Governing Shared Resources

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This session was about 'governing the commons.' Facilitated by Greg Bloom of Open Referral, and the Ostrom Workshop on the Commons at Indiana University.

Definition: commons are simply "resources that people share." When people share resources, those resources tend to become subject to dilemmas. Governing the commons entails coping with such dilemmas.

People attending this session said they're interested in "the commons" mostly because of shared resources that matter to them:

  • co-housing, collective housing
  • open source software
  • community land trusts
  • turning utility companies into "commons" model
  • Internet itself as a commons?

"Why do so many of these projects collapse?"

The classic explanation comes from Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article "The Tragedy of the Commons" in Science journal. "It is to this day the most widely cited article from Science ever." Its premise: if people have a completely shared resource (say shared land for grazing their cattle), individuals will inevitably overuse the resource – because they do not pay for the costs associated with use – leading to a situation where the resource will be ruined for everyone. The lesson of this thought experiment: "People can't share things." Therefore either there must be a government to regulate a resource, or else the resource must be privatized since private ownership supposedly leads to better care of the resource. Notable that the author of this article (Hardin) believed in aggressive population control (forced sterilization) and was basically a white supremacist! Still this notion (based on no hard evidence; a pure thought experiment) became a bedrock of economics policy for neoliberal globalization.

Elinor Ostrom did much fieldwork to research how people actually do manage shared resources. Her conclusion: sharing is hard, but not impossible; there are challenges, and there are 'design principles' that can be seen among communities who have figured out 'institutional means' of coping with those challenges. (She won the Nobel prize for economics in 2009.) Her book Governing the Commons (mid-90s) is very important ("also very boring").

These principles were derived from natural resources, but they're being applied to the digital world. Recently Wikipedia & Linux have been touted as great examples of "commons" - massively valuable resources created by a bunch of people cooperating. We can see these institutions are grappling with dilemmas. Ostrom's principles can help us understand those dilemmas and evaluate the appropriateness of various solutions.

What are the principles of commons governance? (i.e. 'the Principles of Institutional Analysis and Design.') Here's a very simplified version, created by Greg and colleagues - iterating upon another translation by David Bollier & Silke Heifrich:

  1. Boundaries (defining: what is the resource? who is included in the group that shares the resources?)
  2. Rules (rules that are appropriate to the particular resource; there are also various kinds of rules: norms; written rules; rules for how rules are made; and rules for deciding who will decide how rules are made)
  3. Rule-making processes (which should be processes that anyone who uses the resource should be able to participate in somehow)
  4. Monitoring (observing the resource and people's usage of it, and sharing this information back with the group; see also, testing, validation, verification, etc)
  5. Sanctions (what do you do when people don't follow the norms or rules? ideally an escalating set of repercussions)
  6. Conflict resolution (which must be available/affordable for all participants)
  7. Right to self-governance (if a commons is to be sustainable, the state – or whatever powers that be – must respect commoners right to govern the commons; if such rights are not assured, commoning entails a struggle to assure them)
  8. Subsidiarity/nestedness/polycentricity (in complex resource systems, there may be many nested / distributed layers of decision-making - i.e. federal, state and local government; i.e. governance for 'core' code, governance of branches, governance of documentation, governance of mailing lists, etc. Good practice is that decisions should made at the most locally appropriate level.)

We are in an ongoing process of translating these principles to apply to open source technology communities. <-- Please contribute your feedback!

There are principles within these principles. And they don't necessarily all apply all the time in all cases. And you can try all of these things and still fail. And some of these things might end up becoming sources of problems themselves. It's tricky.

But if you're having trouble with your communal resource, this list of principles **might** help you figure out where the problem lies, might help you think through the process of coping with it.

"How explicitly do you have to work out all these principles for your project?"

That's partly a question of scale. If it's a small project it probably doesn't need to have so much detail worked out. Accept that it's a messy process, one that requires experimentation and evaluation. On one hand, 'minimal viable process.' On the other hand, the longer you wait to act on a problem, the harder it may be to get agreement to change from all the participants.

Some might assume that "shared" implies there's no ownership - but private ownership is not the only possible kind of ownership. People have many different kinds of ownership (or stewardship) in a project or resource. Some might assume that "commons" means that there's no hierarchy, that everybody shares equally - yet commons and structure are not only compatible, but probably need each other to succeed.

One example of how to think through this in the context of "open" digital resources – since the 'boundaries' principles seems to be an odd fit right off the bat: 'boundaries' can be set by statements that articulate a project's *purpose*, *principles*, *values*, *scope*, etc.

See a set of readings here. See also, David Bollier's _Think Like a Commoner_ and Bollier and Helfrich's _Patterns of Commoning_, both approachable introductions to this concept). Feel free to add.