The struggle to Govern the Commons

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Citation: Thomas Dietz, Elinor Ostrom, Paul C. Stern (2003) The struggle to Govern the Commons. Science 302 (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1126/science.1091015
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1126/science.1091015
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1126/science.1091015
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The struggle to Govern the Commons
Tagged: Economics (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), commons (RSS), contention (RSS), sensors (RSS), economics (RSS), policy (RSS), environment (RSS), environmental (RSS), activism (RSS)


In this article, Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern set out to describe the ways that human institutions engage in contention with each other to govern common resources in the environment, such as water resources and fisheries (with wider implications for other kids of commonses). In this concise and clear article, they outline the players and tactics engaged in that contention, framing it as a "co-evolutionary race" of governance.

Why a Struggle

One of the key insights of this paper is that rules cannot last, as society, business, and technology change. Consequently, "successful commons governance requires that rules evolve." The authors argue that effective governance occurs when:

  • "resources and use of the resources by humans can be monitoried, and the information can be verified and understood at relatively low cost"
  • "rates of change in resources, resource-user populations, technology, and economic and social conditions are moderate"
  • "communities maintain frequent face-to-face communication and dense social networks"
  • "outsiders can be excluded at relatively low cost from using the resource"
  • "users support effective monitoring and rule enforcement"

Challenges for Governance

The authors identify four main challenges for governing commons:

  • issues can be global in nature, with "environmental outcomes spatially displaced from their causes and hard-to-monitor, larger scale economic incentives that may not be closely aligned with the conditions of local ecosystems."
  • differences in power between actors allow some groups to dominate others, especially local groups
  • policymakers who are unaware of the full range of governance tools that could involve local groups
  • no issue can be uniformly solved by a single type of ownership or power

Requirements of Adaptive Governance in Complex Systems

The authors argue that the answer to these challenges is adaptive governance, where institutions are "designed to allow for adaptation" when facing issues where "fixed rules are likely to fail." Adaptive governance requires the following things:

  • information systems that match the scale of the problems, are verified, and are presented in a way that empowers everyone involved
  • means to deal with conflict, which is a fundamentally important ingredient in commons governance. In this sense, designing for conflict and negotiation should be a basic principle.
  • inducing rule compliance through formal and informal sanctions, incentives, or group exclusion
  • physical and technological infrastructure, including "communication and transportation technologies" to support collective reporting (here, they mention fishers who use mobile phones to report unauthorized fishing) or link local communities with global systems
  • be prepared for change, expecting a co-evolutionary race where contesting groups are constantly seeking a competitive advantage in the ongoing struggle

Strategies for Meeting the Requirements of Adaptive Governance

In this section, the authors offer three strategies for dealing with large-scale commons governance:

  • analytic deliberation where "scientists, resource users, and interested publics" use information together to deliberate on commons uses.
  • nested institutional arrangements which include policies all the way from international agreements down to local policies, to avoid setting policies at too high or low a level
  • Institutional variety. Rather than suggesting a single solution, creating an ecosystem of different kinds of policies and spaces of contention. Why? Because "innovative rule evaders can have more trouble with a multiplicity of rules than with a single type of rule."

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This paper is a clear, concise argument for a complex ecosystem of transparency, contention, and rule-making for dealing with commons governance. It has relevance well beyond environmental issues, to include political monitoring and contention, as well as social monitoring and contention in networked commons online.