Saturday, October 15, 2016

Henry Tam: Bibliography

List of Published Writings (1990 - present)

• ‘Political Literacy and Civic Thoughtfulness', The Centre for Welfare Reform (The Need for Roots series), (2016).
• ‘Interview with a Political Writer', Banana Writers' Insider Series (2016).
• ‘Synetopia: Resource Distribution Revisited’, The Centre for Welfare Reform, (March 2016)
• ‘Synetopia: A Model for Collaborative Leadership’, Civil Service College, (March 2016)
• ‘Utopia, Dystopia, & Synetopia’, WEA Eastern Newsletter (Jan 2016)
• ‘Snide & Prejudiced: a tale of constitutional shenanigans’, openDemocracy, (November 2015)
• ‘Equality and the Governance of Welfare’, The Centre for Welfare Reform, (Sept 2015)
• ‘Communitarian governance: a public education challenge’, openDemocracy, (July 2015)
• 'Towards an Open Cooperativist Development Agency’, P2P Foundation, (March 2015)
• ‘Rethinking National Security’, The Centre for Welfare Reform, (Feb 2015)
• ‘'Communitarianism, sociology of', in James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol. 4. Pp.311-316 (Oxford: Elsevier, 2015).
Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle, (new edition) Birkbeck/QTP: 2015.
• ‘Labour for the ninety-nine percent’, in The Orient (The Official Newsletter of Chinese for Labour, February 2015. Vol 15).
• ‘Leadership beyond Command & Control’, Civil Service College, (Nov 2014)
‘Let’s Talk About Democracy’ in nED (the network for Education & Democracy): (August 2014).
• ‘What would Whitehall be like in fifty years’ time?’ in Despatches, the Civil Service College newsletter (Vol.2 July 2014, p.2).
‘Whitehall through the Looking Glass: a novel exposé of corporate government’, published interview in Shout Out UK, 8 May, 2014).
Whitehall through the Looking Glass (a novel). QTP: 2014.
• 'Communitarianism', in the Encyclopedia of Action Research (Sage Publications, 2014).
• 'Progressive Lifelong Learning: pros and cons', NIACE Journal, 'Adult Learning', winter, 2013.
• 'Cooperative Problem-Solving & Education’, Forum journal, Volume 55 Number 2 2013.
• 'The Curious Case of Chinese Politics in Britain’, The Orient (2013).
• 'When Plato met Potter’, Book Brunch (published 18 June 2013).
• 'Cooperative Problem-Solving: what it means in theory and practice', FYPD, University of Cambridge, 2013 (download article here). Polish version, 'Demokracja: lekcje kooperatywnego rozwiazywania problemow’, published in edukacja obywatelska w dziataniu, ed. by Kordasiewicz, A. & Sadura, P., (Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, Warsaw, 2013).
Kuan's Wonderland (a novel). QTP: 2012.
• ‘Citizen Engagement and the Quest for Solidarity’, in After the Third Way: The Future of Social Democracy in Europe>, ed. by Olaf Cramme and Patrick Diamond (London, I.B. Tauris, 2012).
• ‘Democratic Participation and Learning Leadership’, published in Polish as ‘Szkola liderow’ in Partycypacja: przewodnik krytyki politycznej, ed. by Sadura, P. & Erbel, J. (Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warsaw, 2012).
• ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’, Forum, Volume 53, Number 3, 2011.
Komunitaryzm, (Polish translation of Communitarianism, by J Grygienc & A Szahaj), Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Mikolaja Kopernika, Torun 2011.
• ‘Through Thick & Thin: what does it really take for us to live together’, in Ethnicities, ed. by Dina Kiwan, Volume 11 Issue 3 September 2011.
• ‘The Big Con: reframing the state-society debate’, PPR Journal, Volume 18, Issue 1, March-May 2011.
Against Power Inequalities: reflections on the struggle for inclusive communities, (original edition) Birkbeck, London University, 2010.
• ‘The Importance of Being a Citizen’, in Active Learning for Active Citizenship, ed. by John Annette & Marjorie Mayo, (NIACE, 2010).
• ‘Bringing up Citizens’ – review of Patrick Keeney’s Liberalism, Communitarianism & Education, in PROSPERO (Autumn issue, 2009).
Review of White, S. and Leighton, D. (ed.) Building a Citizen Society: the emerging politics of republican democracy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2008) in RENEWAL (Vol. 17 No.2, Summer 2009).
• ‘Citizens’ Access to Power’, in County Beacon (the County Councils Network magazine) April 2008.
• ‘Power to the Citizen’, in VINE (the Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East newsletter) Summer 2008.
• ‘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).
• ‘The Hidden Barriers to Collaboration’ in The Collaborative State, ed. by Simon Parker and Niamh Gallagher, (London: Demos, 2007).
• ‘The Case for Progressive Solidarity’, in Identity, Ethnic Diversity & Community Cohesion, ed. by M. Wetherell, M. Lafleche & R. Berkeley, (London: Sage, 2007).
• ‘Communities in Control’, New Start (Volume 8, No. 345, 23 June 2006).
• ‘Civil Renewal & Diversity’, in Social Capital, Civil Renewal & Ethnic Diversity (Proceedings of a Runnymede Conference), 2005.
• ‘Live and Let Eat’, a review of Steven Lukes’ Liberals & Cannibals: The Implications of Diversity, in The Responsive Community, Spring/Summer 2004.
Progressive Politics in the Global Age (ed.) (Cambridge: Polity, 2001).
• ‘What is the Third Way’, review of The Third Way and The Third Way and its Critics (by Anthony Giddens), for The Responsive Community. (Summer 2001).
• ‘The Community Roots of Citizenship’, in Citizens: Towards a Citizenship Culture, ed. by B. Crick (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).
• Review of Schools and Community: The Communitarian Agenda in Education (by James Arthur with Richard Bailey), for the Cambridge Journal of Education. (May 2000).
• 'Rediscovering British Communitarianism', The Responsive Community, (reprinted in the Co-op Commonweal) Spring, 1999.
• 'Time to take a stand: Communitarian Ideas and Third Way Politics', International Scope Review Vol 1, Issue 1, 1999.
• ‘Communitarian Ideas and Third Way Politics', Local Government Voice, July 1999.
Communitarianism: A New Agenda for Politics & Citizenship (Macmillan, 1998).
Putting Citizens First, with John Stewart (Municipal Journal/SOLACE, 1997).
Punishment, Excuses & Moral Development (ed.) (Aldershot: Avebury Press, 1996).
• 'Communitarianism and Citizens Empowerment', Local Government Policy Making, January 1996.
• 'Communitarianism and Humanism: The Need for a Citizens' Movement', The Ethical Record, February, 1996.
• 'Education and the Communitarian Movement', Journal for Pastoral Care in Education, September 1996.
The Citizens Agenda (The White Horse Press 1995).
• 'Crime & Responsibility' in B. Almond (ed.) Introducing Applied Ethics (Blackwell's 1995).
• 'Enabling Structures' in D. Atkinson (ed.) Cities of Pride (Cassell 1995).
• 'Recognise Your Responsibilities', The Professional Manager, March 1995.
• 'The Real Communitarian Challenge', County News, May 1995.
• 'Towards a Communitarian Philosophy', Philosophy Today, May 1995.
• 'Communitarianism & the Co-operative Movement', The Co-op Commonweal, Issue 2 1995.
• 'Community Movement', Local Government Management, Autumn 1995.
• 'Take the Community Route to People Power', Local Government Chronicle (24/11/95).
Marketing, Competition & the Public Sector (ed.) (Harlow: Longman, 1994).
• 'Empowerment: Too Big a Task?' The Professional Manager, March 1994.
Citizenship Development: Towards an Organisational Model (LGMB 1994).
Serving the Public: Customer Management in Local Government (Harlow: Longman 1993).
• 'Power to the People' Local Government Management Summer 1993.
• 'How Should We Live?' The Philosopher, October 1993.
Responsibility & Personal Interactions: A Philosophical Study of the Criteria for Responsibility Ascriptions (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Politics & Lifelong Learning

Politics is often reduced by the media to the quarrels between and within political parties. But that is but a tiny part of the much wider struggle to resolve the many differences over how to solve the problems faced by society.

We need politics to bring about agreement on how we are to deal with those challenges that none of us alone could hope to overcome. Otherwise, the problem will simply persist; or someone powerful enough will impose a solution that may or may not work; or worse still, the problem becomes compounded by bitter conflicts over what should be done.

I have worked with WEA and other educational institutions over the years to help broaden understanding of politics, democracy, and government. In addition to the programmes that are already in place, I am now extending my support to anyone who would like to make use of one or more of the learning materials below:

• Public Issues: With a regular prompt to consider the issues raised in the latest ‘Question the Powerful’ essay (a new one is posted twice a month), you can share your ideas/queries in the comments section. Notifications of new essays will be sent to you once you have written your email address in the box on the top left of the ‘Question the Powerful’ homepage.

• Dystopian Fiction: If you prefer to explore political themes through novels that present alternative futures, then you are welcome to pick one from the ‘Synetopia Quest’ series and use it to engage others in a reading circle (any interpretative query can be emailed to the author directly). More details can be found here:

• Political Theory: For anyone interested in political ideas and how they relate to each other, there is the ‘Guide to Synetopia’, which lists a number of resources that can help to inform discussions about governance, cooperation, and democratic communities:

• Historical Review: You can also go on a journey through history with ‘Against Power Inequalities’ as your guide, so you can explore how power inequalities damaged society in the past and how they were countered. You can get the e-book or paperback here:

Whichever option(s) you choose, read the materials that interest you most, invite a number of other people (from similar or diverse backgrounds/age groups etc) to join you in an informal discussion group, or register your interest in taking part in a WEA-wide learning circle.

You can contact me by email ( [followed by], and do share the link for this page with others who may be interested.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Together We Can: the practice of community empowerment

As the UK Government’s Head of Civil Renewal, I devised the national ‘Together We Can’ programme (2003-2010) as an action-learning exercise to empower citizens to cooperate with each other and with public bodies to solve shared problems, and improve their quality of life. Listed below are resources that will inform you of what the programme covered and the practices it promoted on the basis of their effectiveness in advancing community empowerment.

A selection of resources
These are all available to download for free from the given links:
• ‘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.
• ‘Guide Neighbourhoods’: how communities can learn cooperative problem-solving and civic activism from each other.
• ‘Take Part’: resources for ‘Active Learning for Active Citizenship’.
• ‘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.

Supplementary Materials
‘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 Importance of Being a Citizen’ (Henry Tam): in Active Learning for Active Citizenship, ed. by John Annette & Marjorie Mayo, (NIACE, 2010)
• ‘Civil Renewal: the agenda for empowering citizens’ (Henry Tam), in Re-energizing Citizenship: Strategies for Civil Renewal, ed. by Gerry Stoker, Tessa Brannan, and Peter John, (Macmillan Palgrave, 2007).
• ‘Together We Can - tackle the power gap’, The Frontiers of Innovation Conference: 20 Years of Innovation in Government, the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, University of Harvard, USA: 1/4/08: 'Innovations in Participation: Citizen Engagement in Deliberative Democracy’ (Henry Tam’s presentation begins at 33.40 minutes into the video)

For a full listing of related resources, go to: Together We Can: resources for cooperative problem-solving

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cooperative Gestalt: the practice of cooperative problem-solving

The cooperative gestalt is the mindset required to promote shared understanding and mutually supportive behaviour. During my time as Director of the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, 2011-2015), I met with leading practitioners to establish the key ingredients that would enable the cooperative gestalt to flourish and cooperative problem-solving to spread. These include personal dispositions that need to be cultivated and organisational arrangements that should be put in place.

A selection of resources
'The Cooperative Gestalt': on the role of lifelong learning in developing a cooperative mindset (Question the Powerful, November 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).
• ‘The Case for Cooperative Problem-Solving’: how cooperative problem-solving can help to tackle social, economic and environmental problems (Question the Powerful, May, 2012).
‘Cooperative Problem-Solving & Education': on the evidence for suggesting why cooperative problem-solving should be taught more widely (published by the Forum Journal, 2013).
Synetopia Protocol: a protocol for assessing how well any group or organisation is run to enhance the common wellbeing of its members through cooperation (2015).
’Guide to Synetopia’: a listing of short essays relating to the concept of synetopia and its applications to reforming society and institutions (2016).
'The Cooperative Gestalt Approach to CSR': practical implications for corporate social responsibility (2015).

Supplementary Materials
’Learning more about Cooperative Gestalt’: Notes from keynote speech, ‘Power of Adult Learning’ conference (University of Edinburgh, 23 October 2013).
'Niccolo Machiavelli’: an interview with Henry Tam on Machiavelli’s advice on civic republican leadership (2014).

For a full listing of related resources, go to: Together We Can: resources for cooperative problem-solving

Monday, May 23, 2016

Serving the Public: the practice of democratic engagement

Except in cases where the capacity for decision-making and effective action can only be taken on a broader scale – national or even transnational, political issues should be addressed as close as possible to people at the local level. Based on my experience in charge of citizen engagement in local authorities (one, Braintree, selected as the best local authority in England in 1993; and the other, St Edmundsbury, where the ‘Working with Communities’ strategy I developed won a Best Practice Award from the Prime Minister in 1999) and, later as Deputy Director in the national Department for Communities & Local Government, I have written/commissioned a range of materials that may assist others in strengthening democratic engagement.

A selection of resources
These are freely available on the internet:
’Civic Pioneers Case Study Review’: case studies of collaborative working between local authorities and citizens to improve local quality of life. (2008)
'The S Word’: on what subsidiarity should mean in practice (2008).
• ‘Councillors Commission’: report with recommendations on how to improve the democratic role of elected local councillors and facilitate citizen participation (2007)
Civic Pioneers (report for the Civil Renewal Unit): an introduction to how a group of local authorities set about enhancing their democratic engagement with local people (2005).

Supplementary Materials
Putting Citizens First, with John Stewart (Municipal Journal/SOLACE – Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, 1997)
Marketing, Competition & the Public Sector (Longman 1994)
Citizenship Development: Towards an Organisational Model (LGMB – Local Government Management Board, 1994)
Serving the Public: customer management in local government (Longman: 1993)

For a full listing of related resources, go to: Together We Can: resources for cooperative problem-solving

Monday, May 2, 2016

Guide to Synetopia

Instead of relying on a blueprint for a utopia wherein unjust behaviour and prejudiced dispositions can be designed out, progressive thinkers have put forward suggestions for the practical development of inclusive communities, participatory democracy, deliberative cooperation, and other related arrangements that enable people to attain on-going improvement to their governance. There is no final, perfect form that can guarantee pervasive fairness and prosperity; but there are mutually reinforcing elements that can together raise the likelihood that better outcomes will prevail for all. When these elements are actively cultivated in any form of human association – a school, a community group, a business, a state – they constitute what is called ‘synetopia’.

For an overview of the concept, see ‘Synetopia: progress through cooperation’.
For an outline of communitarian and cooperative ideas, and further resources that provide more detailed exposition, see 'Communitarianism and Synetopia'.
For an illustration of how synetopia can be applied as a checklist for organisational reviews, see Synetopia Protocol.

The 9 Key Elements of Synetopia

Each of the essays below covers the corresponding element in the synetopia model. To find out more, click on the selected title:
1: Shared Mission
2: You-and-I Mutuality
3: Nimble Membership
4: Educative Collaboration
5: Testing of Claims & Assumptions
6: Open Access to Information
7: Participatory Decision-Making
8: Impartial Distribution of Power
9: Accountability for Actions

Other related essays that may be of interest to you:

Six Degrees of Cooperation
Together We Can: resources for cooperative problem-solving
'Democracy at the Workplace'
A Place called Synetopia
'‘Synetopia Quest’'
Synetopia: why, what & how
Goodbye Utopia, Hello Synetopia

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Vocation of a Philosophe

Not long ago a group of students at the University of Cambridge invited me to give a talk at the ‘Career Expo’ event about my eclectic vocational journey, which zigzagged through academic research and lecturing; policy work for local authorities; support for activist organisations; publications on politics, management practice, and global history; leading government strategies on matters ranging from crime reduction to civil renewal; and writing dystopian novels.

Afterwards, someone asked if there was a central thread to the path I had taken and if so, whether or not I would recommend it for others to follow.

On the question concerning a central thread, what may appear as an unconventional mix of activities is in essence the vocation of a philosophe. While it is common to think of ‘philosophes’ (as distinct from ‘philosophers’) as referring exclusively to the anti-establishment writers/intellectuals active in 18th century France, the characteristics that actually mark them out as philosophes, can be found in the careers of many others outside as well inside France, extending into the 19th century and beyond (e.g., Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Owen, George Eliot, William Morris, H. G. Wells, Albert Camus, to name but a few).

And I would certainly encourage anyone possessing the attitudes and aptitudes outlined below to embark on the vocation of a philosophe:

[1] Critical Empirical Reasoning
You are quick to spot dogmatic claims and good at debunking fallacious arguments. You reject assertions that rely on mere traditions or unverifiable revelations. Instead, you are systematic in applying empirical evidence to differentiate what warrants people’s belief from attempts to deceive the public with misleading pronouncements.

[2] Empathic Promotion of Reciprocity
You have a universal sense of empathy that is not bound by prejudices against any group of people. You recognise that reciprocity is fair and effective in enhancing the common good, and you are disposed to oppose discrimination and exploitation by reminding people of our shared humanity.

[3] Targeting Obstacles to Democratic Equality
You appreciate how the biased distribution of power can widen social divisions, and trap many in ignorance and oppression. You are driven by a concern to expose attempts to con people into surrendering control to a manipulative elite, and you are drawn to practical ways to empower all to shape the decisions that affect them.

[4] Spreading Educative Influence
You acknowledge the necessity of using force as a last resort if there is no other way to protect innocent lives. But in general you prefer to rely on education, in the broadest sense, to change people’s attitudes, help them learn to reason effectively, enlighten them of better options, and advise them of new approaches to try and test.

[5] Utilising Genre Flexibility
You are skilled at switching between means of educating minds – lecturing, informal talks, detailed exposition, popular polemics, dramatic fiction, reports and commentary, guidance on public policies, training, mentoring. You make use of a variety of genres and outlets to engage people rather than devoting yourself to a single discipline or craft.

As contemporary plutocracy is reviving the arrogance and excesses of the Ancien Régime, we need philosophes more than ever to detoxify the oppressive atmosphere that deifies the superrich and and demonises vulnerable scapegoats. With indefatigable philosophes dispelling ignorance and prejudice, and showing how a better future is possible, we may yet see the changes we desperately need without having to endure the madness of a violent revolution.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Synetopia: why, what & how

According to social pedagogy, learning should engage with people holistically by connecting with their heart (emotional sensitivity), head (cognitive awareness), and hands (practical know-how).

The ‘Question the Powerful’ political education resources follow this approach in addressing three sets of issues concerning society and its governance. Central to them is the didactic model of synetopia and the related ethos of ‘question the powerful’. The three strands are:
• Why should we be concerned? (Civic Feelings)
• What would be a better alternative? (Political Thoughts)
• How could we bring about changes? (Democratic Actions)

Why question the powerful?

The powerful are more likely to act without adequate justification if the people whose lives they affect either take little notice of what they do, or routinely misunderstand what is going on. People’s attention needs to be roused and their sensitivity sharpened if they are to tune into what consequences are likely to follow from proposed policies. Their vigilance is the first line of defence against the irresponsible actions of those with power.

Fiction is a valuable tool to engender civic feelings because imaginative tales can not only stimulate stronger emotional responses than mere facts and figures, but they enable educators to explore contested matters in an alternate reality safe from accusations of party political bias.

For novels written to highlight contemporary political challenges, noted for their pace and originality in raising questions about a variety of dubious societal trends, look up the Synetopia Quest dystopian series.

What to question the powerful about?

To be effective in questioning those with power, we have to focus on the purpose of holding them to account, and grasp what would differentiate responsible deliberations from flawed responses. Without the necessary understanding, wise counsel might end up being rejected, while exploitative measures could escape scrutiny.

A coherent philosophy provides a basis for the development of critical political thoughts. This does not mean that everything has to be timelessly entrenched, but what in the light of the latest available evidence stands up best to rational analysis would remain in place unless it is superseded by new findings.

For academic resources that set out the principles of assessing human interactions and where they should be improved, a historical review of what happened when the obstacles to their advancement were allowed to remain, and the roots of interpersonal responsibility, explore the Synetopia Theory of progressive communitarianism.

How to question the powerful?

Organisation is indispensable to ensure the questioning of the powerful will lead to constructive responses and appropriate changes. Firing off questions or expressing disagreement without having built a structure and culture of mutual explanations may not simply be ineffectual, but can be counter-productive.

A systematic approach to developing responsive communicative relations is needed to underpin democratic actions. This is to be applied first to the groups we can most readily influence, extended to other organisations to reshape their ethos, and then utilised in joining forces with others to seek answers from institutions that are not yet fully open to collaborative working.

For practical guidance on the steps to take to improve collective arrangements, and the techniques that would facilitate deliberative exchanges – to build an ever widening circle of enquiring citizens – see the Synetopia Protocol for cooperative working.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Accountability for Action

All the other elements that would enable any given human association to develop in line with synetopia rely on people being assigned responsibilities to sustain them, and there being a process to hold them accountable for their subsequent actions.

Many organisations fail because not all their members fully understand what they are expected to do; are equipped and motivated to carry out their duties; or are conscientious enough not to breach their obligations. Free riders may think they can leave it to others to do what needs to be done and they just sit back and reap the benefits when these come through. Exploiters may try to deceive and manipulate others to do what serves their own interests at the expense of others in the organisation.

To prevent the above from happening, a robust accountability system is essential to check that members fulfil the responsibilities they have agreed to take on, and intervene appropriately when they are not. No organisation can function well with some members agreeing to rules to bind others, but discarding them whenever it suits them personally.

To be effective, an accountability system must be clear what type of penalty it will administer for different kind of violation; what reward it may offer for certain contributions beyond the routine; thorough in its detection and investigation process; and consistent in its implementation.

All members must know at the outset the basic guarantees of membership, the duties that come with them, what can be earned as extra, and what may be lost if particular orders or rules are not complied with. The instructions and regulations should be simplified to aid understanding and avoid costly new layers of legal or quasi-judicial interpreters emerging to slow down, and often confuse, the accountability process.

Transparency and proportionality are critical ingredients as organisations can be corrupted by exploitative influence that diverts accountability attention from the most serious violations committed by those with the greatest power, to relatively minor infringement attributable to those with little influence. In businesses, this can be seen with board members embezzling huge funds while demanding priority be given to stopping a few workers suspected of clocking in late by a few minutes. At a societal level, there is the familiar problem with some in government preferring to cut resources from investigating wealthy tax evaders, and divert them to tracking the much smaller amounts defrauded by benefit claimants.

Finally, the guardian of probity must themselves be guarded against too. And experience would suggest that rather than having one all-powerful team or agency that no one else can hold to account, it is far more reliable to have a plurality of teams/agencies that can provide checks and balance to each other. Furthermore, independent panels of professional auditors/judges and non-expert workers/citizens should also be given a role in reviewing the work of those who routinely hold others to account. Without third party oversight, there is a serious risk that over time those with the power to hold others to account will become unaccountable to everyone else in the organisation or the country.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
Are there transparent electoral or selection process to replace those with positions of authority?
How easy is it to detect unjustifiable actions and call for investigation and objective judgement?
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?
Do some stay in positions of power regardless of the severity and frequency of concerns raised?
Are some suspected of placing their own personal interests and/or those who bribe them above the collective interests of the group?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]

Friday, January 8, 2016

Impartial Distribution of Power

To provide incentives to those who have to undertake harder tasks, or to establish the authority for those charged with overseeing the delivery of strategies, it is necessary to grant more power to some in an organisation or a country. But the concentration of power in some must be only for generally agreed objectives, and none should be allowed to use that power as a basis to accumulate even more power to the extent that they become a threat to others.

All accounts of human interactions around the world testify to the danger of some acquiring so much more power than others that they can manipulate, exploit and oppress them at will. The only way to prevent any social grouping – large or small – from being usurped by a powerful elite is to build in a process to review the balance of power and redistribute it impartially on an on-going basis.

Such a process has to be underpinned by a network of arbitration backed by the collective power of the entire membership. The network should include levels of appeal mechanism but no individual or teams of individuals can take it upon themselves to override the final arbitration.

Any attempt to secure greater power (in terms of arms, wealth, status or any other form of resource) must be assessed to see if it is merited and necessary. In some cases, there may be short term or emergency reasons why a few have to be given substantial power to deal with a pressing problem. But in such cases, the transfer of power must only be temporary, and reversed as soon as possible.

There will be occasions when it is argued that there is a call for significantly greater power and for it to be on a virtually permanent basis because the challenge in question is a long-term one. If the argument is valid, then the power balance in the organisation should be reviewed to ensure that the few who are entrusted with much more power will nonetheless not be able to use it to threaten or repress other members.

It is likely that such reviews will lead to a redistribution of power involving a mixture of channelling of power/resources to those in the organisation who would otherwise become too vulnerable through their relative lack of power; and strengthening particular arbitration agencies so that neither attempted threats nor bribes are likely to infringe on the impartiality of those agencies acting on behalf of the whole membership.

History has shown that if the power gap between people is allowed to widen inexorably, it will increase the scope and temptation for the powerful few to impose their will on others, and at the same time weaken everyone else’s ability to stand up to such an encroachment. It has shown that it would be a mistake to think that untenable power gaps can only be removed from dismantling all power structures. Organisation for social, economic and political development requires formal power relations. But such relations can be democratised and sustained with the help of dedicated and thorough review and redistribution of power (see, for example, ‘Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle’).

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
Are there safeguards in place to stop individuals or sections in the group accumulating too much power in relation to others?
Is there a regular and effective redistribution of power?
Are concentrated powers granted for emergencies taken back in due course?
Are there checks and balances so that no one can hold others to ransom by threats?
Is dissent generally suppressed?
Do some members show fear, resentment, distrust towards the leadership?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Participatory Decision-Making

The synetopia approach to social organisation requires key elements of how the organisation functions to be so shaped that they will reflect the mutual concerns and serve the common interests of its members. The shaping of these elements in turn depends on participatory decision-making.

Many people in positions of authority have in the past tried to dismiss the involvement of others in the decision-making of their organisations as time consuming, ill-informed, and ineffective. But the accumulated evidence in many fields (e.g., education, commerce, health, economic development, government) has shown that when people are deliberately engaged with a competent facilitator, bad decisions are reduced, mistakes minimised, efficiency is increased, and satisfaction with outcomes is consistently higher (for more on this, see ‘Together We Can’ resources).

What organisations should avoid are clumsy and often counter-productive attempts to ‘involve’ their members in making decisions without any understanding of what works and what does not. These range from asking people to vote for bureaucratic positions that no one has asked for and few know anything about (e.g., when citizens were asked to elect Police & Crime Commissioners, invented by a government to circumvent the existing police authorities, the average turnout was just 15% [2012 figures]); to packing disgruntled people into a large room, talking at them at length, before asking them to give their views on the limited options on offer. Other flawed practices include circulating dense documents or inviting comments on proposals without any relevant context.

For participatory decision-making to work, four components need to be in place. First, all those affected by the decision should have the opportunity, with the help of a facilitator, to express their concerns. Under conditions of openness and equal respect, everyone who has a relevant point to make should be given a hearing, and no one who is abusive or seeking to dominate discussions should be allowed to disrupt proceedings.

Secondly, participants should be enabled to hear from and question witnesses, experts, and anyone else currently assigned a specific responsibility to deal with the issue under discussion. This is to ensure relevant consideration is given to what possible solutions there might be.

Thirdly, participants should be encouraged to contribute any suggestion of their own, discuss with each other how conflicting positions can be resolved, and explore the implications of mutual concessions and support, before prioritising the options they are willing to support. 

Finally, responsibilities and resource implications are to be agreed for carrying out the decision and for reporting back on their impact in practice. The feedback will then form the basis of a review of the decision, and inform whether further changes need to be considered.

Efforts are required to ensure marginalised voices are not ignored. Attention is needed to identify, and if necessary train up, facilitators who can be both firm and empathetic. Tension and conflict have to be sensitively resolved, not suppressed, to bring about consensus. Where large numbers are involved, representative selection or proportionate election may have to be used to obtain groups wherein meaningful deliberations can take place. But since the net effect is to cut out potentially costly mistakes and improve overall satisfaction, participatory decision-making should be an integral part of any organisation.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
Are the procedures for decision-making clear to all members?
How extensive are training and participation opportunities made available?
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?
Do a significant number of members either lack the information or skills to make sensible decisions, or decline to become involved in decision making altogether?
Can decisions be challenged fairly without vexatious disruptions?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Open Access to Information

Members of any organisation or wider social grouping can only secure the other key elements of synetopia such as learning through educative collaboration and testing claims and assumptions, or formulating their shared mission and establishing who should do what on particular terms, if they can access the relevant information without hindrance.

There are usually four types of reason offered to block any request for information. [1] it would be too costly in terms of time and/or money to provide the information. [2] it is private information that should not be made public. [3] the information should be censored because it is misleading or offensive. [4] the information needs to be kept secret as otherwise it could lead to undesirable consequences in the wrong hands.

Within any organisation, any information produced, gathered, or acquired by it should be available to its members. Technology has rendered previous excuses relating to the difficulties of searching for and sharing such information largely redundant. But there may be information not yet possessed by the organisation that can have a bearing on its decisions. The organisation must in such cases have a process for considering and agreeing what additional information to purchase (if that is possible) or explore through a research project. At a societal level, a free library service is therefore essential for all citizens to access information that has been produced; and a university-based research service that will investigate matters of concern to citizens in general (and not just commercial sponsors) and make its findings public must be safeguarded.

But not all information generated or held by the individual members of an organisation necessarily belongs to that organisation. And rules on matters such as privacy and patent acquisition will need to comply with mutuality and agreed through participatory decision-making so what is shareable, and on what terms, is settled on the basis of what is overall acceptable to the organisation and its members.

As for the censorship and secrecy arguments, there are certainly cases where limits on information circulation are necessary to prevent harm, but the onus must be on those who want to block particular information to justify their position.

It is not enough to say that an information is false or misleading to withhold it. With the help of educative collaboration, and the commitment to test claims and assumptions, the veracity of any serious assertion should be checked, and where appropriate, its lack of evidential support or untenable logic should be made known. For example, it should be explained why a ‘miracle cure’ is baseless rather than forbid any reference to it when that may generate misguided interest in it.

Regarding information which is problematic because it is alleged that it can cause harm to those receiving it, or to others as a result of it becoming misused, it calls for scrutiny arrangements that will take into account the balance of harm between disclosure and restriction for the parties directly involved, and the impact on the organisation in the longer term.

It will be necessary to have in place a plurality of scrutiny bodies that are independent of those with executive authority to regulate information flow. Between them they can take on particular roles in assessing the potential harm, the implications for different information gathering and dissemination processes, and the intent and probable impact of permitting/forbidding the information in question. The consequences, for example, of some group set up to promote prejudices being offended by information about tolerance and mutual respect, are qualitatively different from those of people offended/intimidated by information that hatemongers may want to circulate to stir up social tension.

The presumption in favour of open access to information has to be reviewed by those with executive authority, who in turn must be kept in check by robust scrutiny bodies. And to ensure the scrutinisers act responsibly, they too must be held accountable for their actions in line with the accountability element of the synetopia model.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
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?
Are there signs that many suspect systematic or reactive shielding of irresponsible actions?
Is there unjustifiable refusal or obstruction to members seeking to find out more about what has been done in the group and why?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Testing of Claims & Assumptions

Successful organisations nurture both collaborative learning and continuous critical revision. Some may think that the two things would always go together, but history has given us plenty of contrary evidence.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, when Francis Bacon’s philosophy of cooperative experimentalism began to have wider influence, cooperative research in the advancement of the physical sciences became more commonplace. But even the most dedicated participants in such research accepted the tight boundaries drawn around many dogmas embraced by the social and religious establishment. The clash between Darwin’s ideas on natural selection and their theological critics in the 19th century showed that research that came up against ring-fenced dogmas might still be ostracised.

Totalitarian states in the 20th century supported group research in the development of modern weapons but forbade any challenge to those doctrines they declared unquestionable.

This split thinking can be found in many modern institutions and contemporary societies too. It usually happens because those in positions of power accept that educative collaboration can add to their organisations’ knowledge and capability to do more, but they are not willing to concede to subjecting their most precious beliefs to critical examination. When those blind spots become permanently shielded, all kinds of false assumptions and misguided claims are sealed into the system, causing permanent errors.

It is because dogmatisation can be so damaging that it must be guarded against with the continuous testing of all claims and assumptions without exception. This does not mean that everything is doubted all the time to the point that there is no accepted basis for any action. The overall direction of an organisation and its everyday operations require reliance on a wide range of claims and beliefs. Continuous testing only demands that none of these is perpetually excluded from scrutiny.

Provided the examination is scheduled with reference to the emergence of new evidence, fresh arguments, altered circumstances, then in time all claims and assumptions will get their turn in being tested for their veracity.

Once a test has been passed, then the claim in question should be granted provisional validity, which means that it should be acted on and generally accepted unless there is a robust case to cast doubt on it immediately to the extent that its veracity is suspended. It is no less dogmatic to refuse to have any particular claim questioned as it is to insist on questioning a claim irrespective of it having passed all the tests it has been subject to. It is a notable technique of those who want to disrupt the work of others for their own gain to spread doubt about claims which are in fact well founded (e.g., climate change, inoculation).

However, the validity is nevertheless provisional. And the precaution against vexatiously repetitive questioning should not be taken to mean that any claim can be declared as beyond all future revision. Even the shared mission of the organisation must in the light of changing circumstances be open to deliberative re-examination by members to see if different factors need to be taken into consideration, and thus requiring alterations to the aims and objectives of their joint enterprise.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
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 carried out by the group?
Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?
Are irrational beliefs allowed to take hold & undermine intelligent considerations?
Is there widespread perception that there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]

Monday, January 4, 2016

Educative Collaboration

Learning, not only in schools and universities, but in all organisations, can only be advanced through cooperative enquiry. Any individual seeking to take in information in isolation inevitably gets stuck in the solipsist trap of not knowing if the information is valid or not. If everything is judged by oneself alone, there is no way to tell when one has judged correctly.

Organisations need educative collaboration because it is when their members habitually share and cross-check ideas with each other, and with those outside, that continuous learning can be sustained. Both the complacency of sticking with what one is familiar with and the unreliability of counting on new claims for the sake of novelty, should be held in check by a culture of seeking, digesting, and reviewing what is put forward as knowledge.

With a cultural norm that celebrates the quest for understanding, and practical arrangements that facilitate discussions to clarify proposed ideas, a business, a network, or society more widely, will benefit from a constant inflow of critical and informed thinking. This will more readily bring to light mistaken or outmoded notions and direct attention to relevant development in any field that can help improve performance.

Organisations that do not promote educative collaboration run three risks that can seriously undermine their own future. First, individuals who feel they are judged on what they find by themselves rather than in collaboration with colleagues, are more likely to keep their exploration to themselves. This reduces cross-fertilisation and cuts down opportunities to build long-term partnerships that strengthen collective learning capability.

Secondly, instead of regarding the pointing out of misinterpretations or flawed evidence put forward by others as a mutually helpful exercise, it can come to be seen as inherently antagonistic. Some may under such circumstances prefer to hold back and not say anything lest well-meant comments are frowned upon as self-serving intervention. And there will be those who are tempted to discredit the findings of others in order to secure greater recognition for what they put forward themselves.

Thirdly, lacking encouragement and support to engage in cooperative learning, individuals fall behind their counterparts in other organisations, where a premium is placed on everyone helping each other learn more that enhances their shared understanding and boosts the capability of their institutions.

Organisations that invest in educative collaboration are more likely to reap the benefit of accelerated learning because people are encouraged to share and check each others’ ideas for necessary revisions and possible improvements. Moreover, the critical understanding developed through the open and thoughtful exchange of interpretations and arguments builds intellectual relationships and bonds of trust so that the applications of ideas are readily tried out, and more cooperatively adapted in the light of feedback gathered from as wide a circle of participants as possible.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
Is there a culture of lifelong learning?
Are members supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their beliefs, policies, and practices?
Are members detached from thinking through why or how things are done in their group?
Do they routinely accept or reject ideas & instructions without giving them due consideration?
Is there a notable lack of interest in learning from each other or from other sources?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Nimble Membership

Every organisation, from a small business to a large nation, relies on its members collaborating to secure what is sought by those members. It is vital that it is capable of handling the membership issue adroitly and effectively. An organisation that does not have enough members to meet its objectives, has too many that it cannot meet their needs, or worst of all, loses track of who is or is not a member, is heading towards a crisis.

A nimble membership system is essential because even with a small group, circumstances can change and the group may need to adapt to continue its core mission or meet new demands. And the addition or loss of just a few members in a small group can have a proportionately large impact compared with the same numbers being altered in a large organisation.

But while a small, local group can maintain relatively close relations with all its members, and people have a good understanding of what each other does, potential remoteness is a problem that can grow exponentially for organisations the size of a large institution or a national government.

To ensure an organisation has a good grasp of who is and is not a member, and why that status should change or not under different conditions, a membership system should be responsive enough to address four key issues.

First, is there to be a core membership? Different nations still debate who residing in them should be granted membership (citizenship). Some accept that those born in it will qualify, while others maintain that it may not be enough. Similar questions can be raised about businesses that share their proceeds with the families of some of their members but not others. And are there categories of founding or life membership that carry with them particular entitlements? How are these reciprocally agreed with other members?

Secondly, there is the question of new members to be brought in. Under what conditions should additional members be considered, and what criteria will they need to meet? What offers and requirements will form the terms to be presented to new members? Not addressing these matters thoroughly and transparently can destabilise any organisation. A business may fail to recruit the talent it needs or it may bring in unsuitable people as a result of the bias of the ones taking recruitment decisions. A country may be short of workers for certain roles because the government of the day refuses to allow them in, or it may be damaged by an influx of exploiters who buy up valuable assets and leave existing members vulnerable.

Thirdly, the criteria for exit should be carefully considered and settled. This applies to voluntary requests to leave (can members just leave? do they have to give notice? what can they take with them?), and to involuntary exclusion (sacking from a firm, redundancy arrangements, sent to prison, exile from a country, deportation of those with temporary membership, etc).

Lastly, group-wide alterations to membership are often overlooked until they arise. When may a group dissolve itself, join through a merger or a federated arrangement with one or more other groups, or disengage from a larger group to form a new smaller group? These changes affect all who work in the affected businesses, and have vast implications for those living in countries that may undergo restructuring of sovereign powers (e.g., Scotland leaving the UK, the UK leaving the European Union, or Scotland joining the EU after becoming independent from the UK).

In the context of synetopia, a membership system can only deal with all the above issues if it takes on board the need to establish a shared mission, embed mutuality, and the other key elements involving collaborative learning and democratic decision-making, etc. In practice, all too often attention is deflected to rushed debates about these fundamental issues, when the focus should be on using the criteria drawn up with due deliberations to act swiftly to respond to demands for membership changes.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
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?
Are there too few or too many members to function effectively?
How confident are current members about the reliability of the process of accepting/excluding people as members?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]

Saturday, January 2, 2016

You-&-I Mutuality

For any large group to function well, a small number have to be entrusted with its coordination and take decisions when it is not feasible to consult everyone involved. This has in some quarters given rise to the false dichotomy that offers either a ‘No One but Me’ individualism or a ‘Only We Matter’ collectivism. The former, in an anarchistic or libertarian guise, supposes that one can join in or pull out solely as when it suits one. If everyone follows the same approach, no organisation can endure as rule breakers simply declare they no longer want to sign up to the rule that now inconveniences them. The latter invokes ‘we’ as some kind of absolute prerogative that can override everyone’s autonomy, when in fact a small clique set themselves up as the will of the people.

The relationship between the members of any group, from a residents’ association through a business to an entire country, can only be sustained if it is based on genuine mutuality. This applies to all regardless of what position they may hold in the group. People have to agree to rules and procedures, and to entrust certain issues to be dealt with by specific experts and decision-makers. But they will only abide by the outcomes if they are confident that what are put in place respect their interests equally, and their support for others will be reciprocated.

This does not mean that everyone must have exactly the same responsibilities or the same rewards. It does mean that the criteria for being given different responsibilities and the rewards/penalties for fulfilling/breaching them are set to everyone’s satisfaction and will be applied without exception. In other words, any one who best meets the agreed requirements to be, for example, a surgeon or a supervisor, should be given the position in question.

As for the rewards and penalties, these should be subject to open deliberations so that it is clear that there is no privileging of some positions with disproportionate rewards and no disadvantaging of certain types of non-compliance with excessive penalties.

Worker cooperatives and companies like Semco have shown how people, when given the opportunity to consider the most appropriate reward differentials to maximise the overall benefits of their joint enterprise, will deliberate and come up with a sensible scale for their respective organisation. There is no universal formula, but a process grounded on mutual respect that leads to different roles and rewards backed by the informed support of all concerned.

Similarly, whereas the populist media may stir up public demands for harsher punishment for all kinds of offence, deliberative engagement of people in thinking through crime, punishment, and their implications for the wellbeing of society, has consistently led to a more thoughtful differentiation of severe punishment for crimes with vicious intent and little repentance, a focus on rehabilitation for offenders who seek a real chance to be respected citizens, and detection and warning techniques that are more likely to deter than pointlessly harsh treatment after the event.

Those who seek unwarranted rewards for themselves or vindictive penalties for others threaten reciprocal relations and undermine the organisations they are part of. Any effective institution will establish cultural norms to warn against such inclinations, and put in place rules and enforcement to prevent such behaviour from spreading beyond the odd occurrence.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
Are there arrangements in place to prioritise, adjudicate & enforce the fair distribution of benefits?
Are members involved in an informed manner themselves in determining what counts as mutual expectations?
How confident are members that the arrangements will operate reciprocally and reliably?
Do members believe that others have privileged access to what is produced by the group?
Are there members who are marginalised and given little say as to what they are expected to do or what they will get in return?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]

Friday, January 1, 2016

Shared Mission

A shared mission is required to unite people in any social organisation. It is an essential pre-condition for securing their commitment to work together while dispelling any fear or suspicion that any of them may be merely used for the benefit of others.

Alas, too many of those in leadership positions think they can define the mission of the public or private institution they run without involving others. But since people come together to meet challenges that are more effectively tackled by a group, the appropriateness of any arrangements set up for their joint working can only be judged with reference to their effectiveness in meeting those challenges.

That is why proposals by authoritarian thinkers from Han Fei to Hobbes are self-defeating. When people need to come together to put an end to “continual fear and danger of violent death”, or prevent life from being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, the last thing they want is to hand power to an absolute ruler who may then without constraint threaten and oppress others. It is also why it is untenable for the likes of Rousseau and Marx to suggest that people can leave their fate to some sagacious lawgiver/vanguard leader to discern the ‘general will’ or ‘dialectics of history’ without being subject to the public’s ongoing and critical examination. Similarly, Locke, Smith, and others who think that people can be left to bargain amongst themselves until they have a system they can sign up to, fail to see that those with more power than others would use it to pressure the rest to accept less-than-optimal deals.

Any arrangement, which fails to ensure that all involved are equally respected for their participation and none can wield excessive power to twist others’ arms into joining in on disadvantaged terms, simply falls at the first hurdle. This applies to government, voluntary or business organisations.

If no shared mission can be defined, then the group should be dissolved lest it continues for the benefit of a few who gain from the those who contribute for relatively little in return. On the other hand, if there are challenges that can only be met through a shared mission, it would be remiss not to form a group capable of undertaking that mission. Indeed the folly of ignoring the prospect of greater strengths from numbers has been borne out by countless small, isolated tribes and businesses being wiped out, while more robustly organised groups march on.

It is tempting to dismiss the call for solidarity in joint action as idealistic, but it is in fact naïve in the extreme to suppose that any social, economic or political organisation can ever succeed without it. Those that seek to function by imposing submission breed dissent that will destroy its foundation. Those that profess a common purpose but fail to engage everyone in its pursuit will disintegrate through the spread of indifference.

Only those that provide the structure for people to identify specific common concerns and collaborate to carry out their genuinely shared mission can flourish. The success of every firm, association and government depends on it striving to improve continuously by this core yardstick for joint working.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
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?
Does the way the shared mission is applied to changing circumstances reflect the informed concerns of the members?
Are there signs that members feel a lack of cohesion, concerned that they are isolated and insecure?
What proportion of members are indifferent or antagonistic towards other members?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]