How localities can run themselves - beyond state or market - is something that Elinor Ostrom, Nobel in economics, can teach us


Our discussions this week have lead us to this interesting blog by Adam Lent, Director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a learning network for the sector.

It’s an account of being turned on to the work of the late Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom. She worked primarily on the viability of “commons” resources. Commons are scarce assets managed by active communities. They need neither the control of the state nor the discipline of the market to maintain their viability, but resting on a complex set of elements instead - tradition, techniques, customs, agreements. (It’s a category we’ve explored a lot here).

In the context of what seems like an agenda to promote self-managing communities up and down the UK, beyond the existing party-political positions, Lent cites Ostrom as an inspiration:

Her most famous work is on common pool resources. These are resources which are available for all to use. Examples might include an easily accessible fishing lake, forests used for timber and hunting or human-made resources like irrigation systems.

The key thing about a common pool resource is that although it is easily accessible and can be used widely, it is not inexhaustible. As a result, a fishing lake can be overfished, a forest stripped of its timber and an irrigation system drained of its water.

Before Ostrom, the consensual view was that common pool resources were destined to depletion through over-use. To avoid this the state needed to step in to limit access through approaches such as licencing.

Alternatively, the resource would need to be privatised so that it was legally owned by one or a number of people who would then have a financial or personal interest in limiting access and maintaining the resource in a sustainable fashion.

Ostrom’s fieldwork revealed that this assumption was wrong. She showed that common pool resources were very widely managed in entirely sustainable ways – sometimes for many centuries – by rules and practices mutually agreed by those using the resource.

There was no need for the state to intervene and no need for private ownership for things to work fine. 

Ostrom used many real-world examples to prove her case such as the Swiss farmers who ensured communal summer pasture was not exhausted by applying the informal rule that no farmer could send more cows to the pasture than they could adequately feed on their private plot during the winter.

To this Ostrom added dozens of similar case studies covering a wide variety of different types of resource and exploring systems requiring varying levels of complexity.

Ostrom was no narrow economic specialist. Her work extended beyond the study of common pool resources to explore more generally how self-governing systems operate.

For example, she did extensive work on policing concluding that small police forces rooted in their communities were both more efficient and effective than larger, centrally controlled forces. 

Nor was she a dogmatist. She recognised that the relationship between self-governing systems, the state and the market was complex and nuanced with all three sometimes playing a valuable, mutually beneficial role under the right circumstances.

How does this work out for how we might pursue a super-powered localism in the UK? Lent spells it out:

Most important is her vast body of empirical work proving that communities can run themselves perfectly well without help from the state or without having to resort to market transactions. This is analysis that provides a powerful intellectual underpinning to the work being done by a growing band of public sector innovators.

They are implicitly rejecting the state-centric view of public service that dominated thinking for four decades after the war and which has undergone something of a resurrection in the Labour Party.

But they aren’t taking any lessons from the marketisation trend so popular with policy-makers since the 1980s and which the Conservative Party still clings to if rather half-heartedly. 

Like Ostrom, these innovators have seen that there is another way: they know that when communities can be mobilised to care for themselves driven by shared behavioural norms rather than top-down edict or market transaction, public money is used more efficiently and positive outcomes are enhanced.

Ostrom’s work seems to have fed into The Community Paradigm, an NLGN paper which tries to get away from a model of public services as “hierarchical and transactional”.

Our emphasis here at A/UK is always much more on enabling and fomenting voices and actions that meets local government coming up from below.

But these are good signs of top-down structures becoming self-conscious about giving back “control”.