Organisational Practice and ‘The Commons’:
Increasing Our Collective Impact to Protect
Common Wealth and Well-Being
James B. Quilligan
Our commons are the shared wealth (material, natural, genetic, social, cultural and intellectual wealth) which we have inherited or created and must be passed on to future generations. Many of the concerns that civil society organizations are pursuing – community organisation, healthy food, clean water, clean air, environmental protection, green energy, free flow of information, social technologies, human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights – may be seen as commons.
But how do we ensure that the impact of civil society can be more focused? What needs to be done to adjust our organizations’ models, systems and ways of working to better serve the common interests and protect well-being of all? Here are some ideas.
Many of the new developments that are transforming organizational behavior are largely unrecognized and just finding their way into language. Besides maximising the power of networks to create greater synergy through cross-sectoral cooperation among existing institutions, innovative forms of commons collaboration are emerging, which are leading to new ways of interacting and coordinating social and economic life. For example, social charters, co-governance, co-production, commons trusts, partnership governments, civil society initiatives and peer-to-peer job creation are generating new forms of value and political management. They are teaching civil society organizations how to adopt new values and structures to better serve the common interests and protect the well-being of all.
1. Social charters
Commons are a shared resource which people depend upon for their livelihood and well-being. A social charter is a declaration by stakeholders of a particular commons which defines who shares what, how it is shared, and how it may be sustained. It may be based on a customary or emerging identification with:
– an ecology
– a form of collective labour
– a social technology
– a community need or shared conviction
– a cultural resource area
– an ethnic, religious or linguistic affinity
– an historical identity
A social charter ensures that administrative power is decentralized in order to maintain community access to, and power over, the community’s own commons. The charter describes patterns of relationships between the resource and its users, managers and producers, allowing them all an opportunity to voice the mutual interests and responsibilities emerging from the provision and distribution of goods. Social charters are useful for the same reason that managers of an organisation go out into the field to find out what is actually happening among their employees and customers. The users of products are often the first to recognize production problems and identify solutions in the allocation and provision of these goods. In the case of social charters, the users/customers are taking the lead in improving the management and production of their own resources.
Co-governance — mutual decision-making in the management of a commons — is a form of borderless behavior that thrives on learning. Co-governance allows the organisation to treat people with dignity and give them a voice. But how does the organisation focus everyone’s mind upon an activity? How does it elicit the people’s best ideas and transform them? What is the social architecture of co-governance?
– Pluralism — a wide variety of stakeholders participate in the decisions that affect them
– Subsidiarity — citizens take decisions at the lowest possible level of authority
– Polycentrism — decentralized management in the use, protection and restoration of a resource
– Checks & balances — stakeholders create partnerships for governance, rebalancing the market’s domination of government
– Horizontalist Decision-Making — equitable distribution in the power of management that allows everyone to participate in the outcomes of the greater group
Co-production is also a form of borderless behavior that thrives on learning. There are many familiar models for the collaboration of resource users and producers. These include:
bartering, gift economies, complementary currencies and community reciprocity systems, free shops, fair trade markets, producer cooperatives, trade unions, entrepreneurial networks, scientific and academic commons, open source software, open electronic media, shared licensing, collaborative knowledge and design, social networks, creative commons, copyrights, wikipedia, websites, file sharing, email and chat rooms
These are groups where everyone feels they have a stake in the game. The members of these organisations are typically passionate, focused, open to new ideas and committed to making things happen. They have energy and can energize others. They also know how to get things done. In terms of group self-organisation, there is an emphasis on role rotation among members so that backup people also take turns as frontline people.
4. Commons Trusts
Just as borderless organisations make suppliers and customers part of a single process, commons trusts are also about knocking down institutional barriers. Commons trusts are the only fiduciary institutions accountable for the long-term preservation and sustenance of a resource. Trusts see the situation of depleted resources and consumerism for what it is — not for what it was or what others hope it will be. To this extent, trusts are about thinking bigger than the present questions. How can resources be preserved and replenished? How can resource preservation be measured in non-monetary terms? How can legal conditions be established to preserve and manage resources inherited from past generations for the benefit of present and future generations? Trusts not only provide answers, but offer new perspectives. Trusts are dedicated to the principle that doing the right thing is best for everyone in the long run. They offer a strategic vision of what to do, a means of developing it, and a foundation upon which to build a new approach.
5. Partnership Government
There is a growing recognition that hierarchical and bureaucratic models are disintegrating. Future organizations will be without layers and boundaries. Information will be more transparent and fewer people will be managing. No manager will be able to squander the facts to maximise power. Managers will be making sure that everyone counts and that everyone knows they count. As digital data becomes more powerful, more deeply grounded in real time and more widely available, governments will recognize the expertise of local people and be looking to communities, civil society and commons trusts to help manage local resources. Collaborative governance between communities, civil society, government and business will increase.
6. Civil Society Initiatives
Civil society needs to recognize that people are more important than developing a strategy — at least at the beginning of an initiative or project. Once the right people are trained and in line to create a strategy, then the initiative takes on a life of its own. To have an impact on business, civil society organisations need to adopt strategies that are dynamic and anticipatory. One way to gauge this is to ask some questions. What are the strengths of organisations similar to yours? What actions have they taken within the last year that have changed the field? What actions has your organization taken to change the field?
7. Peer-to-Peer Job Creation
Cultural values are rapidly changing through the technological and communication revolution, which is being fueled by the increased dispersion of broadband and the rapid decrease in the price of both memory and processing power. We are in the midst of a transition from hierarchical governance and institutional forms to ones which are based upon decentralization and peer-to-peer interaction. Innovative models and tools are emerging that now enable our organisations to manage and coordinate our activities in new ways, transforming the nature of community and social institutions.
The norms and rules which are being developed to oversee collective resources sustainably involve peer-to-peer management and open source models. Such innovative systems include free software, open hardware groups, open media and educational models, open collaborative research in commerce and science, and horizontalist decision-making by social activists.
Thanks to these developments, a new production and governance logic of learning-by-doing has become possible. As resource users become directly involved in the process of production, their local ideas, learning, imagination, deliberation and self-corrective action are embodied directly in their collaborative activities. This expands the distribution of the means of production and decision-making far more widely than through top-down systems. When consumers become co-producers of the goods and services they receive and organize, their mutual activity transcends privatization, centralization and the idea that institutional change can come only through a traditional command structure or social hierarchy.
For example, in the Linux operating system and Wikipedia, a huge, heterogenous and geographically dispersed constituency is coordinating activity in a highly functional and unique way. Through innovative organisational models like these, resource users are becoming directly involved in the process of production. They are non-hierarchical frameworks which don’t depend on centralized quality control but on the collective goodwill of the crowd. This greater good is achieved by individuals working collectively on a voluntary basis, out of conscious choice, not out of fear spurred by a managerial authority
Civil society could apply this principle in its own work by embracing these innovative means of co-production and co-governance, and adopting open source values and structures. It is similar to the kind of market intelligence that businesses use to bring their leadership closer to their customers. This is how business solve product availability issues and locate quality problems quickly, without being haunted by them later. By involving the users of resources in the creation of their own resource boundaries, rules and policies, civil society groups may begin creating jobs. The funding for these new forms of employment will rapidly increase through peer-funding, commons wealth funds and other innovative means of financing.
In a way, the opportunities now being created by social technology are not really new. They are the ancient but much-neglected foundation of self-organizing communities and their capacities to serve the needs of stakeholders by increasing their power and protecting their common wealth and well-being through consensus decision-making.
This article was commissioned from James to give us a perspective on how we could apply ‘the commons’ into our organisational endeavours at a local level and as a result of discussions designing a Civil Society Forum event on the subject. We are grateful for his generosity of spirit and effort in doing this.- Esther