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Governing the Commons: The Role of SOCN in Institutional Design and Collective Action Problems



Florida State University

Governing the Commons: The Role of SOCN in Institutional Design and Collective Action Problems

governance; collective action; public policy; collaborative institutions


Governing the Commons: The Role of SOCN in Institutional Design and Collective Action Problems
Collective action problems are at the heart of governance issues ranging from natural resource management and public infrastructure development to emergency management, health, and educational policies. While considerable progress has been made in theoretical analyses of collective action problems and in designing institutions theoretically capable of mitigating their effects, the task of empirically testing theories and evaluating institutional design impose daunting challenges with available data. For example, do emergency management teams with broader contacts throughout the community respond more effectively to natural disasters? Do water management boards with close professional ties anticipate and manage flood and drought events better than boards with more extensive ties to other local institutions? Are sustainable energy programs more successful when citizen advisory committees oversee a city's energy experts?
The purpose of this white paper is to consider how SOCN can address these challenges and what data and research infrastructure would aid this task.

Why SOCN is needed to address the research challenges of governing the commons

Ostrom's seminal study of Governing the Commons (1990) drew on extensive case studies of many local collaborative institutions, and a rich case study literature on individual or small sets of collaborative institutions continues to be developed to analyze what institutional features are associated with successful and unsuccessful attempts to govern common-pool natural resources, and what contextual factors shape the effectiveness of these features.

Systematic data on a large set of institutions operating in a nationally representative sample of settings is now needed both to validate these case studies on a national scale and to investigate factors that explain the observed variance in case studies. The increasing availability of public and private data at federal, state and local levels can potentially provide the required foundation for analysis, but the magnitude of effort required to provide nationally valid analyses of the propositions involving multiple contextual factors is beyond the capacity of any individual researcher or research program. A social observatory system could coordinate this enterprise to enhance theoretical development and provide valid policy-relevant examples across multiple policy domains.

How SOCN could serve the data and infrastructure needs of research

The proposed plan of selecting several hundred "nationally representative" geographic research sites can provide an adequate foundation for studying collaborative institutions. Most of the sites will have collaborative institutions in multiple policy arenas that could provide the focus of the study, and contextual data relevant to the theoretical issues would be part of the data to be gathered at each site.

For example, almost all locations will have at least one water supply authority and or utility. The SOCN could develop a water-policy data core to develop common protocols and collection methods for identifying these organizations and the means for measuring the critical attributes for study: scope of authority, structure (board vs executive leader), political oversight mechanism, budgets, professionalization of staff. Characteristics of the area's socio-political-economic environment and hydrogeological features that define the collective water supply problem provide the context within which the institution works, and multiple evaluations of the water supply policies and crises would permit the analysis over time of how institutional characteristics affect policy outcomes within different human and natural environments.

To make this data-gathering effort feasible in hundreds of geographic locations, past labor intensive methods of data collection need to be extended and replaced when feasible with web-scraping techniques, computer-assisted media analysis, and links to extensive public and private databases. For example, attributes of the institutions being studied can be gathered through computer-assisted web- scraping from their web sites, links in the networks of organizations can be traced through available web-crawlers that can identify all organizations in the water policy arena connected through hyperlinks, critical water issues can be identified along with protagonist and antagonist alliances through automated computer search of media resources, economic data for concentric neighborhood diameters is readily available from Census and other Federal and State government offices, and water supply information can be integrated from the massive CUAHSI Hydrological Information System.

How SOCN observatory structure can facilitate research

The projected data base can only be developed through a community (research network) effort combining researchers with skill sets compatible with the complex theoretical and data demands. The community could be developed as a "Governing the Commons" project located in one of the 5-10 regional centers. The project would organize virtual and actual workshops to develop a consensus on data priorities, build committees assigned to develop common protocols for the various data components, and coordinate with other regional projects in the development of the SOCN's core data commitments. When possible, the project would be responsible for data gathering, processing, storage, and data transmission/availability to researchers. However, community members in each regional center would be needed for data gathering when local access to officials and local information is critical for analysis. Members in regional centers can also play a role in activities to promote access for researchers and all interest parties to the data as well as to analyses based on the data.