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In Memory of the pioneering Elinor Ostrom

This post by David Boyle also appears on the nef website

Elinor Ostrom, who has just died aged 79, was not just a pioneer of co-production, she was a pioneer of a whole new kind of co-operative economics.


The work which made her the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for economics (also the first non-economist) was about mutualism, but it was her pioneering work on why crime goes up when the police get into patrol cars that provided the spark that ignited the set of ideas around co-production, developed so effectively by Edgar Cahn.


She was at Indiana University for most of her career, spending much of her time in the 1960s, by her own admission, getting her own students out of gaol after anti-Vietnam War protests.  It was the period which saw the huge consolidation of schools in the USA, reducing the number of school districts from 110,000 to just 15,000 in the four decades up to 1950. 


There was a similar consolidation of hospitals, police forces and companies.  This was the emerging era of big corporations that, as we saw in Rule 4[1], have tended to constrict the effective role that people can play in making them effective.


Elinor Ostrom was fascinated by the issue of scale.  When she scraped up enough money to begin research, she decided she would look at the same phenomenon which was happening across the USA of consolidating police forces into larger and larger units. 


She had just enough money to hire cars for her research students to drive around Indianapolis for ten days, and test out the effectiveness of different styles of policing.  It was pretty clear, after the results came in, that the smaller the police force, the better they were at responding to emergency calls. 


This challenged conventional thinking, which assumed then – as it still does – that bigger is better.  Her black students urged her to have a proper look at policing in Chicago, and sure enough, it was the same there.  The small police forces in the black suburbs were just as effective as the huge police force covering central Chicago, which had fourteen times the funding. 


The Chicago police were interested in her research and asked her why she thought the crime rate seemed to be rising when police shifted from walking the beat to driving round in patrol cars.  It was here that she made her real breakthrough, understanding how much the police need the public, and how cut off they had become.


She needed a word that described that indefinable co-operation between police and public which was so easy when they walked around.  She called it ‘co-production’.  If the police forget how much they need the public – and disappear into technocratic systems, patrol cars or bureaucracy – then crime goes up.  It is the same pattern with doctors: they need the co-operation of patients if they are going to make them well.


This now turns out to be even more important research than perhaps it seemed at the time.  Her research provided the first clue which allowed us to develop the ideas behind co-production in public services, but it was more than that – it was a critical clue about the problem with the kind of wrong-headed modernism that has undermined the effectiveness of so many of our public services (find out more in my book The Human Element


We have lost a real pioneer.

[1] The Human Element; Ten New Rules to Kick start Our Failing Organisations by David Boyle

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