ecological sciences approaches to ‘complex social-ecological systems’
The result is a framework that resembles CPR studies in key respects. Ostrom’s 2009 article in Science provides a visual emphasis on the interactions between ‘first-level’ concepts including users, their governance system, resourcesystem (such as a protected park) and resourceunits (such as its trees):
It also raises similar questions, such as ‘When will the users of a resource invest time and energy to avert “a tragedy of the commons”’?
It answers them with reference to ‘second level’ concepts describing factors that encourage users to (a) value long term sustainability and (b) self-organize to secure this outcome. This table summarizes many of them:
Note that Ostrom describes their effect as indicative because, ‘As in most complex systems, the variables interact in a nonlinear fashion …Simple blueprint policies do not work’.
As a result, we have a super-complicated framework to help us understand an even more super-complicated world. For some, the SES framework serves to ‘diagnose’ the sustainability of social-ecological systems and explore the prospect of more effective self-organisation to manage resources. However, as with the IAD, effective use of the framework itself requires a fair amount of immersion in the language of analysis.
The IAD provides a language, and way of thinking, about the ways in which different institutions foster collective action. The language is so complicated that I have cheated by summarising key terms in this box (and describing polycentric governance in a different post) to stay within the 1000 words limit:
Governing the Commons
For me, the best way to understand the IAD is through the lens of Governing the Commons (and the research agenda it inspired), which explains how to rethink ‘tragedies of the commons’ and encourage better management of common pool resources (CPRs).
Ostrom rejects the uncritical use of rational choice games to conclude – too quickly – that disastrous collective action problems are inevitable unless we ‘privatize’ commons or secure major government intervention (which is tricky anyway when global problems require international cooperation). The tragedy of the commons presents a too-bleak view of humanity, in which it would be surprising to find cooperation even when the fate of the world is in human hands.
Alternatively, what if there is evidence that people often work collectively and effectively without major coercion? People are social beings who share information, build trust by becoming known as reliable and predictable, and come together to produce, monitor and enforce rules for the group’s benefit. They produce agreements with each other that could be enforced if necessary.
The IAD helps us analyse these cooperative arrangements. Ostrom describes 8 ‘design principles’ of enduring and effective CPR management shared by many real world examples:
CPRs have clear boundaries. Users know what they are managing, and can identify legitimate users.
The rules suit local conditions. Users know what they (a) are expected to contribute to management and (b) receive from CPRs.
The actors affected by the rules help shape them (at low cost).
CPR monitors are users or accountable to users. They monitor (a) the conduct of users and (b) the state of the CPR. The costs of mutual monitoring are low, and their consequences felt quickly.
The penalties for rule-breaking are low if the choice is a one-off and understandable under the circumstances (to avoid alienating the user). The penalties are high if the choice is part of a pattern which makes other users feel like ‘suckers’, or if rule-breaking would be catastrophic.
Conflict resolution is frequent, rapid and low cost.
Users have the right to self-organise without too much outside interference.
Many projects are connected geographically and at different scales – local, regional, national – in ways that do not undermine individual projects.
These design principles help explain why some communities manage CPRs successfully. They allow users to share the same commitment and expect the long-term benefits to be worthwhile.
However, Ostrom stressed that there is no blueprint – no hard and fast rules – to CPR management. There are three particular complications:
Good management requires high trust to encourage norms of reciprocity. Trust is crucial to minimizing the costs of compliance monitoring and enforcement. Trust may develop when participants communicate regularly, share an understanding of their common interests, reciprocate each other’s cooperation, and have proven reliable in the past.
Design principles are important to developing trust and solidarity, but so are ‘evolutionary’changes to behaviour. Actors have often learned about rule efficacy – to encourage cooperation and punish opportunism – through trial-and-error over a long period, beginning with simple, low-cost operational rules producing quick wins.
Rules, rules on rules, more rules, then even more rules
Institutions contain a large, complicated set of rules that serve many different purposes, and need to be understood and analysed in different ways.
Different purposes include:
how many actors are part of an action situation, and the role they play
what they must/ must not do
who is eligible to participate
who can move from one role to another
who controls membership, and how
how many participants are involved in a choice
what will happen if there is no agreement
how to manage and communicate information
the rewards or sanctions
the range of acceptable actions or outcomes from action.
We also need to analyse the relative costs and simplicity of different rules, and the rules about the other rules, including
‘operational’ rules on day-to-day issues (such as specific payoffs/ sanctions for behaviour)
‘collective choice’ rules about how to make those rules
‘constitutional’ rules on who can decide those rules and who can monitor and enforce, and
‘metaconstitutional’ analysis of how to design these constitutions with reference to the wider political and social context.
The world is too complex to break down into simple pieces
By now, you may be thinking that the IAD – and analysis of resource management – is complicated. This is true, partly because each case study – of the physical conditions and social practices regarding resource management – is different in some way. We can use the IAD to compare experiences, but accept that a profoundly successful scheme in one context may fail miserably in another.
Simplicity versus complexity: the world is complex, but should our analysis follow suit?
Indeed, this is why we need to think about rational choice games and the IAD simultaneously, to understand the analytical trade-offs.
Game theory laboratory experiments – built on simple rules and relatively small numbers of parameters – produce parsimonious analysis and results that we can understand relatively easily.
We may reject simple games as unrealistic, but what if we take this criticism to its extreme?
IAD in-depth field studies embrace complexity to try to understand the key dimensions of each study’s context. When we put them all together, there are too many concepts, variables, global applications, and variations-by-context, to contain in a simple theory.
The IAD addresses this trade off by offering a language to help organize research, encouraging people to learn it then use it to apply many different theories to explain different parts of the whole picture.
In other words, it is OK to reject simple models as unrealistic, but to embrace real-world complexity may require a rather complicated language.
‘Rational choice theory’ is easy to caricature and dismiss, but difficult to define and describe, because it refers to a very broad and diverse body of work. So, we can identify some broad features but recognise that some studies display them more than others:
Inspiration – the application of ideas and methods from economics to politics.
Approach – models and deductive reasoning. It creates models of the world based on a small number of propositions and a logical examination of their connections.
Assumptions – ‘instrumental rationality’. Individuals fulfil their preferences according to their beliefs regarding the most appropriate means to achieve them. This is an ‘intentional’ explanation of behaviour based on the goals of individuals rather than motivation by ‘habit, tradition, or social appropriateness’*
Aim – to establish how many, or what proportion of, political outcomes one can explain with reference to the choices of individuals under particular conditions.
We can also identify two main types. The first is the abstract work which often involves building models or creating discussions based on openly unrealistic assumptions – for example, people have perfect information and judgement; they can act ‘optimally’ when faced with any situation.
‘Optimally’ is potentially misleading, since it refers to an ability to fulfil their individual preferences, by ranking them in order and being able to fulfil them. It does not necessarily refer to an optimal overall outcome, because things get complicated when many individuals, each seeking to fulfil their preferences, interact. We should also note that ‘rational’ refers to the ability to reason and act on reason (crucially, we do not have to assume that rational beings are selfish beings).
The second type involves more detailed and/ or realistic assumptions regarding the preferences of individuals and how they relate to specific institutional settings. In this case, the aim is to help explain outcomes.
The first type of work is a logical exercise, to help think through problems and often produce ‘paradoxical results’. Famous examples include:
the paradox of non-voting, in which we wonder why people vote when their individual vote makes a minimal difference.
the ‘free rider’ problem, in which we wonder why people would engage in collective group activity if they can benefit without engaging.
the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, in which we demonstrate that two people making choices to satisfy their individual first preferences are worse off than if they cooperate to secure their second best preferences.
the ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which we demonstrate the potentially catastrophic, cumulative effect of individual choices regarding scarce ‘common pool resources’ such as fertile land, unpolluted water, clean air, and fishing stocks.
The identification of such ‘collective action problems’ prompts us to consider the role of government and public policy in solving them. For example, we may identify ‘public goods’ to justify the role of the state as a supplement to, or replacement for, the market. Public goods are ‘non-excludable’ (no-one can be excluded from enjoying their benefits) and ‘non-rival’ (their use by one person does not diminish their value to another). Common examples, based on the argument that the state must intervene when the market would fail, regard national defence (the government should tax its citizens and businesses and provide national security) and clean air (the government should use a range of policy instruments to discourage pollution or encourage non-pollution).
In turn, the role of the state, or its institutions, can be analysed in the same rational choicey way, perhaps divided into three types of question:
To what extent should the state replace the market? Since state action generally involves a degree of coercion (including taxation and regulation), it is important to consider how appropriate each intervention is, and how it might compare to solutions based on trust within particular groups, non-state incentives, or private mechanisms to ensure cooperation.
Will state action improve collective outcomes? There is large body of ‘social choice theory’ which exists to demonstrate that the state cannot produce any rule that would make all of its citizens better off. Rather, it must consider how possible and appropriate it is to produce winners and losers, and if the winners can compensate others for their losses.
What are the unintended consequences to government action? There is also a literature arguing that the state can make things worse: public servants acting in their own, not the public’s interest; interest groups and businesses encouraged to waste a lot of resources securing government privileges; and, governments manipulating economic cycles to influence their election chances.
Indeed, rational choice presents us with a way in which to justify a role for government, or to argue for a minimal role for the state, in favour of the market.
The work of Elinor Ostrom and colleagues presents a third option. Ostrom’s work demonstrates the potential for non-market solutions to collective action problems based on a combination of trust and less impositional means (than government institutions), to minimize the costs of monitoring and enforcing collective agreements. This approach involves individuals seeking agreements with each other that could be enshrined in a set of meaningful rules (which is what we now think of as an institution). The rules may be enforced by a private rather than state authority – the ‘commons’ would remain common and actors would observe each other’s behaviour and report rule-breaking to the third party that everyone pays for and agrees to respect. For Ostrom, the theoretical aim was to identify the conditions that have to be met for some groups to organize themselves to solve a collective action problem without state coercion, while the empirical aim was to identify concrete examples of this process. This approach has proved to be influential, winning Ostrom the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009 and demonstrating the direct policy relevance of institutional rational choice analysis (see the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework, IAD).
Please note: this discussion is based largely on the 1st edition of Understanding Public Policy. The second edition devotes most of chapter 7 to
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.