Power at Work: Accountability, Honesty & Challenge

How do you start to make organisations more democratic? We spoke to community network organisers and leaders in third sector to hear how they distribute decision making and power dynamics within their spaces.

This Power at Work blog series explores how small-scale change can help shift the way power is distributed in the places we work. This blog is part two - part one is available here, where explored the role of Permissioning in building more open spaces.

Accountability, Honesty & Challenge

How accountable are those in positions of power? How accountable would you like them to be? And accountable to whom? This is where things get sticky when exploring power dynamics in groups and organisations. There is no one-size fits all approach. Some organisations we spoke to had relatively clear lines of accountability – they have a small team of staff which exists to help provide a platform for the voices and experiences of people in particular communities. They are supposed to be accountable to those communities. For Others, particularly the larger organisations we spoke to, centre themselves around a set of values, with members coming from all walks of life, and decision-making power and responsibility traditionally flowing upwards towards boards of directors and trustees.

Accountability obviously looks wildly different across such contexts. Therefore it was surprising to find consistent themes emerging across our conversations and interviews, rooted in people’s behaviour. Feeling comfortable being honest and creating a culture where challenge is welcomed were repeatedly mentioned as elements which helped enable accountability, no matter the size or the stated aims of the group we spoke to.

“Those in positions of power need to practice not exercising their power. This isn’t necessarily about giving power away; other people in the group already have their own power and need to be encouraged to use it.”

Matt Bell, Plymouth Octopus Project

When people have greater trust in the spaces being created for conversation – and the people convening them – they can become more comfortable sharing their perspectives and challenging the views of those in positions of power. But it’s also about those in positions of relative power not exercising that power, particularly in ways which punish disagreement or shut down discussion. If members of a group can be confident that respectfully sharing their perspective won’t result in repercussions, they’ll be more likely to share honestly.

This helps enable mutual accountability and accountability from those on the edges of a group, who otherwise might not feel confident to question the decisions of long-standing or more senior group members. But newcomers also bring their own ways of thinking about power and decision making with them, which they may need to unlearn.

Unlearning & re-socialisation in groups and organisations will be the subject of our next blog.

What we did – methodology

We spoke to twelve people working across civil society, to explore power dynamics and decision making processes. Those we spoke to were usually at the centre of a group or organisation, and had been involved in shaping what power and decision making should look like in their group.We spoke to…

  • Bounded groups - organisations with a clear boundary which dictated who was in or out of the group.
  • Unbounded groups - groups which are porous and enable people to freely become more or less involved in the discussions, decisions and work of the group.
  • Community-oriented - groups who aim to represent the interests of a particular community of people, for example people with unique lived experience.
  • Values-oriented - organisations which aren’t based around any particular groups’ wants or needs, instead organising around a shared set of values or principles.

Among this there was a great deal of variation in the size of the organisations and groups we spoke to, and the scale at which they operated. Some were hyper-local, while others were international. This brought an added level of depth and contrast to the findings, exposing difficult questions such as how to structure organisations around democratic and participatory principles at scale, and when hierarchy and exclusionary decision-making might be preferable.

This blog was written by Alex Zur-Clark. Interviews were conducted by Pandora Ellis and Alex Zur-Clark as part of Beyond the Rules, a partnership between Black Thrive Lambeth, Dark Matter Labs, Democratic Society, Lankelly Chase and York MCN exploring democracy beyond government.

Thank you to everybody who took part in the interviews and discussions which informed these blogs – Andrew Crosbie of Collective Impact Agency, Daria Cybulska of Wikimedia UK, Kelly Cunningham and Catherine Scott of York MCN, Matthew Bell of Plymouth Octopus, Melanie Nock of Co-Housing UK and many others who have chosen to remain anonymous. Thank you also to Annette Dharmi of Dark Matter Labs and Paola Pierri, Head of Design and Research at Democratic Society for reviewing and contributing to this analysis.

We do not support Internet Explorer. Please use a modern browser for a better experience.