How to Nurture a Living and Evolving Doocracy

For us at the Embassy SF, doocracy was born out of a realisation that consensus is expensive. We found that we were having regular house meetings, that took up huge swathes of time. At times, were filling the meetings with discussion just because we had made time for meetings, rather than because an issue needed discussion. After six months or so of living together, we decided to abandon house meetings, and along with them the cognitive load [1] and administrative gluttony that is required for consensus. We hoped that we had built enough trust that we could operate under a doocractic system.

Administrative gluttony! Fun but energy consuming”

Why doocratise?

Not only did we want to minimise information and communication overload, we also felt an appeal to the fluidity and agency that doocracy encourages. Some would argue that we currently exist in an “age of total bureaucratization”[2] and we wished to resist excess legislation. We wanted to try agreements and norms that minimised barriers to doing.

Bureaucracy comprises one of the “instruments through which the human imagination is smashed and shattered.”- Graber, ‘The Utopia of Rules’s

This approach markedly reduces overhead to taking action. It minimises the stages between thought and action, and allows people who are enthusiastic to act, leeway to do so. We have found that making space for decisions made in other ways that by-committee often leads to more creative solutions; group decision making can lead to diluted outcomes, that contain elements of group opinions, but are not quite satisfactory in their entirely, to anyone [For related resources on doocracy, see Adhocracy].

The Embassy is an intentional community filled with busy people, and our aim is that through living together, we reduce the amount of domestic time required to live, and in doing so create more time for socially minded endeavors. Therefore it is crucial that we not use that time for too much inward facing processes, and for us doocracy goes some way in minimising this.

What is perhaps distinct about our version of doocracy, is that our process is not structureless — we depend on communication and transparency. Before doing, we ask people to highlight the issue, propose a solution and the time frame in which they are going to put this solution in place. This way if anyone wishes to contribute they can, but in a way that doesn’t hold up action. We have found that this added aspect of communication and invitation to participate increases the likelihood of the group celebrating the action that you have taken, as opposed to feeling resentful that change has happened without consent.

Embassy doocracy
Over the following year, we thrived under doocracy. At the same time we encountered a number of issues that the doocracy failed to address (see our failure modes below). Despite the fact that some interesting institutions operate under this mode, there is relatively little written about doocracy. Here I aim to touch on some of the learnings that we have come to.

  1. Transparency means letting people know what’s happening, in a way that they can get involved if they want, and if not, allows you to proceed knowing they are informed.
  2. Communication means inviting feedback before taking action.
  3. Reversibility — The threshold of taking doocratic action is reversibility; that is, only take unilateral action if your action is reversible, and you are happy for others to iterate on or disagree with your decision. Otherwise, wait for feedback and consent.

Precursors for a successful doocracy
As time has gone on, our doocracy has evolved, the process has become smoother and cleaner as trust is built between us. One thing that I have noticed is that for smooth and respectful doocractic processes to occur, the group needs to have a good degree of trust in each other (by trust, here I mean social buy in — for example — ‘even though this action might not have been how I would have done things, or my preference, I am happy that someone has done this, and respect how they have done it’). It also thrives when members believe that each person is trying to to the best thing by the group, and not trying to use doocracy to make self serving decisions. Doocracy is ‘centered around respecting the work from those who do it. How you get to this point is hard to say, but my advice is to overtly make this state of trust a goal for early community building. Some have suggested that a period of consensus based or collaborative decision making are necessary precursors to doocracy, and perhaps it is in this phase that trust is built.

Setting some norms can really help with freeing up the decision and action space for more interesting things. For us, we try to limit ‘rules’, and stick to guidelines for a healthy commons. These include seemingly smaller issues such as ‘always do your dishes/ leave all spaces better than how you found them’, all the way to more serious guidelines such as our attitude to consent.

Clearly communicating cultural norms makes for a smooth doocracy and prevents tragedy of the commons in general.

Experiments with collaborative decision making

We have been experimenting with participatory decision making for larger or irreversible decisions. In participatory or collaborative decision making, feedback is invited from the group. During a given period of time discussion is welcome and actions are borne out of the discussion. This process need not always have consensus, but often does. We opted to use Loomio as a platform for this. It was an interesting experience to try a new form of communication, and to use voting for decision making. Pretty soon, we the tension between doocracy and collaborative decision-making was felt. We fell into the trap of discussing everything instead of just doing things, and we quickly came to the conclusion that we needs to carve a space around what fell under doocracy and what kinds of decisions should be participatory (also what kinds dictatorial, more on this another time!).

We have moved to enclave our doocratic decision making for actions that are reversible. For those decisions that cannot be undone, we use collaborative decision making using loomio. This is working well for us and limits the amount of discussion that goes into running our community and its associated projects. Having both processes has been very rewarding, in that doocracy supports cooperation, in that it prevents your vision from being compromised by the group collective process. Collaborative decision making on the other hand allows us to steer the ship together for the larger decisions.

Consensus, we discovered, is expensive specifically in an existing high trust environment, relative to the efficiency gains of a system such as doocracy. We have found that in addition to this, “pure” consensus can still be really useful when applied to select situations, for example when you want to be extra careful to make room for differing voices, when the consequences of the decision is high, when you want to make room for all voices to be heard in order to surface the unspoken or hard to say things. It’s worth considering what kinds of decisions you are ok with being doocratised, and which want something else. And it is likely that no one system suits all types of decisions.

We use Loomio for collaborative decision making

Failure modes of doocracy

Some of the failure modes of doocracy to be aware of: Doocracy without communication becomes ‘Tyranny of the Proactive’ [see 3]. It can concentrate power in the form of circumstantial institutional knowledge and alienate potential other doers, creating a reinforcing feedback loop of “doers that do” and others who don’t. Doocracy without reciprocity can also lead to some power imbalances. We are still working on ways of acknowledging the inevitable imbalance under doocracy, but our intermit solutions have been to provide clear communication of what you need from people to facilitate getting help from others; people often want to help but don’t know what to do and institutional knowledge can be a gatekeeper to power. If you are someone who has always done X role, perhaps you are the only person who knows how to do that thing, and unless you make this knowledge freely available, others cannot get involved. Providing lists of jobs/projects to contribute to should they want to is also helpful for new people joining an established doocratic system.

Another failure mode that we have experienced, we term ‘Doocratic Thrashing’ — when two people are do-ocratically doing and undoing each others’ idea in too short a time frame. We have found that a solid solution to this is to set a norm whereby any changes are left for a week, then as a responsible dooer, your role is to actively check in with people to see if they like it. We ask that the dooer doesn’t leave it to others to give feedback, but rather are proactive in attempting to genuinely enquire whether your actions have made peoples’ lives better. Belated feedback can also cause problems for a doocratic process. Our solution to this has been to set a timeframe during which feedback is welcome and a specific time when the action will be taken in the absence of feedback e.g. ‘I’m going to put this thing in place in a week, please let me know if you have thoughts. If i hear nothing back I will doocratise it’ It’s also worth finding out out what each person’s minimum time frame is — some people only check their emails once a week. A complete absence of feedback can be hard on both a doocratic system and on active dooers. In the absence of feedback, sometimes the action and accuracy of proactive do-ers is taken for granted. Doers can feel alienated when their contributions are not critically engaged with.

It is commonly thought that doocracy is necessarily structureless, as it holds it roots in the US Libertarian Party, however we are finding that we can both encourage and make explicit certain structures. Jo Freeman, famously critiqued the rejection of structure, following the idea that structures are inherently oppressive [3]. The main thesis is that there is no such thing as structurelessness, and that failing to acknowledge structure can be more dangerous than structured power because it is hard to see or define and therefore challenge, ultimately structurelessness becomes a way of masking power”. Thus in our community we are in the process of attempting to observe our structure and power dynamics, on our way to naming it. I believe this is crucial at this stage of our community, and hopefully we will have some lessons to share on this in a year or so.

References

[1] Irvin & Stansbury (2004), Citizen Participation in Decision Making: Is It Worth the Effort? Public Administration Review 64(1), pages 55–65.

[2] The Rules of Utopia — On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.

[3] The Tyranny of Structurelessness — Jo Freedman