Learnings from practising internal democracy at Demsoc
You might be also interested in reading Democracy beyond Governance: our thoughts & practice, to get a better understanding why we believe internal democracy in organisations matter and how we designed our internal staff representative selection process.
Democratic Society is growing. The days in which we all fit on the same table are long over, and when we choose to meet, we not only have to take long bus and train rides, but also need an event space to fit all of us.
Along with size, comes the need for different structures and ways of ensuring that everyone in our organisation is well-informed and heard. This is why in the beginning of the year, Demsoc decided to select staff representatives, to ensure staff voices are represented and heard in all important decisions in our organisation. To decide who should be our first staff reps we set up an internal working group and collaboratively designed a two phase process based on sociocratic principles. You can read more about the process design and why we believe it matters here.
What We Learned
To evaluate our staff rep selection process, we collected feedback via surveys to all staff - one after phase one, the second after phase two. After the first survey, we additionally held a reflection and learning session among the staff representation process design working group, facilitators and notetakers.
Overall, staff appreciated the safe and respectful environment, the possibility to get to know colleagues better and entering into positive and constructive deliberation with others. Small groups helped to create a calm and open space in which there was enough time to think, discuss and have a say without being rushed. For some of us, it was also the first sociocracy circle. Staff enjoyed getting to know this decision making process first hand as participants.
“Everything, atmosphere, people, organisation... I am very proud of my colleagues and happy to have them around!”
What stands out in the surveys, the learning sessions and informal conversations is the appreciation for colleagues as well as a form of pride to be part of the process. The feedback suggests that the staff rep selection process was an experience of self-organisation that supported the development of a collective identity.
Through the evaluation, we could identify 5 learnings and questions for the future
1. The process needs to fit the goal. Demsoc staff rep process can improve this by re-thinking how many people can be nominated in which phase.
The point that was raised most in the survey was the nomination round: Why was every participant just allowed to nominate 1 person, participants in phase one responsible to propose 2 candidates, but the final team made up of 4 staff reps? Several participants and facilitators shared that they believe that this design was not ideal for our process. Not only, but also because it made it more complicated for participants to select a team, which was the task they were asked to do.
From the survey it gets clear that participants found it specifically difficult to nominate only 1 person at the start. Several participants noted that there existed a tendency to nominate people they know or work with the most. When other people were nominated, who they didn’t know well, it was hard to react, comment or change their vote. This tendency was reinforced by the process design.
Suggestions for improvement
- A secret nomination or open nomination phase prior to the deliberation phase where everybody can name one or more candidates – this might also encourage people to think more about their nominations in advance.
- Mixing the group for phase one (teams, locations etc.)
- Allocating more time for people to get to know each other better; or having descriptions of the all staff members at Demsoc.
2. How much power do you want to give to the facilitator?
In our process design, the facilitator takes up a very powerful role: he or she comes up with the proposal of two candidates that is tested for consent. While some participants suggested that this power was well addressed by the fact that we worked with neutral/impartial facilitators (they did not participate or vote themselves), others questioned the power the facilitator received through this process: How could we weaken this power centred at the facilitator and distribute it more across participants? Would it be possible to allow more room for more deliberation in which consent could naturally emerge?
“I was wondering how it would have worked if the proposal was done by the group through deliberating. The suggestion for the proposal to come with the facilitator makes sense as someone impartial but there was a third nominee that also met the criteria and perhaps we could have tried for each person to make a proposal of two before the facilitator, so that the rationale for the second nominee's selection was clearer.”
Suggestions for improvement
- Instead of asking people to change their nomination, asking which of someone else's nominations they would choose to support or invite for reflections and reactions to each others arguments and nominees
- Randomly choose the 4th representative as an “disruptive element” to agitate the group
- Addressing the issue of uneven information – facilitators and notekeepers already know prior nominees.
3. An open and honest space can allow appreciation and help to establish a good feedback culture; at the same time it might create barriers to full honesty.
The feelings around justifying nominations in a group were divided: some participants appreciated the open and honest environment and feedback. Feedback culture is something that is practised too little in our organisation according to some staff, and they very much enjoyed the respectful environment in which people came up with good and thoughtful arguments about why they nominated someone. Creating this space in a group was appreciated as positive and heart-warming, particularly when the person receiving the feedback was in the room.
Others felt that it was uncomfortable discussing concerns in a group, fearing that it could influence the team dynamic. Also, one participant wondered about whether providing feedback in a bigger group prevented full honesty.
“Being a person who was nominated during the session, it can be a bit uncomfortable to have people talking about you. I was especially wondering if others were holding back on objections because I was in the room. On the other hand, it is also uncomfortable to be talking about someone who is not in the room...”
4. Be clear in structure, but allow for enough room for deliberation and hearing each other's opinions.
While our staff rep working group knew the process inside out, our process was – as you have read - complicated. In the survey, staff shared that the process could have been communicated clearer, and that know-how on different forms of decision making should not have been taken for granted. Also, it would be important to have a clear overview of the process, e.g. in a visual, specifically for people that work only part time and cannot stay on top of all messages.
While some participants appreciated the clarity and structure, others felt that the process was too rigid. There was the feeling that there was not enough time for deliberation and hearing each other’s opinions between the specific tasks that participants were asked to do.
Suggestions from the survey for improvement
- Creating a visual clearly showing the different phases
- Explore together: How could this process allow for shifts in direction or flow if there is group consensus to do so?
5. The role description needs to be as precise as possible, and adapted to your context.
From feedback and our notes during the process, we know the staff rep role description needs to be improved into a clearer, adapted and more precise one. One participant suggested that as Demsoc is an organization consisting of facilitators, process designers and event organizers, qualifications such as clear communication, being a good listener and someone people feel comfortable talking to are no ideal selection criteria. As our roles require these skills, many staff would fulfil most of them, resulting that the list of qualifications did not help with reaching a decision. Discussions ended up being more about diversity, which made it difficult to formulate justifications.
In the past months we learned a lot, as process designers, facilitators, participants and also as colleagues. Still, we did not find the perfect solution as to how we want to live internal democracy at Demsoc yet. If you have, or also still on the way to find out: we would love to hear from you! Write a message to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Power at Work series