March 4, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism, Society, Web

It may be a natural process for an organization to seek to control outcome by controlling process.  At a United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) conference in December, I observed an attempt by the steering committee to establish permanent steering committee members based on the perceived constituency of nationally and regionally based member organizations.  The idea was that there is little parity when large constituency organizations were in the same voting pool as very small organizations.  It seemed that large constituencies were often disenfranchised.

The solution was to permanently establish an assembly of agreed-upon large constituency organizations.

The proposal failed.  There were a number of reasons.  Perhaps the most obvious was that the authors of the proposal had not done detailed research and seemed unaware of several established regional and statewide coalitions.  They chose a couple that were statewide only in name.  The choice for regional and statewide permanent members seemed arbitrary.

To me, there was a more subtle dynamic in play.

An established organization seeks to achieve organization goals with as little conflict as possible.  This involves individuals within the organization making decisions based on what individuals perceive will make his or her life easier.  Folks rely upon established relationships that have proven useful.  The longer an individual is in a position within an organization, the more established becomes the network of relationship that person relies upon.

As a designer and promoter of horizontal, organizational online tools that seek to remove hierarchical barriers to communication, cooperation and social change, I find that established organizations display little intuition for how exactly these tools integrate with their established processes.  Individuals within established organizations are looking for structures that enhance their ability to achieve their goals within the organization.  Structure that enhances a giving up of control does not compute.

UFPJ, like other organizations with which I’ve been in contact, behave confounded by the Obama web 2.0 community organizing model and the surge of Facebook spontaneous political actions emerging with no affiliation to established activist organizations.  There is a disconnect between structure leveraging hierarchy (humans relying upon solidified, established relationships) to achieve goals and horizontal structure encouraging user creation/participation.

The hierarchy paradigm may be crashing, but I don’t perceive the invasion of new perspectives coming from established national peace and justice organizations.  I even see the big three national youth P & J organizations, SDS, IVAW and Food not Bombs, struggling with how they integrate with the new technologies.  It’s becoming more obvious with time that the new wave of horizontal communication, transparency and diversity is more subtle than most large organizations can grasp.


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