Sunday, February 6, 2011

To Share, Perchance to Merge

From the halls of governments addressing shrinking revenues, to the sanctuaries of religious organizations coping with declining congregations, sharing resources and merging organizations is on the agenda.

A colleague from New York’s Oswego County used to joke that the contiguous villages of Sandy Creek and Lacona had not merged because “We could never agree on which volunteer fire company would be named Fire Company Number 1.” While affectionately trivializing the reasons for maintaining the independence of these two small villages this quip reveals an underlying truth: we are often separated by our shared identity.

The more similar we are, the more we strive to distinguish ourselves. Small differences can be magnified and even divide us. Think sibling rivalry; family feud.

Differentiation enables organizations to diversify, specialize, pursue focused aims, develop tailored approaches, and be held intimately accountable by their membership or constituency.

Maintaining multiple organizations with similar or overlapping functions, even though each serves a legitimate special purpose, can be costly. In earlier times, when the costs of transportation and communication were high, geographic distance itself justified multiple organizations or service centers. This is the likely reason why Oswego County has two county seats. Given this area’s history of impassible snowfalls, the 45 mile trip from Redfield to the City of Oswego would be a burden to anyone conducting official county business or making a court appearance, justifying a second county seat in the Village of Pulaski.*

However, geography no longer separates us as it used to. Transportation (by modern highways, roads, and vehicles) and communication (by cell phone, email, instant messaging, websites, and video) link us together in ways that have outstripped our physical and organizational arrangements. Rather than maintaining separate resources – physical, human, and information – for each existing organization, it’s time to reconsider these arrangements in light of modern technology. President Obama recognized this in his State of the Union message when he noted, “the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black and white TV.” It’s time to consider arrangements that in the past were not economical or simply not possible.

Perhaps most important is to consider the impact of information technology. It has largely replaced paper-based communication and recordkeeping, and has reduced our need to travel given the availability of audio and video communication, pod casts and web conferences. No longer is travel necessary to work or conduct business with someone.

From a consumer perspective, the receipt of many products and services no longer requires the intervention of an intermediary: we are accustomed to self-service. That goes for supermarkets (what customer today, except in an old movie, hands a list of needed goods to a store clerk who then fetches them from behind the counter), gasoline stations (except in New Jersey, where self-service gasoline stations are prohibited), and many government services: from getting a dog license (using a web-based application) to filing federal income taxes (in 2010, nearly 70 percent of the taxpayers, 100 million people, filed with the IRS electronically). Information technology even lets us choose how we obtain those products and services. We have customized self-service.

Deciding if and how we can share resources or merge requires first a willingness to collaborate and suspension of the assumption that it won’t work. Next, it requires information about those organizations and their resources and operations. Again, information shows its central role in how we organize. Information and information technology enable us to manage and use our other resources more effectively, and with greater economy of scale.

* P.S. Don’t think I’m picking on Oswego County. Perhaps the villages of Sandy Creek and Lacona should merge. However, years ago they jointly built a single school building that straddles their shared border. They know how to share resources, and perhaps they can take advantage of new technologies to do that more extensively. And perhaps one of the county seats should be closed, but for a county with a history of heavy snowfalls (for example, in early February 2007, this area received over ten feet of snow) perhaps Oswego’s two county seats are warranted. Ultimately, this is a local decision, but the assumptions of the past should be set aside and replaced by the potential application of current technology, a fresh analysis of the economy of scale, and willingness to seek collaborative advantage.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

“Informed Choice” versus “Participation:” Competing Democratic Values

As a new member of a community organization, I attended my first general membership meeting. Independent of the meeting, a referendum was underway regarding a somewhat controversial proposal. Although the meeting had a specific agenda that did not include the referendum, a number of people expressed dissatisfaction with the referendum process. The next day, I submitted some comments about the discussion of the referendum process and its implications for a revision. Since this situation brings into focus an issue that many organizations face—the competition between the values of “informed choice” and “participation”— I present my comments here without referring to the specific organization involved.

Some thoughts on last night’s meeting

In their comments about the referendum process, a number of speakers cited the Organization’s democratic values. I think it would be helpful to reflect on the particular democratic values in question, and consider them in developing an improved referendum process.

It seemed to me that one of the implicit democratic values was “informed choice,” the idea that each member should make a choice on the proposal, but that choice should be informed by the facts and views of others. Objections to the referendum process seemed to center on the lack of opportunity to exchange information and different points of view regarding the proposal. In short, the referendum process did not adequately support “informed choice.”

Putting “informed choice” into practice presents an important question: How do you know when you have sufficient information? An individual could say, “I have enough information to make a choice; I don’t need any more; I’m ready to vote.” But another person could say, “Wait! Don’t vote yet! You haven’t heard my point of view! I haven’t had the opportunity to influence your choice, and what I have to say is important and no one else has said it.”

At its democratic best, a decision-making process includes an agreed-on method for collectively determining when sufficient information and perspectives have been exchanged and the group is ready to make an informed choice. For example, Roberts Rules of Order includes the motion, “Previous Question” (or “call the question” or “close debate”), which—if passed—closes discussion and brings the main motion to a vote. It requires first that the presiding officer recognize the person “calling the question,” and then that the motion is seconded and then approved by a two-thirds vote. This represents a collective decision that the group is now capable of making an informed choice. Consensus decision-making processes often follow a more stringent practice that requires discussion to continue until every person who has something to say has the opportunity to do so, the equivalent of “Previous Question” with the requirement of a unanimous vote.

Regarding this particular matter, I was puzzled by the Organization’s decision-making process in two instances during the meeting. First, regarding the budget vote, towards the end of the discussion the presiding officer announced that some people had already left the meeting and submitted their ballots (before the question had been called). This provides an example of a process in which individuals can decide for themselves when they have sufficient information, whether or not others feel that they have had the opportunity to inform them. A similar situation occurred during the vote on the proposed change to the policy manual, when the person presenting the proposal asked members to complete their ballots while the discussion was still underway.

These practices were likely driven by another democratic value, “participation.” That is, affording all members the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Enabling people to vote prior to the end of discussion allows people to vote even if they cannot (or choose not to) stay any longer at the meeting. This value also drives the referendum process. As someone explained at the meeting, the purpose of holding a referendum rather than conducting a regular meeting to decide the issue was to enable more people to participate.

We can view these values—“informed choice” and “participation”—as competing with each other. That is, the more information required, the more time it takes, and the fewer the number of people who are inclined or able to invest that time and participate in making the decision. In reviewing and perhaps revising the referendum policy, the challenge will be to create a process that maximizes and balances the democratic values of “informed choice” and “participation.”