Sociocracy and platform coop governance

Ted Rau
14 min readOct 27, 2017

(This article was the first article; I have since written an article that refines what is suggested here.)

Platform co-ops are a hot topic and a new hope right now. Could we re-build an alternative for the platforms we are using in a way that involves shared ownership and shared governance? Platform cooperatives are being formed as cooperatives, and some of them are designed as cooperatives of cooperatives. It is exciting to imagine how so much more people power could be unleashed if we managed to truly own and influence our immediate and our digital life in a way that is aligned with our values instead of giving up power and profit to a fairly intransparent, centralistic force.

However, platform governance is tricky. There are issues that come up, mostly around scale, that could severly inhibit growth and success of those platforms. In worst-case scenarios the inner circle of a cooperative might turn into an ‘inner circle’ that lacks transparency and truly shared power. This can easily happen as people who build and run the platforms are running low on resources, role models and have a big, demanding job to do.

This article will present a description of the issues as we see them within Sociocracy For All, a non-profit training and coaching on sociocratic governance. This article is nothing more than a first draft, as so many of us are trying to wrap their mind around new possibilities and how to best make them happen. We want platform coops to succeed, to be aligned with their own values in their actions, their ownership model and their governance. This article is just one step on the journey of co-creation. In this spirit, this article solely focuses on governance, only on sociocratic forms of governance, and not at all on financial models of profit-sharing or other platform-related topics.

Sociocracy — the very brief overview

In this article we take sociocratic processes for granted, for the simple reasons that we think they are the closest tool we have to deeply democratic ways of self-governance, as it is more appropriate for heterogenous groups than consensus, more democratic than autocratic organizations, more true to the cause than any model that uses majority rule.

Sociocracy has been around for decades, it drew from existing wisdom and old practices and gave them a coherent form which we find useful because we see the clarity, intentionality and coherence as essential ingredients if you want a transparent model that supports equivalence.

Sociocracy, in its most basic form and in our interpretation, is a set of three principles:

  • Consent decision-making; a decision is made when there is no objection from the group members having the authority to make this decision. No one can be ignored.
  • Power distributed in small, clearly defined and nested teams (we call them circles) with defined membership and interlinking between those circles in a way that makes it impossible to fall into camps, into “us” vs. “the others” — an embodiment of the idea that we are all one and that we as humans are wired for co-operation.
  • Feedback is present at everything we do: every decision includes a way to measure our success and a time when we will do so. We strive to improve how we grow as individuals, as group and as co-workers. Adaption and evolution are the constants in governance, because change and challenges are the constants in our world.

Sociocracy builds on those very basic principles — and everything added to the teaching are best practices. There is no right or wrong here and we’re all learning. There are more and less effective ways to act on those principles, and more and less effective ways for them to interact.

What’s relevant for platform co-ops

The most relevant features of sociocracy for platform co-ops are the following:

  • The difference between feedback and decision-makers. Feedback is important in decision-making. And feedback, once we open our mind to see it, is everywhere. In a typical sociocratic organization, a circle can — if it is within their area of authority which is defined — make a decision that affects everyone in the organization. For instance, a membership circle could, if membership fees are in their domain, set the membership fee for every member of the organization. Do you know that effect when you ask someone for advice and they tell you x but then you do y and they are offended? We have to learn to accept that every individual or team can ask for feedback and consider it but still do what they think is best. Giving feedback does not equal being a decision-maker. Of course, on the other hand, there is a lot of energy (to avoid the word power) in feedback that can be harvested. The point here is just to separate out feedback from authority to make a decision.
  • Another concept that seems relevant here is that the power of semi-autonomous circles comes with a responsibility: transparency and openness to feedback. Any group that makes a decision has to be proactive in soliciting and receiving information from the members of the organization or other stakeholders. (Often, stakeholders will be included in the organization on board level, see below.) What we teach is: for every decision you put out to the rest of the organization, put out (1) what got decided for what reasons (2) when the circle will review the decision (3) what the circle will monitor/measure during this term (4) how the circle would prefer to receive feedback and (5) what specifically the circle would appreciate feedback on. For instance: “Membership circle decided to raise the membership fee by 20% to allow for the budget to include some more targeted outreach in this start-up phase. We will try this policy for 6 months. We are aware that this might be hard on some members and might affect whether prospective members join. For that reason, we are closely monitoring those members and will revisit the policy right away if our new member conversion rate drops by more than 25% per month. At the end of the term of 6 months, we will present a report by email. If you’d like to give feedback then and in the time until then, please contact Mike under (email) and let him know specifically what your feedback is.” This is very different from silently changing the fee structure. The more information you put out (in a reasonable way, at a reasonable rate, to the appropriate audience), the more trust you will earn. Asking for and receiving feedback becomes a super-power.
  • Another big topic for platform co-ops is that sociocracy protects the people who associate together. Sociocracy translates to ‘governance by those who associate together’. That’s what makes sociocracy so attractive to co-operatives in general because that means it protects workers. Those who do the work make the decisions. Sociocracy also protects decision-making circles by the requirement of having defined membership. A new member can only be accepted as a circle member if the other circle members give their consent to that person becoming a member. No member can be forced onto a group. This is to avoid situations where a group works on an issue for months, comes to consent and then a new member walks in a undoes all their progress. We have to empower and protect the groups that do the work so they can do their work without dysfunction.

What’s special about plaform co-ops in terms of governance?

1. Fractal nature of a sociocratic organization

Sociocratic organizations are simple because they scale very easily. Any circle can form a sub-circle, which will form a sub-sub-circle and so on. The fractal nature makes sociocratic organizations easy to adapt because we are always following the same principles. We decentralize and always make decisions locally, with the people we work with and who we know well. We grow in one place if we want to, and we can do so locally, without approval from anyone in the hierarchy.

2. Workers in self-governance circles

Platform cooperatives, however, are hard to scale. Why? Because of an inherent split that inhibits scaling. Let’s start with an easy case. Imagine in the picture on the left that there are a lot of stewards of the platform (white stars) self-managing the platform co-op. Those could be programmers or other workers that keep the platform going. This kind of governance can be done easily using standard sociocratic implementation.

Platform cooperatives, on a simplistic level, can be seen as worker-cooperatives with an `outer’ circle of members. (That puts them very close to any hybrid cooperative, like a food co-op that is a worker-cooperative at the same with being a consumer co-op.) The worker-cooperative part of the platform cooperative can scale easily, like in the image 1 above. However, that’s not typically what platform co-ops do. Platform co-ops often include people who are contributors but are not stewards of the overall platform. They are not white stars (as in: members of some circle somewhere closely related to their work), but they are outside of the circle system.

Any organization can take a few people who “only” do work but are not organized in circles. Cooperative housing, for instance, can have 100 members out of which only 60 are parts of a circle while the other 40 contribute to the work to be done (snow shoveling, organizing potlucks), without being part of the policy-making around those tasks. That typically does not create any issues, especially since, typically, those contributors in work but not circle members (purple stars) could to join a circle and would be welcome there. They just choose to opt out. We could include them, and they ride on the fact that they have easy access to the decision-makers and trust that they will be heard if they decided to join a decision-making team.

This is where the issue of scale comes in. It is really not so much about scale. It is about the mismatch between stewards that enable the platform to run and make policy around that vs. members that contribute but are not involved in making policy. What if there are 2,000 purple stars (members that do or do not do work) and only 15 stewards? What if a twitter-equivalent were run by 100 stewards and wanted to include 2,000,000 contributors? There is no way the “worker-coop” segment of the organization — the stewards — could include those 2 million members in their decision-making. That would create chaos, and it lack of clarity and lack of consistent work groups that build experience, mutual trust relationships and expertise.

This is not a new phenomenon. Any consumer coop (even those that are hybrids with worker-coops) faces the same issue. The way it has been solved is with majority vote. All those 2 million members might elect the people who become the decision-makers. Only, there are issues with that.

  • If you have ever heard about sociocratic election you might know that the principles behind them are (a) no one ignored (and majority vote tends to ignore 49% of the votes) and (b) we can only elect someone we have some familiarity with because we elect someone based on qualifications and reasons. The consumer co-op that I am a member of sends me a ballot every year, and, honestly, I don’t know any of those names, and I only make fairly random votes, or I vote for those who I do know, with this awkward gut feeling of operating on random criteria — how do I know they are the best ones for the job if I don’t know the other people? How do I know how they work, how they collaborate, how they are behind the scenes? Their CV might prove that they are competent, but how are they to work with? Majority vote does not seem to be really inclusive in a reliable way. It’s more a paper democracy and we are longing for a deep democracy, built on real relationships and trust. Filling out a ballot once every other year seems to be a very low standard for self-governance. We’d love to hear from people in between, let them co-create, take ownership, contribute, be part of it. But how do we do that without chaos?

In a word, there are many unsolved — and often ignored — issues with majority vote in large cooperatives. And sociocracy, at first sight, does not seem to have a good solution for it.

That’s where the underlying sociocratic principles come in: those who associate together decide together. How do we do that? There are two possible directions. Either everyone needs to work together and make decisions together (extending the circle system so that all purple stars find a spot in the circle structure), or we make the separation between decision-makers and non-decision-making members work (keeping the divide between white and purple stars). It seems like the first option is impossible. It would significantly inhibit growth to include so many in decision-making on a policy level. (Of course contributors do make decisions, for instance it they post something or contact someone. They just don’t make policy decisions, i.e. decisions that make a general statement of what is not allowed for everyone.)

The other option seems much more promising, and I’d like to lay out my thoughts on that. These are the parameters under which I’d consider an option like that:

  • The stewards running the organization in the background (white stars) make general decisions that frame the platform. The other contributor members (purple stars) can be included in small operational decisions. We protect the working teams (white stars), build expertise on how to run a platform, enable them to track topics and to learn as a team. They will know each other well and will be able to have a sense of trust, belonging and building of relationships over time. Possibly, these workers work in the organization as their full time job (or something that equates to that), the income might be their livelyhood which needs to be protected. There is complete clarity on membership: we know who is part of this group and there is accountability, no matter whether this is a paid position or not.
  • The interface between members (purple stars) and the decision-makers has to follow guidelines that ensures a good relationship between the feedback-givers and the decision-makers. That means that (a) decision-makers have to be extremely transparent and forthcoming in their information (as in: saying what they decide, for how long, for what reasons, and how feedback can be given in through what channel and to whom). If a decision is being revised, they are required to be accountable towards the feedback-givers in a transparent and responsive way. (b) contributing members (purple stars) can contribute to the work on an operational level (perform small tasks without having decision-making power at a generic scale on how those tasks are performed). For instance, on a facebook-like platform, they can help flag postings but they don’t decide what the guidelines are for flagging items. They can create code in an open source platform but they don’t decide what code makes into the core version (we want to avoid unintentional forks). In a word, contributors and members of a platform can carry out work, use the platform, they can play and be creative, but the longer arch of attention and responsibility remains with the decision-making stewards. (If you find that this is giving too little power to contributing members, remember the food coop ballots. I know that as a member, I’d rather be asked for specific feedback more often and know in a transparent way what happens with my feedback than to fill out a ballot and tell myself that I had made a meaningful contribution…)
  • There have to be clear and transparent guidelines of how one transitions from the set of contributors to the set of decision-making. This can be a practice using meritocratic ideas, or just an open hiring process. Whatever it is, it has to be clear.
  • It is easy imagine a second ‘ring’ of members, a ‘2-class system’ of members. There are those who only want to be members and benefit from the platform, and there are those who are more active contributors in any way, in a similar way as everyone can edit a page on wikipedia, but then there are administrators who have privileges like deleting pages. (While we’re at it, wikipedia might count as a successul model for horizontal self-governance; however, just to name one metric, the diversity among contributors seems to be out of whack as men are highly over-represented among contributors and emotional safety in discussions does not seem to be guaranteed — not a model we want to replicate.) Again, the relationship between first and second ring has to be defined well, depending on the nature of the platform, just as the relationship between 1st ring input-givers and the decision-making circles. A simple way to describe them would be that the 2nd ring members would only be members and users of the platform. (They don’t even have to be co-owners; the financial sphere can be defined independently of the governance structure.) The 1st ring members are ones who do certain jobs (for instance flagging or editing content), and there is some defined membership there. They would be the most valuable source of input for the decision-makers because they do work. For instance, if they flag posts, they would give relevant input on the policies of what should be flagged. They would also be most likely to be holding the decision-makers accountable. We would have some filtering of input for the decision-makers, adaptable to the situation of the platform.

These are the design principles I see useful in adapting a governance system to the specific case of platform coops.

Summary

In a simplistic way, we need a way to separate the creative chaos from order. What connects both is feedback. I’d like to think more about feedback lines instead of using fairly empty methods like majority vote to thinks about ways we can create inclusice and cohesive cooperatives.

Self-governance and decision-making requires order. It requires trusted groups, clarity and accountability. The creative chaos around it benefits from healthy leadership, and contributes resources (monetary or non-monetary) and feedback. As long as we have complete clarity and intentionality around the relationship between both, we can build a mutually beneficial relationship with shared ownership and democratic representation.

In a model with all the features described here, we’d get the best from both world and, by embracing feedback, even more.

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Background: This paper is a DRAFT version 1.1 after quite a few conversations with platform and sociocracy folks. I wrote it not because I assume it is correct but so that I could solidify my own thinking and get responses from other minds and experiences.

Timeline: ongoing. This article was last updated on Oct 27, 2017

Measurements: I will monitor comments and clicks for this article. The most important metric for me is how many people tell me there was something useful in this.

Channel: the best channel to reach me is this: jennifer@sociocracyforall.org. More info on sociocracy is in this 4min video here or in the resources section of SoFA’s website

Feedback: if you have anything useful to say, please do! I would in particular like to receive feedback on

  • how useful this article is
  • what struggle in platform coops around governance this does not address

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Ted Rau

Sociocracy, Non-Violent Communication, Linguistics