Governing the Commons: Eight Ways to Avoid the Tragedy of the Commons

Governing the Commons

One great thing that Elinor Ostrom did in her book Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action was to lay out design principles for long-enduring institutions that manage community pooled resources (CPR) and avoid the “tragedy of the commons“.

(CPRs can be many things. Ostrom’s draws her main examples from forestry, fisheries, and irrigation. See my previous post introducing Ostrom’s book.)

Design is closely related to marketing, and institutional design is central to public service marketing. So what principles does Ostrom outline?

  1. Clearly defined boundaries.There must be a clear way to denote the resource and who can and cannot use it.
  2. Congruence between the rules and the resource. In other words, the rules can’t allow practices that the resource can’t support.
  3. Collective-choice agreements. Users of the CPR and its related institutions must have a way to change the rules.
  4. Monitoring. There must be a sustainable way to gather data and enforce rules.
  5. Graduated sanctions for rule infractions.
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms.
  7. Minimal governmental recognition of the community’s right to organize.
  8. Layers of organization.

I see some clear, and maybe not so clear, alignment between these principles and the practices of marketing.

  • Boundaries are a form of distribution, which is a key marketing concern.
  • Boundaries also concern audience–who’s in and who’s out.
  • The data-gathering aspect of monitoring is akin to market research.
  • Rules, sanctions, conflict resolution, governmental recognition, and layers of organization are all aspects of a functioning marketplace.

If we follow the admonition to design systems, not stuff, then Ostrom’s work gives us a toolkit for designing sustainable systems related to CPRs.

Ostrom does make a distinction between a community resource, like a forest, and a public good, like a weather forecast (to use her examples). To Ostrom, a public good doesn’t diminish with consumption. Just because I read a weather forecast doesn’t mean there’s less of forecast for the next reader. Community resources, on the other hand, do diminish on consumption. If I cut down a tree, that’s one less tree in the forest for the next person (until that tree grows back.)

Public services come in both flavors. NOAA provides weather forecasts as a public service; the forecast itself is a public good. As noted, the forecast doesn’t diminish with consumption.

On the other hand, emergency assistance from FEMA is also a public service. The temporary shelter, food and water supplies, and transportation FEMA supplies are public goods. But, those goods diminish with use. Occupying a cot in an emergency shelter means that there’s one less bed for the next person, at least until more cots are added.

I think there’s definitely reason to attend to Ostrom’s design principles when marketing public services. However, there’s also still a need to determine if her principles can move beyond CPR to public goods more broadly.

(Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action and other books mentioned in this blog are available in the bookstore.)

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