What does self-governance have to do with class?

Interview by Jennifer Ladd with Jerry Koch-Gonzalez.

Jennifer Ladd (JL)

How did you come to sociocracy? You’ve had a journey around non-profits. How did you go from working with class issues to working with sociocracy? 

Jerry Koch-Gonzalez (JKG)

The first time I really got seriously involved with issues of class was with a group called Movement for a New Society. We wound up figuring out that it did not really make sense from a class issue perspective that everybody was spending the same amount for the training programm, and that people should be more paying according their capacity. That exploration led to financial disclosure and thinking about how we pay for programs according to capacity rather than simply flat fee which is in favor of people who have the resources. So I think that piece stayed with me. In order to get to that discussion, we had to talk about our class backgrounds and all of that has really been the heart of what we had talked about in Class Action.

Often we talk about ending classism and about what is wrong with the power-over that we have but we don’t often talk about what we want instead. What is the constructive program instead of the challenging program? What do we want to see in its place? So Sociocracy for me it is like this is a really neat answer. It may not be the end of the answer eventually but it is something we can work with. It is something that actually can coexist with capitalism as we know it, it is not anti-capitalist. One significant aspect of it is that decisions are made by those who work together, they are making decision-making by consent. Consent is a form of consensus but fairly organized so it might not be what we associate with consensus. So there is an organized format to how we make decisions that honor every voice.

And we do that on a large scale. Typically, if an organization is small enough that a group of five or six people can be making decisions, that’s doable. But if we take a hundred people, how do we make that work? So then we are looking at circles where people work together and make decisions about their domain of work, and then their circles are linked with each other so regardless of the level of abstraction or concreteness of a circle’s work — a board of directors is very abstract, whereas a shop floor is very concrete– people make decisions by consent that then govern how they work. It is them who make the policy.

Each of those circles are then interlinked bottom-up and top-down. Top-down by leaders who are selected bottom up, and top-down by delegates and that circularity is how all the voices get heard about anything that impacts the whole organization on those particular levels. So everybody has a voice. In an organization that operates sociocratically, its members are having a voice in how pay happens. So they’re not going to go to the extremes of incredibly high pay for the top leaders, and they’re not going to go for incredible low at the lower ends of the organization’s work.

JL: So, in sociocratic or dynamic governance organizations, is pay pretty transparent so that people know what other people are making? 

JKG: At least there would generally be access to that kind of information. Because there would at least be delegations where a group who is responsible for that —the whole group is giving that group that authority— that information is made public. The outside world is is a different question, sometimes this gets into issue of competition with other organizations and what can be public about how you operate internally. In terms of specific salaries the generic intention of smaller range of salary of course they would make that public.

JL: Within a small organization, what if there was secrecy about who was being paid, and some people got raises and some didn’t, and once that got known it would be very difficult between people who worked there. How does sociocracy prevent that?

JKG: One of the key principals in sociocracy is transparency. All the minutes of all the meetings need to be accessible. Anybody from any place in the organization can go find all the meeting minutes, who was there, what they talked about, and how they made their decisions. So that when there is transparency you don’t have that kind of after-effect of secret decisions being known to people

JL: It sounds like people who are applying this tend to be middle class professionals. Is that true, or is that off?

JKG: I think there is a whole variety of people who are involved in this. When Dynamic Governance comes into an organization, it does bring some challenges to the existing power structure. Those who have been used to being power are now being asked to share power. And that can be challenging for those since they are shifting power. They used to say jump and people jumped, and now they ask can we have a policy that says jump, and and people have to agree to that. So it’s a change. For people to let go of that historical power that they had, that can be challenging. On the other hand, the same challenge can apply the other way. Those who traditionally have not had power may be afraid and reluctant to take the responsibility. For me, this is one of the exciting things about sociocracy, it challenges both power-over and power-under in that it says to step up and share the power and share the responsibility, let’s treat each other as equals here.

JL: Do you have any suggestions for people who work in organizations that are hierarchical and big and probably aren’t going to have any major shifts from the top? Are there any ways that they can integrate some of these principles in their sphere of influence?

JKG: Sociocracy has three main areas. One is the organizational structure based on the groups of people working together. We may not have much impact on that aspect in an organization that you are talking about. However, another aspect is that of the decision-making process. Any group within an organization could adopt all or many parts of the consent process. At the very least, when you are in a meeting, you can say “can we do a round and hear from everybody on this?” A round is simply “let’s hear from each person”. I many meetings, what happens is debate style. I’ll say this and then you’ll oppose then I’ll respond to you and then a third person will come in, and so we have a few people who dominate the debate and a lot of the people are silent. That does not allow us to hear what everyone is thinking. It does not allow us to be influenced by each other. When you do a round and hear from each person, that is one of the things that equalizes everyone’s voice. So for me that’s an example of anti-classism right there. Everyone’s voice matters.

Because when you’re doing a go-around, not only do you hear everyone who is getting to speak but you’re also listening. So rounds increase listening. What happens in the debate format, it is not a lot of listening. It is just about winning, about winning over the other person.

JL: You said there was a third part. The first ones were structure and consent,…

JKG: The third part is creating feedback loops. In every meeting, end with an evalutation of the meeting. So you are looking at what went well and what did not go so well in the meeting, you are looking at what can be improved in a meeting. Every work process that you do, when you look at the work process that you do and evaluate it, see if you can streamline it, make it more effective, make it more efficient. Every policy that you make for the organization, instead of it being set in stone forever, set a timeline for it. Say, in two years we will review this poilicy and we will look at these kinds of issues. And then ask yourselves, is this policy helping us meet out aim of the organization, or is it getting in the way, do we need to amend it? We are looking at various ways of generating feedback within the organization so that learning and adaptability can happen.

JL: So people would maybe be willing to try something if they knew it was going to be tried for a certain period of time, rather than being locked into it?

JKG: We have a few slogans that we use in sociocracy. One of them is “good enough for now”, and “safe enough to try”. So if we’re scared about making this policy or when some people in our group are anxious because they don’t know if this is going to work, and we try it out for three months orany short period of time, we can get some feedback, some experience. Then, from that experience, we can make an improved decision.

JL If we have part-time workers and full-time workers participating in this — how do part-time workers have a voice?

JKG: The notion is in sociocracy is, socios, governance by the people who work together. Any group of people who work together can be a circle and their voice can be heard within that circle. If there is a group of part-time workers and they have a shared area of work, they can form a circle. They can meet as frequently or as infrequently as they need to. They can make the policies about their work and pass the messages on to the circle that they might be connected to, the uplinking or downlinking circle as is appropriate to make sure that whoever else needs to understand their issues is hearing that.

So the higher in the hierarchy of an organization you go, the more time you spend doing meetings. The board of directors, they meet and make policy. Whereas the people who are on the shop floor, on the front line of a non-profit, they are doing a whole lot and not that much policy-setting and that also makes sense. The time spent on policy making and on operational work, both have to be appropriate to each level.

JL: Does it take a lot of time? People are so busy, their lives are so busy, how do they take time to be able to be in all those meetings? 

JKG: If you want to change the culture of an organization, then it’s going to take an effort. The fastest thing to do is say “because I said so”. That’s very efficient in the short run but not the way of life that we want to have for most of us. A worker who is content, that is important. And it would make a real difference if workers had a voice. And yes, that takes time. It takes time to launch and streamline systems but once they are in place, then the long-term efficiency really has its impact. – particularily in worker-coops, in more consensus-based organizations that are shifting to sociocracy. The improvement is really clear early on. In more hierarchical organizations, the impact takes a while longer to show.

JL: For a small organization, do you still think the form will work? 

JKG: If the organization is small enough then it is really just one group within the decision-making process and you cover it all. You basically have two kinds of meetings, policy meetings where all are equal and policies that govern the work. And you have operational meetings where even in a small group different people will have different domains of responsibility. They are in charge of their area and they have authority over their area.

I live in a cohousing community where we have meals together a couple of times a week. So the meals committee or the kitchen committee sets the policy about cost of the meals, what’s going to be served – not exactly what’s going to be served but more general, like whether it is going to be vegetarian, or policy on variety so everyone’s needs can be met. It sets some policies around the meal. And then the team, which might be a the head cook and the assistant cooks will still be the ones to decide. Within the polcy, the head cooks decides when the meal is ready to serve. So there is that balance between policy making and operational decision-making that can happen in a small group.

JL: How long did it take the cohousing that you’re part of to change from one form of decision-making to sociocracy?

JKG: Well, there is probably a couple of parts to the answer to that. How long did it take to persuade everyone to give it a try…

JL: Well, that’s a big part of it.

JKG: That is a big part of it. It took us probably around a year of discussions in small groups. Once the decision was made, it rolled out within a month. We kept some of the systems that we had and changed some of the system. It was not a whole throw everything out and start brandnew. And I think within 6 months or so people really had the swing of how we do the meetings, how we relate one circle to the other. Within 6 months to a year the systems starts flowing and reinforcing itself.

If you have an organization where new people are coming in, it is also important to have continual training. We all have a tendency to go back to the old way, whether the old way was consensus or was voting, or the old way was “I said so”. So we have a tendency to drift back to the societal norms, and here, we are really trying to establish new norms, to support the equality and more voices being heard.

JL: How does a board fit in, or clients or donors?

JKG: If we’re talking about a non-profit or a for-profit, there is often the separation between the board and the workers.

In the context of sociocracy, the executive director or the CEO of the organzation is a full member of the board with equal consent rights. And the delegate from the management team would also be on that board. And that delegate could be anybody from the management team. It could even be a delegate from a lower circle if you will and could be elected to that level. So there are at least two voices on the board of directors that represent the experience of the workers. It is two voices, not only one voice, because the level of accountability is lower when it’s only one voice.

The board would also have the usual outside experts around finances, their fundraising, legal or around similar aims. What I think is interesting is that some organizations have a general membership, like some non-profits. A representative from the general membership would be serving on the board as the representative of the general membership. Or there could a funder circle, for a non-profit. Or, if there are several foundations that form a group, then they can have representation from the funders’ group on the board of directors. In that case, the funders do not control the organization, they simply have a voice, like any other person in that board. The same goes for for-profits. We think of for-profits as generally being owned by the shareholders. In this context of sociocracy, the company really owns itself. Because the shareholders may have representation on the board of directors, but it is just one other equal voice.

In a for-profit, the board of directors must have consent for majors decisions. So you won’t have the by-outs because someone on the board is going to say, no, we want to keep this in our community.

JL: Sounds like there have to be really clear agreements written up.

JKG: There needs to be a constitution that states really all the principles of sociocracy and how they’re going to be implemented in this organization.

One other important piece is money. Money is another aspect of feedback. Because profit is feedback. If you sell a lot, that is useful information. In a sociocratic organization that is working with their renumeration policies —how people get paid– , the investors get a fixed rate of return, and they would get a variable rate of return. That rate is variable depending on how well the organization is doing. The workers in the organization also get a fixed rate of return, their salary, and they also get a variable rate of return, depending on how well the company is doing. So if there are investors and there are workers, they are both interested in everyone succeeding because everyone benefits.

Non-profit organizations need to work financially successfully, so that the funders want to keep funding it, so that people who are doing it are having jobs and the benefit for the community keeps happening. A lot of the feedback there needs to be on how what they are doing is contributing to the well-being of the people who are being served by that. So sometimes the feedback is in money. Sometimes the feedback is in information about how what you’ve done has had an impact.

JL: Is there anything concluding that you think would be useful to people who are fairly new to this, anything else particularily addressing class that comes to mind?

JKG: When I think of the core issues of class, my hope is that dynamic governance or sociocracy can have an impact on all the different levels. One that we talked about is voice. Everyone has a voice.

Another is around meeting basic needs: an organization that is run sociocratically is going to make sure that basic needs of its workers are met and that the people who are in that organization want to do something that is beneficial to society rather than just produce junk.

In a sociocratic organization, it may not be that everybody gets the same pay. But it is going to cut out the high and low extremes that many organizations have.

In terms of equity, if everybody has a voice then we will have a way of really hearing everyone. In terms of people able to develop to their full potential, a lot of sociocratic principles are that every circle, every individual would have a development plan. How are we going to learn more? How are we going to learn more about the content of what we do? How are we going to learn more about the governance of our organization? How are we going to learn more about our communication skills so that we have fun doing this work? All these elements, that’s what I am looking for.

Learn more about sociocracy in detail in this video.


Crossposted from www.both-and.net. Interview recorded in Northampton MA (USA), in 2015.

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