Obstructing institutional space for participatory governance? Contemporary applications of Ostrom’s IAD framework in spatial planning research



Institutional Analysis and Development framework, Institutional analysis, Commons, Spatial planning, institutional arrangements




Elinor Ostrom's Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD) is frequently used to study an institutional setting for governance practices in spatial planning. Our impression is that this often happens without awareness of or structural incorporation of conditions under which this frame was developed. We believe that these conditions are essential for the applicability of the framework and therefore the reliability of the institutional analysis. For example, the IAD framework emerged out of a particular set of cases, being small communities dealing with a scarce common. This particular setting is not always identical to contemporary spatial and governance issues (Ostrom, 2005). Moreover, applications of the IAD in contemporary research often focus on one of its working components instead of the complete framework. This raises questions on the extent to which the application of Ostrom's IAD framework has departed from its original premises, and consequently the implications for contemporary analysis of spatial and governance issues.

In  our paper, we explored the premises of the IAD framework to the institutional setting of spatial and governance issues as described by Elinor Ostrom herself, to identify the differences in contemporary applications of this framework. To that end, we intertwined three research steps. First, key principles of the IAD framework were derived by analysing 15 key publications, including early empirical research, (e.g. Ostrom, 1965), late studies (e.g. Polski & Ostrom, 2017) and comprehensive work (e.g. Ostrom, 2005). Next, from these principles, we established an analysis scheme which we applied to compare a selection of contemporary research based on institutional analysis in the field of spatial planning. These include, secondly, ten years of applied IAD research of the Spatial Planning department of the University of Groningen, who have a longstanding tradition of institutional analyses and the IAD in governance practices and spatial planning, and thirdly, other contemporary applications of the IAD at other research institutes.

The IAD framework is an instrument to systematically study a set of rules and concepts in order to demarcate established governance practices regarding a commons dilemma or the use of a common pool resource. In the IAD framework, Action arenas are fundamental, focusing the analysis on a configuration of rules (an institutional arrangement) for a particular commons dilemma under which stakeholders act and experience related problems (Ostrom, 1985). Here, institutions are understood as the rules, norms, and strategies that prescribe how actors must, must not, or may act within action arenas (Polski & Ostrom, 2017).

Our analysis revealed three main findings. First, the framework is frequently applied in cases that do not resemble the criteria identified by Ostrom, i.e. the requirement for an action arena to concern a focused commons dilemma or particular common pool resource. This is however vital, because the commons dilemma or common pool resource drives the formation and application of the respective institutional arrangement. Secondly, most institutional analyses using the IAD framework only analyse rule types and do not use the complete framework. This results in a lack of coherence between the rules, which is a premise of the framework. Lastly, Ostrom is inconsistent in definitions of the key concepts including action arena, action situation and institutions. As a result, subsequent studies employ different definitions which make the institutional analyses consequently only limitedly comparable and could produce different results.

These findings may affect the practices of planning and governance. If action arenas are incorrectly identified, the management can be unclear of commons dilemmas, common pool resources and the actions of how actors must, must not or may act. Resultant institutional spaces may obstruct certain stakeholders to engage in participatory processes, subsequently obstructing further policy change and institutional innovation.

Author Biographies

  • Robin Neef, University of Groningen

    Robin Neef is a postdoc at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen.
    His research focuses on cross-sectoral infrastructure planning, with a particular focus on aging
    infrastructures, scenarios, institutional analysis, and serious gaming. He has a special
    interest in transdisciplinary modes of research.

  • Wim Leendertse, University of Groningen

    Wim Leendertse is university professor Management in Infrastructure Planning at the Department of Planning, Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen, The Netherlands, and senior advisor for Rijkswaterstaat in the field of project management, innovation management, and market involvement.