Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Michael: The Rules of the Game and DFA

The rules of any contest are a major factor in deciding who will win. The rules decide what actions and interests are important and which are not. The same is true of political systems. Deciding the rules of the game are a critical step in deciding the possible range of policy outcomes. Who among us can doubt that the Civil War might not have happened were it not for the great compromises of the 3/5th person rule and equal representation of States in the Senate?

To believe that one can just change the players at the board and suddenly have a new kind of game is naive at best. Different players won't matter much because the rules determine average outcomes, not the effects of extraordinary players. But real reform doesn't rest on the backs of extraordinary people, it rests on shifting the average of outcomes over time. The ability to move the average by changing the institutional incentives is why Clean Elections are so important to Arizona, and why adopting new ways of approaching collective political action within DFA is critical.

We cannot expect DFA to be a different kind of political organization, or to accomplish things that our political system has not been able to accomplish so far, unless we change the rules, not just the rulers. The reason why the Progressive movement of the last century had such a lasting effect on American politics, even though they dissipated as a political force after just a generation of activity, is that they consciously sought to change the rules. They instituted secret ballots, party primaries, and state administration of those primaries. Just these simple changes profoundly affected the average outcomes and thus the course of American political history.

DFA should abandon the increasingly discredited, yet almost unquestionable, option to use majoritarian representative decision-making in its local chapters and any eventual national governance structure. We should instead seek to implement a diversity of alternative, more inclusive, and more directly democratic methods of decision-making. Consensus Decision-making, or Consent Decision-making (often termed Sociocracy), are better models for running a reformist political organization like local and state DFA chapters. This would not be a bold experiment; the American Green Party and most cohousing groups around the world, are already using these more democratic, more inclusive, and more grassroots methods to make daily decisions.

The most immediate worry expressed regarding instituting stronger democracy is that it will be slow and inefficient. Not so. Strengthening democracy does require learning new skills, but DFA members are politically homogeneous enough that goals will tend to be agreed upon fairly easily. The real controversies will be as to means and strategy, not goals. For deciding means and strategy, more discussion, more clarification, and more vigorous critique always makes for better decisions. The best-laid plans are those that give critics full scope to critics to poke holes and question. Consensus, and consent, decision-making are good at fostering such a leadership environment.

The quality of decisions resultant is the main reason that consensus is being adopted even in highly-competitive and fast-paced corporate environments, where the emphasis has so often been on speed and hierarchy. In business, these models are called Quality Circles or Quality Management, but the methodology is much the same. The costs of poor choices and ill-considered action in the business world can be so costly that speed and convenience must often be compromised for an inclusive, rational, and thorough approach to decision-making. In politics, the stakes may be even higher; not just money or market share are at risk, but our nation's future. We can't afford to be wrong too often, nor let issues of personality or personal aggrandizement lead us astray. In a small organization with scarce resources, it is better to focus on a core competency than to scatter our limited resources to the winds with poorly considered actions by temporary and shifting majorities.

I urge all involved in the process of drafting bylaw and rules for their DFA chapters to keep these concerns in mind. We must be careful in building the foundations for the future of DFA. Blindly adopting the same rules we have always used, simply because it is convenient and easy, is a recipe for recreating the failures of the past. If we want to really change the face of democracy in this country, arguably, we had best start with ourselves. After all, they say that one defition of insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome.

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