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Friday, December 25, 2015

Communitarianism & Synetopia

From Socrates’ questioning of all assumptions to Rorty’s assumption that nothing is beyond questioning, the history of philosophy can give the impression that little progress is ever made in reflecting on how we should live. But the intellectual journey from Thomas More’s communal utopia to our communitarian conception of synetopia would suggest that, provided the process of questioning is systematically linked to the formulation and revision of the way we live together, we can improve society over time.

Questioning the claims and commands of those who expect others to accept them is essential if the misguided and devious do not slip through along with sound assertions and orders. However, such questioning must be anchored to objectives that can be genuinely shared by all involved, and these would have to revolve around a combination of their personal and collective wellbeing. It also has to be carried out in a robust and responsible manner so that bad reasoning and inadequate evidence are challenged, while lessons learnt are retained until they are superseded by better explanations or new findings.

The development of the synetopia thesis has been driven by adaptations to shared experiences of what helps and what hinders the cultivation of cooperative problem-solving. Collaborating under conditions of equal respect and mutual support, people achieve far more than they ever could as isolated individuals, or worse, as enemies who plot to undermine each other.

Of course it is possible that some people would prefer to go with their own inclinations, however irrational or repugnant these may strike others, even if it means that other people’s wellbeing could be adversely affected. In some cases, even their trade-off to gain some gratification at the expense of other aspects of their lives may appear absurd to other people. But as Wittgenstein might say, the differences between such people and the rest of us are foundational – in the sense that they cannot go any further beyond the bedrock of justification. We may prefer to cooperate so as to maximise our personal and mutual good in harmony, but there are those who would rather follow their own short-term desires irrespective of any wider consequences; inflict pain on the innocent; build empires by subjugating the powerless; lose themselves in mind-numbing addictions; boost their low self-esteem through bullying; enrich themselves by deceiving the trusting; or indulge in personal obsessions with no thought for anyone else.

The ultimate difference is that while we can reach out and invite others to join us in what are genuinely common endeavours, the variants of self-centred exploits cannot be presented as a philosophy that is open to all.

In other words, synetopia is where reciprocity is taken seriously (see: ‘Reciprocity & Progressive Communitarianism’). Throughout history, as this ethos evolves, cooperation expands and diverse strands of joint deliberation and democratic power sharing come together to form a worldview directed at the building of inclusive community life (see: ‘Communitarians: an introduction’; ‘Cooperative & Communitarian: a common heritage’; and ‘The Radical Communitarian Synthesis’).

When it is applied to the functioning of local and national government, it generates further learning on how inclusive communities can be developed and sustained (see, for example, ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment'). This in turn helps to inform the formulation of ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’, which provides a general framework for assessing what needs to be improved.

The reasoning that underpins the synetopia thesis that mutual questioning and systematic cooperation will help advance us towards better human conditions is set out in detail in the following books:
Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics & citizenship (Macmillan 1998): a comprehensive statement of the core principles, and their justification and applications. Reviews of the book can be found here.
Progressive Politics in the Global Age (Polity 2001): a collection of writings by European and American thinkers on progressive communitarianism.
Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle (Birkbeck 2015): an exposition of the barriers to the development of more inclusive communities, and how they were overcome over the past centuries.
Responsibility and Personal Interactions (Edwin Mellen Press 1990): a detailed study of how our responsibility to one another is connected to the type of personal interactions we seek to sustain with others in society.
Punishment, Excuses & Moral Development (Avebury Press 1996): a collection of communitarian writings on what judgement and response would be appropriate in relation to the behaviour of other people.

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If your university or local library has a copy of the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences (2nd edition; James D. Wright, editor-in-chief; Oxford: Elsevier; 2015), then you can access a useful summary of communitarian ideas in the article, ‘Communitarianism, sociology of' (by Henry Tam, in Vol. 4, pp.311-316).

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Synetopia Protocol

‘Synetopia’ denotes the ‘cooperative place’, where people work together so that the sum of what is achieved for everyone is greater than all the outcomes they would have managed to attain as isolated individuals. It marks the departure from ‘utopia’ where the ‘good place’ is either too abstract a notion to serve as a guide, or is premised on such impossible terms that it is in effect an unrealisable ideal (or ‘ou-topia’ - ‘no place’). By contrast, synetopia is achievable precisely through forms of interaction that have been tried and tested in diverse contexts, and proven to improve human relationships and improve the quality of life. The challenge is to put the essential elements in place consistently and extensively. To this end, a protocol has been devised with the ‘SYNETOPIA’ acronym spelling out those elements:

S hared Mission
Y ou-and-I Mutuality
N imble Membership
E ducative Collaboration
T esting of Claims and Assumptions
O pen Access to Information
P articipatory Decision-Making
I mpartial Distribution of Power
A ccountability for Action

The Synetopia Protocol is designed to provide a simple framework to help review any group (voluntary, commercial, or governmental) in terms of how it is performing under each of these nine elements, and map out how they can be improved and sustained on a continuous basis. There is no perfect future to reach, but simply a cooperative process to render the present better than the past.

Shared Mission
All members of the group have a shared understanding of their common mission or purpose. The group provides an effective and visible vehicle to enable its members to join forces for their respective wellbeing.
Measures of success: How widely is the core mission owned and appreciated by all members? How convinced are members that they have an organisation which has the rules and capacity to achieve their mission?
Indicators of deficiency: Members feel a lack of cohesion, concerned that they are isolated and insecure, are indifferent or antagonistic towards other members.

You-and-I Mutuality
Instead of ‘Me’-centred individualism or ‘We-subsume-all’ collectivism, there is genuine mutuality in distributing the benefits and burden connected with the group, and none can amass what comes from the group’s joint endeavours to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
Measures of success: Are there arrangements in place to prioritise, adjudicate & enforce the fair distribution of benefits? How confident are members that the arrangements will operate reliably and impartially?
Indicators of deficiency: Members believe that others have privileged access to what is produced by the group, and they are constantly marginalised and deprived of their share.

Nimble Membership
There is a transparent and responsive membership system that underpins who is brought into the group or excluded from it, and sets out the rights and responsibilities of both the group and its members.
Measures of success: Is there a sustainable and non-discriminatory process to recruiting, inducting, rejecting & expelling members? Do members know what is expected of them individually? Is there a clear decision path for assessing membership issues such as merger/federation with other groups?
Indicators of deficiency: There are too few/too many members to function effectively; current members are distrustful of the process of accepting and/excluding people as members.

Educative Collaboration
All members of the group are enabled to share ideas, learn through collaborative exchanges, and have opportunities to study, formulate and discuss interpretations of the relevant evidence as well as proposals for change.
Measures of success: Is there a culture of lifelong learning? Are members supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their beliefs, policies, and practices?
Indicators of deficiency: Members are detached from thinking through why things are done in their group; they casually accept or reject ideas & instructions. There is a lack of interest in learning from each other or from other sources.

Testing of Claims and Assumptions
The group does not accept that there is any claim or assumption that is fundamentally unquestionable. It is prepared to subject all proposals and findings to continuous testing, and revise them in the light of the latest evidence.
Measures of success: How confident are members in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions? Is everyone aware that nothing (in the name of ‘tradition’ or anything else) can be ring-fenced from empirical analysis? Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?
Indicators of deficiency: Irrational beliefs are allowed to take hold & undermine intelligent considerations. There is widespread perception that there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning.

Open Access to Information
Nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared. Processes to detect and expose deception are in place, and demands for secrecy are independently scrutinised for their legitimacy.
Measures of success: How reliable are the communication channels in place to facilitate inspection, audit, whistleblowing, peer review to keep wrongdoing at bay? How easy is it for members to discover and access relevant and accurate information about the group’s past performance and future options?
Indicators of deficiency: There is common suspicion that systematic or reactive shielding of irresponsible actions is perpetrated; there is unjustifiable refusal or obstruction to members seeking to find out more about what has been done in the group and why.

Participatory Decision-Making
The group enables and encourages all members to participate as equals in the making of decisions that affect them, and ensures everyone can contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.
Measures of success: Are the procedures for decision-making clear to all members? How extensive are training and participation opportunities made available? And how effective are they in ensuring that no one will be ignored or disrespected? Does the joint decision-making apply to how to divide and distribute the resources generated by the group?
Indicators of deficiency: A significant number of members either lack the information or skills to make sensible decisions, or decline to become involved in decision making altogether. Insufficiently thought-through or biased decisions harm the group & its members.

Impartial Distribution of Power
The distribution of power is monitored and where necessary revised to minimise the likelihood that an individual or an alliance of them can come to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others.
Measures of success: Are there safeguards in place to stop individuals or sections in the group accumulating power? Is there a regular and effective redistribution of power so that even concentrated powers for emergencies are only granted on temporary basis? Are there checks and balances so that no one can hold others to ransom by threats?
Indicators of deficiency: There is suppression of dissent and pervasive enforcement of reluctant compliance. Members show fear, resentment, distrust towards the leadership.

Accountability for Action
All members, especially those entrusted with the authority to act on behalf of the group, are held accountable for any action against individual members or the wider interest of the group. Disputes over charges are resolved through independent mechanisms and judgements carried out in accordance with the rules.
Measures of success: Are there transparent electoral or selection process to replace those with positions of authority? How easy is it to detect unjustifiable actions? Are there reliable mechanisms for all to trigger to summon potential wrongdoers to account for their actions? Are members supported in being vigilant in challenging decisions that appear to be illegitimate?
Indicators of deficiency: Some are able to stay in positions of power regardless of the severity and frequency of concerns raised; some are suspected of placing their own personal interests and/or those who bribe them above the collective interests of the group.

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The elements identified for the synetopia protocol are derived from a combination of academic research, international exchange of policy ideas, and a review of the findings of the ‘Together We Can’ action learning programme I carried out as the UK Government’s Head of Civil Renewal between 2003 and 2010. More details on each of the nine elements that constitute synetopia can be found in the essays on those elements listed in the 'Guide to Synetopia'.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Together We Can: resources for cooperative problem-solving

Introduction
Together We Can is a set of practical resources drawn together from the national ‘Together We Can’ programme (carried out by the UK Government 2003-2010 as an action-learning exercise to empower citizens to cooperate with each other and with public bodies to solve problems); the international Cooperative Problem-Solving research (at the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge); and the ‘Working with Communities’ initiative (implemented for a local authority over a 4 year period to strengthen democratic participation, and subsequently recognised with a Best Practice Award from the Prime Minister in 1999). These resources have also informed the development of the Synetopia Protocol.

What are the key issues to reflect on
• How can we show that people are ready to engage in public decisions provided they are actually given a meaningful say?
• What are the key ingredients for effective cooperative problem-solving?
• What are the main lessons to learn from civic disengagement?
• How to build sustainable democratic action when those hostile to such action are in power?
• Why greater focus should be given to tried and tested techniques than reinventing short-term ‘innovative’ projects?

How to get hold of the resources
The following cover a range of ideas and findings on the value of adopting cooperative problem-solving, and they are all accessible for free online:
‘Cooperative Problem-Solving & Education': on the evidence for suggesting why cooperative problem-solving should be taught more widely (published by the Forum Journal, 2013).
• ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’: on the key elements of successful cooperative problem-solving, as jointly agreed with a group of academics and practitioners (Question the Powerful, October 2012).
‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’: on the lessons from the ‘Together We Can’ programme and ‘Working with Communities’ initiative (first published in Forum Journal, Vol 53, Number 3, 2011).
• ‘The Case for Cooperative Problem-Solving’: on why cooperative problem-solving is needed in tackling social, economic and environmental problems (Question the Powerful, May, 2012).
'The Cooperative Gestalt': on the role of lifelong learning in developing a cooperative mindset (Question the Powerful, November 2013).

For case study materials based on the ‘Together We Can’ programme, you can download the following from the national archives at no charge:
• ‘Together We Can’ action plan: the cross-government plan with commitments in the key public policy areas.
Annex to ‘Together We Can’ action plan: with details of the proposed initiatives.
‘Together We Can’ 2005/2006 review: reports from the Secretaries of State and Ministers on progress in 12 Government Departments.

Options for further engagement
• Contact Henry Tam with any question about his experience in devising and delivering these local and national programmes.
• Share the Together We Can resources with others to promote effective cooperative problem-solving between citizens, and between state and citizens.
• Set up a meeting to discuss evolving strategies for community empowerment citizen action.
• Draw on the resources to develop democratic campaign groups and cooperative alliances to strengthen community solidarity and challenge the irresponsible acts of the powerful.

Supplementary Materials
The following works provide more information on how the Together We Can approach has evolved to become key to the cultivation of the cooperative gestalt in citizen-state cooperation:
• 'The Importance of Being a Citizen’: in Active Learning for Active Citizenship, ed. by John Annette & Marjorie Mayo, (NIACE, 2010)
• ‘Civil Renewal: the agenda for empowering citizens’, in Re-energizing Citizenship: Strategies for Civil Renewal, ed. by Gerry Stoker, Tessa Brannan, and Peter John, (Macmillan Palgrave, 2007).
Serving the Public: customer management in local government (Longman: 1993)

The following links will take you to range of resources on how citizens can play a more influential part in shaping their communities and their state:
• ‘Take Part’: resources for ‘Active Learning for Active Citizenship’.
• ‘Guide Neighbourhoods’: how communities can learn cooperative problem-solving and civic activism from each other.
• ‘Civic Pioneers’ first report and second report: collaborative working between local authorities and citizens to improve local quality of life.
• ‘Quirk Review’: report on community management and ownership of public assets.
• ‘Asset Transfer Unit’: resources to support the transfer of assets to community-based organisations.
• ‘Participatory Budgeting’: resources to expand the use of participatory budgeting in deciding how to allocate public resources.
• ‘Councillors Commission’: report with recommendations on how to improve the democratic role of elected local councillors and facilitate citizen participation.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Place called SYNETOPIA

Thomas More famously called his fictional society ‘utopia’ – which has the double Greek meaning of ‘ou-topos’ (i.e., no such place), and ‘eu-topos’ (i.e., the good place). Understandably, a society free from the kind of excessive wealth and poverty More so deplored is one that is for him both good and, sadly, nowhere to be found.

Since More’s Utopia was published in 1516, there have been many attempts to transform the world into a more perfect state. Some have raised hopes, made little sustained impact, and faded away as feeble utopian dreams. Others have pushed through completely new systems, brought sweeping changes, and created what turned out to be frightful dystopian nightmares. But in between the extremes, progressive reformists have been experimenting cautiously and over time their accumulative learning provides a substantial resource to guide us on how to improve human association and social structures.

In ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’, we looked at how the three communitarian principles of mutual responsibility; cooperative enquiry; and citizen participation, can guide us towards better governance of groups from a local organisation, to a national state or a global institution. By applying those three principles to each of the three core dimensions of human association (namely, its culture for problem-solving, its power structure, and its system of accountability), we arrived at nine elements, the strengthening of which would continuously improve the wellbeing of the group and its members.

We can now build on these nine elements to develop a general model for any place or group where people can cooperate together on the basis of objective reasoning and mutual respect to work out how to better themselves individually and collectively. We call this model: SYNETOPIA.

Shared Mission
You-and-I Mutuality
Nimble Membership
Educative Collaboration
Testing of Claims and Assumptions
Open Access to Information
Participatory Decision-Making
Impartial Distribution of Power
Accountability for Action

In addition to being an acronym for the nine elements, it is a composite of the Greek words, ‘synergatiki’ and ‘topos’, denoting a cooperative place.

A brief description of the nine elements is given below. They have been drawn from the reform ideas in the development of small groups, businesses, and public institutions, so that the essence of each is identified and separated into the smallest number of categories. One of the key projects relating to the ‘Question the Powerful’ collection of resources will be to formulate more detailed exposition of each of these elements, so that they can be more closely examined and practically applied to different forms of organisation.

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Summary of SYNETOPIA

Shared Mission
All members of the group should have a shared understanding of their common mission or purpose. The group should be effectively and visibly organised to enable its members to join forces for their respective wellbeing.

You-and-I Mutuality
Instead of ‘Me’-centred individualism or ‘We-subsume-all’ collectivism, there should be genuine mutuality in distributing the benefits and burden connected with the group, and none should amass what comes from the group’s joint endeavours to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

Nimble Membership
There should be a transparent and responsive membership system that underpins who is brought into the group or excluded from it, and sets out the rights and responsibilities of both the group and its members.

Educative Collaboration
All member of the group should be enabled to share ideas, learn through collaborative exchanges, and have lifelong opportunities to study, formulate and discuss interpretations of the world as well as ideas for change.

Testing of Claims and Assumptions
The group should make sure no claim or assumption is privileged as unquestionable. It should subject all doctrines and findings to continuous testing, and revise them in the light of the latest evidence.

Open Access to Information
There should be open access so nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared. Processes to detect and expose deception should be in place, and demands for secrecy must be independently scrutinised for their legitimacy.

Participatory Decision-Making
The group should enable and encourage all members to participate as equals in the making of decisions that affect them, and ensure everyone can contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.

Impartial Distribution of Power
The distribution of power should be monitored and where necessary revised to minimise the likelihood that an individual or an alliance of them can come to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others.

Accountability for Action
All members, especially those entrusted with the authority to act on behalf of the group, must be held accountable for any action against individual members or the wider interest of the group. Disputes over charges should be resolved through independent mechanisms and judgements carried out in accordance with the rules.

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More details on each of the nine elements that constitute synetopia can be found in the essays on those elements listed in the 'Guide to Synetopia'.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Noble Art of Governance

Although some commentators regard ‘governance’ as a relatively recent concept, it has been regarded since ancient times as the prime subject deserving of the greatest attention.

In the beginning, this was associated with the nobility who, having established or inherited their status to make decisions that affect the lives of others, recognised that it was important they learnt to approach the making and carrying out of such decisions in the most responsible manner. Later the very notion of the ‘noble’ transcended any title linked to family ties, and became the appellation for the highest characteristic of any person acting in the wisest and most considerate manner.

‘Nobility’ (in Latin), ‘Junzi’ (in Chinese), ‘Mahana vyakti’ (in Hindi) all went from being terms to describe the aristocratic ‘high-born’, to becoming terms of praise for the morally admirable, great and worthy. The noble-minded are not born, but developed through learning to gain a deeper understanding of how to facilitate effective governance over any domain entrusted to their stewardship. They are the ones who fulfil the duty they owe to those who rely on their guidance and decisions to chart a course that will serve the good of all.

To teach the noble art of governance, the most cogent ideas must be synthesized, and their application promoted as widely as possible. There are essentially three parts to this endeavour.

First, we need to engage the heart. Dramatisation of trends and events can move people to reflect and act more than mere factual accounts. From Shakespeare’s historical plays on the wisdom and folly of successive rulers, to modern dystopian novels depicting threats that need to be overcome to preserve well-governed societies, steering emotions towards a determination to counter injustice and pursue the common good is vital.

Secondly, we need to inform the head. There are many facts and arguments about how organisations and countries have prospered from effective governance, or degenerated as a result of misrule. Without a critical grasp of what differentiates between good and bad approaches to securing order and collaboration, the best will in the world may nonetheless end up heading in the wrong direction. A diet of democratic theory, political history, and socio-economic analysis is essential to keep misguided outlook at bay, and set out the correct vision.

Thirdly, we need to guide the hands. Beyond appreciating the importance of governing well, and recognising what it should entail, practical know-how is required to turn ideas into actions. Management and sociological studies have captured many examples of what works and what does not when it comes to motivating and communicating in order to get large groups of people to join forces effectively. Their lessons must be learnt to enhance leadership skills and strategies.

There is nothing nobler than to dedicate oneself to the advancement of good governance at the local, national or global level. Educators can play a major role in cultivating true nobility of character in raising interest in and understanding of what constitutes such governance.
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If you would like to know more, see ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’; and see also the resources listed in the ‘Question the Powerful’ collection.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Reciprocity & Progressive Communitarianism

One of the oldest questions in philosophy is: how should we live?

On some reading of the history of philosophy, we are no closer now at finding an answer than when the question was first widely discussed across the ancient world two and a half thousand years ago.

But this is a misleading picture, reinforced in part by the common fascination with pointing to the differences between thinkers rather than paying more attention to their shared ideas.

Let us look again at the challenge before us: How should we live in relation to each other when there are divergent views and preferences? How should we organise social relationships and power structures? What would be the most desirable approach to adopt in governing our institutions?

One of the first things we may notice is that there is in fact a substantial consensus on what should guide us in working out our responses to these related questions. Admittedly this consensus does not cover individuals who are dismissive of ethical concerns for other people – they care only for their personal gratification, and regard any negative consequences the pursuit of their own interests may have for others as purely something to ignore if at all possible, either by having enough power to ride roughshod over others or by deceiving others into thinking they are not doing anything to encroach on their wellbeing.

For the vast majority of people, the guiding principle they should live by cannot be clearer – namely, the Golden Rule of Reciprocity. The selfish fringe may lack empathy for the feelings of other people, but humankind in general recognise that they should do to others as they would have them do unto them. It is true that not everyone lives up to this maxim all of the time, but it is the basis of our conscience in distinguishing what is to praise and endorse, and what is to blame and curtail.

Not only is the Golden Rule of Reciprocity embedded in the moral code of every civilization, it is reflected in the social interactions of human groups for thousands of years – people hunting and gathering food together and sharing them out without a few taking a disproportionate share while leaving others to starve. Developmental psychology has found that children instinctively share with others without discrimination, and expect to be treated on equal terms whenever they carry out tasks with others.

Even after the emergence of exploitative hierarchies, which enabled self-centred oppressors to take unfair advantage over others, the cultural judgement as indicated in literature and history shows disquiet over such oppression, and yearns for a more inclusive path.

Some authoritarian leaders have tried to justify their seizing greater power and wealth on the grounds that it is supposedly better for everyone. But studies comparing reciprocal cooperation with elite control have consistently found the former is incomparably better for everyone. From business productivity, workplace satisfaction, to conflict resolution and game theory analysis of divergent strategies, the findings all point to the superiority of reciprocity.

In practice, what actions and arrangements will lead to greater mutual benefits has to be ascertained through a reciprocal process of critical assessment. Since no one can claim that he/she is uniquely infallible and everyone else must accept whatever he/she declares to be true, an open exchange of evidence and reasons, backed by a shared commitment to consider arguments on an objective basis, is necessary to test proposals and revise them where appropriate. Even where some people may insist they are speaking for God it is obvious that there is no guarantee that the person is not delusional or mistaking evil commands from whatever source as the authentic voice of their deity.

Drawing on the centrality of reciprocity in ordering human interactions and the need for cooperative endeavours in establishing the reliability of claims and proposals, a group of thinkers have over time developed what has been termed the outlook of progressive communitarianism, which encapsulates these ideas in three core principles (see ‘Communitarians: an introduction’):
• The principle of cooperative enquiry
• The principle of mutual responsibility
• The principle of citizen participation

The first two principles deal with how people should work out what beliefs they can count on, and why they accept their responsibility for helping others as they would want others to help them, respectively. The third requires any decision that affects a group of people be subject to the deliberative input of those people.

Progressive communitarianism is the articulation of reciprocity as a guiding philosophy. It is neither authoritarian nor anarchic, but radically democratic in its emphasis on equal respect and opportunity for all concerned to participate in assessing beliefs and making decisions. It is not nostalgically conservative in rejecting new practices, nor is it casually iconoclastic in attacking past customs; but simply concerned with reforming what on the available evidence can become better. It neither romanticises any particular community as the source of all values, nor glorifies unencumbered individuals as bearers of inalienable rights to do whatever they want; but regards human relationships as full of potential for mutual enrichment provided the governance arrangements in place facilitate their development.

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For an introduction to the kind of governance proposed on progressive communitarian grounds, see ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide

The effective governance of any group or organisation is essential to its success. No matter if we are concerned with how to run a firm (corporate governance), a neighbourhood or city (local governance), a country (national governance), or an international body (global governance), we need to have the most reliable approach for ensuring that all those involved will act in pursuit of their common objective.

Political, management, and psychological theories all point to a spectrum of ideas with an authoritarian system at one end and an anarchic model at the other. Between the authoritarian (which places the power to decide and command in an unquestionable elite) and the anarchic (which relies on decisions and actions backed by the unanimous agreement of individuals at every turn), there are communitarian approaches that combine democratic cooperation for making rules with universal enforcement to tackle irresponsibility and free-riding.

Communitarian governance rejects both handing power irrevocably to a few to dictate to others, and granting everyone a veto to block anything that does not on a given occasion suit them. Instead it relies on three tried and tested principles for enabling people to work together, namely the principles of mutual responsibility, cooperative enquiry, and citizen participation (see ‘Communitarians: an introduction’ for an outline of the three principles; see ‘Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship’ for a book-length exposition). And it applies these to the three key domains of group interaction, namely, problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system (see ‘Together We Can’ for further resources on how to develop a cooperative problem-solving culture; see ‘Against Power Inequalities’ for a historical review of power structures; and see ‘Responsibility’ for an analysis of the conditions under which people should be held responsible for their behaviour).

This gives us 9 essential communitarian elements for achieving the most effective governance:

Embedding mutual responsibility in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question

1. Shared Mission
All members of the group need to have a shared understanding of their collective mission or purpose. They should see that the group is organised to enable them to join forces for their respective wellbeing.
* Measures of success: How widely is the core mission owned and appreciated by all members? How convinced are members that they have an organisation which has the rules and capacity to achieve their mission?
* Signs of weakness: Disorder – individuals sense chaos, insecurity, indifference, constant conflict, and the sum being notably less than its parts.

2. You-&-I Mutuality
The benefits/resources generated by the group are shared on terms of genuine mutuality, and no individual or section is at liberty to amass what comes from the group’s collective endeavours to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
* Measures of success: Are there arrangements in place to prioritise, adjudicate & enforce the fair distribution of benefits? Are all members confident the arrangements will operate reliably and impartially?
* Signs of weakness: Exploitation – some members feeling that others have privileged access to what is produced by the group, and they are constantly marginalised and deprived of their share.

3. Nimble Membership
There is a responsive and transparent membership system that underpins who is brought into the group and who may be excluded from it, and makes clear to all those who are on board what their rights & duties are in relation to the group.
* Measures of success: Is there a sustainable and non-discriminatory process to recruiting, inducting, rejecting & expelling members? Do members know what is expected of them individually and that they will be held to account through appropriate reviews if they act irresponsibly? How clear is there a decision path for assessing membership issues such as merger/federation with other groups?
* Signs of weakness: Unsustainability – with too few/too many members to function effectively; having unsuitable members to utilise the resources; or members distrustful of the process of determining their membership, and/or that for accepting/excluding new ones.

Embedding cooperative enquiry in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question

4. Educative Collaboration
All member of the group are able to learn together what they should do and what changes would be suitable to make.
* Measures of success: Is there a culture of lifelong learning? Are members supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their beliefs, policies, and practices?
* Signs of weakness: Thoughtlessness – members detached from thinking through why things are done in their group; they casually accept or reject ideas & instructions. There is a lack of interest in learning from each other or from other sources.

5. Testing of Claims and Assumptions
The group does not privilege any doctrine or assertion as unquestionable, nor does it grant anyone the authority to make claims that others must accept without due evidence or reason.
* Measures of success: How confident are members in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions? Is everyone aware that nothing (in the name of ‘tradition’ or anything else) can be ring-fenced from empirical analysis? Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?
* Signs of weakness: Dogmatism – irrational beliefs taking hold & undermining intelligent considerations. Widespread feeling there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning.

6. Open Access to Information
There is a vibrant information system so nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared.
* Measures of success: How reliable are the communication channels in place to facilitate inspection, audit, whistleblowing, peer review to keep wrongdoing at bay? How easy is it for members to discover and access relevant and accurate information about the group’s past performance and future options?
* Signs of weakness: Concealment – the systematic or regular shielding of irresponsible actions; the deliberate refusal or obstruction to members seeking to find out more about what has been done in the group and why.

Embedding citizen participation in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question

7. Participatory Decision-Making
The group respects every member equally in being entitled to participate in the making of decisions that affect them, and enables all members to contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.
* Measures of success: Are the procedures for decision-making clear to all members? How extensive are training and participation opportunities made available? And how effective are they in ensuring that no one will be ignored or disrespected? How well are joint decision-making facilitated so it is carried out rationally and inclusively? Does the joint decision-making apply to how to divide and distribute the surplus generated by the group?
* Signs of weakness: Disengagement – a significant number of members either lack the information or skills to make sensible decisions, or decline to become involved in decision making altogether. Insufficiently thought-through or biased decisions systemically harm the organisation & its members.

8. Impartial Distribution of Power
The group abides by the democratic ethos so that no one is permitted to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others.
* Measures of success: Are there safeguards in place to stop individuals or sections in the group accumulating power? Is there a regular and effective redistribution of power so that even concentrated powers for emergencies are only granted on temporary basis? Are there checks and balances so that no one can hold others to ransom by threats?
* Signs of weakness: Oppression – the suppression of dissent and pervasive enforcement of reluctant compliance. Fear, resentment, distrust of the leaders.

9. Accountability for Action
The group is protected by a robust accountability system so those entrusted with higher authority to act on behalf of all members are unlikely to take actions that are against the wider interest of the group or are to benefit themselves solely without due consent from the group.
* Measures of success: Are there transparent electoral or selection process to replace those with positions of authority? How easy is it to detect unjustifiable actions? Are there reliable mechanisms for all to trigger to summon potential wrongdoers to account for their actions? Are members supported in being vigilant in challenging decisions that appear to be illegitimate?
* Signs of weakness: Corruption – some stay in positions of power regardless of concerns raised; some are suspected of placing their own personal interests and/or those who bribe them above the collective interests of members in general, and subvert the group for the gains of a few.

Conclusion

Anyone interested in the theoretical foundations for the nine elements we have set out can refer to the supplementary resources cited above. For those who want to focus on their practical applications, they can cross-check each of the nine elements against their own organisation’s governance, and mark each one out of ten. This will provide them with a snapshot of their relative strengths and weaknesses, and also how robust their governance is overall. Each element can be further specified with more detailed criteria. But for the purpose of offering a framework for assessing governance in general, this guide is a good place to start.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What Has Politics Ever Done for Us?

INTRODUCTION
No one has given politics a bad name more than professional politicians – they never tire of trotting out the inane comment, whenever some important event is unfolding, that “we must leave politics out of this.” Perhaps what they mean is that on those occasions they should stop for a moment trying to score points against other parties, but politics is precisely what they should be engaging in.

Unfortunately, politicians have alienated the public so much that more and more people just give up on politics – they are consumed by an ever-present sense of futility, and they are convinced nothing they do would make any difference.

But that of course is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once people give up on politics – and I don’t just mean voting, but sharing ideas and collaborating on bringing about changes – we cease to be a body of citizens, and become fragmented, isolated, vulnerable individuals.

Politics is in fact the only antidote to powerlessness. It is the practice whereby citizens in a shared domain come together and work out what is to be done for their common wellbeing.

If one or a few simply impose their decisions on everyone else, there is dictatorship, not politics.

If everyone goes his or own way and never accepts any general rule as binding on them, we have anarchy, not politics.

Only politics give us the opportunity to deliberate as a group, to dispute and agree without resorting to violence, and establish common rules and policies.

And one of the most pressing tasks of lifelong learning is to remind everyone what politics has helped us achieve, and why we must act politically to protect our common interests. And the more powerful the opponents we face, the more necessary it is to tackle them through effective political engagement.

Let us look back at six examples and see what we have had to rely on politics to achieve for us. And as we’re often told that it’s important for our national identity to remember key dates, we’ll pick out 6 years that hold a special place in our political history:

One. 1215 (Magna Carta)
In the past, people who were displeased with their ruler would try to seize the throne from them, or force them to abdicate, or even kill them. But a group of barons in the 13th century decided to use a political approach instead. They devised a charter and collectively pressed King John to agree to it. John gave his consent and though he rejected it soon afterwards, it became a focus for a shift in structural power, leading to the election of representatives in the Parliament championed by Simon de Montfort.
Political Achievement 1: Limit the Abuse of Power

Two. 1605 (The Advancement of Learning)
As late as the 15th and 16th centuries, there was no systematic science or technology to speak of. There would the odd inventions or discoveries made by individuals working on their own. Francis Bacon, a leading politician who would become the Lord Chancellor, put forward a comprehensive reform programme in his book, The Advancement of Learning, and presented it to King James I, who sarcastically dismissed it as “Like the peace of God, it passes all understanding.” But Bacon did not rely just on the King; he networked extensively, and it led to the founding of the Royal Society, with a royal charter from Charles II (James’ grandson). It became a model for the cultivation & promotion of cooperatively tested empirical knowledge.
Political Achievement 2: Improve Knowledge & Rationality

Three. 1776 (Common Sense)
The so-called Glorious Revolution was a settlement between the monarch and the wealthy elite of the country. And after 1688, the government refused to listen to any request for allowing every adult to have a vote in electing their representative in Parliament. One political activist turned to pamphlet and book writing to stir up popular demands. And when Tom Paine went to America, his ideas provided just the catalyst the people who had settled there needed. They would not accept some hedged settlement with King George III, but cut their links with the monarchy altogether, and became a democratic republic instead. Paine then used the success of the new political system in America to promote change in France and Britain. And while extremists in France and ultra reactionaries in Britain derailed progress in their different ways, democracy was to advance through the 19th century in both countries.
Political Achievement 3: Open the Door to Democracy

Four. 1851 (The Sheffield Female Political Association)
Back in America, the slaves were not given a vote. And when Anne Knight joined the campaign to end slavery, she discovered two things: one was the importance of changing public attitudes about slavery when slave owners would go on and on about the economic costs of abandoning it; and the other was that the problem of deep-seated prejudice affected women too.
When she went to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, she found out that women were not allowed to participate in the discussions. She established in 1847 the first organisation to campaign for women suffrage and inspired subsequent feminist demands to eradicate unequal treatment of women (it was 1918 that women over 30 with property got the vote, and only 1928 that women aged 21+ got the vote).
Political Achievement 4: Rally Against Prejudice

Five. 1905 (Progressive Government)
Through the 19th century, even as there was growing acceptance (though slow it was) that everyone, men and women, should have the vote, and be given equal respect politically, there was a parallel trend that not only condoned, but celebrated the widening gulf between the rich and the poor – and dismissed that there should be any equal respect when it came to economic interactions.
The turning point came with the Liberal victory of 1905, which heralded the systematic redistribution of common resources to bridge the divide between the haves and have-nots. For example:
• Free school meals
• Workers compensation for suffering from accidents at work
• In 1908, introduced pensions for those over 70.
• Spending significantly increased to alleviate unemployment.
• The National Insurance Act (Part I) passed in 1911 gave workers the right to sick pay
It was by no means easy, as Lloyd George remarked: "the partisan warfare that raged around these topics was so fierce that by 1913, this country was brought to the verge of civil war."
Political Achievement 5: Build Economic Solidarity

Six. 1942 (Beveridge’s Report - The Slaying of Giants)
Beveridge’s Report set out a vision for slaying the five giant evils of Want, Idleness, Disease, Squalor, and Ignorance. In tackling ignorance, there continued to be many obstacles. For example,
• teachers were from time to time threatened with pay cut of 10% or more;
• women teachers were not only paid less but had to stop teaching once they were married;
• & parents could stop sending their children to school once they were 14.
The National Union of Teachers campaigned in public, organised strikes where necessary, and also collaborated with politicians to change the law, and the status of teachers and respect for education reached a high point.
Political Achievement 6: Safeguard Education

CONCLUSION
Since 1980s, market individualism has grown and collective politics declined.
Now all six political achievements are under threat.

It is important to remember what they are and that we should revive politics to defend them.
• Magna Carta inspired the development of human rights; now this government is planning to abolish the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
• Instead of supporting the general advancement of learning, research grants are increasingly directed to meet corporate interests.
• Democracy is put into reverse – stopping people voting is the new game in town: prisoners, changing registration system which could reduce the number of people who can vote, and look at America, where the Republicans have concocted numerous ways to stop the poor and ethnic minorities from voting.
• Prejudice against immigrants, against disabled people, against the poor are stoked on a daily basis. And equal pay for women is still a battle to be won.
• Economic solidarity is being jettisoned, the welfare state is being dismantled, and income inequalities, after falling in the post-war years, have kept widening since the 1980s.
• And education is reduced to a sifting machine to pick out the few for top jobs and package the rest for compliance and low expectations.

For those of us who live in the six counties within the East of England, there is a further significance to the six examples we considered:
• Before the Barons presented the Magna Carta to King John to seal in 2015, they gathered in the previous year before the shrine of St Edmunds to discuss and agree their tactics in dealing with John. The shrine was of course in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.
• The great political advocate for ‘The Advancement of Learning’, Francis Bacon, was ennobled as Viscount St Albans, because his family home was in St Albans, Hertfordshire.
• And arguably the most influential political writer of all times, Tom Paine, was born in Thetford, Norfolk.
• The tireless critic of slavery and champion of women rights, Anne Knight, came from Chelmsford, Essex.
• The Liberal Government that came into office in 1905 was led by Henry Campbell Bannerman, one of 14 Prime Ministers who graduated from the University of Cambridge in Cambridgeshire.
• And the man who led the National Union of Teachers as their General Secretary from 1931 to 1947 was Frederick Mander, who earlier on in his career was the headmaster of a school in Luton, Bedfordshire.

We have in the East of England an immensely rich political heritage, and we should with confidence and pride build on it and extend political education to as many people as possible so that they can exercise their power as citizens to counter money interests and corrosive prejudices, and help enhance our common wellbeing.
--

[This is a summary paper based on the speech I gave to the WEA (East of England) Annual Meeting, on 8 November 2014]

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Find out more about: Together We Can

Together We Can is a series of practical resources for cooperative problem-solving named after the policy programme developed by Henry Tam when he was the Government’s Head of Civil Renewal (Home Office), and later Deputy Director in charge of Community Empowerment Delivery (Dept for Communities & Local Government) between 2003 and 2010. The resources outlined below include both reports/advice that grew directly out of his policy work, and supplementary papers and presentations by him to highlight the key lessons for community activists and public policy makers on how citizens can cooperate together to solve the problems they face.

Together We Can: resources from the civil renewal programme

• ‘Together We Can’ action plan: the cross-government plan with commitments in the key public policy areas.
Annex to ‘Together We Can’ action plan: with details of the proposed initiatives.
‘Together We Can’ 2005/2006 review: reports from the Secretaries of State and Ministers on progress in 12 Government Departments.
• ‘Take Part’: resources for ‘Active Learning for Active Citizenship’.
• ‘Guide Neighbourhoods’: how communities can learn cooperative problem-solving and civic activism from each other.
• ‘Civic Pioneers’ first report and second report: collaborative working between local authorities and citizens to improve local quality of life.
• ‘Participatory Budgeting’: resources to expand the use of participatory budgeting in deciding how to allocate public resources.
• ‘Quirk Review’: report on community management and ownership of public assets).
• ‘Asset Transfer Unit’: resources to support the transfer of assets to community-based organisations.
• ‘Active Citizens, Strong Communities – progressing civil renewal’: a pamphlet setting out the Home Secretary’s core objectives and policies.• ‘Councillors Commission’: report with recommendations on how to improve the democratic role of elected local councillors.

Together We Can: supplementary resources by Henry Tam on cooperative problem-solving

• ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’: a review of the Together We Can programme (Forum Journal, Vol 53, Number 3, 2011)
• ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving & Education': on the evidence for suggesting why cooperative problem-solving should be taught more widely (published by the Forum Journal, 2013).
'The Cooperative Gestalt': an essay on the cooperative mindset and progressive lifelong learning (Question the Powerful, November 2013)
. ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’: including a joint statement with academics and practitioners on key elements of successful cooperative problem-solving (Question the Powerful, October 2012)
• ‘The Case for Cooperative Problem-Solving’: a statement of why cooperative problem-solving is needed in tackling social, economic and environmental problems (Question the Powerful, May, 2012)
• ‘Awareness, Agitation, Action’: presentation to WEA Oxford (May 18 2012) – Part 1 & Part 2
• 'The Importance of Being a Citizen’: in Active Learning for Active Citizenship, ed. by John Annette & Marjorie Mayo, (NIACE, 2010)
• ‘Together We Can tackle the power gap’: presentation on Innovations in Participation: Citizen Engagement in Deliberative Democracy, at the ‘Frontiers of Innovation Conference: Celebrating 20 Years of Innovation in Government’ (the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, 1 April 2008, Harvard, USA) [from 33.40 on]
• ‘Civil Renewal: the agenda for empowering citizens’, in Re-energizing Citizenship: Strategies for Civil Renewal, ed. by Gerry Stoker, Tessa Brannan, and Peter John, (Macmillan Palgrave, 2007).
Serving the Public: customer management in local government, by Henry Tam (Longman: 1993)
Marketing, Competition & the Public Sector, ed. by Henry Tam (Longman: 1994)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Find our more about: ‘Together We Can’

Together We Can is a series of practical resources for cooperative problem-solving named after the policy programme developed by Henry Tam when he was the Government’s Head of Civil Renewal (Home Office), and later Deputy Director in charge of Community Empowerment Delivery (Dept for Communities & Local Government) between 2003 and 2010. The resources outlined below include both reports/advice that grew directly out of his policy work, and supplementary papers and presentations by him to highlight the key lessons for community activists and public policy makers on how citizens can cooperate together to solve the problems they face.

Together We Can: resources from the civil renewal programme

• ‘Together We Can’ action plan: the cross-government plan with commitments in the key public policy areas.
Annex to ‘Together We Can’ action plan: with details of the proposed initiatives.
‘Together We Can’ 2005/2006 review: reports from the Secretaries of State and Ministers on progress in 12 Government Departments.
• ‘Take Part’: resources for ‘Active Learning for Active Citizenship’.
• ‘Guide Neighbourhoods’: how communities can learn cooperative problem-solving and civic activism from each other.
• ‘Civic Pioneers’ first report and second report: collaborative working between local authorities and citizens to improve local quality of life.
• ‘Participatory Budgeting’: resources to expand the use of participatory budgeting in deciding how to allocate public resources.
• ‘Quirk Review’: report on community management and ownership of public assets).
• ‘Asset Transfer Unit’: resources to support the transfer of assets to community-based organisations.
• ‘Active Citizens, Strong Communities – progressing civil renewal’: a pamphlet setting out the Home Secretary’s core objectives and policies.• ‘Councillors Commission’: report with recommendations on how to improve the democratic role of elected local councillors.

Together We Can: supplementary resources by Henry Tam on cooperative problem-solving

• ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’: a review of the Together We Can programme (Forum Journal, Vol 53, Number 3, 2011)
• ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving & Education': on the evidence for suggesting why cooperative problem-solving should be taught more widely (published by the Forum Journal, 2013).
'The Cooperative Gestalt': an essay on the cooperative mindset and progressive lifelong learning (Question the Powerful, November 2013)
. ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’: including a joint statement with academics and practitioners on key elements of successful cooperative problem-solving (Question the Powerful, October 2012)
• ‘The Case for Cooperative Problem-Solving’: a statement of why cooperative problem-solving is needed in tackling social, economic and environmental problems (Question the Powerful, May, 2012)
• ‘Awareness, Agitation, Action’: presentation to WEA Oxford (May 18 2012) – Part 1 & Part 2
• 'The Importance of Being a Citizen’: in Active Learning for Active Citizenship, ed. by John Annette & Marjorie Mayo, (NIACE, 2010)
• ‘Together We Can tackle the power gap’: presentation on Innovations in Participation: Citizen Engagement in Deliberative Democracy, at the ‘Frontiers of Innovation Conference: Celebrating 20 Years of Innovation in Government’ (the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, 1 April 2008, Harvard, USA) [from 33.40 on]
• ‘Civil Renewal: the agenda for empowering citizens’, in Re-energizing Citizenship: Strategies for Civil Renewal, ed. by Gerry Stoker, Tessa Brannan, and Peter John, (Macmillan Palgrave, 2007).
Serving the Public: customer management in local government, by Henry Tam (Longman: 1993)
Marketing, Competition & the Public Sector, ed. by Henry Tam (Longman: 1994)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

10 Books on the Progressive Tradition

What is the progressive tradition? What is that mindset that inspires people to challenge misguided thinking and oppressive practices so as to open up opportunities for future improvements? Between early 17th and mid-20th century, a new philosophy of life emerged to drive scientific, social and political reforms. Below are ten books which examine key aspects of how this tradition has developed, the opposition it encountered, and what lessons contemporary progressives may draw from the struggles. For anyone looking for some general background reading on what being progressive is really about, this selection should help:

Enlightenment: An Interpretation (Vols 1 & 2), by Peter Gay (Wildwood House: 1973)

Witch-hunting, Magic & the New Philosophy: an introduction to the debates of the scientific revolution 1450-1750, by Brian Easlea (Harvester Press: 1980)

Uncertain Victory: social democracy and progressivism in European and American thought 1870-1920, by James T. Kloppenberg (Oxford University Press: 1986)

The Scientific Intellectual: the psychological & sociological origins of modern science, by Lewis S. Feuer (Transaction Publishers: 1992)

The Republican Moment: struggles for democracy in nineteenth century France, by Philip Nord (Harvard University Press: 1995)

The Five Giants: a biography of the welfare state, by Nicholas Timmins (Fontana Press: 1996)

Atlantic Crossings: social politics in a progressive age, by Daniel T. Rodgers (Harvard University Press: 1998)

Enemies of the Enlightenment: the French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, by Darrin M. McMahon (Oxford University Press: 2001)

The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America came to be, by Michael Lux (John Wiley & Sons: 2009)

Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle, by Henry Tam (Birkbeck: 2010; new edition: 2015)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

10 Things about the State of Our Democracy

It is easy to dismiss democracy as not working when in reality we lack a working democracy. Some components are in place, but there are serious flaws and gaps that urgently need to be addressed. Otherwise, the drift towards plutocracy will continue towards the point of no return. Here are ten points to note about the current state of democracy in the UK:

No.1: The 20%-backed Rule
In the elections held in 2001 and since, the average turnout has been 62%. But once we take into account that 15% are not even registered to vote, we realise that out of all those who are eligible to vote, 15% haven’t registered, 33% don’t use their vote though they are registered, leaving just 52% who actually cast a vote. And on average this 52% is split between 20% whose vote go to the party that forms the government (or the leading partner of a coalition government) and 32% who vote for some other party to run the country. In other words, the politicians who are setting the policies for us all are generally backed by just 20% of all those eligible to vote.

No.2: Two-Thirds Safe Seats
Almost 60% of the 650 seats (that’s 380 of them) are so safe that they are routinely predicted to remain with their incumbent parties, and they do. A further 10% are considered fairly safe as to attract relatively little attention from rival parties, leaving 30% (i.e., 194 seats) as marginals (these have majorities of 10% or less, and would change with a 5% swing against current MP). So for all the people living outside those 30% marginal seats, if they want to replace their sitting MPs, they know they are on a statistical mission impossible. Every vote cast against these incumbents, in every election, would be just another wasted vote.

No.3: Selective Devolution
More powers are to be devolved to Scotland’s 5.3 million residents. But British residents living elsewhere are told that they will have to go on accepting ‘Whitehall knows best’. London and six of the other eight regions in England have a population either similar to or substantially larger than that of Scotland’s. The citizens living in these diverse areas have no more faith that a remote political elite in Westminster will be responsive to their needs and concerns, but they are for now ignored. Would they have to set up an independence movement before their case for devolved powers is taken seriously?

No.4: Pseudo-Localism
All the talk of localism has less to do with reviving local democracy than to undermine it. Whitehall has the power to impose decisions on land use and commercial development, even if these will only serve a few big corporations at the expense of countless local people who have to live with the unenviable consequences. And while local authorities are handed all the cuts to sort out, they are firmly deprived of the powers to raise any tax revenue. Local people can vote for any party so long as the party does not seek to secure more resources to meet local needs.

No.5: Use & Abuse of Referendum
It seems that when people can see relatively clearly the arguments for and against something (e.g., fracking for shale gas), the government would rather push ahead with it than give the public a chance to decide through, say, a referendum. But when it is something so complicated such as whether the legal and economic arrangements, which the UK has put in place with the rest of the European Union, should be put aside through the UK leaving the EU, then we are offered a referendum even though few could vote with much understanding of the issues. Curiously, while the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership) also raises questions about our country’s sovereignty to decide for itself, it will not be put to a referendum.

No.6: Voting Rights of Vested Interests
Elected politicians in a local authority have to declare their interest if they stand to gain or lose personally from a proposal that has been put to a vote. In such a case, they have to withdraw from the debate and not vote on the proposal. By contrast, in Parliament, an MP or a member of the House of Lords can join in the discussion of any bill even if they may gain from it becoming an act, and they can vote on it without any hindrance, as many did when they voted for opening up the NHS by passing more lucrative contracts to private healthcare companies, in which these Parliamentarians owned shares.

No.7: Plutocracy
Corporate money already buys media controls, advertising & PR, lobbying and lawsuits, secret tax deals, and of course policy influence via party donations. The Government has shown how much it welcomes this by ignoring the Electoral Commission’s recommendations and changing the law to allow a 23% increase on what can be spent in campaigning in the runup to the next elections. With the wealthiest corporate backers, the Government’s strategy is to win elections by promising behind closed doors what they will deliver for those with most money.

No.8: Blanket Ban on Prisoners Voting
At the other end of the social hierarchy, the UK is still alone amongst advanced democracies to insist on a blanket ban to prevent all prisoners from voting. There may be good reasons to deny those who have been convicted of some of the most serious crimes from having a say on who should govern the country, but there is no justification for claiming that anyone sentenced to jail should automatically lose the opportunity to vote. The offences which give rise to such sentences may have no bearing on whether the individuals concerned ought to have a democratic say about their country. Some of these offences may even be less objectionable than MPs cheating on their expense claims and defrauding the public, yet the vast majority of MPs voted to reject a bill brought forward to limit the ban on voting to just those prisoners serving over 4 years.

No.9: Prime Minister Question Time
The showcase for our democracy at work is supposed to be Prime Minister Question Time when obsequious members of the PM’s own party put forward ‘questions’ to enable the PM to reply by saying how wonderful everything is. It is also the occasion when the PM and Leader of the Opposition have to score media points against each other by sounding as rude, dismissive, and arrogant as possible. In effect, the centrepiece of the mechanism for holding the Prime Minister to account is a farcical non-event that reminds the country weekly that there is no executive accountability.

No.10: Parties Coming to an End
Back in 1983, almost 4% of the electorate belong to one or another of the main political parties. Now in 2015 that has dropped to well under 1%. Parties no longer inspire confidence of loyalty. To ordinary people, they are invisible except for once in a blue moon they come around to ask for your vote (assuming you live in one of those marginal seats). Even to their dwindling members, they rarely contact them apart from when they are asking for money. Once a compass for voting allegiance, political parties will become increasingly irrelevant unless they radically reform themselves to offer people something more.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Against Power Inequalities: a historical guide

Introduction
Against Power Inequalities is a global history of the emergence of power inequalities around the world, the progressive struggle to rein in those with excessive power, and the ideas and movements that have sustained the drive for more inclusive communities. It provides an accessible guide to the roots of exploitation and oppression in power imbalance, explains their inter-connections across time and nations, and sets out how some of them have been overcome while other challenges still remain.

It has been a widely recommended book for political education:
• “Tam’s book is an intellectual tour de force … It bears reading and re-reading, because the issues of power and community are so fundamental, and the history so rich and evocative.” - C. Derber, Professor of Sociology, Boston College (USA)
• “… a book that is breathtaking in its panoramic overview of the genealogy of power inequalities and the struggles against them. ... In its forensic, but always optimistic, analysis of how citizens have worked in the past, and continue to work, towards a fairer, more just society, we have an inspirational example of a text that speaks truth to power.” - D. Reay, Professor of Education, University of Cambridge
• “Henry Tam tells the inspiring, global story of democratic struggles against concentrated power and offers guidance for progressives today. It is a broad, bold, and thoughtful manifesto for popular democratic reform.” - P. Levine, Research Director, Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University (USA)
• “Tam's book is a kaleidoscope of human history in which he tells a compelling story. He understands the nature of power and the negative impacts it can have in almost any conceivable culture.” - R. Spellman, Chief Executive, Workers Educational Association
• “[The] work of a truly independent scholar.” - E. M. H. Hirsch Ballin, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Tilburg, The Netherlands
• “Henry Tam is a master storyteller.” - E. Mayo, Secretary General, Co-operatives UK
• “The author boldly claims that his book provides a historical guide to the progressive struggle for power redistribution, and draws out the underlying obstacles to the development of more inclusive communities. This is a mightily ambitious claim. ... Having read the new edition of Against Power Inequalities, I now recognise the power of his keyboard, and believe his claim for the book to be justified." - J. Tizard, the Huffington Post (UK)

What are the key issues to reflect on
• What does the historical pattern tell us about how power inequalities are likely to arise?
• Do we discern common roots of oppression in greed for power regardless of differences in culture-specific beliefs and customs?
• What are the key factors behind successful attempts to counter domination by the powerful?
• Why must the struggle against power inequalities be sustained if exploitative relationships are not to re-emerge?
• What democratic activism can actually achieve despite the odds?

How to get hold of this publication
The new expanded edition, published in 2015 to commemorate the 8th centenary of Magna Carta, is available in e-book and paperback format.
Click on Against Power Inequalities for details.

Options for further engagement
• Contact the author with your questions
• Share Against Power Inequalities with others through a political forum or a reading group
• Set up a discussion group to explore the key themes and ideas directly with the author
• Use the book as the basis for an exercise in retracing the key moments in the historical struggle against those with excessive power, and identifying the lessons for contemporary attempts to reverse the growth of power inequalities.

Supplementary Texts
In addition to Against Power Inequalities, the following books are useful to broaden our historical understanding of the struggle to curb the powerful and promote democratic inclusion for all:
• Gay, P. Enlightenment: An Interpretation (Vols 1 & 2), Gay (Wildwood House: 1973)
• Kloppenberg, J. T., Uncertain Victory: social democracy and progressivism in European and American thought 1870-1920, by (Oxford University Press: 1986)
• Lux, M. The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America came to be, (John Wiley & Sons: 2009)
• McMahon D. M., Enemies of the Enlightenment: the French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, (Oxford University Press: 2001)
• Nicholas T., The Five Giants: a biography of the welfare state, (Fontana Press: 1996)
• Nord, P., The Republican Moment: struggles for democracy in nineteenth century France, (Harvard University Press: 1995)
• Rodgers, D. T., Atlantic Crossings: social politics in a progressive age, (Harvard University Press: 1998)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Cooperation Unbound: a reciprocal model for democratic education

The problem with undemocratic institutions – be they the government of a country or a business – is that they do the bidding of those in charge at the top, without being accountable to others who have to live with the consequences of their actions.

One of the most notable features of the democratic struggle during the 19th/early 20th centuries was the drive to enable the disempowered majority to learn why and how they go about getting a greater say about the decisions that affected them. Reformists who wanted democratic cooperation to replace authoritarian controls recognised their cause could only be effectively advanced if education played its part.

And in quick succession, learning providers such as the Working Men’s College (founded 1854), Cooperative Women’s Guild (1883), Ruskin College (1899), Workers’ Educational Association (1903), Cooperative College (1919), National Council of Labour Colleges (1921), were set up. But ironically, the achievement of universal suffrage for all adults aged 18+, the establishment of the welfare state, and the emergence of the (short-lived) post-war consensus on social justice, had by the 1970s led many to believe that the struggle for democracy and cooperation was over.

Support for politically orientated education began to slip down the agenda, and at every subsequent economic downturn, funding from state and philanthropic sources would be further cut, and lifelong learning in general became more tightly squeezed into employment-focused training to meet the needs of a largely non-cooperative economy.

In order to rebuild the momentum to democratise state and business institutions so that cooperation is structurally and culturally embedded in how they operate, four steps should be taken to develop a new business model with reciprocity at its heart.

First, lifelong learning providers should explore with representatives (from social, cooperative, and community enterprises; trades unions; worker-owned/worker-run partnerships; and other progressive institutions) what type of education will best encourage and enable more people to contribute to the success of those organisations, both in terms of how to apply the principles of democratic cooperation internally, and how to promote suitable economic and political changes externally.

Secondly, they need to put in place partnership arrangements to deal with course development, financial commitment, and impact review. These should be at a level that would be neither too large to render communications superficial nor too small to hinder economies of scale. This points to a federated structure with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London, East of England, and other English regions (or sub-regional City-Regions such as Greater Manchester or Greater Birmingham) as likely units of strategic cooperation to steer and monitor progress. Within their own areas, they can set their respective priorities, but they will also have the option of sharing course contents and other provisions across the UK where appropriate.

Thirdly, the partners can agree their organisational backing and funding support on the basis of how they will benefit in directly quantifiable economic terms and as measured by SROI (social return on investment), from a range of courses and programmes co-designed to raise awareness and understanding of:

• Why institutions work better to the extent they are more democratically run.
• How to correct superficial or flawed approaches to facilitate democratic cooperation so that real improvement can be made.
• What kind of incremental changes can be brought forward to modify non-democratic institutions in the short-term.
• How to transform existing institutions or set up new ones so that they are legally, financially, democratically robust enough to foster high performance and stakeholders’ satisfaction.
• What the common problems are in running and developing institutions committed to democratic cooperation, and how they can be addressed to bring about greater benefits for all.
• What lessons can be learnt from experience around the world in advancing democratic cooperation in different sectors or institutional contexts.

Finally, when partnership structures, course contents/delivery, and funding agreement are in place, further investment support can be sought from relevant government agencies, social investors, CDFIs (community development finance institutions), and progressive foundations to help with the continuous improvement of the learning opportunities and the expansion of their access. Instead of short-term wheel-reinventing projects, the partners will be in a position to make a strong case for sustained investment in the provision of effective courses that will enhance the resilience, performance and growth of democratic institutions in all sectors.

Back in 1879, Professor James Stuart of the University of Cambridge, a leading proponent of adult education, remarked that the cooperative movement “is a democratic movement if there ever was one. It therefore cannot repose on the good sense of a few; its success will depend on the good sense of the masses.” And while the connections between education and democratic cooperation have in recent decades been weakened in Britain, the value of ensuring these two elements are properly integrated can be seen in areas where cooperative working has as a result been highly successful in securing stability, prosperity and social justice – e.g., Mondragon in Spain, and Emilia Romagna in Italy. In both these regions, a vast range of cooperative organisations joined forces through federated structures to ensure, amongst other things, education is provided to sustain the long-term health of democratic cooperation as a way of intra and inter institutional life.

It is time we accept that we cannot rely on goodwill funding or grants dispensed to those on the receiving end of a supplicant relationship. We must integrate the objectives of social justice, economic vibrancy, and political inclusion into a reciprocal partnership, and use that as the foundation to revitalise democratic education.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Cooperative Gestalt Approach to CSR

Imagine at a board meeting the issue of pollution is raised, and the directors’ responses all focus on how to deflect public attention from the serious damages their company is doing to the environment. Some suggest running an advertising campaign about their commitment to recycling their office supplies, others want to do something with schools involving children cleaning up their local ponds, and so on until an intern sitting at the back asks, “but what’s going to be done about the pollution itself?”

Whenever top executives are hit with their ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment, they have a choice. They can dispense with the messenger. Or they can take a closer look at what kind of organisation they have become and embark on a genuine change programme.

All too often the focus of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been on how to get people to form a positive view of a company, as opposed to how to ensure they become disposed to interact with it in a positive manner.

‘Seeing’ is a static state and it is transient. A view formed one moment can be easily displaced by another if other experiences throw up contradictions. By contrast, the underlying disposition to interact in a particular way – the gestalt – affects how a person relates to the experiences from a defined source on an on-going basis.

The question is how should an organisation go about building relationships with the diverse stakeholders that make up its ‘public’ so that over time, they are more disposed to interact with it positively. Some may be tempted to use gloss and misdirection to draw people into a false sense of endearment towards the organisation. But not only is the very purpose of CSR incompatible with such irresponsible manipulation, such an approach is unstable as lies tend not to cohere in any broad narrative, carries huge risks in their exposure, and is ultimately unsustainable as we live in the age of pervasive surveillance and scrutiny.

The alternative is to commit the organisation to the development of the cooperative gestalt in all its interactions with stakeholders. The cooperative gestalt denotes a dispositional tendency that prevails when the people concerned are inclined to:
• Engage in cooperative enquiry: they believe in pronouncements about what is or is not the case in so far as these are open to evidential checking, objective observation, cross-examination by anyone who can make a contribution.
• Embrace mutual responsibility: they regard those they are dealing with as deserving of equal respect, and want to treat them with the same consideration as they would expect to be accorded to themselves.
• Expect participatory decision-making: they support decisions made on the basis that the decision-makers have sought and taken into account the ideas and concerns of those affected by the decisions in question.

Organisations that consistently behave towards their stakeholders in line with the cooperative gestalt will in effect be cultivating a similar set of dispositions amongst their stakeholders in how they will interact with those organisations.

A company that is ready to acknowledge its mistakes in causing pollution, financial mismanagement, safety failures, or its deficiencies in paying the poorest staff a sub-living wage, strong-arming small suppliers, destabilising communities through mass redundancies; and is prepared to rectify them, not by high profile declarations, but through sincere collaboration with those affected, will produce in everyone they deal with the deepest sense of trust and respect.

The history of institutions – be they national governments, transnational corporations, or local businesses – bears testimony to the inextricable connections between organisational actions in line with the cooperative gestalt and the mirror image of that gestalt in how people are disposed to interact with those organisations.

CSR can never work as a one-way broadcast about the virtues of a company. To carry any credibility, it has to be built on a reciprocal basis. Respect stakeholders, be open with them in making any claims so they can look into the foundation for such claims, and involve them in critical decision making – in return, they will respect you, seek your input rather than jump to conclusions, and give you credit where it is deserved, and the benefit of the doubt where you have slipped up.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Case for an Open Cooperativist Development Agency

Economic systems and practices that exploit workers, users, communities and the environment to the detriment of our common good have long ceased to command respect. The only reason they nonetheless persist is that most people do not see other, more viable, options as to how they can satisfactorily live and work. But in reality, there are plenty of alternatives.

Alongside the spread of economic democracy, and the renewal of cooperative enterprise as an economic and social model, there is gathering momentum in the building of new forms of Social and Solidarity Economy; the displacement of a myopic conception of ‘growth’ by a vision and strategy for sustainability; the emergence of more inclusive, commons-orientated politics in Greece, Italy and Spain; and grassroots transformation movements encompassing community land trusts, Transition Towns, and ‘Shareable Cities’.

Furthermore, all these alternative approaches share core values and beliefs that place mutuality, power equality, and common stewardship at the heart of productive human relationships. Together they are constructing the route to a different and better future for all.

However, anyone involved in advancing these approaches must recognise that the issue of scale has to be addressed. Advocacy for many of these ideas and their adoption in diverse localities have been going on for decades. The championing of commons and cooperative models has indeed been taking place since at least the 19th century. Although they flourish in a variety of locations, they remain a small minority when people look for opportunities to find work, make a fair return on what they have to offer, obtain financial support, or acquire the goods and services they seek. Conventional businesses that manage transactions between the many to generate profits for the few remain the dominant model of operation almost everywhere we go.

Advocates for alternative socio-economic models that embrace open and inclusive cooperation are increasingly engaged in collaborative efforts to promote what they have to offer. But to reach the tipping point where their favoured practices become the majority across society, it is necessary that in parallel with such advocacy and knowledge-sharing, a robust organisation structure is put in place to raise the resources needed to support the development of these practices on a much more extensive scale.

It is time, therefore, for advocates, organisations, funders, foundations who share the vision of building open, sustainable, cooperative commons in every sphere of human interaction, to join forces in establishing an Open Cooperativist Development Agency with a Board tasked with delivering the following eight functions:

1. Promote knowledge-sharing, highlight common ideals, and provide learning on why and how open cooperatives should be set up and developed.
2. Provide coop business angels to give advice on start-up, consolidation, and/or collaboration with others with shared interests or geographical focus (on a voluntary basis; funded by a central body supported by members’ contributions; or a fee on terms agreed with the advice-receiver).
3. Raise money from supportive funders and provide low cost loans/investment to pro-open cooperative organisations.
4. Arrange cooperatisation of non open coop businesses (arranging for discussions/voting sessions, lending money to workers to take over the business).
5. Work with unions, community groups, democratic campaigners, and political parties to develop pro-open cooperativist policies and secure wide support for their introduction.
6. Negotiate with local and national govt to set up community owned trusts, and other appropriate policy actions.
7. Adjudicate/mediate between multi-stakeholders.
8. Safeguard open coops from sell-outs or unprincipled takeovers.

Ideas are important in changing how people think about how organizations can be made to serve our needs more effectively. Yet we cannot live by ideas alone. Practical outreach, sustained technology transfer, political alliance building, intervention to repel corporate encroachment, and access to substantial funding are indispensable. Relying solely on diverse groups making ad hoc small-scale contributions to run a variety of projects will only take societal transformation so far. With a well-funded development agency guided by multi-stakeholder accountability, we would be much closer to a step-change in substituting plutocratic exploitation by authentic cooperation.

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For the report, ‘Toward an Open Cooperativism’, by David Bollier & Pat Conaty, go to:
http://commonstransition.org/toward-an-open-co-operativism/
& ‘Why We Need a New Kind of Open Cooperativism’, by Michel Bauwens, go to:
http://p2pfoundation.net/Why_We_Need_a_New_Kind_of_Open_Cooperativism_for_the_P2P_Age