Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 12, 2009

Resilience and the Commons

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 12, 2009

A new Nobel Prize laureate has some wisdom to share regarding resilience. She was another surprise choice for this year’s award.

The Swedish Central Bank has awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist and a bit of a polymath, long associated with Indiana University at Bloomington. 

In it’s news release, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences explains, “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.”

Dr. Ostrom has empirically demonstrated that Common Property Resources, such as those identified by the Swedish Academy, are usually best managed when those appropriating the resources can work together in a context characterized by trust, social capital, common preferences, shared knowledge, collaborative experiences, focusing events and expectations of future interactions.

Is community resilience a Common Property Resource?   They seem to share several characteristics.  While Dr. Ostrom never refers to “resilience,” in a 2003 interview, she seems to describe it. 

When you have a system that is vulnerable to disruption by external shocks — for example, a hurricane or a military invasion — the probability of error increases substantially.  Polycentric governance systems are frequently criticized for being too complex, redundant, and lacking a central direction when viewed from a static, simple-systems perspective.  They have considerable strengths when viewed from a dynamic, complex-systems perspective, particularly one that is concerned with the vulnerability of governance systems to external shocks.

The strength of polycentric governance systems is each of the subunits has considerable autonomy to experiment with diverse rules for a particular type of resource system and with different response capabilities to external shock.  In experimenting with rule combinations within the smaller-scale unit of a polycentric system, citizens and officials have access to local knowledge, obtain rapid feedback from their own policy changes, and can learn from the experience of other parallel units.  Instead of being a major detriment to system performance, redundancy builds in considerable capabilities.

If only one government exists for a large geographic area, failure of that unit to respond adequately to external threats may mean a major disaster for the entire system.  If there are multiple governance units, organized at different levels for the same geographic region, a failure of one or more of these units to respond to external threats may lead to small-scale disasters.  But these may be offset by the successful reaction of other units in the system.

Within the parlance of Common Property Resources, governance units include non-official arrangements between private firms and individuals.   Dr. Ostrom is describing a federal system with strong intermediate partners, such as states and localities, and a diverse civil sector with a wealth of overlapping interests and influences.

In homeland security we are concerned with various forms of resilience.  These include physical, social, psychological, and economic resilience.  I am particularly concerned with constitutional resilience, for which the extended quote is especially relevant.  But I would argue polycentrism is an essential characteristic of any category of resilience. 

The more nodes in a network and the more linkages between nodes, the stronger the network.  This is true of individuals, communities, economies, and every sort of system I can imagine.

(Editorial note: The last two paragraphs were added many hours after the original post.)


Important texts by Elinor Ostrom include:

Understanding Institutional Diversity

Governing the Commons

Rules, Games, and Common Pool Resources

Further information on Common Property Resources and related work is available from the International Association for the Study of the Commons.


Ostrom challenges Obama (The Times, London)

Nobel Prize for work on governance (Financial Times)

Why Elinor Ostrom matters (Forbes)

Finding inspiration in her roots (Globe and Mail)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 12, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

A note for the record and could be wrong but believe she shared the Nobel for Economics with a co-winner.
Two Federal agencies (there are many others) the USACOE (US Army Corps of Engineers–DOD) and the National Forest Service-Dept. of Ag. are charged in part with regulation of the commons {water resources in one case and forests in the other) and their statutory mandates encompass multiple users and purposes. If her theory is correct both these agencies current management systems are defective from an economic standpoint and it would of interest to know how many professional economists each employes and how many understand the new NOBEL Prize winners writings. And of course who in Congress could evaluate both of these federal agencies on the basis of economics and whether they can or should follow the advice of Ms. Ostrom. And congrats to her and all the others. Any analysis of regulation and use of the commons is of interest to me although admittedly often beyond by ken. What is of interest of course is that so much of the market theory of the US governance and economic system has allowed capture of the commons for private purposes. By the way the purchase of private US water systems by German nationals has been extensive over the last four decades. The odd thing is that regulation of water resources in Germany (and the forests) is steeped in law and tradition as well as economics. What would be interesting to me would be comparative analysis of how various nation states regulate or don’t regulate or manage or don’t manage their water and forest resources. If you think that water transportation systems and lumbering represent the best of free enterprise just as regulation of the airways always remember that usally those private entities involved have gotten those common resources at bargain rates or even free.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 12, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

Dr. Ostrom’s essential point seems to be that neither theories of markets nor of government regulation adequately address sustainable solutions to common property resource problems. As she points out, a staggeringly wide array of alternative institutional arrangements from the simple to the complex lie between these two extremes.

I am impressed by your recognition that this work could be taken to be analogous to resilience. However, I am not sure I agree with your conclusion regarding federalism and the current institutional arrangements vis a vis redundancy of government emergency management infrastructure and overlapping interests and influences with the civil sector.

Ostrom seems to be suggesting that a range of options can and do work effectively in spite of or in the absence of government intervention rather than in partnership with it. Ostrom’s work shows us that private and non-governmental arrangements, including some self-organizing and emergent organizational forms, do a more than adequate job of meeting community needs, especially in the aftermath of a focusing event.

That said, I do agree, that this work suggests the importance (at every level of government) of working collaboratively with private, voluntary, and community-based organizations to leverage social capital, self-interest, and altruistic impulses. Seeing government and markets as extensions of these arrangements, rather than replacements for them seems to be the important point.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 12, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

Mark Chubb makes an important point — and accurately reflects Dr. Ostrom’s work — in writing, “a range of options can and do work effectively in spite of or in the absence of government intervention.”

A plurality of my readers, often a majority, are employed by or closely related to the federal government. Too often, in my experience, the federal government tends — usually without intention — to diminish the value of other levels of government and, especially, the role of the private sector and individual citizen in “governance” (as meant by Ostrom et al). Even for someone who has never read Edmund Burke, Ostrom encourages respect for the wisdom that may be found in inefficient, community-based decisions and decision-making. As a result, I was attempting to encourage this group of readers to some constructive self-criticism.

Mark has caught me being preachy, not for the first time. That said, I am also very tolerant of redundant governmental structures for emergency management. I have never been a big fan of efficiency per se. An avid pursuit of efficiency seems to easily become an enemy of other Goods to which I give greater value.

Bill is correct that Ms. Ostrom will share the Nobel Prize in Economics with Oliver Williamson.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 13, 2009 @ 8:05 am

The mechanisms by which the federal government, both Congress and Executive Branch, obtain input in the form of technical information and benefits and costs of federal programs, functions, and activities is extremely primitive and virtually unstudied by the disciplines of Public Administration and Government or those involved in Science and Technology issues. In fact, if you set out to design the worst system, you probably would not be far off from the current set up. Just two examples [and hey there are thousands]! President Ronald Reagans destruction of the Water Resources Council and the non-statutory river basis commissions. The Republican Majority in both houses in the early 90’s destruction of the Office of Technology Assessment. What I find interesting about this administration, and always remember I am a fuzzy headed liberal, usually wanting to vote the In’s Out so they don’t feed too long at the trough, is that this administration seems to be seizing on many of the bad practices of the past. Example, the race to create CZARS and the utilization of political loyalists as opposed to those who “Know.” Oh well I guess our corporate socialist state will run a while longer, perhaps even to the end of the century.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 13, 2009 @ 8:27 am

In the early days of homeland security, I proposed organizing the nascent endeavor around a functional model based on the soil conservation system. I was met with the same eye-blinking incredulity that is often prompted by my posts at The Watch. But I persist in thinking it is a promising framework.

Our approach to soil conservation is an interesting mix of federal, state, county, township, and entirely private units cooperating, collaborating, and depending on each other to achieve a common good. As Bill Cumming notes, the soil conservation system, as with so many similar models, has been buffeted by well-intended, but poorly conceived notions of reform. But in many respects soil conservation continues to operate in a manner that Ostrom and others would recognize as a Common Property Resource. It is a messy, complicated, and — at its best — very effective model. It is most effective when Ostrom’s principles of CPR are self-consciously cultivated and applied.

Just a couple of links in case you are interested:

National Association of Conservation Districts (http://www.nacdnet.org)

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/)

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