Tag Archives: social institutions

The Ostrom Equation for Social Power

Kings, queens, supervisors, capitalists, priests: some have more power than others. This is not only political power; even dethroned monarchs have more purchasing power, more influence, and more capacity to alter people’s behavior than the rest of us. Let us call this power “social power”. The concept of “power” is central to any discussion of liberty, equality, and democracy, but the concept remains ill-defined and unmeasurable. If we could provide a precise definition of the power that one person has over another, we could begin to likewise precisely define liberty and equality. Let’s give it a try!

Elinor Ostrom, in Understanding Institutional Diversity, analyzed social institutions into several components, and in the process offhandedly gave an equation that calculates the “power” that any individual would have in an institutional context. First we need those components of social institutions.

Social institutions, according to Ostrom, are composed of their participants occupying certain positions in those institutions. Different positions have different sets of actions that are permitted for the people occupying those positions. We could think of this as like chess: there are many different pieces, and each of them can only move in certain ways. The bishop is one “position” that a piece can have, and the bishop’s permitted actions are making any diagonal move.

In the real world institution of law enforcement, a police officer is permitted to enter and search a person’s home if in possession of a search warrant. The rest of us are not in an institutional position to do the same.

The actions permitted by someone’s position lead to outcomes of varying likelihood. Actions are “linked” to outcomes. The choices that participants make are based on the information they have about how actions are linked to outcomes. To continue the example above, searching a suspect’s home is an action that has a variety of outcomes. If the officer calls in a SWAT team to search the house, the homeowners may respond with violence to the forceful entry of their home. That’s one “action-outcome linkage”. If the officer acquires and presents a search warrant, then the homeowner may peacefully allow the search. That’s a different linkage.

Some outcomes are better than others. Some, like calling in a SWAT team, may be dangerous to the police and the homeowner. Peacefully presenting the search warrant is more likely to produce a better outcome. Each outcome has a value attached to it for each participant, calculated by adding up its benefits and subtracting its costs.

The more values of outcomes (or the greater the range of outcome values) that are available to the participant, the more opportunity the participant has. A police officer is institutionally permitted to kill without punishment in a greater range of situations than the rest of us are. If I kill someone because I was afraid of them, I would probably be locked away. The range of costs and benefits to my action are very limited. But for a police officer, killing may receive a commendation, indifference from the community, or justifiable riots. Thus, the police officer has greater opportunity than most of us in this regard.

Finally, we have the control that the participant has over the outcomes from their actions. The control a participant has is equal to the conditional probability of a given outcome value given the action taken. In other words, the more control one has, the more one can chance one has to change the value of an outcome. Back to our police officer: he has more control over a situation, say a traffic stop, because he has more choices of action than the citizen to produce a beneficial or burdensome outcome.

Ostrom gives the equation this way:

The “power” of an individual in a situation is the value of the opportunity (the range in the outcomes afforded by the situation) times the extent of control.

So, how powerful someone is in a particular situation is a product of how much better or worse they can make the outcome in that situation. Having power means being able to produce a large number of outcomes, or producing outcomes with very different values, or having great control over the outcome, or all of the above.

The powerful person in our example situation is the police officer, obviously. But now we can say why he is more powerful, and just how much more powerful. The position of the police officer creates a set of actions permitted by law in any situation. Let’s say our situation is a traffic stop with a citizen. From that set of actions, the police officer can bring about an outcome that either:

  • has the same value as the status quo (police officer and citizen go their separate ways),
  • a radically bad outcome (the police officer freaks out and kills the citizen),
  • or something in between (a warning, a citation, or an arrest).

The police officer has the additional outcome of being rewarded for meeting an assigned quota for stops or citations. Thus, the citizen has limited opportunity compared to the police officer.

Also, the citizen can do little in that situation that could affect the quality of the outcome, while the police officer has significant discretion. Without police body cameras, it’s the word of the police against the word of a citizen. So the police officer has a great deal of opportunity and control, and thus power. The citizen has little of either, and thus little power.

Ostrom’s equation only provides us with a calculus of relative social power in particular situations, however. To determine the objective social status of individuals, and thus the groups that those individuals compose, we need to calculate the power of individuals across situations. A good start would be to take the value of the power of an individual in separate situations and average across situations and institutions. To find the power of groups of individuals, we can take the average of the power of the individuals in those groups. (Perhaps, as with income, we should take the median, to prevent powerful outliers from skewing the results.)

We can also determine how much power each individual should have. In a democratic republic, people should have equal liberty. If Ostrom’s equation is a good model of power, then we can define equal liberty.

A person is free if and only if the social institutions that person participates in grants as much power as possible (either by having a great deal of opportunity, or a great deal of control, or both).

People are equal if and only if the social institutions those people participate in grant the same value of power. Note that this does not mean that each person must have the same opportunities, or the same extent of control, only that the resulting product is the same.

Thus, people are equally free if and only if the social institutions those people participate in grant the greatest value of power that all those people can have equally.

Nice. Can any readers spot any problems?

Return to Camaragibe!

Camaragibe’s Participatory Administration

Reflections on Participatory Administration

Previously we discussed the unique “participatory administration” of Camaragibe, Brazil.  Participatory administration is simply the extension of the participatory budgeting model to municipal administration generally.  Participatory administration involves all of the standard participatory social mechanisms, including open popular assemblies that determine needs, plumb ideas, and elect delegates.  The delegates work with the city’s administration to adapt popular plans for technical feasibility.  The whole process starts again with the popular assemblies evaluating the results of the process and making changes and new plans accordingly.

All cities have to adapt participatory processes to their own social circumstances, and Camaragibe in the 90’s was no different.  According to Baiocchi et al (2011), the northeast of Brazil in general was underdeveloped and local politics is in the grip of an electoral oligarchy of feuding families.  Social movements in the Brazilian northeast are dependent on the patronage and clientelism of political parties and personalities, and so were largely demobilized.  Camaragibe’s health movement was the exception, and its leader, Paulo Santana, snuck democracy in through the back door.  First, he was head of the city’s participatory Health Council, and then, in 1997, was elected mayor on the platform of instituting Participatory Administration.  Participatory administration, like participatory budgeting, is successful when compared to other Brazilian cities, but concerns about its democratic potential remain.  Baiocchi, Heller, and Silva in particular categorize Camaragibe as an “affirmative democracy” whose participatory organization is “institutionalized” but “dependent”.  That the process is institutionalized means that the City Council is required to obey the results of the participatory process.  However, the process, and the civic associations (“civil society”) involved, is dependent upon the city government for leadership.  The democratic hope is that the government becomes dependent upon civil society.

The causes of this dependency on the government can be traced to the organization of the participatory administration process.  Participatory administration is innovative and beneficial.  However, certain aspects of the process displace leadership from the people to the government.  These design flaws reduce the “democratic efficiency” of participatory administration.

Democratic Efficiency and the Chain of Sovereignty

Participatory processes are intended to improve the democratic efficiency of representative institutions.  By “efficiency”, we do not mean that the benefits exceed their cost, as we usually might.  Instead, “democratic efficiency” refers to the degree to which the results of the democratic process reflect the will of the people.  If we conceive of the state as a system, citizens’ preferences are “inputs” and state action is “output”.  The most efficient system would translate citizens’ preferences into an act that accurately reflects those preferences taken as a whole.

For example, in the United States, our institutions are democratically inefficient.  As I wrote long ago in that linked article, there are many intermediaries between my vote and my legislator’s or executive’s decisions.  Campaign funding, think tanks, lobbyists, class interest, gender biases, racial inequality all distort the transformation of the individual will into collective will.  Those intermediaries reduce the democratic efficiency of the state.

(The phrase “democratic efficiency” comes to us from David Kaib, at Notes on a Theory.  I recommend it!)

Democratic Efficiency versus Inefficiency

Baiocchi, Heller, and Silva invoke a similar notion they call the “chain of sovereignty”.  The chain of sovereignty is the path that preferences travel from system component to system component (perhaps ‘node’).  In the case of participatory budgeting and administration, preferences are voiced, aggregated, and transformed at popular assemblies, moved to delegated councils, and so on through the process.  The more components in the system, the longer the chain.

For participatory processes, we seek a chain of sovereignty that maximizes democratic efficiency.  Short chains do not necessarily result in democratic efficiency.  For example, popular referenda are very short chains of sovereignty, because they are simply an initiative that the people vote on and the government enforces.  However, the same intermediaries distort the formation of the collective will.  The media controls the debate, wealthy organizations use their resources to dominate the discourse, and the bureaucracy drafts a ballot that confuses the voter.  Thus, the chain of sovereignty for referenda is short, but the democratic efficiency can be low.

How long is the chain of sovereignty for Camaragibe’s participatory administration, and is it democratically efficient?  Let’s look at the bottlenecks.


A delegate is a specific type of representative.  Typically, delegates are representatives that can be given instructions on how to vote or otherwise conduct themselves in their decision-making roles.  This is unlike the role that our elected representatives play in Congress, for one example.  Congressional representatives have taken the role of “trustees”, whose vote and decision is their own (and the corporations who buy them).

The delegates in participatory budgeting are expected to act according to the wishes of the popular assembly, and to return with accurate information from their meetings with other delegates and city administration.  This is also the case with Camaragibe’s participatory administration.  In most models of participatory budgeting, delegates are elected for a two-year term.  But in Camaragibe, delegates are elected for a four-year term.  This is a bottleneck in the system!

These days, people have little concern over the length or number of terms.  Once, democratic revolutionaries demanded “annual” parliaments or assemblies.  That means that the public elected their representatives every year.  Democrats of the past also demanded term limits.  These past democrats knew that for democracy to persist, representative institutions had to avoid the professionalization of politics.  The two-year term of the US House of Representatives, shorter than most of the world’s legislatures, is an artifact of this time.

With long terms to which the representative could be elected over and over, there are two effects.  First, political experience becomes the province of the few, and we defer to those with experience.  Second, the repeated meeting of those few form social networks that become too cozy and incestuous.  These effects create private interests – satisfying allies, personal ideologies, and protecting social status – that become distinct from the public interest.

Long terms also result in a loss to the important functions of elections.  Elections are meant to provide some measurement of public opinion.  Granted, this is only true ideally, in a world where candidates for election express their intentions truthfully and the electorate has an adequate understanding of social problems.  In any case, elections are supposed to provide information about the various electorates, based on whom they elect.  Also, the prospect of reelection is meant to provide incentives to the representative for obeying the ostensible wishes of the electorate.  Short, limited terms increase the frequency of ‘measurements’ taken and thus timelier information on the public mood and will.  Furthermore, more frequent elections provide more frequent rewards and punishments to the representative.  A limited number of terms entail that the representative has a limited number of chances to get it right.

Camaragibe, like many contemporary political designers, ignored these general principles.  Delegates in the participatory administration process have four-year terms, much like many parliamentary representatives in the world today.  Delegates receive no pay, but nevertheless acquire empowering political experience and increased access to the professional administration.  These advantages need to circulate widely among a population to produce democratic efficiency.

Democracy requires the broad distribution of political experience, and the absence of strong social networks among the positions of power.  The former brings confidence and engagement, the latter prevents political collusion.  The traditional solution of “rotation in office” is still a good one, even if it’s largely scorned.  Rotation in office is especially required for participatory democracy, if it is to remain participatory.

Top-Down, Not Bottom-Up?

The election of delegates is one element in a more general problem.  The initiative in participatory administration comes from the top, and not the bottom.  Municipal Councils, while composed of civil society representatives, call and lead their citizens’ conferences.  Delegates call their district assemblies.  These functions reverse the flow of leadership that would be appropriate to a democratic process.

As with most participatory models, participatory administration is for sharing in the management of the city with the existing representative bodies.  Mayors and city councils were vital leaders at the beginning of these experiments.  Yet they become not only superfluous, but also dangerous to popular power.  On the one hand, they become unneeded when the city council begins rubberstamping the decisions of the participatory process.  On the other hand, the continued existence of participatory institutions relies on the discretion of the mayors and city councilors.  Only the great popularity of participatory budgeting or administration prevents the elected offices from altering them.  But the success of such participatory programs proves that the people can rule through them.  Traditional representative bodies are best replaced by popular ones.

The motivation for designing a top-down participatory administration is perhaps that, as said above, the civil society of the area is largely quiet.  Perhaps the initial designers believed that civil society required government leadership to mobilize.  However, the world has a good sample of cities with participatory budgeting.  We can be confident that instituting participatory processes will cause civil society to become more self-assured.  This assumes that the participatory process allows civic associations to take the lead.  Otherwise, as in Camaragibe, the public will be dependent on a new layer of administration.

Realizing the Promise of Participatory Administration

Participatory administration is leaps and bounds beyond what we experience in most putatively democratic states.  None of what I have said should take away from that.  But when we import the model to the cities of the United States, we must be sure not to repeat its mistakes.

Participatory Administration (Adjusted for Democratic Efficiency)

Adjusting the model of participatory administration is simple, beyond just shortening the terms of delegates.  We only need to take each component and flip it on its head.  The Municipal Councils no longer call citizens’ conferences and delegates no longer call assemblies.  Rather, the assemblies call them.  More specifically, city-wide departmental assemblies elect the Municipal Councils and the district assemblies elect delegates for one-year terms.  Furthermore, the annual congress takes control of the administration away from traditional office-holders.

Participatory democrats often assure their readers that participatory mechanisms do not replace representative institutions, only improve and repair them.  The radical democratic-republican has greater ambitions.  The local level holds the greatest promise of actual popular self-rule.  Elected city councils, mayors, and county commissions can be replaced by congresses and forums of responsible delegates with a limited number of short terms of office.  City councils may provide initial leadership to the participatory process, but become superfluous once the public has control.  The roadblocks to democratic efficiency are must be swept away, and the chain of sovereignty unbroken.

A program for democracy must include the popular conquest of power in cities and localities.  A minimal program ought to involve the implementation of participatory budgeting, with increasing control over larger amounts of municipal money.  Popular power expands through the application to the general administration of local government.  While I have not yet addressed the issue of the relationship of popular power to the public services, I promise to do so in the future.

This has been an exercise in evaluating an experiment in the potential for modern democracy.  Such exercises provide us with insight into the principles of democracy by the design of that experiment.  The design of participatory administration shows us these principles not only in its successes, but also in what it lacked.  From such evaluations, we should be optimistic about the future of democratic society.


David Kaib at Notes on a Theory

Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Patrick Heller, and Marcelo K. Silva.  Bootstrapping Democracy: Transforming Local Governance and Civil Society in Brazil.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Too Many Evenings

When I try to convince others our need for real and effective democracy, most people will respond that they simply don’t have the time for it.  Oscar Wilde expressed the same idea about socialism, back when socialism was understood as a democratic movement: “The problem with socialism is that it will take up too many evenings.”  So too people think that truly governing themselves would take too much of their time.  This is a valid concern.  Our liberty not only involves self-government but also pursuing all those goals that give our lives meaning and purpose.  Also, current American political discussions involve nasty and unpleasant confrontations over issues that are often abstract, distant, and insolvable despite generating a great deal of emotion.  On the one hand, I seem to be asking people to remove themselves from their own projects that they find more compelling.  On the other hand, people are supposed to inject themselves into some horrible social situations.  But that’s not truly the case.

Making Time for Democracy read more »

Institutional Analysis Versus Conspiracy Theory

Alexander Cockburn has a great piece of commentary on the apparently increasing trend in U.S. politics of ascribing our social woes to conspiracies.  Readers at the Helmet will recall that our understanding of how institutions drive human behavior is central to solving the real social problems of our country and our world.  However, it seems hard going to get people to understand that no particular person or group of people is causing all the problems, but the way that people interact through the social institutions that they inhabit.

Instead, Americans cling to the stories of angels and demons in the White House and Congress who will lead them to the promised land.  The same tendency towards conspiracy leads to the cult of personality that takes over every four years when it comes time to elect the president.  Last time it was Obama, angel to most though demon to some.  And he will probably be turned into some sort of angel-demon for the next election, through the political parties’ media engines of ideology.

This tendency to understand outcomes in terms of human agency seems to be fundamental to the human brain.  But just as nature’s workings are devoid of any intention, so human institutions have their own operations at least partially independent of any person’s will.  Just as we improve our lives through dispensing with the belief that nature has its own will, so we must be jettison the idea that our social problems are the results of sinister men behind the scenes, if we are to solve them.