Think Big, Act Small: Elinor Ostrom’s Radical Vision for Community Power

Author +
Dr. Simon Kaye

Year: 2020

Elinor Ostrom humanised the study of economics and politics. She discovered what is possible, and the problems that can be solved, when we trust each other. Her work inspires optimism, but she was also a realist, basing her findings on decades of tireless work in the real world. This quietly revolutionary research led her to become the first woman to win a Nobel prize in economics. She demonstrated that people’s motivation and ability to cooperate, participate, and sustainably control their own resources are far greater than is usually assumed.

Ostrom’s work offers grounds for ambitiously re-imagining the relationship between people and institutions. It should inform and inspire policy debate about community power, devolution, public service reform, and organisational transformation.

This report draws out Ostrom’s insights for the UK in the context of a growing crisis in the relationship between people and institutions. It adapts and contextualises her work into a new set of practical lessons for ‘self-governance’ – where communities take control over the things that matter to them – and connects these with contemporary examples of community-powered projects in the UK.

It offers a new analysis of Ostrom’s key insights: that a different model, “beyond markets and states”, is possible in communities with high levels of autonomy and internal trust. Recognition of these insights could lead to more diverse and creative solutions to our problems.

The experience of mutual aid in response to the Covid-19 pandemic shows the power latent in our communities. Growing and sustaining it will involve learning Ostrom’s lessons for community power, with strong civil society and empowered, facilitative local government in place to safeguard community rights and act as guarantor for three key conditions: locality, autonomy, and diversity.

Ostrom’s Insights and What they Mean Today

Three Key Insights

This report distils three important, overlapping arguments from across Ostrom’s scholarship to form a case for decentralisation and enhanced community power:

The commons: Communities can manage their own resources.
Beyond markets and states, there is a third model where communities establish their own systems without the need for regulation or privatisation. These communities can be found all over the world and are demonstrably capable of managing common resources and assets in a more sustainable and productive way than comparable state or market systems.

Self-governance: Democracy is more meaningful at a local level.
Legitimacy and social trust can only flourish when people have a reasonable expectation of influence over the things that affect their lives. Mobilised communities will tend to benefit from having decision making power and control over resources to develop local services and facilities.

Polycentricity: In complex social and environmental systems there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
What is needed is a dynamic system that permits experimentation, and which can tolerate the existence of diverse and layered institutions of different kinds. The alternative – where top-down, monolithic systems dominate – diminishes resilience. Rather, it centralises risks and quashes creative, adaptive solutions to problems.

Three Core Conditions of Community Power

Ostrom’s best-known and most celebrated work is her scholarship on self-governance of ‘the commons’ – an asset or resource shared by a community rather than privately or state-owned. Importantly, she set out a series of design principles that the most successful and long-lived self-governing communities tended share. This report rearticulates those principles, distilling them into three core conditions, which correspond with the three key insights above:

Locality: Systems should be designed for specific places.
Systems – including the way that resources are managed, rules are designed, and decisions are made – should be originated within, and appropriate for, the particular places where they operate. Ostrom’s evidence shows this makes it more likely that people will collaborate and cooperate with each other, and that overall outcomes can be improved this way.

Autonomy: The rights of communities to create and run local systems must be respected.
Communities will have few incentives to come together without a basic expectation that their decisions and participation will have meaning and impact, and will that their decisions will be respected by external parties.

Diversity: Each community is different – and will take different approaches.
Context-driven, autonomous communities will experiment with different systems. Taking different approaches in different places means people have a range of opportunities to get involved, enriching civil society. This diversity should be promoted, as it may reveal strong new approaches.

Through a series of case studies, this report establishes how incentives are important for communities to continue collaborating beyond whatever situation or crisis first brought them together, and that the relationship with local institutions can be a key determining factor in whether local, autonomous, and diverse self-governance can find space to function at all.


The most important Ostromian conditions for community power in the UK are locality, autonomy, and diversity. Without these, institutions will be too distant from the real needs and preferences of communities,and local-scale action will tend to be ignored – removing the incentives for self-governance.

The best way to realise the goals of locality and autonomy is through reform to the way the state – at both national and local levels – functions, and a rebooted relationship between people and institutions.

This means institutions taking steps to become neither indifferent nor controlling but facilitative.

The only way to realise a more facilitative state is through an Ostrom-inspired approach to devolution, one that places communities’ rights at its centre and works to a principle of subsidiarity: every system should operate at the most local level consistent with its success. This means that nothing should be done nationally that would best be handled locally, and nothing should be done locally without real engagement and participation from communities.