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’]