The age of representative democracy is over

March 18, 2009

The ironical thing about the latest round of Governance changes is that we have substituted a 20th century political model, laced with euro-communism and Trotskyism, for a model based on 19th century philanthropy polished up by management consultants.

This article explores some alternatives suitable for the 21st century information age with a bias to the chaos driven new thinking.

What is this representative democracy?

Well anyone who has been involved in the running of Students Unions will know it well. Typically there is a Union Council made up of representatives of some constituency;  often their course sometimes a hall sometimes even a club or other interest group.  The idea is that they speak for and represent their interest grouping.

What’s the problem?

In practice most of these council’s struggle to get even half of their members to attend 6-7 meetings a year and they are a long way from truly representing the interests and concerns of members. Still worse, many good people who fancy taking part in running their union leave the meetings dispirited and frustrated. If they don’t want to come again not only have we failed in finding an effective way of taking decisions about our organisation but also we have failed in our mission to turn people on to participating in running society.

That most Union councillors don’t enjoy the experience and it  is not surprising as the set up shares the worst characteristics of most meetings of 30+ people:-

· Most people don’t speak

· But some people speak too much

· The structure of the meeting is formal with lots of papers

· Most people read the papers while they are at the meeting ( if at all) to try to elevate the boredom

· Rows  and bust-ups are the most interesting and least constructive elements of the meetings

· Discussion often follow rules developed for the Oxford Union or parliament in Gladstone’s time

· A few people still enjoy this caper but its fundamentally the politics society meets the debating club…at best.

In many Unions the people who like this malarkey get elected as officers of the Union so they think its great and the only way to do things properly.

What are these things for in any case?

It can’t be to let you know what students think.  We have dozens of better ways of finding that out either by market research or more often electronic and face to face communication.

We do though need a way to engage members in discussing the issues that confront them and shaping their organisation’s response to them, and I suppose ultimately being a “jury” to make the call between two or more choices when a consensus is really not emerging.  That is something far more important and engaging than computer referenda.

people start to discuss the sessions and decide what they are interested in

people start to discuss the sessions and decide what they are interested in

So if you could find a way to get ordinary students and key volunteers to set their own agenda for the a meeting and talk about the things that interest them, finally deliver a preliminary outline proposal in a way then enthused them to get more involved…would you take it?

It’s called Open Space Technology ( OST) it works- but it’s not for the faint hearted.

Find out more about it Open Space here.

Open space output a super abundance of ideas

OST is not a plug in and play solution to all democratic challenges but it points the way to finding new ways of addressing old questions. It really is a format that seems to enthuse people and get folk to contribute more fully and thoughtfully than anything else I have ever come across. The dynamic of people having the ability to leave a group that is not satisfying them is a brilliant and subtle way of controlling minorities with an axe to grind. People just leave them to it, drifting away from them  wherever they roam until, in time they get the message and change their behaviour.

You really do lose control though. You can’t say “open space is really open” then say “oh no, you can’t talk about that”. In the age of the internet, Twitter and facebook, controlling what people discuss is long gone in any case.

Of course it presents significant challenges particularly to people who like to keep policy and implementation separate. When people start getting into what they want to see improved they don’t always want to draw a hard line between the two things, indeed in my experience most people can’t do that even if they want to.

Many people need to work out, in some detail, what something would look like and how it would work as a way of developing the principles they would like to see applied. Open space encourages that approach in its classic form those present very much get stuck in to solving problems and collaborating right there and then.

People sign up for the sessions they are interested in, but they leave when they want to and find another group and topic

Those of us who believe in officers, volunteers and staff working in dynamic flexible partnerships see that as a rather attractive feature though I realise some people don’t go for that sort of thing.

Have you tried it?

We have used Open Space for Strategic Planning consultation where it work quite well, mostly and for engaging academic reps asking them how they would want to improve the quality of their educational experience where it was an astonishingly good success.

My own view is that new forms of meetings married up with more creative use of social media will come to make old style sham representative “democracy” look as strange as the General Meeting.

As for Trustee Boards I don’t think anyone claims they are democratic or engaging but that would be another blog entirely!


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