Three reasons why Elinor Ostrom is the thinker for right now

October 21, 2020   By Dr Simon Kaye

In our latest report, we look at the extraordinary work of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize-winning thinker and researcher who rewrote the book in the fields of economics and political science. The output from Elinor Ostrom’s decades of research offers cause for hope for the advocates of localism, community power and human potential.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the sheer extent of the UK’s over-centralisation. But just as importantly, our local response has shown how innovative and dynamic councils and civil society can be, and how willing neighbours and communities are to step up in the name of mutualism.

This feels like a moment of radical possibility, where we might reach beyond top-down norms and market-led solutions to try some very different approaches. To capture this moment, localists and advocates of community power need to join around a point of consensus, underpinned by an unarguable intellectual heavyweight.

And that is where Elinor Ostrom comes in.

In our new report Think Big, Act Small, we argue that Ostrom’s work could be the basis for a radically different approach to almost every aspect of policymaking, service delivery, and democracy in the UK, supported by a wealth of evidence from every part of the world. This adds up to a compelling argument about the value of democratic participation, the power of working up from the grassroots, the promise of systems and approaches that are smaller and closer to real people rather than centralised and one-size-fits-all.

Here are just a handful of the reasons why Ostrom is the thinker for our times.

  1. Ostrom showed that the local is the cornerstone of real democracy

    The Covid19 pandemic – and the troubled official response to its threat – has once again highlighted a longer-term national pathology: hyper-centralised politics, economics, and governance. A more local response could have capitalised on the expertise of local public health units, harnessed and magnified the strength of spontaneous mutual aid groups, and ratcheted up our capacity for test-and-trace.

    From an Ostromian lens, the kind of centralism that has become normal in the UK is more than a mere mistake. It represents a kind of misunderstanding about where true legitimacy comes from. For Ostrom, it was unthinkable that a single core administration could expect to govern a mass public, let alone control disempowered and under-resourced local authorities. Certainly no such arrangement could claim to be democratic in any very meaningful way.

    While some international and strategic questions should clearly be managed at the scale of legitimate national government, the overriding principle for all other issues should be that they are organised and decided upon at the smallest possible scale compatible with good outcomes.
  2. Ostrom proved a way beyond big businesses and big states

    It sometimes seems like there will never be an escape from Westminster and Whitehall’s dual obsessions with big state and big business, or any meaningful recognition of the potential of community power.

    Ostrom demonstrated that entirely different ways of living and organising systems are possible. These aren’t abstract fantasies or academic theories. By working empirically, Ostrom demonstrated that communities can cooperate and design local systems to a much greater extent than conventional wisdom deemed possible.
  3. Ostrom showed a way to navigate future crises

    Some of the systems she studied had been in place, with no management or intervention from businesses or governments, for hundreds of years. And, in many cases, they were able to do this more efficiently, because there are enormous advantages when systems are designed by the people who really understand what is needed from them.

    The first 20 years of this century have been filled with challenges, but these may only be a first taste. Future shocks would best be met not by atomised and incapacitated localities, but by connected, mobilised, innovative communities with a strong social fabric.

    Think Big, Act Small uses Ostrom’s analysis as a lens for a fresh look at the UK’s burgeoning community power movement. Diverse, trusting, and autonomous communities are alive in this country today. But their efforts – even when supported by civil society organisations, organised voluntarism, or very forward-thinking councils – face an uphill battle.

    In response, we offer recommendations to national and local government and to communities themselves: ways to distribute power and create space for community objectives and projects. The result would be better outcomes – for our over-burdened services and for both people who they serve.

    Ostrom’s work produced insights and lessons which have very real application as we face the challenges of ahead. We hope this report establishes how she provided the foundations for a shift towards community power at every level – and we look forward to continuing the conversation.