The Meaning of the Design Principles

Chapter 0: The Measurement Challenge

Well, hello everybody!  It’s been quite a long time since I managed to find the time to write a post for the In Common Podcast blog.  Initially I was really hoping to use this blog to solicit the perspectives and opinions of the listeners of the podcast on a range of topics, but like many things over the past year and a half this has slipped through the cracks.  I have always found writing to be the hardest part of this job, but usually with enough time I could pull something semi-coherent together.  The pandemic has, however, taken away this precious resource and I find myself just trying to keep treading water to meet the next (adjusted!) deadline.  In fact, I find that in this process I have given priority to small tasks that can be accomplished in the few hours I have left after childcare (online kindergarten works as well as it sounds), meetings and major projects.  Things like helping collaborators to edit papers, reviewing papers for journals (but not MDPI), developing figures and supporting research led by others have been a priority because I feel that they are one of the ways I can meaningfully contribute at the present time. 

One of these small projects was a review for a group of conservation experts seeking to develop a tool to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of environmental governance, including many of Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for community-based natural resource management.  The tool, aptly named Elinor and led by Shauna Mahajan and colleagues, was a well thought out effort that holds considerable promise in helping communities and other stakeholders to identify potential gaps in governance and opportunities for addressing them and could further our understanding of the general applicability of the design principles.  However, it is also a reflection of the current status of scholarship on institutional analysis and social-ecological systems in which experts, including myself, struggle to develop shared definitions and in particular shared operationalizations or measures of core concepts, including Ostrom’s design principles.  Indeed, one of Elinor Ostrom’s primary motivations (at least in my opinion) for developing the social-ecological systems framework was to support the development of a common language for describing, measuring and evaluating the governance of social-ecological systems to support advances in the theory and practice of sustainable environmental governance. 

Over the next few months I plan to take on another small, achievable project to characterize my understanding of each of Elinor Ostrom’s design principles, as elaborated and refined by Michael Cox, Gwen Arnold and Sergio Villamayor Tomas, and my thoughts about how they have been and can be measured.  To be clear, I am not planning on offering a comprehensive review of each design principle.  Instead I plan to provide a synthesis based upon my own perspective, recollections of research and recent experience co-leading the Commons Synthesis Project with Jacopo Baggio at the University of Central Florida and participating in a SNAPP working group led by Emily Darling and Georgina Gurney examining the relationship between governance (including the design principles) and outcomes of coral reef conservation initiatives. 

I hope that it is of some interest to environmental planning practitioners and helps to move a bit further along a path towards a common understanding of these important and potentially transformative concepts.  As always please feel free to reach out with any thoughts, comments and points of disagreement.