Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons – Words to Live By

The work of Elinor Ostrom comes up again and again as I engage with people from different parts of my diverse network. This is always an indicator to PAY ATTENTION. Here is a brief summary of Ostrom’s * Principles for Managing a Commons via “On the Commons.” This has been in my draft file for too long, so I’m getting it OUT!

A classic example of this was her field research 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. That is because of a common agreement among villagers that one is allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter—a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of “governing the commons” in her research in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles.

Based on her extensive work, Ostrom offers 8 principles for how commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community.

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

As I prepare to facilitate a research scientists team retreat with communications and teamwork on the agenda, I am refreshing myself with some foundational ideas and thinking. Anything else I should be looking at or revisiting?

via Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons | On the Commons.

  1. Hi Nancy,

    Problems arise on what are commons.

    With tangibles at least we could see them.
    Wanting to own the moon or the arctic can be seen.
    Fencing of – from private gardens to city parts (Ireland) to countries (NK) – is visible and cause tragic.
    Should Jerusalem be a common?

    Money is not a common.
    Money becomes digital, a set of data, a piece of information.

    Now can data or information be commons?
    Did not Peirera wrote on knowledge commons?
    There was just an E discussion [rights_farmers_data] Livestock farmers rights for the data collected on their farm…..

    Now my 2 cents on the principles when dealing with data and information:

    1 Define clear group boundaries. Organisations are setup for controlled communication / decision making; they are constraint networks. IT puts pressure on this (see Boiset iSpace). It gets blurry on the net! We mix and match alter-ego’s with multiple accounts up to a second life. Is your second life a common? I will come back to that.

    2 Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions. Well a bite is a bite anywhere (airport literature ‘the World is Flat’) and yes Stiglitz ‘scan global, re-invent local’ will be about commons too. But there are more IP-numbers than humans. The number of locals increases; also everything is fragmented. But when talking on data and information I guess this is for example about language and not HTTP protocol 🙂

    3 Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules. Not only in real life this is a huge problem – imagine yourself in Russia, Zim or ….; it is also a huge issue in the digital world. ‘Access denied’ we recognize as something on a screen but many of us are denied access from data and information. So yes, open data and information; make them commons; ditch access rules.

    4 Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities. Lets replace ‘member’ by ‘user’ or ‘account’ an we have a discourse!

    5 Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior. Works better in the digital world because the ultimate punishment is not ‘capital’ but ‘access denied’ / ‘account deleted’; plots for movies. I have to think of CLTS here as example of peer-pressure monitoring.

    6 Use graduated sanctions for rule violators. For data and information this rule would be digital ergo on – off. In Wikipedia you get some chances to cheat 🙂

    7 Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution. We lose here looking at all court cases (piles of data and information) on chemical pollution / IP / climate change for example here.

    8 Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system. This works fine for real-life commons. For virtual commons we might have to lose the ‘nested’.

    Fun weekend, Jaap

    • I wonder what Ostrom would say about data as commons. PErsonally I think some data is commons. Some companies are taking our personal data and keeping it for themselves. Oi vey, it is messy, eh?

      As to your suggestions, I hope Russell saw them. Your comments are intertwined!

  2. Dear Nancy,
    Thanks for the inspirational blog.
    What are you missing, I would not know.
    This link shows a 6” video http://neighborhoodeconomics.org/ on what could be amplified and the importance of understanding the dominant narrative and what happens when you dissolve the narrative into data, conquest or management.

    I once spoke with an old farmer who had been sharegrazing fields for three generations and he readily admitted that over the summer he would add 2-3 non-milking cows to his quota as there was abundance and he knew that a ‘strange farmer’ would never be able to round up his cows and count … this shows that there is theory in use and theory in practice that can be a little different. Although the sharegrazers would most probably all deny that they were abusing the system or breaking their mutual contract. Are principles working guidelines or strict rules?

    Appreciative regards
    Russell Kerkhoven

    • Russell, good to hear from you. It is interesting you refer to the neighborhoodeconomics.org site 2 friends of mine are blogging there now. Small world! I’m trying, however, to wrap my head around dissolving the anrrative into data, conquest or management. Would you please say more?

      As to abuse and principles being guidelines or rules — my assumption is we are often operating in a complex environment where guidelines are more useful than rules, but from a social perspective, what then of transparency and honesty? 🙂

  3. Hi Nancy,

    Thinking of data as commons is an exciting way to look at this; although the vastness of the available data, the dynamics of the internet (the level or nature of f2f and social control can be quite different); still trust is as the main value remains relevant and for the rest the rules explored by Jaap would seem to fit for starters, although we need to move beyond systems that require a central coordinator. Some data is commons, other data is owned, some companies know how to use common data for their good and it quickly becomes messy.

    Although i am not sure of the different ways forward, there are bound to be several. What is tricky, is that the old boundaries of state or community no longer apply, so who are the guardians of the commons?
    Maintaining the competency to relate data to real life and its choices as part of the dominant narrative and as part of your own reflective practice and personal knowledge management is one working principle.
    Other working principles relate to Ken Robinson: creativity, curiosity, communicating (including being able to dialogue). Self awareness & internet savvy are dynamic values, rather than normative values. The (re) interpreting “all i am is a story” and telling sharing this is part of our belonging. Being able to do that is part of transparency and yes you can be asked to explain or explore this further. Transparency is an articulation of self-awareness and the striving for authenticity although close examination will probably always show room for improvement. Hmm have we not learned in development and governance that transparency without accountability can easily become a token gesture? Honesty and authenticity are difficult values to impose without becoming dogmatic or dictatorial. Could there be something in treasuring and assuring the possibility of choice?
    All dialogic practice that does not accept and include our dark side often sound somewhat messianic. Hmm this rant seems to be going off track…;-( hopefully there is some trigger for you…

  4. Hi Nancy, good to see you raise this important topic. Ostrom was a visionary whose crisp insights should continue to inspire us, maybe ever more so!

    Do you know the “School of Commoning”?

    http://www.schoolofcommoning.com/

    At the Collective Intelligence for the Common Good workshop in London this September, I met George Pór, one of its founders. I was really impressed by what they are doing. Perhaps interesting for you to get in touch with George?

    http://www.schoolofcommoning.com/users/george-p%C3%B3r