Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize for economics is good news for Liberals everywhere, but it is also a challenge for Liberal Democrats. Her work on conserving the commons has set out an effective and efficient third way beyond state control and privatisation, and it relies on local networks, local negotiation and local knowledge. And, I may say, also beyond Tony Blair’s fake Third Way too.
Lib Dems have been a little lazy over the past generation about struggling to articulate this inherently Liberal option, taking for granted – for example – that it is their role to defend state solutions, or that somehow the promise of corporate solutions (GM food, for example) have to be taken at face value.
But the real importance of Ostrom’s work isn’t so much the commons, as has been reported in this country. It is her pioneering work on co-production.
It was her team at Indiana University who were called in by the Chicago police in the 1970s to explain why crime went up when the police started using patrol cars, rather than staying in touch with people on the beat. She coined the term ‘co-production’ to mean that crucial element of policing – or any other public service – that has to be provided by the service users or the public.
She explained how centralised, technocratic systems – like so many of our own under Blair and Brown – corrode this co-operation, encouraging a division in public services between exhausted, target-driven professionals and passive recipients, who are supposed to be quiet, grateful and to mould themselves into whatever shape is most efficient for delivery. She explained how this leads to failure and inefficiency.
The co-production idea has been developed since by the civil rights lawyer Edgar Cahn into a major critique of public services, and the beginnings of an explanation for why Beveridge’s giants are still alive and well 67 years after his report.
And all because of Elinor Ostrom. Lib Dems would do well to use her as a model.