Theory of Commons Governance and Public Administration System

  • Alessandra StorlazziEmail author
  • Patrizia Pastore
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Cooperation and networking between public and private socioeconomic actors has gained increasing importance. Collective action and cooperative governance take the new public management paradigm of governance into account. In a context of crisis and lack of resources for the public sector, proactive strategies, robust alliances among public and governmental institutions, local communities, associations, and firms (as autonomous “rational resource users” with fixed identities and a common purpose) are moving away from the classical public-private, partnership model. Cooperation and networking improve public services access, provision, and efficiency and give direction on how to create value and economic potential for the local communities, particularly for those with a high degree of social cohesion.


Commons refer to shared natural or artificial resources, to physical infrastructures, immaterial resources (like public knowledge, public domain, open science) or territories which are generally managed according to the “open access”, and to the nonexcludability principles of any potential user. It is impossible to prevent consumers who have not paid for them from having access to them; this is hard yet not impossible (Ostrom 1990, p. 30).

According to Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom, neither the state nor the market are able to sustain long-term productive use of resources systems and to solve commons’ problems (i.e., free-riding and commitment problems, mutual monitoring, supply, congestion, overuse, and potential destruction of the resources: Hess and Ostrom 2001, p. 54). In certain circumstances, specific local contexts or particular geographical areas, collective action (through forms of self-organization by the users themselves) and durable multistakeholder cooperative institutions (which organize, govern, and manage local public services, common-pool resources, and open access infrastructures) provide organizational solutions that are more efficient than direct private control (with its prerogative of admitting or excluding the members from the user group) or than the bureaucratic management by governmental institutions or state agencies (which are able to prevent the destruction of resource’s value through overexploitation) in providing responsiveness to local needs and better conditions for the development of local economies.

There is no longer one best way (if there ever was) to produce, allocate and manage the different types of commons, goods and services but a variety, not necessarily dichotomic, of possible solutions. Nevertheless, the outcome of the “in common solution” depends on the awareness of the relative community, on its degree of social cohesion, on its willingness to participate, and on its capacity to respect common rules (March and Olsen 1995).

New Public Management and Governance of the commons can make a significant contribution to shaping and optimizing of the interdependencies among public and private socioeconomic actors, particularly in a society which cooperatively attempt to produce public value (Kooiman 1999; Benz and Frey 2007). In particular, the strategic public management approach is coherent with the institutional approach of the polycentric governance and self-governed collective action theorized by Ostrom, since all governance processes take place within a broader network of interaction (involving a diverse array of public and private organizations, corporations, professional associations, nonprofit and community-based organizations) that sets the body of norms and rules by which different kinds of organizations are constituted and their processes of interaction defined and legitimated within the relevant communities. This holistic administrative policy approach, seeking to combine the strengths of the hierarchical bureaucracies into a hybrid (yet coherent) pattern of governance grounded on the networking governance, seems the most appropriate mode of governance for dealing effectively with complex issues (Kooiman 1993; Rhodes 1996, 2000; Peters 2000; Christensen 2012), because it improves policy integration, strengthening the strategic capacity of the public sector in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability (Steurer 2004).

Commons, Self-Organized Collective Actions, and Shared Strategic Orientations

Commons refer to shared natural resources (such as watersheds, woodlands, irrigation systems, marine and coastal ecosystems, and the like) or the land tenure and use, it’s to the historical-cultural and environmental heritage (in some cases, public goods can coincide with commons, for example, in the case of all historical and artistic goods, but also in the case of natural resources) to artificial resources, either physical infrastructures (like aqueducts, communication routes, urban commons such as apartment buildings, parking spaces, playgrounds, etc.) or computerized (internet or other network) or to immaterial resources (like public knowledge, public domain, open science, and the free exchange of ideas) within a given domain conventionally defined (Frishmann 2012; Sacconi 2016). They are often governed by common property protocols (arrangements different from private property or state administration) based on the self-management by a local community whereby a particular relation arises between, on the one hand, those who supervise the resources and contribute to their maintenance, reproduction or development and on the other and their users. This relation is characterized by the resource’s shared use or common appropriation, and by open and equal access to it, conditional only on the geographical (spatial) extension within which that resource is available, i.e. at local, national or international level, as the case may be.

According to this definition, the necessary characteristic for a resource or good to be considered common is the model of governance and management (that is, a set of rights and decision powers, with the consequent decision-making processes that regulate the resource’s appropriation, use, maintenance and (re)production) does not permit the exclusion of any potential user from the resource within the territory in which it is available, that makes the good excludable. Many examples, from the remunicipalization of water (representing the material implementation of the horizontal subsidiarity), the self-management of cultural spaces to the free software and makers’ movement illustrates collective practices that establish new spaces, institutions or norms of participative and democratic sharing. These examples represent practices of reappropriation and management of the common, new practices of labor, creation and production based on collaboration and sharing.

In other cases, new generation commons, as for example internet platforms, industrial districts (Pastore and Storlazzi 2017) or tourist areas (Storlazzi et al. 2017) provide grounds for new forms of collective self-organization and decision-making. Particularly, these examples clarify “how a group of principals who are in an interdependent situation organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing collective benefits in situations where the temptations to free-ride, shirk and to break commitments or otherwise act opportunistically are substantial” (Ostrom 1990: 29). Inside these contexts, the self-regulatory power is recognized by public authorities in order to ensure the use and the collective enjoyment of resources, infrastructures, and goods, addressing them to the fulfilment of those rights as well as the free development of the person and the safeguarding of future generations. Therefore, commons are the product of a social and institutional structure that demonstrates forms of governing and social cooperation that guarantee its production, reproduction, and spread (Rhodes 1997).. “Self-governance requires collective action combined with knowledge and will on the one hand, and supporting and consistent institutional arrangements on the other hand” (Hesse and Ostrom 2007: 5).

The self-organization of cooperation is therefore possible. The socially optimal level of cooperation can be achieved through self-governance, which does not mean tacitly and spontaneously, but through explicit agreements and pacts on the levels of investment and on the fines voluntarily imposed by the participants on the transgressors (Sacconi 2016: 20). In this respect, in these contexts, the self-regulatory power is recognized by public authorities in order to ensure the use and the collective enjoyment of resources, infrastructures, and goods, addressing them to the fulfilment of those rights as well as the free development of the person and the safeguarding of future generations. Therefore, commons are the product of a social and institutional structure that demonstrates forms of governing and social cooperation that guarantee its production, reproduction, and spread (Rhodes 1997).

Stable institutions of self-governance involving a diverse and cohesive set of public and private socioeconomic actors/agents are able to rationally interact (by identifying strategic objectives, implementing integrated actions, and solving collective problems) and to establish rules and institutions regulating access to commons, that is, the resource’s appropriation, use, maintenance, and (re-)production and to have them applied on a voluntary basis (Ostrom 1990, 1998). This governance pattern provides access to important resources by involving those with a stake in a particular issue; it promotes an interorganizational focus on the faced specific types of problems to be addressed and helps to finding widely accepted solutions by sharing of information.

These institutional systems grounded on the self-organization of common goods management via agreement on the rules and their self-imposition allow not only to achieve coordination between different public institutions, which is impossible to obtain only hierarchically, but also to associate organizations representing economic, social, and cultural interests. In this respect, New Public Management and Governance of the commons have shaped the public sector strategic management in the last 30 years in the attempt to improve efficiency and effectiveness in producing and providing public service, on the one hand, and to create value in terms of communities’ access and use of commons (more than to ownership), emphasizing cooperation, democracy, and citizen participation, on the other hand.

Communitarianism and Governance of Public Communities

The governance system of the commons is presented as a system that experiments successful organizational models, reinforces the operational arrangements of the reciprocity in the government of common goods and common services, and appears converging with the paradigm of the new public governance. The consideration about public governance is linked to the debate on communitarianism and on the value of the community.

The public governance requires the possibility of a government of the systems without necessarily having to resort to a form of authority over the parts and to a state of formal control (Manfredi 2013). Moreover, these theories provide interesting prospects for a renewed strategic governance of the public sector. On the one hand, the New Public Governance enhance negotiation at multiple levels, and foster interaction (Torfing and Triantafillou 2013), on the other hand, the “Network Governance” tradition draws attention to a “more plural and pluralist” state (Osborne 2010). As for Ostrom’s institutional perspective, public goods, common pool of resources and commons call for an adequate organizational dimension, for an “institutional creation” or for a hybrid institution. Latter are institutional arrangements governing the interdependencies among public and private actors, actions, resources, and property rights in resource governance, either defined by structure (linkage among entities with jurisdiction over different property regimes) or by mode of governance (balance between self-organization and formal regulation as complementary instruments of governance).

The theory of commons and the self-organized collective action principles point out (Olson 1965; Ostrom 1990), by emphasizing the logic of membership and participation in interest groups, many similarities and are consistent with the new public governance logic. They contribute to define the institutional framework, which sets out the incentives and the effective organizational principles in the governance of commons.

The conceptual framework adopted to empirically analyze collective resource systems is called the Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD framework). The IAD framework (Ostrom 1990) is a conceptual map focused on the behaviors in diverse situations at multiple levels of analysis and concerns analyses of how rules, physical and material conditions and attributes of community affect the structure of action arenas, the incentives that individuals face, and the resulting outcomes.

According to self-governed action theory, only organizations with a few members do not need additional incentives to motivate the action of their members (Olson 1965). Everyone knows that the result of his action more than that of the others will result in an economic improvement divided by a small number of subjects, so the cost of individual action is generally not superior to economic return. Instead, in large organizations, the increase in well-being has to be subdivided into a large number of beneficiaries; so generally, the gain is significantly lower than the cost of the action (Olson 1965). The principle is that “only a separate and selective incentive” will stimulate a rational individual to act in an oriented way, so only a benefit strictly reserved to the members of the group will motivate someone to participate and contribute to the group. For this reason, large organizations have to introduce incentives to stimulate individual participation in collective action. The problem of identifying incentives to motivate the community of citizens to take on behaviors of respect and safeguard is therefore central to the public sector process of strategic government.

The analysis of different systems through the IAD framework allowed the commons theory to compare the results obtained and to come up with the definition of a set of design principles based on very different collective resource systems. The so-called design principles are an essential element or condition that helps explain the success of these institutions in preserving collective resources and in getting the community that uses goods to comply with the rules adopted, generation after generation (Ostrom 1990). These principles, not defining precise rules, which may vary by case depending on the specific factors characterizing the system, outline the project conditions that must be considered for the design of sustainable governance systems of commons and of public commons. The design principles are: (Ostrom 1990)
  1. 1.

    Clearly defined boundaries: Individuals and families, who have the right to withdraw resource units from the common resource, must be clearly identified. This is to ensure that those who contribute to the management of the good are certain that their efforts will not be frustrated by the action of outsiders nor will they be allowed free-ride behaviors.

  2. 2.

    Congruence between the appropriation and provision rules and local conditions: Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units must be related to local environment they govern and to provision rules requiring labor, material, and/or money. For this reason, it is necessary to establish different regulations for different systems.

  3. 3.

    Presence of agreements on collective rules, defining the ways in which the common good management policies are put in place. Because self-government works, it is necessary that most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules, in order to adapt them to contextual specificities and systemic changes that intervene in it. The fact that the rules are right does not, however, ensure that these will always be respected. It is therefore necessary to implement the agreement through an enforcement work and invest in monitoring and sanctioning.

  4. 4.

    Monitoring: Audit systems must be implemented. Moreover, members of the community must be accountable both to controllers and the whole community. Monitors, who actively audit commons conditions and appropriator behavior, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators themselves. To this regard, robust institutions often have a system of monitoring and sanction that is not outsourced by society yet remains in the hands of the participants themselves.

  5. 5.

    Presence of a gradual sanction system: Punishment must be highly probable, even if graduated, for appropriators who violate operational rules (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both. It is necessary to trigger almost-voluntary compliance in the sense that compliance with the rule must be almost without coercion but through the so-called contingent behavior.

  6. 6.

    Definition of a clear and inexpensive conflict-resolution mechanism: even a monitoring by-product is reached: The latter being understood as an automatic monitoring system, in the sense derived from the same ways of using the good. Furthermore, usually the community member conducting monitoring activities receives social approval and sometimes also obtains private benefits. While the ones who broke the rule loses its status and prestige. In conclusion, once the community members have committed themselves to a contingent self-commitment, then these will be motivated to monitor themselves the behavior of other members (peer review).

  7. 7.

    Recognition of rights to self-organize by external government authorities: The rights of appropriators to set up their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities.

  8. 8.

    Presence of nested enterprises (where the common resource are part of a larger system): The processes of appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises (Ostrom 1990: 101) or multilevel organizations. This is also the main message of Ostrom’s central concept of polycentrism.


The IAD framework and the design principles of the governance of commons underline how important it is the presence of (spontaneous) organizations or institutions that arise to manage commons. In the government of public communities, asymmetric information and opportunism inevitably related to the traditional process of strategic formulation can be limited in the ability to engage citizens’ communities. Initiatives of the type “adopt a monument,” or “take care of a flowerbed,” or even the establishments of neighborhood committees prefigure in part the presence of the design principles of the government of commons. Awareness of the limits of a rigid strategic approach and of the success of common property governance cases where the presence of a self-governing and mutually controlled community prevails can lead to an attitude that facilitates the introduction of similar logic even in the governance of public communities.

Governance and Strategic Management of Commons in the Public Administration

Commons call for a new kind of “partner” state, people can work with to regulate for guaranteed access to essential resources, as well as for standards, sustainability, and fair distribution. It follows that new stronger forms of participatory democracy are essential to transform public institutions and to hold them to account. The logic of the self-organized collective action and the theory of commons seem to be able to point out an innovative context in the perspective of a strategic orientation to the government of public administrations. The logic of self-organized collective action and the theory of commons include the third pole made up of community of citizens who are not only the recipients of public policies but are also more actively involved in the definition of choices and in the participation in the process of delivering output and outcome.

In the IAD framework with the action arena is the social space where individuals interact, exchange goods and services, solve problems, dominate one another, or fight (among the many things that individuals do in action arenas).

In the public sector, the IAD framework seems to be characterized in a specific way. The logic of co-creation of value is at the center of action arena that corresponds to the process of delivering many public goods and services that are like a common. In this regard, specific conditions emerge in the public sector, such as:
  • The diffusion of information and communication technologies

  • Paths of democratization

  • The co-participation of population in the definition of public policies and also in the provision of public services

  • New organizational models that affect both the recognition of a good as a common and the purpose pursued

Local communities, for example, can organize themselves for the valorization of a tourist area and can attribute common value to the tourist destination and services (Storlazzi et al. 2017). With regard to the goals initially pursued, with the introduction of a logic involving citizens in the delivery of a public service, the value co-creation, maximizing the goals of efficiency and effectiveness are pursued.

The strategic orientation in the public sector brings closer to the pursuit of those goals known to be relevant even if it faces resistance both in the implementation of strategic choices by the internal organizational structure and in the involvement of the community of citizens. The latter are only partially the recipients of public policies as they are increasingly involved in a process of co-creation of value.

The theory of self-organized action and the theory of commons governance emphasize the logic of membership and participation in interest groups and display many similarities with the new approach of public management.

In this regard, the strategic public management approach (Steurer 2004, 2007; Lega and Cristofoli 2009) provides an innovative perspective (compared to hierarchical and market-oriented ones which have dominated public sector practices) and encourages the growth of collaborative public management (Agranoff and McGuire 2003; Agranoff 2006) by governing shared public resources and regulating their use, access, preservation, and maintenance as a viable solution to collective action problems in the commons. Key features of this new governance approach are, for example, various forms of public-private partnerships (i.e., the disaggregation of public administration in particular agencies), or policy networks formed around policy issues or clusters of resources (i.e., sets of relatively stable relationships) which are of nonhierarchical and interdependent nature linking mutually a broad variety of societal actors (Jervis and Richards 1997; Börzel 1998; Christensen 2012).


The commons both theoretically and empirically focuses on the deepening and analysis of the problems that communities need to solve and on the factors that facilitate or hinder them in the governance processes. These ideas emphasize the importance of participatory democracy, organized and self-organized civil society. Perhaps, in the governmental administration, formalism and determinism should be accompanied by the consideration and inclusion of informal collaboration mechanisms that should be foreseen and encouraged by coming to the definition of shared rules for the sustainable management of public resources. The same measure of outputs and outcomes could be shared with citizens’ communities. Informal organizations are not antipublic to the public administration system but need each other to work efficiently and indeed can be particularly useful to limit phenomena related to asymmetric information and opportunism. What that here is underlined is not the application of self-government logic to the public administration system as a whole because in many cases the system would certainly not be governable. However, the success of some initiatives spontaneously born in the government of public goods leads to the reflection on the opportunity to introduce incentives to let communities of self-government emerge.

All this in the strategic government of public administrations translates into favoring a strategic orientation agreed between political sovereignty, governmental organs, and stakeholder concerned with public sector governance. It seems possible to achieve effective mutual sharing and harmony about the pursuit of institutional goals.

In terms of implications, it is possible to ascertain to what extent the model of governance, called to describe the dynamics of interrelations existing in the public system, is reflected in a participative reality of all involved and decision-making and management mechanisms.

In particular, it is necessary to ascertain whether, in the context of public strategic systems, interpreted in the light of an evolved business concept, it is possible to achieve a high degree of overall resonance of all possible stakeholders through the introduction of self-government logic that pursues both the effectiveness of the processes and the effectiveness of the operating structure. This approach is consistent with the pluralistic conceptions of enterprise that underline the shift from a concept of closed-type enterprise governed by input-output relationships to an evolutionary conception that takes into account the plurality of developers.

In the management of the public administration system, the subjects that determine the development are numerous and varied. They create multiple exchanges, and at the same time, qualify those who contribute to the creation of public value and who are the users of the created value. Strategic management of the public administration system can only be carried out in the light of corporate pluralism, and the interpretation of developmental conditions cannot ignore a careful reflection on the contributing subjects and about those who benefit of the value creation process.

These institutional systems grounded on the self-organization of common goods management via agreement on the rules and their self-imposition allow not only to achieve coordination between different public institutions, which is impossible to obtain only hierarchically, but also to associate organizations representing economic, social, and cultural interests. This governance pattern provides access to important resources by involving those with a stake in a particular issue; it promotes an interorganizational focus on the faced specific types of problems to be addressed and helps to finding widely accepted solutions by sharing of information (Manfredi 2013).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Facoltà di Scienze della FormazioneUniversità degli Studi Suor Orsola BenincasaNaplesItaly
  2. 2.Department of Business Administration and LawUniversity of CalabriaArcavacata di Rende (Cosenza)Italy