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Participation & Sustainable Development in Europe

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Break out of containment! New models for organizing beyond majority and grassroots democracy
© Heidi Harsieber

Michaela Moser is on the faculty Ilse Arlt Institut für Soziale Inklusionsforschung of the Polytechnic in St. Pölten and has been actively involved in the Austrian Conference on Poverty and in the European Anti Poverty Network EAPN for many years now; inter alia she supervises the Conference's participation project „Sichtbar werden“. She sees her work as located at the intersection of education, research, public relations and empowerment, with an increasing emphasis on participation in theory and practice. As part of the Wohnprojekt Wien she has been living, and enjoying the benefits of, sociocratic organization since 2010.

Contact: michaela.moser(at)

The process was one that made a lasting impression on the participants and that can be seen as a paradigm switch, crossing over from one system of thinking and making decisions to a different one. A good fifty adults, plus youngsters and children, took part; they had met for the first time only a few weeks earlier, and were planning to build a small housing complex together, designing it so that all the residents can share a good life and so that the effects will spill over beyond the project itself.

The first acid test came up with the question of how to allocate the individual flats. Who will have the chance to move in on one of the upper floors (very much in demand), who gets the sunniest flats, who does better, who worse? Those are the issues that come up in a process of this kind – and it seems clear from the word go that there will be winners and losers, that some people will accept, with a shrug of the shoulders or inwardly gnashing their teeth, that they lose out, or drop out of the project, because what they wanted was not available for them, either by bad luck or because they were nor forceful enough about it.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Everyone invested a whole day in jointly arriving at a satisfactory allocation, taking as much account as possible of all the various wishes and needs; use was made of the methods sociocracy and decision-making without conflict (“Systemisches Konsensieren”). The architects responsible used the replies to a detailed individual survey to work out several different ways of allocating the various flats. All the future residents were asked to assign “resistance points” to each version, depending on how satisfied or unsatisfied they were with the position of their own flat: 10 points for “out of the question”, zero points for an ideal location. Work then continued on the version with the fewest high resistance scores; objections were listened to, disappointments registered, the pros and cons of the various locations discussed in small groups and in full assembly, opinions revised and flats swapped. Yes, it's true, sun in the early morning can be pleasant too, the first floor is not at all gloomy, but offers the green of the trees and a first-class view of what's going on in the park. Finally it seemed that everyone was happy – but then it turned out that the special needs of one resident had not been taken into account. What was to be done? Under majority democracy it would have been quite clear, under grassroots democracy hours more of discussion would certainly have been due; but here the joint [….] was the main thing, and it was obvious that ignoring the snag and carrying on regardless would be incompatible with that – serious, justified objections were on hand, as envisaged in sociocracy. So in the changed circumstances (i.e. with the new information about particular special needs) the process was relaunched: alternative versions were drafted and another full day was invested in searching for agreement, discussing and swapping – till finally everyone had a flat that suited them. Without anyone being voted down, with a slight increase in time taken, but without hours and hours of open-ended debate.

I'm well aware that this story does not provide any systematic insights into sociocracy or decision-making without conflict (“Systemisches Konsensieren”), but it strongly suggests that other possibilities exist: that there are ways of organizing communal decision-making that go beyond established majority or grassroots democratic processes. With disillusionment about politics spreading, turnout at elections and referenda diminishing, and “democracy packages” failing to make an impact, we need to keep track of these possibilities. And we need to develop methods further that already work well in self-build groups and building cooperatives, participation-oriented social organizations and firms with a sociocratic structure, so that we can employ them in political decision-making. The first sociocratic village, a government cabinet in which decisions are made without conflict – how can we imagine such things, what must be taken into account, what changes are needed in advance and in the surrounding framework? How can citizen panels be integrated into a new democratic system, how can a new culture of dialogue be established in politics? These are just a few of the challenging questions to be worked through if we want not only to reflect on the future of democracy but also to put our hands to the plough. We should review the many earlier and more recent approaches to participation that have been put into practice in a variety of projects, and consider how they can be applied at a more general level: PARTICIPATION writ large, as a social form in which space and resources are there for everyone's needs and potential, and methods are available to take account of their differences and to negotiate questions of allocation, while their equality in dignity and rights is respected throughout. It is time for the wealth of experience and skills on hand (as clearly evinced in this platform) no longer to be restricted to isolated projects and subsidiary initiatives, and for us to invest together in adapting collective politics and building it afresh, so that it can perform better the task it is for in the first place: serving the good life for everyone as political framework.

July 2013

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