Building a grammar of blockchain governance

Towards Ostrom-Complete governance

By Darcy Allen, Chris Berg, Sinclair Davidson, Trent MacDonald and Jason Potts


Blockchains are institutional technologies made of rules (e.g. consensus mechanisms, issuance schedules). Different rule combinations are entrepreneurially created to achieve some objectives (e.g. security, composability). But the design of blockchains, like all institutions, must occur under ongoing uncertainty. Perhaps a protocol bug is discovered, a dapp is hacked, treasury is stolen, or transaction volumes surge because of digital collectible cats. What then? Blockchain communities evolve and adapt. They must change their rules (e.g. protocol security upgrades, rolling back the chain) and make other collective decisions (e.g. changing parameters such as interest rates, voting for validators, or allocating treasury funds). 

Blockchain governance mechanisms exist to aid decentralised evolution. Governance mechanisms include online forums, informal polls, formal improvement processes, and on-chain voting mechanisms. Each of these individual mechanisms—let alone their interactions—are poorly understood. They are often described through sometimes-useful but imperfect analogies to other institutional systems with deeper histories (e.g. representative democracy). This is not a robust way to design the decentralised digital economy. It is necessary to develop a shared language, and understanding, of blockchain governance. That is, a grammar of rules that can describe the entire possible scope of blockchain governance rules, and their relationships, in an analytically consistent way. 

A starting point for the development of this shared language and understanding is a methodology and rule classification system developed by 2009 economics Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom to study other complex, nested institutional systems. We propose an empirical project that seeks conceptual clarity in blockchain governance rules and how they interact. We call this project Ostrom-Complete Governance.

Why now?

The common approach to blockchain governance design has been highly experimental – relying very much on trial and error. This is a feature, not a bug. Blockchains are not only ecosystems that require governance, but the technology itself can open new ways to make group decisions. While being in need of governance, blockchain technology can also disrupt governance. Through lower costs of institutional entrepreneurship, blockchains enable rapid testing of new types of governance—such as quadratic voting, commitment voting and conviction voting—that were previously too costly to implement at scale. We aren’t just trying to govern fast-paced decentralised technology ecosystems, we are using that same technology for its own governance.

This experimental design challenge has been compounded by an ethos and commitment to decentralisation. That decentralisation suggests the need for a wide range of stakeholders with different decision rights and inputs into collective choices. The lifecycle of a blockchain exacerbates this problem: through bootstrapping a blockchain ecosystem can see a rapidly shifting stakeholder group with different incentives and desires.  Different blockchain governance mechanisms are variously effective in different stages of blockchain development. Blockchains, and their governance, begin relatively centralised (with small teams of developers), but projects commonly attempt to credibly commit to rule changes towards a system of  decentralised governance.

Many of these governance experiments and efforts have been developed through analogy or reference to existing organisational forms. We have sought to explain and design this curious new technology by looking at institutional forms we know well, such as representative democracy or corporate governance. Scholars have looked to existing familiar literature such as corporategovernance, informationtechnology governance, informationgovernance, and of course politicalconstitutional governance. But blockchains are not easily categorised as nation states, commons, clubs, or firms. They are a new institutional species that has features of each of these well-known institutional forms. 

An analogising approach might be effective to design the very first experiments in blockchain governance. But as the industry matures, a new and more effective and robust approach is necessary. We now have vast empirical data of blockchain governance. We have hundreds, if not thousands, of blockchain governance mechanisms, and some evidence of their outcomes and effects. These are the empirical foundations for a deeper understanding of blockchain governance—one that embraces the institutional diversity of blockchain ecosystems, and dissects its parts using a rigorous and consistent methodology.

Embracing blockchain institutional diversity

Our understanding of blockchain governance should not flatten or obscure away from its complexity. Blockchains are polycentric systems, with many overlapping and nested centres of decision making. Even with equally-weighted one-token-one-vote blockchain systems, those systems are nested within other processes, such as a github proposal process and the subsequent execution of upgrades. It is a mistake to flatten these nested layers, or to assume some layers are static. 

Economics Nobel LaureateElinorOstrom and her colleagues studied thousands of complex polycentric systems of community governance. Their focus was on understanding how groups come together to collectively manage shared resources (e.g. fisheries and irrigation systems) through systems of rules. This research program has since studied a wide range of commons including culture, knowledge and innovation. This research has been somewhat popular for blockchain entrepreneurs, in particular through using the succinct design principles (e.g. ‘clearly defined boundaries’ and ‘graduated sanctions’) of robust commons to inform blockchain design. Commons’ design principles can help us to analyse blockchain governance—including whether blockchains are “Ostrom-Compliant” or at least to find some points of reference to begin our search for better designs. 

But beginning with the commons design principles has some limitations. It means we are once again beginning  blockchain governance design by analogy (that blockchains are commons), rather than understanding blockchains as a novel institutional form. In some key respects blockchains resemble commons—perhaps we can understand, for instance, the security of the network as a common pool resource—but they also have features of states, firms, and clubs. We should therefore not expect that the design principles developed for common pool resources and common property regimes are directly transferable to blockchain governance.

Beginning with Ostrom’s design principles begins with the output of that research program, rather than applying the underlying methodology that led to that output. The principles were discovered as a meta-analysis of the study of thousands of different institutional rule systems. A deep blockchain-specific understanding must emerge from empirical analysis of existing systems.

We propose that while Ostrom’s design principles may not be applicable, a less-appreciated underlying methodology developed in her research is. In her empirical journey, Ostrom and colleagues at the Bloomington School developed a detailed methodological approach and rule classification system. While that system was developed to dissect the institutional complexity of the commons, it can also be used to study and achieve conceptual clarity in blockchain governance. 

The Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework and the corresponding rule classification system, is an effective method for deep observation and classification of blockchain governance. Utilising this approach we can understand blockchains as a series of different nested and related ‘action arenas’ (e.g. consensus process, a protocol upgrade, a DAO vote) where different actors engage, coordinate and compete under sets of rules. Each of these different action arenas have different participants (e.g. token holders), different positions (e.g. delegated node), and different incentives (e.g. to be slashed), which are constrained and enabled by rules.

Once we have identified the action arenas of a blockchain we can start to dissect the rules of that action arena. Ostrom’s 2005 book, Understanding Institutional Diversity, provides a detailed classification of rules classification that we can use for blockchain governance, including:

  • position rules on what different positions participants can hold in a given governance choice (e.g. governance token holder, core developer, founder, investor)

  • boundary rules on how participants can or cannot take part in governance (e.g. staked tokens required to vote, transaction fees, delegated rights)

  • choice rules on the different options available to different positions (e.g. proposing an upgrade, voting yes or no, delegating or selling votes)

  • aggregation rules on how inputs to governance are aggregated into a collective choice (e.g. one-token-one-vote, quadratic voting, weighting for different classes of nodes). 

These rules matter because they change the way that participants interact (e.g. how or whether they vote) and therefore change the patterns that emerge from repeated governance processes (e.g. low voter turnout, voting deadlocks, wild token fluctuations). There have been somestudies that have utilised the broad IAD framework and commons research insights to blockchain governance, but there has been no deep empirical analysis of the rule systems of blockchains using the underlying classification system. 

The opportunity

Today the key constraint in advancing blockchain governance is the lack of a standard language of rules with which to describe and map governance. Today in blockchain whitepapers these necessary rules are described in a vast array of different formats, with different underlying meanings. That hinders our capacity to compare and analyse blockchain governance systems, but can be remedied through applying and adopting the same foundational grammar. Developing a blockchain governance grammar is fundamentally an empirical exercise of observing and classifying blockchain ecosystems as they are, rather than imposing external design rules onto them. This approach doesn’t rely on analogy to other institutions, and is robust to new blockchain ecosystem-specific language and new experimental governance structures. 

Rather than broadly describing classes of blockchain governance (e.g., proof-of-work versus proof-of-stake versus delegated-proof-of-stake) our approach begins with a common set of rules. All consensus processes have sets of boundary rules (who can propose a block? how is the block-proposer selected?), choice rules (what decisions do block-proposers make, such as the ordering of transactions?), incentives (what is the cost of proposing a bad block? what is the reward for proposing a block), and so on. For voting structures, we can also examine boundary rules (who can vote?), position rules (how can a voter get a governance token?) choice rules (can voters delegate? who can they delegate to?) and aggregation rules (are vote weights symmetrical? is there a quorum?). 

We can begin to map and compare different blockchain governance systems utilising this common language. All blockchain governance has this underlying language, even if today that grammar isn’t explicitly discussed. The output of this exercise is not simply a series of detailed case studies of blockchain governance, it is detailed case studies in a consistent grammar. That grammar—an Ostrom-Complete Grammar—enables us to define and describe any possible blockchain governance structure. This can ultimately be leveraged to build new complete governance toolkits, as the basis for simulations, and to design and describe blockchain governance innovations.