Dr Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.

The Argument

Why hasn’t the UK’s policy sphere paid more attention to the work of Elinor Ostrom?

After all, the UK is one of the mostif not the most – economically and politically centralised countries in the world. The ‘yes’ to Brexit in 2016 hinged on an appeal to politically disengaged citizens’ desire to “take back control”. We have enormous differences in productivity, social mobility, and quality of life in different parts of the country. Our ongoing debate about devolution has resulted in a series of settlements that seem to have pleased nobody. And into this mix is added the renewed vigour of the UK’s ‘community power’ movement, with new activity involving charities, community businesses, delivery organisations, volunteer groups, and local authorities that all place the self-organising potential of ordinary citizens at their centre.

Yet even in the midst of a pandemic that has catalysed the emergence of hundreds of spontaneous mutual aid groups, engagement with Ostrom’s work is strangely absent.

The Ostrom Project underway at the NLGN think tank, and supported by CSGS, Power to Change, and Local Trust, is an attempt to bring that work into more of these pivotal conversations. While some reference is made to Ostrom in the context of environmentalism, the case for further devolution, or the possibility of treating health services as a commons, we feel there are many more insights with relevance to policy and practice in the UK.

Last week, we ran a remote workshop/symposium to start generating reactions to what will eventually be the project’s final report (you can read the draft executive summary here). Inspired by the interdisciplinary nature of Ostrom’s own workshops, this online event galvanised a cross-cutting conversation that included academics, policy professionals, consultants, delivery specialists, and think-tankers.

The most popular and extensive discussion thread at the symposium was – unsurprisingly! – about what an Ostromian take on the COVID-19 pandemic might look like. As a general indicator of the potential value of Ostrom-inspired thinking, I would summarise the discussion into the following three overlapping insights:

  1. The pandemic illustrates Ostrom’s argument that global problems do not only have global solutions.

It is easy to reduce the experience of this pandemic to a story about top-level decision-making, interactions on the international stage, and the ballooning of state power. But to do so is to miss the other half of the story.

There are few practical components of any country’s COVID-19 response that haven’t required enactment at the most granular level. There has not been a material difference between the epidemiological impact between the most centrally coercive policies around social distancing, and those arranged in a more laissez-faire way. For distancing and self-isolation policies to work, they have had to be enacted and reinforced at the scale of neighbourhoods – or even households.

One Ostromian lesson here, then, is that the response to any such crisis should involve action at multiple scales – and at the international level, we may yet benefit from the basic advantages of polycentricity: since different countries are trying different approaches, we have a better chance to eventually learn whether more- or less-constrictive measures were on balance the best response. This is a kind of discovery process that could function within countries, and not just between them, if our structures are sufficiently decentralised.

  1. The public response to the pandemic demonstrates Ostrom’s claims about how humans can be motivated beyond narrow self-interest.

The emergence of voluntary aid groups around the country is a potent demonstration of the enormous corrective to economic orthodoxy that ultimately won Ostrom her Nobel Prize. None of these mutual aid groups would keep working for very long if their members were not motivated by sympathy for their neighbours. This has led many people to incur costs in order to coordinate and support one another, and, more widely, to willingly take on additional risks to their own wellbeing and prosperity in an effort to shield the most vulnerable people in society.

Moreover, these mutual aid groups emerged more quickly and remain a more advanced response than any of the centrally coordinated volunteer organisation efforts that have been started in parallel.

  1. An Ostromian perspective could help us to build community resilience in the coming recovery.

There is some risk that the fruitful local and community action that has emerged during the pandemic will be crowded-out by the sheer scale of state action as our attention turns to post-COVID recovery. Ostrom would adjure us against such an outcome. A deeper and more diverse flourishing could be possible if we try to establish the conditions not only for state investment and a galvanised private sector, but also for meaningful self-governance at smaller scales. Community control over businesses, assets, services, and resources can offer a more sustainable and efficient approach in many situations – but this possibility is generally neglected in the UK.

Most importantly, community self-governance can be the basis for decentralised economic and political resilience as we face up to the other major challenges that await our society in the 21st Century. A repaired social fabric, reformed public services, and the conditions for the more sustainable use of resources – these traits are made doubly desirable by our recent reminder that no society is immune from derailment by a big enough crisis.

It has never been more important to reintroduce Ostrom’s insights to the UK’s policy debate.


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