The Ostrom Workshop loses its way

I’m a fan of the work of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, who were known for developing and exploring models of polycentric governance and their Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework

They were also co-founders of the Public Choice school of thought, i.e., that the personal beliefs and biases of public administrators will affect the decisions they make.*

For me, their most important work was on the governance of common pool resources, whose complexity requires an interdisciplinary mix of perspectives as well as respect for the subtle power of local institutions. (I’ve written several papers on this topic.)

I’m thus surprised and saddened to see their Workshop (founded in 1973) stray from their original and useful ideas.

A few weeks ago, I went looking on the Workshop’s site (to find the 1971 paper I discuss in the footnote below) and found that things had changed since the Ostroms died in 2014. A quick look at the website shows that new leadership has re-directed the workshop towards conventional themes such as governance, cyber-security (!), and natural resources. The “public choice” of pursuing these me-too themes (see the footnote for the irony) is not only a failure for its probable failure against stronger competition; it’s also a failure for abandoning a unique and powerful line of interdisciplinary work on managing the commons and polycentric governance. Although I would like to blame conspiracy for this change of direction, I think — knowing the New Institutional Economists who are now in change of the Workshop — that it’s the result of limited comprehension of the Ostrom’s work rather than malice.

As exhibit #1 of my claim that the Workshop may not deserve the Ostrom’s name, I will note that the Ostrom’s work is archived under “legacy” rather than “essential” readings.

For exhibit #2, I note that Terry Anderson gave the first “lecture on environmental policy” in 2017. I know Anderson because I spent the summer of 2010 at his free-market environmentalism think tank (PERC), and because he “banned” me as ungrateful in 2014 for questioning PERC’s analysis of Cadiz, a dubious (and probably fraudulent) private groundwater company in California. (All comments are gone.) Folks like Anderson want to “fix the commons” by privatization rather than using the collective solutions that the Ostroms spent decades exploring and explaining. I’m all for diverse opinions, but I can’t think of a worse-qualified speaker on the Ostrom’s work and legacy.

My one-handed opinion is that the Ostrom Workshop may not deserve that name for much longer. It seems that we will have to rely on a spontaneous growth of polycentric circles of researchers to carry forward the Ostrom’s work.

Addendum (25 June pm): I ran into someone from the “new management” at WCERE today. They said that some of the programming is indeed new, while other programming does continue to focus on the governance of natural resources. 


* Anyone interested in this school of thought, which provides insights into many government and bureaucratic failures, can read their 1971 paper here [pdf]. In it, they define the bureaucrat as decision maker:

Our “man: the decision maker” will confront certain opportunities and possibilities in the world of events and will pursue his relative advantage within the strategic opportunities afforded by different types of decision rules or decision-making arrangements.

Many people do not understand the implications of their observation when they “leave it to the experts” and get bad results. Such cautions do not mean we should have no government or switch to laissez faire. They mean that bureaucrats much be accountable and engage the public in their deliberations (points made powerfully around the same time by Jane Jacobs).  Later in the paper, the Ostroms caution against concentration of power in the hands of the few, i.e., 

Expected external costs [negative spillovers onto unsuspecting victims] will be at their highest point where any one person can take action on behalf of the entire collectivity. Such costs would decline as the proportion of mem- bers participating in collective decision making increases. Expected external costs would reach zero where all were required to agree prior to collective action under a rule of unanimity.

They explicitly link this “rule” to the Buchannan and Tullock’s work on constitutional design, a connection that pleased me greatly, as I have read their foundational work on this topic 🙂

Later on in the paper (I filled my copy with notes and highlights), the Ostroms explain how bureaucratic cost-benefit analysis might take spending and revenue into account, but perhaps ignore impacts on users, which is why we often hear about “budgetary savings” that cost citizens hours of extra waiting. 

In the end, their paper provides a fascinating preview of their theory of polycentric governance, i.e., a system of overlapping governance jurisdictions that might confuse those who “See Like a State” but perform admirably due to each circle being fit for task. Read this pdf to learn more of how they developed that theory in the 1970s.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “The Ostrom Workshop loses its way”

  1. I’ve not met Terry Anderson but what you say surprises me about the “banning”. Can you elaborate? Cadiz always did seem like an odd mix of politics and water but I viewed the incest more as a necessary outgrowth of the lack of GW governance rather than an indication of fraud. That deal does reek though.

    1. more or less as I mentioned: I criticized their analysis as “naive” and asked if there was any extrinsic motivation (donation, etc.) beyond PERC’s ideology. Terry and Reed (the report author) were “outraged” and said I was ungrateful and unproductive (I was a month at PERC as a fellow), and that I was never to contact them again. I didn’t.

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