We opened the door and invited people in to talk about how they want to go beyond the rules...
What should governance look like in the 21st century? What does real empowerment and equity look like for people as individuals, as groups and as system actors?
Last week we hosted a hundred people for Beyond the Rules’ Open House. We invited participants from businesses, foundations, charities, religious organisations and academia to rearrange furniture, fling paint up the walls and generally make a mess of what we think we know.
We wanted to create some much-needed disruption to our ideas of business as usual and connect with others working to go beyond the rules.
Let’s take a tour of the Open House and hear what people spoke about…
With such a mix of people present from different sectors, it was surprising for us to so quickly find so much shared consensus on the need to escape hierarchical and outmoded ways of operating. There was a shared desire among many present to create more iterative, empowering, transparent ways of working, less bound by inherited patterns of behaviour and boilerplate governance structures.
How we show up behaviourally shapes how we run, deliver and manage. How do we create the soft skills and change we need?
Journalism, start-ups and civil society organisations were all discussed as areas where this change is already happening, for different reasons. Some are seeking a more equitable approach to journalism, based on non-hierarchical governance and different models of funding and staff pay. This is a pressing challenge as the industry attempts to take account for the ever-lowering bar to participation in media creation, whilst holding on to core journalistic values. Start-up organisations were also mentioned as potential focal point for change. Some suggested that start-ups have the privilege of a relatively blank slate on which to create less oppressive organisational structures and ways of working. Civil society organisations were also discussed, particularly those seeking to realise their missions without inadvertently doing more harm than good.
The cultural and arts sector was mentioned by several as a space ripe for change. Organisations with progressive missions and creative employees are at odds with the way they are run, with rigid, traditional ways of working and archaic governance structures detracting from their core objectives. The challenge identified here was that current models of funding privilege a high-risk approach which, if left unchallenged, can dictate internal organisational structures and growth.
Funders and philanthropic organisations were identified as a key vocal point for driving behavioural change. Internalising this change and shifting towards more empowering modes of funding, such as participatory grantmaking and budgeting, is an opportunity for private foundations and public bodies. At the core of this is “How do we best serve those we aim to help?” Challenging old models of patron-client relationships was seen as key to shifting, rather than replicating, old imbalances of power and accountability.
Kitchen: Tipping the scales
A major challenge facing many of those present was transparency; transparency about what the rules which dictate how structures are established and what individuals’ behaviours in systems are expected to be. Seeing these rules, through a smokescreen of measurable outcomes, key performance indicators and deliverables, will be important to working out whether or not organisations are actually doing good. One such example is the way foundations and governments have traditionally funded civil society as though procuring a service, serving to further disempower those at the bottom and push accountability away from those with the most money, power and influence.
Trust is key to changing this dynamic. At the small scale this means creating trusting partnerships where individuals and organisations’ capacity to do good is not hampered by the need to quantify the good they do. Shifting towards more iterative, collective, co-operative and co-productive approaches was mentioned by several present. There was a common desire for a self-organising, organic movement to develop that builds on what’s working elsewhere and aligns around creating systemic change.
What you measure matters. What’s not measured doesn’t matter - it goes unseen.
Several also mentioned the need for relearning as part of this process, suggesting we need to challenge education paradigms which privilege competition over cooperation. Learning how to create movements, workplaces and partnerships which celebrate cooperation and collaboration was seen as important to seeing beyond only individual needs and behaviours.
Study: Let’s go open plan
Looking at the usual off-the-shelf solutions, many were keen to ask “What needs rewriting?” Several suggested that refiguring the relationship between individuals and organisations had to begin at the point of entry – recruitment. In the employer-employee relationship there are parallels with the donor and client, commissioner and service provider relationships we’re also seeking to challenge. This boundary is the liminal space where relationships are first defined, and most open to being challenged.
The support community do a fair bit of "I'll see you the other side of the barrier. Good luck!" rather than "I can see that barrier's really high, so I'll come round the other side and give you a shunt up – and if it's still too high we'll both bash it down!”
Recruitment processes and employment contracts, alongside governance and grant-making mechanisms, were therefore identified as key levers for creating more widespread change.
Living Room: How do we show up?
Many people expressed a desire for the learning from Beyond the Rules to be accessible, open and collaborative. This is something we want too. Creating a space to work together, for example on Notion or Miro, and dedicating a couple of hours each week to working together on these questions, were suggested as potential paths forward.
There was a shared concern about recreating systems and patterns of behaviour that we’re seeking to challenge, and questioning of who gets to set the agenda for work. Many people at the Open House expressed a desire for this to become a growing, inclusive movement and community of practice, as opposed to individuals struggling to create change in isolation.
We’re also eager to bring people into Beyond the Rules, without creating extractive relationships or setting up boundaries. Over the coming months we’ll be setting up calls to connect learning from across the organisations and individuals already working on or interested in this field of work.
Previously in Beyond the Rules - Our first thoughts - Why Democratic Society is going Beyond the Rules…
Beyond the Rules is a collective enquiry between Democratic Society, Dark Matter Labs, Lankelly Chase, York Multiple Complex Needs Network's (MCN) Enabling Team and Black Thrive into systemic governance and the inequalities people experience in relation to decision making and power structures in organisations. We are working in partnership to research and define an understanding of governance that is more open, authentic and accessible to everyone.