Our first thoughts - Why Democratic Society is going Beyond the Rules…

Democratic Society works across Europe to connect citizens with the decisions that shape their lives. Values of openness, fairness, internationalism, equality and participation are at the core of our work. For us, Beyond the Rules is about bringing democracy beyond government and beyond the public sector. In this sense, it’s more than a project or a programme – it's about getting to the heart of democracy.

We’re interested in what means and what it takes to empower people in their workplaces and communities, and what hinders this. We know there isn’t going to be a silver bullet and that it will need a holistic perspective that looks at power dynamics and cultural change, as well as practical manifestations such as formal governance structures and staff contracts.

This is about taking my hands off my face completely and staring at the world, face-on. By challenging outdated methods, we can reinvent new models, which reflect greater agency of people and networks they are part of.

Pandora Ellis

Externally...

Our partners for Beyond the Rules are core to this.

Collectively we are exploring how systemic issues are being addressed in relation to why people and communities continue to struggle and fail to flourish, across centuries of injustice and inequality. What are the root causes in their particular contexts? And once we know, how exactly do we respond – in our own organisations, within statutory services and across society as a whole?

The common themes that arise during discussions are:

  • New models of governance - unpacking what’s happened before, reflecting, analysing and rebuilding a new model based on this insight and learning
  • Defining accountability - taking time to review what this word means in both an organisational and individual context, and why it doesn't always work
  • Describing power and where power sits – again, from an organisational and personal perspective, particularly where greater individual agency can influence systems and structures.

As we start to explore this together, we have also been reminded by our own behaviours and assumptions to ask; how do we as a partnership create equitable collaboration between ourselves - whose systems of governance, perspectives and expertise differ greatly - yet who share a common desire to empower people who are frequently excluded from decision making systems and structures? How do we acknowledge the power dynamics we’ve all brought with us and move past them fairly?

…and internally.

Beyond the Rules doesn’t exist in isolation. For the work to be truly meaningful, it can’t just be an external gaze, looking at others and exploring what could be different. If it is going to mean anything at all, then what we consider must impact internally at Demsoc – how we work, how we take decisions, how we show up and be beyond the rules ourselves. We’re particularly interested in how we pass power across all staff and to those we work with, to model the types of governance, engagement and culture we want to see elsewhere.

It’s about internalising – without navel-gazing – the change we want to see in ourselves, in our organisations and in society at large.

Alex Zur-Clark

Personally…

“For me, Beyond the Rules is a way to stop looking at the world with my hands over my face, fingers slightly parted. It’s about thinking differently, sharing ideas for dismantling systems and rebuilding them with more equity and shared ownership. It’s about searching for a different version of truth in governance and accountability, ripping up what we know already and reimaging, redefining and co-designing different ways of doing things. This is with the very people who the governance will affect. By rebuilding, accountability is hardwired in. We build, we own, we deliver.

This is about taking my hands off my face completely and staring at the world, face-on. By challenging outdated methods, we can reinvent new models, which reflect greater agency of people and networks they are part of.”

Pandora Ellis

“Beyond the Rules for me is about honesty and accountability. Who actually controls government, companies and statutory services? How much do theories about power match reality – and how far are both of these things from the ideals we’d like to have in a better world? This is about having uncomfortable and rewarding conversations to see problems clearly, collectively. And it’s about internalising – without navel-gazing – the change we want to see in ourselves, in our organisations and in society at large.”

Alex Zur-Clark

…and communally.

It’s not just a case of changing people - how can people take a grip on statutory levers, which will strengthen governance and accountability and make change?

A tantalising phrase from poet Audre Lorde’s essay, was mentioned in one workshop: “...the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. [1]

In our Beyond the Rules quest, we may well be attempting some things that might simply never work. How can oppression be disrupted using the very logic that justifies that oppression? [2]

A deeper understanding of what governance means for an organisation can be created afresh, and maybe with a different set of people. The work we are doing cannot emphasise enough the importance of defining a new context for governance - what is it here, what does it need to do? Our learning is how governance can go beyond the rules and can be co-created on a fresh sheet of paper. From here, people can agree on what do I need to learn, and what can I be held account for?

For us at Democratic Society, the inherent ties between governance and democracy are often so loosely connected that one can easily slip away from the other – at worst, becoming completely severed without anyone even noticing.

This is why we are going beyond the rules.

In our next blog, Paola Pierri (Design and Research) will be exploring “What are the rules that we want to go beyond?”

[1] Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press. pp. 114–23.

[2] Micah White, (2016). The Master’s Tools: The Wisdom of Audre Lorde, Activist School. https://www.activistgraduateschool.org/on-the-masters-tools

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