Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tragedy of the Commons in Community

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom came out of nowhere to win the Nobel prize in Economics. A jill-of-all-trades political economist, she'd conducted considerable research into the dynamics of managing the public good. Her research ultimately led to her publishing in 1990 her seminal piece, Governing the Commons, the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In this she laid out eight principles for self-governing common elements.

I have listed these below as they appear in David Sloan Wilson's 2011 book, The Neighborhood Project, which includes David's explanatory text:

1. Clearly defined boundaries
Members of the group should know who they are, have a strong sense of group identity, and know the rights and obligations of membership. If they are managing a resource, then the boundaries of the resource should also be clearly identified.

2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
Having some members do all the work while others get the benefits is unsustainable over the long term. Everyone must do his or her fair share, and those who go beyond the call of duty must be appropriately recognized. When leaders are accorded special privileges, it should be because they have special responsibilities for which they are held accountable. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.

3. Collective-choice arrangements
Group members should be able to create their own rules and make their own decisions by consensus. People hate being bossed around but will work hard to do what we want, not what they want. In addition, the best decisions often require knowledge of local circumstances that we have and they lack, making consensus decisions doubly important.

4. Monitoring
Cooperation must always be guarded. Even when most members of a group are well meaning, the temptation to do less than one's share is always present, and a few individuals might try actively to game the system. If lapses and transgressions can't be detected, the group enterprise is unlikely to succeed.

5. Graduated sanctions
Friendly, gentle reminders are usually sufficient to keep people in solid citizen mode, but tougher measures such as punishment and exclusion must be held in reserve.

6. Fast and fair conflict resolution
Conflicts are sure to arise and must be resolved quickly in a manner that is regarded as fair by all parties. This typically involves a hearing in which respected members of the group, who can be expected to be impartial, make an equitable decision.

7. Local autonomy
When a group is nested within a larger society, such as a farmer's association dealing with the state government or a neighborhood group dealing with a city, the group must be given enough authority to create its own social organization and make its own decisions, as outlined in points 1-6 above.

8. Polycentric governance
In large societies that consist of many groups, relationships among groups must embody the same principles as relationships among individuals within groups.

The reason I bring this up is that intentional communities—almost by definition—manage common elements, and in practice, issues with that not going so well are widespread.

Where is the line between the individual's purview and the group's purview? (I'll give you a hint: there's overlap.) There is awkwardness here both in knowing whether the group is a stakeholder, and in knowing how to proceed when it is decided that a group conversation is appropriate

I want to start with a couple of general observations:

o  Adjusting for Scale
This operates at two levels. 

First, for the purpose of exploring how Ostrom's work (and Wilson's interpretation) applies in the context of intentional community, we can safely set aside Principle #7 as a significant factor because virtually all intentional communities comprise autonomous units (excepting those that are outposts from the mother ship), and principle #8 is aimed at larger scales (such a city, state, or nation).

Second, intentional communities are purposeful attempts at greater involvement in each other's lives, which translates to greater intimacy even with the same size group. (Thus, you'd expect it to be easier to handle common assets in an intentional community than in a Thursday night duplicate bridge group, or a softball league of the same size.)

o  Group Identity 
To the extent that a person identifies with the group, they are internally motivated to be respectful with commonly held assets—because anything that degrades the common assets degrades their resources.

The converse is that if group identity is weak than so will the sense of collective responsibility. While no intentional community that I know of intends to have weak group identity, many do. And one consequence of that is a greater incidence of tragedy of the commons (the concept whereby commonly held assets are poorly treated because the members are acting more in their individual best interest than in the group's best interest).

Now let's drill down on the six remaining principles, as seen through the lens of intentional community:

1. Boundaries
I always think it's a good idea to spell out the rights and responsibilities of members. While all groups don't do this, most do a fair job of it and it's not a common problem that people are confused what assets are commonly held or who has access to them.

A more subtle problem is the way some members will forgo using jointly held assets (saving them for a time of greater need, or for those in greater need than themselves) while others use them whenever they want, because they can. People will naturally vary in whether they are consumers or savers, and this variance will show up in how frequently members will avail themselves of commonly held assets. This may be a source of tension and it may not, but you'd be advised to be sensitive to the possibility.

2. Costs and Benefits
This one has subtleties as well. While straight forward on the surface, it's not unusual for an imbalance in one arena to be compensated by an imbalance somewhere else (like the person who does more cooking in exchange for another raking more leaves). Community is full of such creative arrangements and sometimes you need to look at things broadly enough to understand whether something is truly out of kilter.

3. Self-determination
The key to this is making sure that the people affected by usage of a common asset are the ones making decisions about its management. While this is eminently sensible, there's are a couple ways groups can go astray.

First, not all common assets are of interest to all members who might have a right to their usage, and it often makes sense to limit decision-making power to those who are interested in using the common asset. (It will not tend to go over well if non-users want to wade into management issues, possibly complicating things for users.)

Second, you can also get in trouble going the other way, when management is delegated to a subgroup, but the boundaries of authority are murky. In those instances you can have a subgroup making decisions that adversely impact members who have a right to the common asset and interest in using it, yet do not have a voice in the subgroup.

4. Monitoring 
Often intentional communities are not so good at this, mainly because there is hyper-sensitivity to anything smacking of the "resource police." If people are watching resource use, then they'd be expected to speak up if there were a problem and that can be an uncomfortable and unpopular position—especially with anyone caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Thus it's tempting to simply trust that no one will abuse the resource, which often doesn't work that well either.

5. Sanctions
While I thoroughly support the notion of graduated consequences for persistent coloring outside the lines, I want to underline that punishment should be the last resort. Sometimes communities are unwilling to even consider options such as fines or exclusion. Better, I think, is that you put the possibility in place—which means defining the conditions under which sanctions are conceivable, without mandating that they be levied. That makes it clear up front (pre-need) that consequences can occur, yet doesn't tie the group's hands, or lead to anyone rushing to reach for the hickory switch.

Note: if you go that route, be sure to spell out the process by which you'll determine: a) whether a sanctionable offense has occurred; and b) if so, whether to actually impose a sanction, which one, and in what degree of severity.

6. Conflict resolution
Who could be opposed to swift and effective response? That said, the Ostrom/Wilson standard is geared toward binding arbitration, yet that's rarely how communities address conflict. Instead, in community there is generally a decided preference to seek a resolution that all parties accept energetically (rather than embrace a solution that is thrust upon them).

The tricky part is whether all players are willing to look honestly at their culpability in what went wrong. If you have one or more interested parties who feel that they are wholly the victim and all the wrong-doing has been done by others, conflict resolution can be an uphill slog.

Further there is an art to discerning the difference between promptness (which is laudable) and haste (expecting people to engage before they're ready); and it can be quite delicate crafting a format for engagement that provides reasonable safety and support for all (because what those concepts mean can vary so widely).

The bar is much higher in intentional community where people have to live in close proximity and share their lives. People living in the same residential neighborhood, or attending the same church, do not have the same degree of intertwined lives, and "conflict resolution" in those lesser circumstances can simply mean negotiated coexistence or an agreement to not serve on the same committees or projects.

• • •
Taken all together, this is a fascinating problem. On the one hand, it's a tragedy that common resources are sometimes misused in community. On the other, communities are pioneering some exemplary ways of dealing with issues that don't necessarily mean resorting to rules and punishments. At their best, tragedies in community can lead to deeper understanding and compassion—where everyone benefits.


Stella said...

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vera said...

The above is a sales troll. Or so it looks to me. :-)

Wanted to add that consequences and punishments are not the same thing at all. And without consequences, why should people care they are crossing a line? They may think that they are just stretching the envelope a tad.