Commonification of Public Services

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Concept proposed by Tommaso Fattori, Italian commons activist:

" the "commonalization" or "commonification" of the Public (ex the commonalization of the public services, like the water utilities), mainly through democratic participation of the people, transforming the citizens in commoners "


Discussion 1: Generalities

David Bollier:

"Part of the challenge is to APPLY the commons language and framework to activities that are in fact "commoning" but which are not generally recognized as such. That way, we can begins to have specific, concrete, everyday examples of "the commons," and it will cease being merely an intellectual abstraction.

One idea that I have is this: the State already formally delegates some of its powers to corporations by granting them corporate charters, ostensibly to serve certain public purposes. Why can't the state make similar delegations of authority to commons-based institutions, which would also (in their own distinct ways) serve public purposes? If the key problem of our time is the market/state duopoly, then we need to insist that the state authorize the self-organizing and legal recognition of commons-based institutions also. James Quilligan has called for commoners to create their own "social charters," but the legal standing of such things remains somewhat unclear.

The public value of state-chartered commons-based institutions is that they would help 1) limit the creation of negative externalities that get displaced onto others (as corporations routinely do); 2) declare certain resources to be inalienable and linked to communities as part of their identity; 3) assure more caring, conscientious and effective stewardship and oversight of resources than the bureaucratic state is capable of providing; and 4) help commoners internalize a different set of stewardship values, ethics, social practices and long-term commitments than the market encourages.

In a forthcoming book, "Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons," Burns Weston and I write about the fragments of commons law that can still be seen, and are often still operative, in western law. Things like the public trust doctrine (in US law) and certain commons-like legal arrangements internationally like Antarctica. Our book won't be out until February, but a lengthy essay upon which it is based can be found at our website for the Commons Law Project, at Sections IV and V may be of greatest interest to you.

One concept that we develop is the idea of "Vernacular Law," which is the informal, socially based rules and norms that communities develop, independent of formal, written law. I think this is an important idea for the commons -- and for the commoners to develop. It validates "the street" as a source of law over and against formal law, which is often corrupt, unresponsive, inaccessible to ordinary people, etc. Having said that, we still need to find ingenious ways to validate and protect the commons using "established" systems of law. This amounts to developing "legal hacks" like the General Public License for software or the Creative Commons licenses, both of which are inscribed within copyright law, an otherwise regressive system of formal law.

Our essay also has a brief section on why the liberal state is unable to comprehend the commons or create laws for it. (Short answer: it does not recognize collectivities so much as individuals; it sees formal law and markets as the primary arenas for policy and production; it makes a strict subject/object distinction and has trouble seeing how intersubjective social dynamics matter. Etc.)" (email, July 2012)

The Public - Commons Partnership and the Commonification of that which is Public

Tommaso Fattori:

"The field of Commons can be for the most part identified with a public but not-state arena, in which the actions of the individuals who collectively take care of, produce and share the Commons are decisive and fundamental.

In this sense, Commons and commoning can become a means for transforming public sector and public services (often bureaucracy-bound and used to pursue the private interests of lobby groups): a means for their commonification (or commonalization). Indeed, there are many possible virtuous crossovers between the traditional public realm and the realm of Commons.

Commonification goes beyond the simple de-privatization of the public realm: Commonification basically consists of its democratization, bringing back elements of direct self-government and self-managing, by the residents themselves, of goods and services of general interest (or participatory management within revitalized public bodies). Commonification is a process in which the inhabitants of a territory regain capability and power to make decisions, to orientate choices, rules and priorities, reappropriating themselves of the very possibility of governing and managing goods and services in a participatory manner (1): it is this first-person activity which changes citizens into commoners. Generally, there are a series of circumstances (including living space and time schedules, job precariousness and other difficult work conditions, the urbanization of land and the complexity of infrastructures) which do not physically allow the inhabitants of a large metropolis to completely self-manage fundamental services such as water utilities or public transport, bypassing the Municipalities and the public bodies (or managing without public funds to finance major infrastructure works): it is on the other hand possible to include elements of self-government and commoning in the distinct stages of general orientation, planning, scheduling, management and monitoring of the services. At the same time it is necessary to also give back public service workers an active role in co-management. Which means going the other way down the road as compared to the privatization of that which is “public”.

But there are also other overlaps possible between the idea of public and that of Commons, apart from the necessary creation of legislative tools which can protect and encourage Commons and commoning. Several forms of Public-Commons partership can be developed, where the role of state is realigned, from its current support and subsidising of private for-profit companies, towards supporting commoning and the creation of common value. This can be achieved through tax exemptions, subsidies and empowerment of sharing and commoning activities, but also, for example, by allocating public and state-owned goods to common and shared usage thanks to projects which see public institutions and commoners working together. (2) This is a road which could be the beginning of a general transformation of the role of the state and of local authorities into partner state, “namely public authorities which create the right environment and support infrastructure so that citizens can peer produce value from which the whole of society benefits”, according to the definition of it given by Michel Bauwens (3)."


1) Naturally, the commonification of a service presupposes first of all that the collective goods reguired to satisfy their needs and fundamental rights are managed according to a model which is not based on market logic and profits.

2) At the present time there are examples of degraded or unused public buildings which local administrations have targeted for projects of self-recovery and co-housing, which involve social groups who are not “poor enough” to be entitled to public housing programmes but nor are they in a position to buy themselves a house (normally young people in medium-low income brackets). The future residents receive a lease to use the publicly-owned buildings for a pre-defined number of years (in order to allow an actual shared use of the areas recovered) in exchange for a certain number of hours' work on the building site (and a modest monetary contribution): the residents' community is built, centred around a project, even before they live together. Another possible example is that of the repopulating of some abandoned areas in the mountains of Tuscany, where the Regional administration has held to the non-saleability of the common land and has activated a project to reconstitute communities of commoners who, grouped into cooperatives and other forms of association, have been able to buy and restore the abandoned buildings, return the common land to cultivation and take care of the woodland.

3) Bauwens points out that, to avoid the risk that the concept of partner state be confused with plans to dismantle the welfare state, along the “big society” model: “the peer production of common value requires civic wealth and strong civic institutions. In other words, the partner state concept transcends and includes the best of the welfare state, such as the social solidarity mechanisms, strong educational systems and a vibrant and publicly supported cultural life. What the British Tories did was to use the Big Society rhetoric to attempt to further weaken the remnants of social solidarity, and throw people to fend for themselves. This was not enabling and empowering; it was its opposite.” Bauwens M., The Partner State & Ethical Economy, July 2012. See:

The Commonification of public services as part of the new commons-based development model

Tommaso Fattori:

  "The commonification of public services is part of an overall paradigm shift: it contributes to building a new commons-based development model, which changes social relations, man-nature relations and finally the relations between current and future generations. Commoning incorporates future generations because it implies long-term “care” and “stewardship” of the world’s joint heritage, starting with natural resources; but commoning also generates the increase and multiplication of common riches and resources, starting from non-material ones: knowing and knowledges but also human relations, trust and solidarity.

Commoning does away with the concept of property as the right of individuals or companies to enjoy things in an absolute and exclusive manner to the point of being able to destroy them – this being a concept which in a neoliberal age is again popular, as it reconnects with a history of ancient origins, whose roots are found in the “ius utendi, fruendi et abutendi” (the right to use, enjoy and destroy) of Roman law and, more recently, in the version of it incorporated into the Napoleonic code, where ownership is conceived only as individual and translates into absolute power of the owner over a good. The dimension of commons does not only refer back to a concept of inclusive property rather than exclusive, or even a field definable as the opposite of property1, but to the essential active responsibility of the commoner towards “the other”: be it the collectivity, Nature or future generations. If proprietary reasoning implies that we can do what we like with anything we own, commons and sharing reasoning imply that we are co-responsible for anything we co-use.

Commons are resources and services with their own intrinsic value, which is independent of the economic use that could be made of it. Resources and services on which the realization of fundamental rights and the resilience of ecosystems depend; resources and services related to the production of material and non-material goods of collective interest, and at the same time of relations and participation. Taken all together, these dimensions constitute “well-being” for all. Nowadays we are witnesses to an overall impoverishment of society, not only of an economic nature, which translates into a generalized decrease in “well-being” (measured by the various indices of wellbeing and happiness which are alternative to GDP indices) and a decrease in commons available to the whole collectivity, both material and non-material. Wealth was for a long time identified solely with the growth of GDP and the individual accumulation of private goods, without taking into consideration the dimension of common wealth. We are all becoming poorer in relationships, in time, in wellbeing and quality of life; poorer in commons and natural environment, that is, in the common bases of life itself and of every production and creation, material or non-material. On the contrary, we are all richer when there is fair access to fundamental commons – from water to knowledge – when we can go to a good school, go to a functioning hospital or breathe clean air; when commonified public services are in their turn creators of new commons for present and future generations. On the other hand, becoming richer in private assets and poorer in commons corresponds to a worsening of everyone’s environmental and relational wellbeing and prepares a depauperated world for posterity. As we saw for the commonification of public services, the “rules” that commoners give themselves aim to reduce consumption of natural resources (as in the case of water services or the production of energy) and the multiplication of the production of non-material commons such as knowledge.

The objectives are to ensure the reproduction and increase of natural commons, the growth of non-material commons and relational assets, producing intragenerational and intergenerational environmental and social justice by sharing. Some things must grow and others must decrease. So it is a question of cultivating sharing and cooperation rather than competition, of fostering the social and collaborative tendencies of human beings as opposed to the model of the homo oeconomicus. Commonification of public services and the invention of forms of public-commons partnerships are one piece in this collective task: one pillar of the bridge is sunk into the present and the responsibilities of our generation, the other pillar rests in the world to come and the future generations who will live there." (draft manuscript)

Source info: Excerpts from a text prepared by Tommaso Fattori as part of the book-project "Protecting Future Generations Through Commons", organized by Directorate General of Social Cohesion of the Council of Europe in collaboration with the International University College of Turin. The text will be published soon in “Trends in Social Cohesion” Series, Council of Europe publications

Discussion 2: Characteristics

When can a public service be a commons

From a draft of an article by Tommaso Fattori:

"To understand in what sense and under what conditions public services can be considered commons, it is necessary to offer some brief notes on what is meant by public service and what by commons. In both cases it is difficult to be concise, because of the breadth of the debate on the areas and the issues. Public Services. As is well known, in most legal systems, the laws do not provide any definition of what is meant by the concept ‘public service’.  In short, in the doctrinal reconstruction, there are two main positions: the subjective theory focuses attention on the public nature of the subject supplying the service, whereas the objective theory focuses attention on the public interest which distinguishes the activity performed. According to the subjective theory, the elements necessary to identify public service are the direct or indirect responsibility of the State or another public body for the service, and its supply for the benefit of its citizens. On the other hand, for the objective theory, the necessary element is that the service be provided to the collectivity and place public interest at its heart. The EU however prefers to duck the issue and speak of “services of general interest”: services (both market and non-market) which are considered of central interest for the collectivity and that for this reason must be subjected to “specific obligations of public service”. In these pages, by public services we mean the services of general interest, that is, that plethora of fundamental services which were once an integral part of welfare services but nowadays have mostly been privatized, following political decisions, or are supplied by public bodies but run along the lines of privatized companies. These services include, although this is not an exhaustive list, health services, schools and universities, power supply, transport and other local utilities such as the water or waste services.

Commons: The definition of what is meant by commons, and what commoning is, is more complex, as this is an area in which different approaches and paradigms clash. In very general terms, commons is everything we share; in particular gifts of nature and creations of society that belong to all of us equally, and should be preserved for future generations: material or immaterial, rival or non-rival, natural or artificial resources that elude the concept of exclusive use and build social bonds.1  In addition to shared resources, there are another two fundamental building blocks of the commons: commoners and commoning. Commoners are all the members of a community, or even loosely connected groups of people, who steward and care for the shared resources, or produce common resources, adopting a form of self-government based on their capacity to give themselves rules (and incentives and sanctions to ensure they are respected, as well as mechanisms for monitoring and resolving conflicts)2, called commoning. Commoning is a participatory and inclusive form of decision-making and a governance system for sharing, producing and reproducing commons in the interest of present and future generations and in the interest of the ecosystem itself, where natural commons are concerned.

Still in general terms, although almost all goods and resources can potentially become objects of sharing, after a choice and decision by people, and thus become “shared resources” or “commons”, it is however probable that most of humanity would agree on a nucleus of resources which, at least in principle, “cannot not be commons”, on pain of denying life itself and the possibility of free individual and collective development: primary, fundamental, natural or social resources, which range from water to knowledge.3 A future without couch-surfing, where all beds are given a monetary value and not shared, is certainly less desirable than a future with couch-surfing; but a future without access to water for all is unacceptable. These primary commons must not allow discrimination in access to them according to individual wealth, reintroducing the element of equality and fairness, as well as a relationship of care —rather than one of domination or subjection— between humanity and the rest of nature of which it is a part. These are resources which do not belong to and which are not at the disposal of governments or the State-as-person, because they belong to the collectivity and above all, to future generations, who cannot be expropriated of their rights. Distributed participatory management and self-government, inclusion and collective enjoyment, no individual exclusive rights, prevalence of use value over exchange value, meeting of primary and diffuse needs: commons, in this understanding, means all these things."

Source info: Excerpts from a text prepared by Tommaso Fattori as part of the book-project "Protecting Future Generations Through Commons", organized by Directorate General of Social Cohesion of the Council of Europe in collaboration with the International University College of Turin. The text will be published soon in “Trends in Social Cohesion” Series, Council of Europe publications

Public services as commons

Tommasso Fattori:

"Direct access or access mediated by services. Fisheries, pasture areas, woods – most of the natural commons studied by Elinor Ostrom - are resources which are immediately operative as natural infrastructures for those who appropriate them, the members of the respective reference communities. Even when the management of the commons requires additional artificial infrastructure (for example, the channels in an irrigation system), this is in any case work that can be carried out with the direct labour of the commoners. The so called “ecosystem people”4 derive their means of survival from direct access to natural resources, depending for their subsistence on the ecosystem in which they live. However, for most of the world’s population, who are now urban, access to the natural goods which are fundamental to life is granted (if it is granted) in a mediated form, through complex infrastructuring and paid professionals, through public services: think of water and power services.

The service is the institution which allows enjoyment of and access to the good. This is the reason why, in the claims of the social movements, the services themselves are considered commons: if fundamental rights are satisfied thanks to access to primary commons, then the services which allow actual access to the commons to take place must also be commons, that is, they must be managed and organized according to commons-based reasoning. This means ensuring collective, or more exactly, universal enjoyment, that is by the whole collectivity, and guaranteeing forms of participation in the management and running of the service by the users. Access to these material or non-material resources through structured “common” services allows both the meeting of fundamental rights and the preservation and reproduction of the commons for future generations.

However the services present problems concerning organization and costs (many public services are capital-intensive), which are not issues in the case of traditional commons or the most part of new digital commons. And so we may wonder up to what point the management of a complex service, which requires infrastructuring and incurs significant costs, can be configured as a form of commoning and exactly what the commonification of the service consists of. Or whether it is possible – or desirable – that the users should entirely self-produce certain goods and services themselves.

Why? Against the privatization of services and going beyond the bureaucratized public organizations. Social movements and organized citizens’ groups propose a re-thinking of public services in a common-key. This is an area in which for many reasons we are pioneers: there are few practical experiences we can observe and many claims, which now affect nearly all public services, from transport to waste collection, but which are particularly focused on services linked to fundamental natural resources such as water and energy produced from renewable sources, or connected to primary non-material goods such as knowledge, think education in schools and universities, or to a good such as health, if we think of health services. So the institutions which supply services instrumental to the satisfaction of fundamental rights are considered commons, since they give access to primary commons.   

There are several reasons behind the commonification of public services, from the democratization of the services to the protection of natural resources for future generations, from the conversion of power supplies towards renewable sources, to ensuring universal access to fundamental resources, in line with policies of inclusion and sharing. A fundamental root is the reaction to the processes of privatization of these services, to prevent them being run according to the rules of profit to produce returns for companies and shareholders. At the same time, it is a refusal of bureaucratic and centralized management structures implemented by public bodies: reinterpreting traditional public services in a common-key is also an answer to the instances of degeneration of management practices by public administrations, who are distant from their citizens and have often in their turn absorbed and reproduced the private company thinking, embracing profit as an objective. These two planes are hence more closely intertwined than one might think.

Thus, for example, when the social movements oppose the processes for the privatization of water, they are opposing the privatization of the management of the water service: the service which grants access to drinking water. Under privatization, management is entrusted to bodies subject to private law, whose fundamental objective is to make an operating profit. The supporters of privatization processes rhetorically claim that water remains a Commons and only its management is privatized. But it is only the service that allows one to access the resource: privatizing it means privatizing the resource itself. As clearly shown by the pioneering studies of Berle and Means on the split between ownership on one hand and, on the other, actual control and management of a joint-stock company, it is not sufficient to see who is the formal owner of the good, but it is important to understand who really controls it and who actually manages the good and the service.  It is a question of understanding where the real power is concentrated, discovering that private ownership can be split into formal ownership and substantial ownership. Several now widely-studied circumstances – starting from the question of asymmetric information – make monitoring of the private management by the formal public owner impossible and ineffective."

Source info: Excerpts from a text prepared by Tommaso Fattori as part of the book-project "Protecting Future Generations Through Commons", organized by Directorate General of Social Cohesion of the Council of Europe in collaboration with the International University College of Turin. The text will be published soon in “Trends in Social Cohesion” Series, Council of Europe publications

Rationale for Commonification

Source info: Excerpts from a text prepared by Tommaso Fattori as part of the book-project "Protecting Future Generations Through Commons", organized by Directorate General of Social Cohesion of the Council of Europe in collaboration with the International University College of Turin. The text will be published soon in “Trends in Social Cohesion” Series, Council of Europe publications

Tommasso Fattori:


No private profit from services which belong to everyone

Commonification of public services means firstly managing the resource to which the service is connected outside of market and profit logic, as a commons to which everyone must be able to have fair access. The objective of the service is not to make a profit – as is frequently the case both in privately-owned management companies and in fully-publicly-owned management companies – but to satisfy individual and collective fundamental needs and ensure the full implementation of fundamental rights of the person and of the collectivity.

Universal access and protection or multiplication of the resource

In the case of natural commons to which one has access through services, commonification prevents any exclusive use of the resource and guarantees universal access to it, whether for example it is a question of water, healthcare or education: the objective is intra-generational social justice. In practice, it is a question of guaranteeing each person the healthcare he or she needs, or the right to access the vital quantity of water each day or the essential quantity of energy: so shared social responsibility is needed (as in the case of covering the cost of vital quantities through general taxation). Commonification also means protection of the resource, when considering natural resources: the objective is inter-generational and environmental justice.  It is a question, for example, of avoiding the pollution and waste inherent in the concept of commodification: the more water or energy is consumed, the greater the profit for the management service.

If for natural resources, commonification requires awareness of their limits, as regards services related to knowledge (such as education in schools and universities), it is on the contrary a question of multiplying non-material open access resources available for present and future generations, as we will examine more in depth further on. These are resources whose growth is both possible and desirable.    The logic of the commons is hence one of inclusion, both intragenerational and intergenerational. Natural resources must be handed down to our descendents with the same level of quality; infrastructures and services for everyone must be improved; non-material resources must be multiplied, starting from the baggage of knowledge which is at everyone’s disposal. The commons logic is a long-term one, not the short-term view of economic gain. The objective is not to accumulate profits in the present but the inheritance to leave to the generations following ours.


The legal framework for commonified services must include: the inalienability of the good itself (when the service is connected to a specific resource such as water); the inalienability of the infrastructures; the ban on privatizing management of the service, which can under no circumstances be entrusted to private bodies or to bodies subject to private law.  In the case of natural resources such as water, the citizen-commoners do not “own” them but govern them and use them collectively in a socially fair and environmentally sustainable manner. In this sense, commons can also be defined as a governance system where the commoners use the resources in trust for future generations.

Participation and commonification

We now come to the decisive but also the most complex element, as far as the actual means of implementation are concerned. Commonification goes beyond the mere de-privatization of public services. Commonification of public services has an essential side which revolves around democracy and self-governance: it means participation of the users in the governance, management and supply of public services. Through commonification, the  general public, that is, all of us, is placed centre stage in governing and running public services, in contrast not only with the private system but also with the system in which the only people responsible for the creation of public policies and the design of services are public bureaucracies which, through standard operating procedures, allocate goods and services to the citizens. The user-citizens are in this case “participants” only as a source of requests, inputs and feedback: the production of the service consists in a one-flow supply and the citizens’ participation is closed within the limits of representative and procedural democracy.

The commonification of public services, on the other hand, represents  an alternative both to privatization and to the old-style public management, or rather, it represents two possible alternatives: commonification can translate both into forms of complete common self-production and self-governance of services on the users’ part, that is, without involving public structures and staff, or into a radical transformation of public bodies, where the public administration would still have a role to play. First of all, we will deal with the second interpretation of the commonification process.

The democratic commonification of public institutions which supply services

Commonification, as far as the participatory aspect is concerned, consists in this case of democratizing the public institutions which supply services, that is, introducing elements of self-governance and self-management by the users, of resources and services of general interest. The users acquire capabilities and power to make decisions, define orientation, rules and priorities, reappropriating themselves of the very possibility of governing and managing public goods and services in a participatory manner: it is this protagonism which turns citizens into commoners. The issue of commonification of public services is hence closely linked with that of experimenting new forms of participatory and deliberative democracy, because it introduces new moments of direct democracy for the management of shared resources alongside moments and forms of traditional representative democracy. The transformation of public services into “common services” means inserting elements of self-government and commoning in the various stages of orientation, planning, programming, management, supply and monitoring of the services. At the same time, it is necessary to also give the public services workers back an active and co-managing role. This means reversing the road taken when public services are privatized. The “common spere” implies a revolution in power: from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, finding forms of balance and integration with the mechanisms of representative democracy.6 In addition to  the models put forward by the social movements (such as those in the citizens’ bills), there are already forms of citizen participation in the management and governance of public services in different parts of the world, won mainly thanks to the pressure of these same social movements. The best-known examples in this area are once again in the water services sector, that is, where the movements have been strongest in recent years.7 Moreover in Brazil, participatory budgets have usually allowed for debate and a participatory decision-making process concerning the investments in all fundamental services. In Europe, too, there have been some attempts to introduce participatory elements, sometimes “top-down” and in a limited and twisted form (for example the drawing of “citizens’ juries”), sometimes taking more innovative approaches, as in the management of water services in Grenoble, Cordoba and recently in Paris and Naples. The local inhabitants move from being passive objects of services to finding spaces to define priorities and shape the services themselves, through participatory democracy mechanisms. These experimental models involve at least a double level: on one hand the participation of representatives of active citizens, movements and of the service workers on the Board of Administration of the public company running the service (the BoA is responsible for all main decisions); and on the other the setting-up of organisms – preferably with the power to make proposals and not merely with an advisory role – which work alongside the company management and are made up of representatives of the inhabitants-users and the workers.

Commonification and co-production of public services

Commonification intersects not only with the general area of participatory-deliberative democracy and participatory government/governance, but also with the more specific field of co-production in public services9. These are empirical-conceptual fields which are not always clearly defined: participatory governance remains a rather cloudy area, just as co-production is a concept used to describe very different phenomena in equally diverse terrains. In general terms, co-production can be defined as the involvement of ordinary citizens in the production of public services, particularly in the implementation stage and the output of the service. The origins are to be found once again in Elinor Ostrom and her research group, who began to use the term in the 1970s to describe the potential relationship that could exist between the “regular producers”, for example school teachers or health workers, and the user-clients who want to be transformed by the service into better-educated or healthier people.

If we look closely, the ideas on what co-production means are very different: one can first of all distinguish between a “strong” and a “weak” understanding of participation as co-production. In the weak sense, the service supplied is considered effective only on condition that there has been collaboration on the part of the beneficiary, to the point that the co-producing participation of the user is considered an ontologically necessary condition for the very production of the service. Think of services relating to the rehabilitation of the psychically ill, drug addicts and people in prison. In this “weak” sense, co-production exists in the education service when the student pays attention in class and then does his or her homework; when the citizen moves his or her car the day that street-sweeping is scheduled, or installs a smoke alarm in his or her home, in collaboration with the fire brigade. On the other hand, co-production in the “strong” sense is where our interest lies. In this understanding the concept largely overlaps what we defined as the democratic side of commonification, and is distinguished from it only by the conviction that it would not actually be feasible to introduce forms of real and deep co-productive participation within public bodies, breaking through the “glass ceiling” mentioned in Pestoff’s studies: “we find traces of a ‘glass ceiling’ for citizen participation in public services that limits citizens to playing a more passive role as service-users”, a limit found both “in public and for-profit social services”. Consequently, full participation would be possible only in co-production as a form of self-producing, outside the realm of public administration.

In any case, Pestoff notes how even in co-production – just as happens with commonification – there are two routes, two levels: “co-production can refer to direct citizen participation in the delivery of a publicly-financed service, at the site of service delivery, as well as to group provision of such services”. Another strong interpretation is that given by Bovaird, according to whom co-production is not limited to the mere supply of the service but must involve all stages: design; entrusting the service to a specific structure; management; monitoring and evaluation activities. Therefore co-production becomes a new way of producing services, which fully exists only when officers and users are co-planners e co-deliverers. Thus, co-production overlaps with the concept of commonification of services, understood precisely as a strong form of participatory government. However, Bovaird’s suggestion may appear an excessive stretching of the concept of co-production, which causes the notion to lose its original and distinguishing characteristics. For most scholars, the specificity of co-production lies in the fact that it is addressed precisely to the implementation stage of the service, moving the focus from the input side to the output side: participation usually involves only the higher stages of the policy-making cycle (identification and analysis of needs; formulating stage; participatory planning), whereas co-production concentrates on the output side and therefore on the descending phase of the life-cycle of the policy.

If, therefore, co-production in a narrow and specific sense defines a strong participatory practice which is however basically focused on output, and in particular on the implementation of the service, on the contrary, commonification is a more comprehensive concept and practice: it includes both the participation of user-citizens in managing the services (the input side and the drafting of public policies themselves),  and the element which is more proper and specific to co-production, focusing on the output side. At the same time, one must not forget that commonification can be understood both as the commonification of public bodies delivering the services and as direct and collective self-production of the services, to which we shall now turn our attention.

Going beyond the commonification of the public bodies delivering services: commonification as self-production of the service by its users. In addition to the route towards commonification of the public  institutions supplying services, in the forms  described above, there is another way of organizing public services as commons: the route involving complete self-production and self-management of services by their users, through various forms and institutions which can be, for example, cooperative societies, consortia, foundations and trusts16 or other innovative institutions. In this case, it is not a question of structuring ways of participating in the planning activities, orientation, management, supply and control over the public service, integrating forms of representative democracy, alongside the “regular producers”, that is, the professional public administration staff: we are talking about the variously-structured communities of users taking on full responsibility and producing the service.  The consumers are at the same time co-producers of the service: giving production and governance by service users themselves. Clearly, in such a framework, the general elements which we saw characterizing commonification of public organizations still stand (starting from refuting the profit-directed mind-set), but the degree of participation in the management and production of the commons is stronger and more direct. In some way it echoes the way of cooperating and taking direct action, and the levels of service attained, achieved by traditional natural commons." (draft manuscript)

Discussion 3: Problems and Limitations

Source info: Excerpts from a text prepared by Tommaso Fattori as part of the book-project "Protecting Future Generations Through Commons", organized by Directorate General of Social Cohesion of the Council of Europe in collaboration with the International University College of Turin. The text will be published soon in “Trends in Social Cohesion” Series, Council of Europe publications

Problems with wholesale cooperative self-production of certain public services

Tommaso Fattori:

"In the cooperative model of commoning, the service is run by the community through organizational structures comprising only user-members (one should not forget that there are also cooperatives which serve almost exclusively non-members, and these are forms which have little to do with commoning). There are various risks associated with experiences of commoning in the production of services through cooperatives, consortia or similar collective institutions, and they increase in proportion to their size.

First of all, there is the risk of drifting towards a substantial corporatization of the organization, which tends to follow the typical administrative structures of businesses, with the consequent internal verticalization.

Where the service is organized on a small scale and is based on voluntary work, there can be problems in finding a sufficient number of people willing to dedicate time and energy to producing the service, even in rotating shifts, with the risk of loading excessive responsibility and work onto the shoulders of a small nucleus of people. Another risk is that of the user community not having within it the required technical capacities to carry out duties necessary to produce the service. Finally, in many sectors - for example those connected to care services or nursery schools - one must beware of the risk that a political use of commoning is made to justify cuts to public spending, replacing what used to be guaranteed by welfare services with voluntary work and relegating whole sets of services to another form of “private”, which is different from market and private enterprises: the private sphere, the family, with the burden of exploitation of female labour that this often entails.1 In many cases the most reasonable solution is hence to commonify the public institution which supplies the services, which must be guaranteed sufficient funds and allocations, rather than proceeding to replace them with forms of self-organizing and wholesale self-production of the service.

There is also a significant problem concerning distribution. Many essential public services are capital-intensive and require substantial investments in infrastructure (think of transport, water services and other grid services; of hospitals, university and research facilities, etc.). If one were to accept a principle of wholesale commoning by the users, this would meet the ambitions of those who favour drastic cuts to public social spending, in line with the “Big Society” model: the full costs of the services, starting from extraordinary infrastructure investments, would be borne directly by the commoners in a specific territory or in a specific service, with no contribution at all from general taxation; this would have an impact on distribution both within social classes and nationwide. Not to mention the problem of ensuring minimal vital quantities to all. In other words, what we were trying to get rid of would come in again by the back door: the regressive principle of full cost recovery, which passes on all costs – including infrastructure – directly to users, with no concern for unequal incomes and territorial differences, that is, with no social solidarity or shared responsibility. Indeed, one should not forget that when an essential service is financed solely by the direct contribution of the users (through social quotas, tariffs, etc.), the impact is always regressive and consequently, in proportion, the poorest pay more for the costs of the service and investments in infrastructure. It is no coincidence that one of the main reasons for failure of the pure forms of commoning for self-production of public services is the same reason for which citizens oppose privatization: in many water consortia self-managed by the users “members often do not accept that they must finance any extraordinary interventions”.2 Just as the commonification of a public service institution challenges the full cost recovery principle at its root, so too in the case of self-production of the service by the users, at a minimum, transparent forms of public-common partnership must be designed3 which will allow for controlled allocation of public funds to finance extraordinary investments and access to essential quantities of essential resources, regardless of the purchasing power and income of citizens. The problem of the high costs of the service does not present itself in traditional forms of commoning, where the resources act as natural infrastructures, nor in many forms of producing digital commons, where social cooperation and voluntary intellectual or cognitive work are at the heart of the system. On the other hand, for public services, this cost problem does exist and it is necessary to implement distribution policies which allow everyone to enjoy the common good.

Finally, a key element in commoning is obviously self-government and the participation of the users-producers in decision making, in defining the rules for the use and sharing of the commons and in its production-management. However, the most recent surveys confirm that the participation of members in the running of user cooperatives is not very high. On the contrary, in most cases, there is a marked tendency to abuse of the power of proxy. Paradoxically, it may sometimes be a positive element such as trust in the delegates which is behind it, especially in small local situations, where direct personal relations are strong. More frequently however, it is a question of a deeper problem, connected to the general disaffection for participation caused by various concauses: a lack of time, precarious and difficult working conditions, the high degree of urbanization of the land, the complexity of technical or infrastructure issues. These and other elements make it difficult or impossible – think of the inhabitant of a contemporary metropolis – to wholly self-manage and self-produce fundamental public services, bypassing public bodies, town councils and publicly-owned companies (or managing without public funds to finance large infrastructure works). So in such cases we return to the course of commonification of public services as the way to go, as it does not involve cancelling public bodies but their evolving and being transformed through the introduction of “common” elements.

Problems concerning participation in general and the participatory structures for managing services

Tommaso Fattori:

A crisis in participation, or a renaissance? Participation is also one of the central pillars in the process of commonification of public institutions which supply services: the issues of participation mentioned above in relation to self-production of services are also encountered, although in a milder form, in the commonification of public services.

On one hand, we are currently witnessing a general participatory crisis, which is also a crisis for participation and direct democracy: a crisis related to current mode of existence, lifestyles and naturally also to the multiform crisis of representative democracy. On the other, we observe the emergence of strongly-rooted social movements which demand the commonification of public services: the prime example being the Italian water movement.5 There is also a burgeoning of new practices of commoning – which imply voluntary forms of participation, although of varying levels and intensity –in “projects” and in the production of digital commons, from free software to Wikipedia. And there are new methods of local participation and commoning: think of urban gardening, cooperative efforts in which it is simpler to achieve direct verification of the effectiveness of this collective action. These are all practices which broaden the horizon of democracy and political participation. Human beings are capable of cooperative actions and they are able to sacrifice short-term personal interests in the name of long-term individual and group benefits, in order to achieve a group goal or provide a social service. However, this does not mean automatically taking for granted that citizens will be willing to take on additional burdens and responsibilities for the governance and management of the services, although by so doing they would gain greater collective benefits. In addition to the “republican or Athenian citizens”, there are also passive citizens and those who are not necessarily willing or motivated to commit themselves personally6; not to mention how difficult participation is for broad swathes of the population because of their objective living conditions, as mentioned above. Furthermore, individual motivation to participate may vary considerably according to what service is involved: sometimes one is more motivated to get involved when the service is perceived as vital or important for oneself and one’s nearest and dearest, for example.

Participation in the management of a school, of the water service or of a hospital presents in any case very different sets of issues, but it is certainly significant that in the midst of a time of weakening of collective participation and widely-acknowledged crisis of the traditional forms of democracy, there should be pressure going against the tide, and towards the reconstruction of forms of innovative democracy, starting precisely from public services. These are needs and claims which can in many ways be linked to the traditional claims for social democracy, that is, to move from democracy in the political sphere to democracy in the social sphere: the real degree of democracy depends on the growing democratization of spaces otherwise dominated by hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations.7A road which is the exact opposite to that opened by the current processes of privatization of public services, which bring with them, above all else, the privatization of decision-making and the distancing of citizens from the decision-making area.

It is important however, to avoid an irenistic and a-problematic approach to participatory activities and commoning, which are conflictual social processes. Participation is, among other things, mostly a selective process, that is, one that risks excluding the weakest voices from the participatory arenas (these may be in turn women, migrants, the poorest or the least educated). Unfortunately there is no shortage of examples of this even in the commons area, both in the traditional natural commons and in digital commoning. It is necessary to be aware of this in order to structure forms of commoning which are genuinely open, inclusive and practicable by all. Commons, therefore, open up the great political issue of the organization of decision-making power. In a commonified public service, how is it possible to actually organize participation in stable, inclusive and workable forms? How does one organize the relationship between direct and delegated democracy? How does one identify the reference community each time? Is the reference community for health as a commons, for example, the local community – perhaps connected to a specific healthcare structure – or the national one, or maybe even global? Is real participation possible on any level above the territorial? The actual organization of commonified public services must therefore provide for diversified participatory solutions from service to service, to be identified each time through collective processes. What is certain is that everybody nowadays is simultaneously part not of one, but of several reference communities (for example, the school they send their children to, the urban transport they use, the hospital they go to for treatment). These are mainly porous and fluid communities, whose members change continually. The desirable forms of participation must be identified collectively in an intelligent and “sustainable” way for everyone. Moreover, only by giving greater responsibility and partially turning the citizen into a commoner – guardian, beneficiary and him/herself direct producer of commons at the disposal of all – is it possible to move from the needs and rights of the present generation to those of future generations."

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