governance. It develops the argument that learning, dark learning and non-learning are necessarily entwined in governance, moreover, entwined in a pattern unique to each governance configuration and path. What can be learned collectively for the common good, what kind of knowledge and learning can be strategically used and shamelessly abused, and which forms of knowledge remain invisible, intentionally and unintentionally, emerges in a history of co-evolution of actors and institutions, power and knowledge, in governance. Learning becomes possible in a particular form of management of observation, of transparency and opacity, where contingency is precariously mastered by governance systems expected to provide certainty for communities.

Assche, K. V., Beunen, R., Verweij, S., Evans, J., & Gruezmacher, M. (2022). “No time for nonsense!”: The organization of learning and its limits in evolving governanceAdministration & Society, 00953997221093695.

The special issue includes the following papers

Van Assche, K., Beunen, R., Verweij, S., Evans, J., Gruezmacher, M. (2022). Policy learning and adaptation in governance: A co-evolutionary perspective.
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.

Jentoft, S., Chuenpagdee, R. (2022). Interactive learning and governance transformation for securing blue justice for small-scale fisheries
In the “Future We Want,” states and non-state actors are invited to contribute to achieving sustainable development goals through various means and mechanisms. This includes securing justice for the most marginalized and disadvantaged sectors like small-scale fisheries, whose rights and access to resources are threatened by Blue Economy/Growth initiatives. While strong and just institutions are imperative to securing sustainable small-scale fisheries, they are not sufficient conditions for obtaining justice. As illustrated in this paper, justice must be secured in the daily interactions between small-scale fisheries actors and other stakeholders, including governments, by means of interactive learning and involving governance transformation.

Alta, A., Mukhtarov, F. (2022). Relationality as a lens for policy analysis: Preserving harmony in a triangular cooperation project to strengthen gender mainstreaming in Fiji
Policy has been mostly approached as a rational project of setting goals and establishing rules and roles to achieve them. Alternative approaches to policy have been referred to as post-positivist, critical-reflexive and relational. They all emphasize emergent, co-evolutionary and relational aspects of policy work that cannot be reduced to rational choice and reasoning-based models alone. A shared element of such frameworks is the focus on relationships, which are seen not just in a narrow sense of the “logic of appropriateness,” but as a force that shapes actors’ identities, interests and power. Following relational analytical approaches, we analyze a triangular development cooperation project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Government of Indonesia in order to strengthen gender mainstreaming (SGM) of Fijian government. Through attention to relationality as it shapes actors’ identities and narratives, we demonstrate how a different form of learning employed by each actor facilitated harmony in the project. A key mediating factor in the smooth project co-evolution that we observed, was the ambiguous project design and vaguely articulated goals, supported by fragmented project setup and reporting. Such ambiguity allowed formulation of multiple versions of the project’s outcomes for multiple audiences. However, it also resulted in little impact on the ground in Fiji. Our findings support persistent criticism of development aid projects in small island states for rarely addressing problems of target populations.

Landry, J. (2022). Do business-backed think tanks represent class interests? The co-evolution of policy learning and economic elites in the Canadian knowledge regime
Business-backed think tanks are often presented as representing the interests of economic elites. This article provides a more nuanced argument by using field theory to present the co-evolutionary dynamics between economic elites and other social forces. Three Canadian think tanks are examined to illustrate how different social forces can converge around business-backed think tanks, and how governance contexts and institutions shape these relationships. The paper also reflects on the kinds of learning these think tanks can enable depending on the kinds of actors that converge around them and on the forms of power that these actors represent.

De Groot, B., Leendertse, W., Arts, J. (2022). Co-evolution of organisations in infrastructure planning: The role of communities of practice as windows for learning across project-oriented organisations. 
Challenges in infrastructure planning require public infrastructure administrators, responsible for providing adequate infrastructure facilities, to be adaptive. These organizations evolve and interact with other organizations in a complex organizational landscape. This paper explores the contribution of inter-organizational communities of practice (CoPs) to collective learning and co-evolution of organizations in infrastructure planning. We conducted a case study of five inter-organizational CoPs in the domain of a typical public infrastructure administrator. The results suggest that inter-organizational CoPs enable, for example, policy and practice to co-evolve. Inter-organizational CoPs seem to provide a neutral ground where long-term sector benefits can overcome short-term organizational interests.

Gerrits, L., Marks, P. (2022). Learn and adapt, or perish: The case of the F35 Lightning II
We assess to what extent a (co)evolutionary macro level approach enhances our understanding of learning in governance processes. We ask the question: in what ways do actors learn to improve their chances of long-term survival in complex governance processes? We deploy a model of collective decision making moulded upon fitness landscapes to analyze a longitudinal case study of collective (political and administrative) decision making, namely the process of developing and acquiring the F35 Lightning II fighter jet. The study demonstrates that actors learn how to ensure survival over time but create a failing megaproject in the process.

Leong, C., Howlett, M. (2022). Policy learning, policy failure, and the mitigation of policy risks: Re-thinking the lessons of policy success and failure
Policy failures are often assumed to be unintentional and anomalous events about which well-intentioned governments can learn why they occurred and how they can be corrected. These assumptions color many of the results from contemporary studies of policy learning which remain optimistic that ongoing policy problems can be resolved through technical learning and lesson drawing from comparative case studies. Government intentions may not be solely oriented toward the creation of public value and publics may not abide by government wishes, however, and studies of policy learning need to take these “darksides” of policy-making more seriously if the risks of policy failure are to be mitigated.