Sharing is a vital aspect of community building. By uniting isolated neighbors into caring networks, sharing has the capacity to create communities of people who understand that their greatest source of abundance is in their shared, human assets. Parents who struggle alone to provide for their families, for example, can collaborate with neighbors for reliable, quality childcare, teen mentoring with local seniors, meal and ride sharing. Key to community building, however, is good governance and decision-making processes. Being a long-committed community-builder, I am excited to describe a highly effective governance system that enables communities to be thriving contexts of caring, collaborative relationships.
Dynamic Self Governance is an innovative approach to governance based on scientific principles. It uniquely combines the best business practices with the principles of cybernetics and systems thinking to create modern organizations – including communities that are more effective, more productive and more efficient. Dynamic Self Governance:
• Streamlines decision-making while reducing tension around power
• Maximizes decision-making effectiveness and efficiency
• Kindles creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit
• Decreases number of meetings and heightens productivity of meetings
• Increases individual engagement, productivity and commitment
• Builds relationships and community belonging
• Provides a structure that assures ongoing progress, learning and improvement
In much of the world, Dynamic Self Governance is called “sociocracy” based on the Latin and Greek words “socius” meaning social familiarity, and “kratein” meaning governance. With roots dating back to 1851 when Auguste Comte coined the term, sociocracy has been developed extensively by Gerard Endenburg in the Netherlands starting in 1970 when he began applying it’s principles to his electrical engineering corporation.
Sociocracy was brought to the United States by business consultant John Buck who has studied with Endenburg since the 1980s. To date, sociocracy has been implemented in hundreds of organizations around the world – private and public schools and universities, professional groups, large and small businesses, government agencies and intentional communities. In the United States, sociocracy is largely referred to as Dynamic Self Governance (DSG).
Structure & Principles
DSG can be pictured as a hierarchy of circles reflecting different levels of work, not control. Circles are of just 2-40 people who know each other and who have a particular aim or job within a business or community organization. A simple three-tiered hierarchy includes the Top circle, made up of those heading the organization (Board of Directors, CEO, CFO, etc.) and a representative from the next circle down called the General circle. The General circle is made up of representatives from the circles at the third level (sometimes referred to as departments, committees, etc.) and also has its own representative in each of the lowest level circles as well as in the Top Circle (see double-linking below).
Just as implementation of Dynamic Governance makes minimal changes to operations and maximum changes to decision-making, its four principles are simple, but have dramatic effects.
1) Consent Policy decisions are made by consent. Consent means members must offer a well-reasoned “paramount objection” (relevant to stated aims) so it can be addressed. Rather than generating a negative turning point, paramount objections often result in the opposite. Discord and chaos are embraced as opportunities to improve the proposal – and as opportunities for the group to build trust and understanding. In articulating objections, for example, members learn about the needs, gifts, and ideas of the others. They also gain clarity on their own motivation, goals and ideas.
2) Circles of Equivalence Members within each circle are highly involved: in determining meeting agendas, engaging in transparent elections, co-creating proposals for policies or projects, decision-making, etc. Decisions that are implemented are monitored and the outcomes measured by members of the circle to further the group’s learning and effectiveness. Those members that were most skeptical of a proposal may be elected as the best ones to do its measuring.
3) Double Linking All the circles are “double-linked.” Two people within each circle also are elected members of the next higher circle. Because of this, ideas from the “lowest” circles can link upward and become implemented at any higher level, or move laterally through the representatives. Indeed, information flows to where it needs to go. With a comprehensive feedback system that ensures communication up and down the organization, DSG’s double linking optimizes an organization’s ability to respond to internal and external pressures. This self-optimization allows a business or community organization to be very resilient.
4) Elections Although some people are elected for specific tasks and functions over time, everyone within each circle has an equal vote and can be elected for any function. The election process assures both that the elected person is accepted by the group as the best available one to do the task, and that s/he understands what the task requires. In addition to enhancing effectiveness, the specific procedures used during elections greatly enhance interpersonal awareness and connection.
DSG and Sharing Law
Writing DSG governing documents into a new or existing legal structure can be done rather easily. In Appendix E of the book We The People, Buck and Villines offer an example of DSG operating agreements and bylaws for a limited liability company (LLC). Article 1 includes three sections entitled, Organizational Model (describes the four principles), Structure (describes Top Circle, General Circle, Department Circles, etc.) and, Investing and Working Partners.
Article 2, entitled “Top Circle,” gives details on it’s composition, roles, terms, meeting requirements, how to handle vacancies, etc. and Article 3 focuses on “Executive Officers of the Top Circle.” Significantly, the Board of Directors is part of the Top Circle and shall not meet separately from the Top Circle, and all decisions are made according to the principle of consent. External members chosen from outside the organization are also part of the Top Circle for their expertise in: financial matters, business management, DSG consulting and legal advice.
Article 4 “Circle Management” has several subsections. It is stated here, for example, that each circle shall be a separate organ of the LLC and be empowered to draft its own regulations (in agreement with Top Circle’s vision, etc.); that the next higher circle, through its representative, is responsible for assuring that decision making in a circle below functions according to the operating agreement; that recording circle minutes be done properly, etc.
Article 5, entitled “Compensation and Profit Sharing,” offers an ingenious way to compensate investing and working partners (workers), with both fixed and variable payments, depending on profitability. Additional example articles are offered, one entitled, “Conduct of Meeting of Investing Partners.” Again, decision-making by consent prevails however investing partners may choose other methods and structures of decision-making, provided they agree to do so by consent.
Living Well Care Home
An excellent example of an organization that implemented DSG is Living Well, an award-winning, level III, residential care and assisted living facility in Bristol, Vermont.1 Under John Buck’s guidance in 2004, they adapted existing 501 C-3 agreements and bylaws to include six articles relevant to DSG, starting with Article number 4. The titles of these articles are: Governance Structure, Meetings, Annual Meeting and Special Meetings, Board of Directors, Officers and, General Circle.
Living Well is the first elder care facility in the United States to implement DSG and to being committed to holistic care. Per Top Circle vision, they removed toxic cleaning supplies as well as refined and artificial sugar. They started an organic community garden, purchased other organic food from a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and Food Coop, and hired a naturopath to see residents (in addition to the required medical staff).
Within just six months, many residents showed noticeable improvements – physically, mentally and socially. One woman thought to have severe dementia picked up the phone one day and had a lucid conversation with her family for the first time in years. Another who had just sat in her room, started playing the piano in the living room. No one knew she had been a piano teacher.
Certainly much of the improvements are from the holistic food and healthcare. They also seem to thrive on DSG-inspired involvement. The Resident Circle, for example, meets regularly and actively discusses whatever is important to them – whether it be the menu, how services are provided, what activities to pursue or how to measure outcomes. This circle also elects one of their members to represent them in the Staff Circle and that person regularly checks in with all of the elders. Residents participate as desired in the daily routines and house chores, including meal preparation and gardening, and several are part of the drumming band that started. In addition, they interface with the greater community for various projects and social events.
Because Living Well does such a phenomenal job of reducing the costs of food and patient care, 65-85% of their residents are funded by Medicare. The typical industry ratio is a maximum of 1/3 Medicare for a facility to be in the black. In addition, Living Well was able to buy the property from investors in 2008, after just four years in business. That year they also started receiving state and national awards. Since then people from around the country contact them wanting to know what they are doing. Current plans are for Living Well to cooperate (using DSG) with two other care facilities who will share resources (garden produce, food coop membership, healthcare staff, transportation vehicles, etc.). The idea is to create a cluster of three such facilities in close proximity and thus reduce expenses even more, while increasing the options and quality of care for residents. It is expected that this tri-cluster model will be perfected and widely replicated.
Vision of Neighborhood Communities
Similarly, one can implement DSG in a neighborhood by working with its Homeowners Association. Perhaps more likely, however, is to work from the grassroots up. When a group of people contacts a lawyer to help them set up a shared project, such as a garden area, they could be taught DSG circle meeting procedures – either by the lawyer or the lawyer working in collaboration with a DSG consultant.
After experiencing success in sharing and making decisions together, members of this initial circle might seed new circles, such as one that creates a playground in a shared area or a food coop, each requiring the services of a lawyer. When several of these third-level circles exist, they could create a General circle made up of representatives from each circle to better coordinate efforts. Eventually the homeowners association (or some other group) may adopt DSG and become the Top circle and thus create a completely integrated (double-linked) DSG hierarchy.
I can see various groups come together to co-create community, using DSG and sharing law. The Transition Town efforts, for example would do well to consider this. Also the Occupy Wall Street movement may well coalesce efforts to live empowered, sustainable lives on a local level. Every indicator suggests that we need to live as locally as possible via community relations. Schools, neighborhoods and businesses set up with DSG can be linked together. DSG procedures generate a sense of safety and belonging for all people - true community, by building personal and interpersonal skills, and enhancing sharing, collaborative relationships.
This vision is consistent with the brilliant work of John McKnight and Peter Block who help create “competent” communities - where families function well, there are businesses or sites of production, and everyone is cared for in terms of their physical, mental and social-emotional needs. Such communities are considered “abundant” regardless of economic standing or any consumer index. Instead of requiring continual consumption of services from outsiders, community members exchange assets as they share in the work, responsibility and joy of co-creating an interconnected life together.
In short, DSG is a scalable, decision-making structure (from a few to countless, interlinked small groups) that guarantees the opportunity of self-directed contribution and optimal development for all within a sharing, caring context. By using the Sociocratic model, we shift our certainty from the forms of previous decisions (our concepts of education, community, retirement or our economic, political, and social systems) to a different kind of certainty. It is certainty that we as individuals have a right to our own unique existence and that we can direct our lives with others effectively.
Occupy Our Human Potential
Human history can be seen as a process of increasing the rights and decision-making responsibility of the individual. We have gone from magical thinking, to autocracy or authoritarian decision-making models, to democracy in many parts of the world. Corruption of democracy by transnational corporations, however, threatens to have us step back to pre-democratic social structures. DSG is a step forward. According to Endenburg, when we apply the basic rules and principles of sociocracy, “a further step is not only possible … but inevitable” (1981, p 11). It is a step forward in achieving our human potential – and it all begins with the basic human desire to connect, contribute and share equitably.
Gaya Erlandson, PhD, is a psychologist and community consultant who teaches DSG and who lives in a small cohousing-like community near Asheville, NC. Contact her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Buck, John and Sharon Villines. 2007. We The People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, A Guide to
Sociocratic Principles and Methods. Sociocracy.info, Washington, DC. See: http://GovernanceAlive.com/.
Endenburg, Gerard.1997. Sociocracy as Social Design: Its Characteristics and Course of development, as
Theoretical Design and Practical Project. (Translated - Delft: Eburon, 1998).
Endenburg, Gerard.1981. Sociocracy: The Organization of Decision-Making “No Objection” as the Principle of
Sociocracy. (Translated - Delft: Eburon, 1998).
McKnight, John and Peter Block. 2010. The Abundant Community. Barrett-Koehler
Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA. See: http://ABCDinstitute.org/
Kretzmann, John P. and John L. McKnight. 1993. Building Communities From the Inside
Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. ACTA Publications, Chicago, IL.
Note 1 For further information on the Living Well Care Home, see: http://LivingWellCareHome.org
Note 2 For an example of a co-housing community that has implemented DSG, see: