By Gaya Erlandson, PhD

Sharing is a vital aspect of community building. By uniting isolated neighbors into caring networks, sharing has the capacity to create communities of people who understand that their greatest source of abundance is in their shared, human assets. Parents who struggle alone to provide for their families, for example, can collaborate with neighbors for reliable, quality childcare, teen mentoring with local seniors, and meal and ride sharing.

Key to community building, however, is good governance and decision-making processes. Being a long-committed community-builder, I am excited to describe a highly effective governance system that enables communities to be thriving contexts of caring, collaborative relationships.

What is Dynamic Self Governance or Sociocracy?

Dynamic Self Governance (DSG) is an innovative approach to governance that

•  Streamlines decision-making while reducing tension around power;

•  Maximizes decision-making effectiveness and efficiency;

•  Kindles creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit;

•  Decreases number of meetings and heightens productivity of meetings;

•  Increases individual engagement, productivity, and commitment;

•  Builds relationships and community belonging; and

•  Provides a structure that assures ongoing progress, learning, and improvement.

In much of the world, Dynamic Self Governance is called “sociocracy” based on the Latin and Greek words socius meaning “social familiarity” and kratei meaning “governance.” With roots dating back to 1851 when Auguste Comte coined the term, sociocracy has been developed extensively by Gerard Endenburg in the Netherlands, starting in 1970 when he began applying its principles to his electrical engineering corporation.

Sociocracy was brought to the United States by business consultant John Buck, who has studied with Endenburg since the 1980s. To date, sociocracy has been implemented in hundreds of organizations around the world—private and public schools and universities, professional groups, large and small businesses, government agencies, and intentional communities. In the United States, sociocracy is largely referred to as Dynamic Self Governance (DSG).

Structure and Principles

DSG can be pictured as a hierarchy of circles reflecting different levels of work, not control. Circles are groups of 2 to 40 people who know each other and who have a particular aim or job within a business or community organization. A simple three-tiered hierarchy includes the Top Circle, made up of those heading the organization (Board of Directors, CEO, CFO, etc.) and a representative from the next circle down called the General Circle. The General Circle is made up of representatives from the circles at the third level (sometimes referred to as departments, committees, etc.) and also has its own representative in each of the lowest level circles as well as in the Top Circle (see double-linking below).

The four principles of Dynamic Governance are simple, but have dramatic effects.

1.   Consent: Policy decisions are made by consent. Consent means members must offer a well-reasoned “paramount objection” (relevant to stated aims) so it can be addressed. Rather than generating a negative turning point, paramount objections often result in the opposite. Discord and chaos are embraced as opportunities to improve the proposal—and as opportunities for the group to build trust and understanding. In articulating objections, for example, members learn about the needs, gifts, and ideas of the others. They also gain clarity on their own motivation, goals, and ideas.

2.   Circles of Equivalence: Members within each circle are highly involved in determining meeting agendas, engaging in transparent elections, co-creating proposals for policies or projects, making decisions, etc. Decisions that are implemented are monitored and the outcomes are measured by members of the circle to further the group’s learning and effectiveness.

3.   Double-Linking: All the circles are “double-linked.” Two people within each circle also are elected members of the next-higher circle. Because of this, ideas from the “lowest” circles can link upward and become implemented at any higher-level, or move laterally through the representatives. With a comprehensive feedback system that ensures communication up and down the organization, DSG’s double-linking optimizes an organization’s ability to respond to internal and external pressures. This self-optimization allows a business or community organization to be very resilient.

4.   Elections: Although some people are elected for specific tasks and functions over time, everyone within each circle has an equal vote and can be elected for any function. The election process assures both that the elected person is accepted by the group as the best available one to do the task, and that s/he understands what the task requires.

DSG and Sharing Economy Law

Writing DSG governing documents into a new or existing legal structure can be done rather easily. In Appendix E of the book We The People, Buck and Villines offer an example of DSG operating agreements and bylaws for a limited liability company (LLC).

•  Article 1 includes three sections entitled Organizational Model (describes the four principles), Structure (describes Top Circle, General Circle, Department Circles, etc.), and Investing and Working Partners.

•  Article 2, entitled “Top Circle,” gives details on its composition, roles, terms, meeting requirements, how to handle vacancies, etc.

•  Article 3 focuses on “Executive Officers of the Top Circle.” Significantly, the Board of Directors is part of the Top Circle and shall not meet separately from the Top Circle.

•  Article 4, entitled “Circle Management,” has several subsections. It is stated here, for example, that each circle shall be a separate organ of the LLC and shall be empowered to draft its own regulations (in agreement with Top Circle’s vision, etc.); that the next-higher circle, through its representative, is responsible for ensuring that decision-making in a circle below functions according to the operating agreement; that recording circle minutes be done properly, etc.

•  Article 5, entitled “Compensation and Profit Sharing,” offers an ingenious way to compensate investing and working partners (workers), with both fixed and variable payments, depending on profitability.

Living Well Care Home

An excellent example of an organization that implemented DSG is Living Well, an award-winning, level III, residential care and assisted-living facility in Bristol, Vermont. Under John Buck’s guidance in 2004, they adapted existing 501(c)(3) bylaws and other governing documents to implement the DSG principles and procedures described above.

Living Well is the first elder care facility in the United States to implement DSG. The Resident Circle, for example, meets regularly and actively discusses whatever is important to them—whether it be the menu, how services are provided, what activities to pursue, or how to measure outcomes. This circle also elects one of their members to represent them in the Staff Circle, and that person regularly checks in with all of the elders. Per Top Circle vision, Living Well removed toxic cleaning supplies as well as refined and artificial sugar. They started a community garden and hired a naturopathologist to see residents (in addition to the required medical staff). Within just six months, many residents showed noticeable improvements—physically, mentally, and socially. One woman thought to have severe dementia picked up the phone one day and had a lucid conversation with her family for the first time in years. Another who had previously just sat in her room started playing the piano in the living room. No one knew she had been a piano teacher. For further information on the Living Well Care Home, see http://LivingWellCareHome.org.

Implementing DSG from the Ground Up

DSG can also be implemented over time, from the ground up. For example, in a neighborhood with a Homeowners Association, a group of neighbors can begin with shared projects such as a garden. After experiencing success in sharing and making decisions together, members of this initial circle might seed new circles, such as one that creates a playground in a shared area or a food co-op. When several of these third-level circles exist, they could create a General Circle made up of representatives from each circle to better coordinate efforts. Eventually the Homeowners Association (or some other group) may adopt DSG and become the Top Circle and thus create a completely integrated (double-linked) DSG hierarchy. For an example of a cohousing community that has implemented DSG, see http://www.champlainvalleycohousing.org.

In short, DSG is a scalable, decision-making structure (from a few to countless, interlinked small groups) that guarantees the opportunity of self-directed contribution and optimal development for all within a sharing, caring context.

For a longer version of this article, along with a second article giving more of a description of the challenges and benefits of implementing DSG at Living Well, please go to http://www.livingnew
stories.com.

References

•  Buck, John & Sharon Villines, We The People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, A Guide to Sociocratic Principles and Methods (Sociocracy.info, 2007), available at http://GovernanceAlive.com/.

•  Gerard Endenburg, Sociocracy as Social Design: Its Characteristics and Course of Development, as Theoretical Design and Practical Project (Translated, Eburon, 1997) (1998).

•  Gerard Endenburg. 1981. Sociocracy: The Organization of Decision-Making “No Objection” as the Principle of Sociocracy (Translated, Eburon, 1998) (1981).

•  John McKnight & Peter Block. The Abundant Community (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010), available at http://ABCD
institute.org/
.

•  John P. Kretzmann & John L. McKnight Building Communities From the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (ACTA Publications, 1993).