Sociocracy — which means “governance by peers or colleagues” (sometimes called “Dynamic Governance”) in the US — is an increasingly popular governance and decision-making method based on the principles of transparency, equivalency, and effectiveness. In Diana Leafe Christian´s experience, when an ecovillage or another kind of intentional community uses Sociocracy, their governance process tends to become far more effective and enjoyable than it was when they used consensus as their decision-making method. She is preparing a book about decision-making in communities.
“A visitor said she’d never seen a community meeting be so effective, efficient,
and fun!”—Hope Horton, Hart’s Mill Ecovillage, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“We’ve made more decisions in the past two months than we have in the past two years!” —Davis Hawkowl, Pioneer Valley Cohousing, Massachusetts, US.
Sociocracy uses feedback loops — criteria built into every proposal for later measuring and evaluating how effectively the proposal functions in “real life” after it’s implemented. My favorite short Sociocracy description is, “An especially effective governance and decision-making method that uses feedback loops.”
The seven mutually reinforcing parts of Sociocracy
One can also say that Sociocracy has seven basic mutually reinforcing parts. These seven parts seem to create a system of checks and balances against the unintentional abuses of power I’ve seen in some intentional communities. These are: four different meeting processes (1) proposal-forming and (2) consent decision-making, (3) selecting people for roles (elections) and (4) role-improvement feedback, (5) a governance structure of self-organizing linked circles (committees), (6) a clear aim or ongoing objective for every circle, and (7) feedback loops built into every proposal. There are other parts of Sociocracy but these are the basics.
In my experience teaching this to intentional communities, when a group learns to use it correctly and uses all its parts, Sociocracy works more effectively and community members enjoy it more than if they didn’t understand it well enough or only used a few parts. As noted above, the checks and balances prevent abuses in decision-making. When Sociocracy’s “consent decision-making method” is practiced and facilitated correctly, one or two people can’t stop the group from approving a decision because it violates their own personal values or lifestyle choices, nor can people slow down or derail meetings with disruptive behaviors. Objections to proposals are desirable and indicate a need to modify the proposal before continuing. When circle members consider a proposal they themselves created, their objections modify it but don’t stop it (unless they change their minds and don’t want the proposal anymore). There is no blocking, and certainly no “personal blocking,” “threatening to block,” or frivolous blocks.
“Sociocracy elections seem to bring out the best in people.” —Sue Stone, Earthaven Ecovillage, Black Mountain, North Carolina
In Sociocracy’s double-linked circles governance structure, one circle, the General Circle, does long-term planning for the community and coordinates its “smaller” functional circles. Each individual functional circle has a more specific and concrete area of responsibility and specific tasks than the General Circle; for example, the Finance Circle, Membership Circle, Community Building Circle, and so on, Each functional circle can have even more focused and specific “smaller” functional circles attached to it; the Promotions Circle could form smaller Website Circle and Newsletter Circles, for example.
The “double links” are two circle members who each participate in two circles and serve as information links between them. One person — a “link” — carries news, information, needs, requests, and so on from the General Circle to a specific functional circle, like the Finance Circle. The second person — the second “link” — carries news, etc. from the functional circle, for example the Finance Circle, to the General Circle. Each circle uses one or more of the four meeting processes as they need them.
Sociocracy’s three values
Sociocracy’s three values — equivalence, transparency, and effectiveness — are reflected in its practice. Equivalence is demonstrated by all circle members having equivalence of voice in the decisions that affect them. Transparency occurs because all policy decisions are made known to everyone through the linked-circles governance structure (and minutes of meetings, of course.) Effectiveness is a natural outcome because, when practiced properly, Sociocracy tends to take less time than other governance and decision-making methods.
In its modern-day version Sociocracy originated in the Netherlands in the 1970s with Dutch electrical engineer, inventor, and cybernetics expert Gerard Endenburg. As a boy Endenburg attended a Quaker school in which school decisions were made by Quaker-style consensus. In college he studied cybernetics — the science of communication and control: “feedback loops” — and became an electrical engineer. He also read widely in science, mathematics, and philosophy, and was inspired by the chaos theory and the principle of self-organizing systems, in which nature — including groups of people — tends to self-organize.
Endenburg designed Sociocracy so that his company, Endenburg Elektrotechniek, could be a more harmonious organization, based on what he had learned in the Quaker school, from engineering and cybernetics, and from the self-organizing principles of chaos theory.
Sociocracy was first described in English in the book We the People by John Buck and Sharon Villines, and is now used by Colombia Ecovillage and Meadowsong Ecovillage/Lost Valley Educational Center in Oregon; Champlain Valley Cohousing in Maine; Ecovillage of Loudon County, a cohousing community in Virginia; Harts Mill, a forming ecovillage in North Carolina; Baja BioSana Ecovillage in Mexico; Cranberry Commons in British Colombia; Katywil Community Farm and Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Massachusetts; Rocky Corner in Connecticut; and Cohabitat Quebec and Cohabitat Montreal in Quebec. Some communities use parts of it, including Belterra Cohousing in British Colombia, which uses its proposal-forming process, and Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, which uses its elections process. Communities with members who have studied it and/or are considering it, include O.U.R. Ecovillage and Windsong Cohousing in British Colombia, and Belfast Cohousing in Maine.
In March, 2014, I taught a Sociocracy workshop for Aldeafeliz Ecovillage in Colombia. Here are the benefits they described after their first six months of using it:
* More effective management.
* Better follow-up to our decisions, which no longer fall into a ‘black hole’ of exhaustion.
* A clearer sense of responsibility about who does what.
* Information flows better, creating greater transparency.
* A stronger cohesion. Our meetings are faster and lighter, with a rhythm that feels satisfying.
“At the end of our last meeting we started dancing for joy!” —Aldeafeliz co-founder Anamaria Ariztizabal
Diana Leafe Christian, author of Creating a Life Together and Finding Community, speaks at conferences, offers consultations, and leads workshops about ecovillages internationally. She is a representative for the Eastern US in GEN-US, a GEN-Europe Ambassador, and an EDE trainer. www.DianaLeafeChristian.org