I understand entirely the hope underlying this question. Sociocracy is a way to govern organizations in a way so everyone’s voices are valued and heard, while still moving forward together. Given the divisiveness and bipartisanship in our societies, doesn’t that sound desirable?
In this article, I’ll make a case that this can not be done in a sociocracy-out-of-the-box manner, but that certain elements can be taken from sociocracy and combined with other pieces of deliberative democracy.
Why it can’t
Sociocracy was intended as a governance system where those with a shared purpose (aim) within a well-defined domain (and, perhaps, a shared vision and a shared set of values) who are working together make decisions together. So, for example, the team that runs the website makes decisions about the website (and vice versa). In sociocracy, we hand over the power to that group almost completely. In a way, that group is the executive and the legislative at the same time. To keep it safe, there is a smart feedback and linking process that, alongside with radical transparency, prevents abuse of power. More importantly, circles only have small chunks of power because the overall authority is “chunked” into small bits that are dispersed between different circles.
If we used sociocratic principles on a whole country, then every citizen would have to be part of a government committee that they are experts in. That is, of course, not the case, and neither is it desirable because it doesn’t take 100 million workers to run a country. So we will inadvertently have significantly fewer people working in government than citizens. I am familiar with organizations of 100 people where about 60 people are part of governing circles – so let’s assume a factor of 1:2 works fine. With the US population and it’s 2.8 million civil servants, we get to something like a factor 1:120. That means 119 out of 120 people would not be involved in decision making groups. That’s of course unacceptable. So the tricky question about countries and sociocracy is that sociocracy was made for a 1:1 fit of workers and decision-makers. Sociocracy works well for large groups but not for large un-involved groups.
Of course one can run a town or a country sociocratically in that one organizes all staff sociocratically. But that has nothing to do with democracy as decision-making by the masses.
How it might (radical version)
If we truly wanted to run, let’s say, a town, sociocratically, here is how it would work: we’d have to break down the town into small bits of neighborhoods that then run themselves. The neighborhood circles must be linked and nested to (a) represent the people. Yet, there is also work to do, for example, roads to build, a school system to run, etc. Those should be addressed as locally as possible, yet some centralization might be useful, for example, to make sure the school system is equal in all neighborhoods (otherwise we run the risk of the less wealthy part of town being run with fewer resources). Also, of course, there is just a lot to say about synergy. “Higher-level” topics that can’t be broken down to a neighborhood level, like the sewage system, would need a circle that decides town-wide. These circles would have a (b) topical domain (e.g. education, sewage, etc). It’s unclear how they’d be connected but that’s mainly a design question.
What is striking in this model is that power would be radically localized. The way I explain this model to people is like this: we might still have an overall leader of the city (regional/national) level that would be selected by their layer, but: with most of the power dispersed in local groups, the sliver of power would they’d hold would be so small that probably no one would even bother knowing that leader’s name because they’d be almost completely insignificant.
There are examples of real-life action in this domain. See the Neighborhood Community Network, for example in India where hundreds of thousands of adults and also (in a separate structure) children are organized in neighborhoods that are nested and linked in several layers up to a national level. They already use the sociocratic selection process and are determined to use consent as a decision making method.
How it might (hybrid version)
A hybrid version is to involve more people – aiming for all citizens – in government, yet in a different way. There might still be elections for those on higher levels but the idea would be to combine three ways for participation:
- Increase the number of decision-makers locally.
More authority overall should be pushed to local levels. This might not have to mean that national, regional or municipal governments have to give up power. It can just mean that more strengthening of structures happens at local levels, for example in efforts like the Regenerative Communities Networks that strives to self-organize by bioregion.
That way, more people can be involved proactively on matters that affect them. This relates to sociocracy as fewer people are simply consumers and more people are active members in decision-making circles. As a slogan, we need more of a culture of self-management on all levels. This could be combined with the more radical approach in the previous section.
- Increase the level of feedback to decision makers.
At the same time, we need to learn to distinguish feedback from decision making. Oftentimes, people think that “involving more people in decision making” means to have more decision makers. While this sounds good, it’s deeply flawed because the more people are involved in decision making, the more superficial and less deliberate it becomes. What works much better is to involve more people in the conversation that feeds into the decision – for example for platforms. There are great examples out there, like vTaiwan where tech platforms are used to design deliberative and participatory conversations to inform legislation. We can make better quality decisions when we consider more feedback that is taken into serious consideration. This is where a sortition-based Citizens Assembly like the one Extinction Rebellion is asking for belongs as well.
This, again, is informed by a sociocratic mindset because it takes the idea of combining small group-decision making and large-group feedback.
- Increase the flow of information back to citizens.
Legislators need to explain what led to certain decisions in a transparent manner.
vTaiwan is also a good example of how more effort can be put into being proactive about being transparent. When a small group deliberates, many can watch.
Most of these are design puzzles that need to be solved to scale the ideas and values of sociocracy onto a town level. My personal ideal vision is a blend of all those ideas.
Update (April 2021):
Read article “Sociocracy meets Listening at Scale” for updated information!