Join us on this episode of the governance podcast between Simon Kaye and Mark Pennington for a conversation on the impact of Elinor Ostrom’s work on public policy. Simon Kaye discusses his latest report for the New Local on how the ideas of self-governance and community power can transform public services in the UK.
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Having been awarded a PhD in democratic theory from the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London in 2015, Simon Kaye has worked as a researcher and educator in academia and think tanks, with roles at UCL’s Constitution Unit, The Hansard Society, Queen Mary, and King’s College London. His last role was as Research Director at the Project for Modern Democracy, running projects on Whitehall reform and the rebalancing of UK economic policy.
Simon has written and spoken on a diversity of subjects, including democracy and voting systems, localism and self-governance, political economy, historical methods, constitutions, conspiracy theories, and post-truth. He has published work in venues including History and Theory, Critical Review, European Political Science, and The Fabian Society. He has also penned articles for popular publications such as The Independent, Politics.co.uk, CityMetric, and CapX. He has contributed to several podcasts to talk about his research, presented at festivals and international conferences, participated in public lectures and panel debates, won several competitive academic fellowships, and appeared on BBC News as a political commentator.
Simon’s research at New Local is focused around the Community Paradigm, drawing on his expertise in democracy and political economy. His major projects include work on mutual aid groups, the new working practices and relationships that emerged during the 2020 pandemic, and the landmark research of Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom into governance systems and community management of common resources. New Local’s Ostrom project is a direct development of the original Community Paradigm and forms the intellectual grounding for much of our work on public service reform and the need for more autonomous and empowered communities.
00:26: the New Local have recently produced a very interesting policy report which tries to apply some of the ideas of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom to look at aspects of a possible policy reform agenda in the UK and perhaps other countries. Those of you who follow our podcast will know that the Ostrom’s work is quite important at our Centre because of their focus on the relationship between formal and informal institutions of governance. So Simon, welcome to the podcast. I wonder if we could start off by you giving a bit of background on what you do at New Local.
02:25: You’ve produced with New Local what I think is an excellent report on Ostrom. I wonder if you could say more about why and how the New Local has become aware of the Ostroms’ work?
06:40: If we think about some of the ideas in the report, as part of this community paradigm, you are pushing an agenda which is emphasizing this idea of decentralisation, of communities taking control of how public services are delivered, or assets are managed—the idea of communities having the space to craft their own hybrids between communities, markets and states. What would you say to the idea that in the UK people have been arguing for decentralisation for many years, there’s lots of complaints in the British government about over-centralisation, and yet the decentralisation agenda never really seems to take root. What do you think it is about the Ostrom agenda that can possibly make that happen?
11:08: So you would say, for example, that the Ostrom agenda, in its capacity to appeal to people across the political spectrum, is different from –what we heard in the late 1990s and early 2000s during the Tony Blair premiership in Britain, was a lot of talk about stakeholderism and participation—and this Ostrom agenda has aspects of that but also appeals across political groupings in a way that perhaps that agenda didn’t.
12:46: Could you say a little bit about what you think she means by the phrase “beyond markets and states”?
18:26: So it’s really an argument there that there is no fixed boundary about what kind of institutional arrangement is appropriate for particular kinds of goods—that that is constantly moving and varying according to local circumstances.
20:11: That leads me to what I think is a strange paradox about British politics, which is that on the one hand we do get people complaining (and we’ve seen this in the context of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic) that there is too much centralisation and not enough scope for community decision-making. But at the same time, the minute you start to get local variety, you have people complaining that they don’t like the fact that there are different outcomes in different places—you often get the phrase “the post-code lottery” that people want there to be a uniformity of provision of outcome while the localism agenda is pointing to something else. How do you square that circle if you’re trying to sell this idea?
23:30: If I’m understanding your argument, you’re saying there needs to be some kind of levelling mechanism in that you need some kind of minimum standard which everyone as a citizen is entitled to, but then over and above that, that’s the space where local control should come into play. What would be your view on the levelling mechanism being something like a universal basic income?
26:34: Speaking of that, the government here is talking about a “levelling up” agenda. Is there any way in which what you’re talking about can inform what that might look like? Can you give some examples of cases where community control can facilitate levelling up?
31:30: I remember very well there’s a distinction Ostrom draws between what she calls a facilitator state and a controller state.
33:55: I was going to say, if you’re starting from a position where a state – whether at the local or national level – is actually responsible for managing assets or resources, there’s no way it can just disappear. At the very least it needs a mechanism for transferring authority, however much authority we’re talking about. This is certainly not a laissez-faire approach. Let’s move on to discuss the pandemic: arguably a problem which requires a centralised response to a large scale collective action problem. How do you think the relationship between the centre and localities plays out in the pandemic?
39:23: This feeds back to an earlier dilemma I was describing, which is: isn’t part of the reason central government has followed such a top down approach that there has been a popular demand for centralised action?
44:16: So you don’t feel that what’s happened with the pandemic is that there is a permanent setback to the ideas of decentralisation—you think this is actually an opportunity to show what can be achieved by thinking in a different way.