Sociocracy – what’s it all about?

By Joanna McMinn

Co-operative Alternatives latest webinar on Sociocracy for Co-operatives in June, opened the conversation on various type of governance and decision making. We asked Joanna McMinn, facilitator of the webinar, some questions on her favourite subject: sociocracy.

How would you sum up what sociocracy is all about? 

Sociocracy provides a comprehensive dynamic governance system, consisting of a combination of processes and tools including: a decision-making process that includes every voice, making agreements by consent; an organisational structure that can carry that inclusion into organisations of any size and complexity; and a strong focus on feedback that allows the organisation grow and adapt in changing environments.

‘Sociocracy is a living, evolving, integrated system of values, principles, practices, and tools for self-governance with shared power designed for people who share a mindset of a world that is nurturing, respectful and inclusive’ Ted Rau, SoFA

What difference does it make within a co-op?

The difference that sociocracy can make is by distributing decision-making authority into circles (teams of people), working autonomously, each with their own aims and objectives. These circles define and elect members to roles (by consent), to make sure to make sure all functions of their circle are executed. Circles use rounds, the practice of talking one by one, in meetings, ensuring that every voice matters. Two interdependent teams each select one of their members to represent their interests in the governance decisions of the other team, ensuring accountability and influence both ways.

How does it compare with other models of governance?

Majority votingis associated with polarizing views, taking a stand, having a clear position, and is common in Boards of management as the accepted decision-making method, even though it derives from political systems that we know don’t result in policies that meet the needs of all citizens. You either vote for one side, or against it, there’s very little nuance.

Consensus aims to be inclusive; and the intention is that people listen to each other and try to find a solution that works for everyone. But if preferences don’t match in consensus, then there can be problems, e.g.

  • I can try to convince you that my view is right. This can quickly turn into ideological arguments similar to majority vote, especially in split decisions.
  • I can push for you to “stand aside”, i.e., for your voice to be ignored for the sake of the group that wants to move forward. This is also called compromise.

Sociocratic governance offers an explicit process of decision making and systems of governance that increase effectiveness in bringing these two processes into alignment.

Can you outline the use of consent rather than majority voting in the model?

Consentis where a proposal is approved if no one in the group sees a reason to object, e.g., that the proposal harms the aim of the group. If someone sees a reason, the group works to see if they can tweak the proposal until it does work. To approve a proposal, 100% of all group members need to consent. They don’t have to love the proposal to consent; it’s ok when the proposal is good enough (safe enough to try /good enough for now and can be evaluated at further meetings) and doesn’t violate the aim.

To put this into operation, there is a practice of rounds, where each person speaks one by one until everyone has spoken once. Then the group starts again.  Rounds fulfil the principle that everyone’s voice matters. Usually, when a proposal is made, there is a clarifying round, then a quick reaction round, then a round to see if there are objections, and finally a consent round.

An objection is expressed as a concern or fear that what is being proposed will harm the aim of the group. Usually, an objection might be that x, y or z might happen (expressed as a fear that it might happen or as an opinion that it will happen).  To resolve an objection the proposer(s) can add words to the proposal, about how we will measure and evaluate it once it’s implemented.Feedback loops are established, to evaluate proposals.

What advice would you give to a new co-op?

Watch a short video on how sociocracy works, and look at anexample of sociocracy / dynamic governance in action in a coop:

Further resources: