Recently I’ve been looking at democracy and its shortcomings as a system of governance. I’ve also looked at some alternatives. This week I’d like to look at my front-runner for a viable form of governance that could nicely balance autonomy and control: self-organising management, created, implemented, governed, and maintained by the people most affected.

Elinor Ostrom

The real pioneer of this approach was Elinor Ostrom, the first – and so far only – woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics. Born in 1933, into a family of limited means, she paid her own way through college, and although initially employers were interested only in her abilities in shorthand and typing, she went on to do her PhD at UCLA and joined the faculty at Indiana University. (I strongly encourage you to check out this great bio and video interview – on the website of UBS, my former employers!)

Her particular fascination was with – and ultimately her Nobel Prize would be awarded for – the management of the commons. The theory of the tragedy of the commons was that individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest would behave contrary to the common good of all users by over-exploiting the shared resource through their collective action. However, Ostrom noticed, this wasn’t always so. Many such potential situations around the world managed to avoid tragedy through active cooperation.

After extensive interviews with farmers and peasants to gather case studies from many countries, and discussion of their findings with scholars across many disciplines, Elinor and her husband arrived at eight principles:

1. Define clear group boundaries.

Specifically, who are the people concerned, and what is the shared resource, under discussion?

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
There is no one-size-fits-all. Rules should be determined by local people in accordance with local ecological needs.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
Participatory decision-making is vital.There are all kinds of ways to make it happen, but people will be more likely to follow the rules if they had a hand in writing them. (And see the recent crowdsourced constitution in Iceland for an example of this principle in action. It remains be seen if a successful exercise conducted in a country of around half a million people can be scaled up to larger countries.)

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

Commons rules won’t count for anything if other nearby and/or higher authorities don’t recognise them as legitimate.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour.

Once rules have been set, communities need a way of checking that people are keeping them. Commons don’t run on good will, but on accountability.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

Ostrom observed that the commons that worked best didn’t just ban people who broke the rules, which tended to create resentment. Instead, they had escalating systems of warnings and fines, as well as informal reputational consequences in the community.

(This system works well in the Balinese community Banjars – see this article, which is worth reading in its entirety. Especially relevant here: “the main form of punishment meted out by the Banjar is not a Rupiah fine, but ostracism – the exclusion from the Banjar of someone who refuses three times in a row to respect the community decisions. And the reason given why such ostracism is so serious is “when they have an important family ceremony, like a cremation, marriages, or coming of age rituals, then nobody will give Time for helping them in the preparations.” In short, depriving someone of Time from the community is considered the ultimate retribution.”)

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

When issues come up, resolving them should be informal, cheap and straightforward. That means that anyone can take their problems for mediation, and nobody is shut out. Problems are solved rather than ignoring them because nobody wants to pay legal fees.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Some things can be managed locally, but some might need wider regional cooperation – for example an irrigation network might depend on a river that others also draw on upstream. The concept here is not so much hierarchical, as fractal, where each unit is self-contained, but also contained within a larger unit.


A classic example of Ostrom’s principles in action was her field research (no pun intended!) in a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear a perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. This was because of a common agreement among villagers that no one was allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they could care for over the winter—a rule that dates back to 1517.

One critique is that the communities that Ostrom studied all had the quality of being a “community of mutually vulnerable actors”. If one actor has a disproportionate amount of power, they will not be very motivated to participate. And, in reality, power is rarely evenly distributed. To draw a parallel, the happiness and wellbeing of the Nordic countries have often been attributed to their relatively small populations, coupled with homogeneity and equality. Citizens are willing to pay high taxes in exchange for excellent education, healthcare, and pensions, because the assumption is that all their fellow citizens are contributing more or less equally, and that those being helped are, essentially, “people like us”. This does not hold true in all countries.

Another critique is that not all governance can take place at such a local and devolved level. Some policies simply have to operate at a national level in order to make sense. The question has been raised: “Globalization has a major impact on local-level resource management through such mechanisms as the creation of international markets. Can a theory of the commons, based on local-level cases, be scaled up to deal with the complexity of communities and social-political networks?” Although arguably it would be beneficial in many ways to return to smaller scale communities and economies (see Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, in which he argues for the greater resilience of “small is beautiful”), it looks close to impossible from where we are now, but it’s not impossible that we could yet create a nested, or fractal, system of communities, in which national policies equate to the sum total of local policies.

In Journey to Earthland (which I highly recommend – the free download is available at, Paul Raskin speaks of a future utopia called Earthland, whose political philosophy resting on the principle of constrained pluralism, comprised of three complementary sub-principles: irreducibility, subsidiarity, and heterogeneity. Irreducibility affirms his One World philosophy: the adjudication of certain issues (such as climate change) necessarily and properly is retained at the global level of governance. Subsidiarity means the importance of Many Places: the scope of irreducible global authority is sharply limited and decision-making is guided to the most local level feasible. Heterogeneity grants regions the right to pursue forms of social evolution that chime with their democratically determined values and traditions, constrained only by their obligation to conform to globally mandated responsibilities.

At its heart, whether we look to Ostrom or Raskin or Bali or some other model, it seems self-evident to me that any healthy system of governance needs to embody and promote trust, legitimacy, and transparency. This seems a far cry from what many western democracies have become, corrupted by big money, big egos, and hidden machinations. One great challenge of constitutional reform is that, by definition, the people who have the power to create the change are the very ones who have benefited from the status quo.

Unless the pitchforks – or a global political Spring – are coming….?


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