I am thinking about organizational governance. Today my IFF prompt card suggested that I “facilitate self-organization”. It was highly relevant to a conversation I am engaged in with colleagues who are Division Officers of the American Psychological Association. A Good Governance Commission (GGC) has been working for three years to suggest some changes to the governance structures with the aim of improving how the organization’s business gets done by making it nimble, generic
I have been on both sides of the “nimble” versus “deliberative” argument. In this discussion I come down firmly on the side of messy democratic processes structure. The comments from those who have developed the proposal suggest to me that the process has been shot through with the same corporate ideology that runs through management, leadership and governance research–the myth of the “rational actor” and the technocratic logic of MBA-think. One member of the GGC says “working on GGP has been an interesting process, and I probably have liked it so much because it is so scientifically-based! It turns out that there is a whole research field that is dedicated towards leadership, organization, and decision-making processes in professional associations.” This implies that the members of GGC believe that this “research” can guide them in how to construct governance processes that are more efficient “quick and nimble”. Not a chance. This is the sort of entrepreneurial logic that brings us governance by consultant, objectification, deregulation, lack of transparency, and an illegitimate distribution of power that inevitably corrupts. It is based on the prevailing American myth that leadership, governance and decision making are rational processes conducted consciously by rational actors following data driven action paths. It fits right in with the preference in market economies for metrics over experience, efficiency over effectiveness, for trust in technocrats over leadership, privileges economic decisions over moral judgments and human relationships and distrusts the messiness of collective collaborative wisdom.
The same member comments (critically) that the APA structure hasn’t changed in a century–and by implication is “out of date”. But the US Constitution and the British parliamentary system are a lot older than that and though there are plenty of modifications that can be (and sometimes are made) to improve things, no one suggests disenfranchisement of the citizens as one of them. The current debate in Britain about the future of the House of Lords is a case in point. The debate about such a deep change in governance is not so much about efficiency and nimbleness–though the British Ayn Randians like to use those words– it is about fairness, representation and cultural coherence. No one expects it to be quick.
My IFF colleague the late and sorely missed Max Boisot, who helped design the multiple-stakeholder governance process that coordinated the work of thousands of independent scientists and billions of investment dollars for the CERN Large Hadron Collider, makes the point that governance is not a rational process and attempts to make it so usually fail, often bringing down the organization in the process. As Sir Geoffrey Vickers used to say to the technocrats, human systems are different. Boisot also makes a distinction between governance in a corporation whose goal is business success and governance in a social group or community. The test of effectiveness for a corporate entity might be nimbleness–getting to market first, not spending resources on redundancy, wasting time in pointless meetings etc. The measure of corporate success is how well it achieves its business goals, not how people feel about how they got there. If people don’t like what is happening, they can put up with it or they can leave. But for a community like APA whose mission is to provide a collective professional identity to its members and serve its diverse members’ professional interests, the test of effectiveness is how good members feel about being affiliated, how well the members feel their needs are met, how they believe their organization represents their values and deeper commitments, how well they are treated by colleagues, how empowered they feel to influence direction and decisions, how stable and coherent the collective sense of identity is, and how just, reasonable and wise actions appear and how needed changes are made. One arrives at a sense of a healthy community not via quick and nimble decisions, but by decisions that emerge from slow, thoughtful, dialogue. Even sometimes by making mistakes and then correcting them–all grist for a “thick” human system.
APA has served its members well for over a century. By most measures a successful institution. From where I sit as a member of a small division of course there are changes that could improve things, but the goals of good enough governance in a community this large are usually met.
The question members need to ask of these proposed changes to governance is not are they “scientific” according to some research done members of a group of executive consultants but are they needed and are they wise? I see nothing in the description given us in the well articulated description of GGC proposals that suggests they will improve APA for its members and as others have said there is plenty that should worry those of us who prefer the slow messiness of real democracy over the untested management theories de jour.