Burlington Cohousing East Village, Burlington, Vermont

Burlington Cohousing East Village, Burlington, Vermont
Burlington Cohousing East Village, Burlington, Vermont

Burlington Cohousing East Village adopted sociocracy in 2013. About their community from their website:

Mission

The mission of Burlington Cohousing East Village is to sustain our community strengths and to create and share better ways to live as neighbors – towards a way of living that welcomes diversity and fosters social connection, affordable living, environmental stewardship, and a smaller ecological footprint.

Values

Contributing to this mission are the following values:

  • We participate in the urban advantages of living in Burlington – cultural, pedestrian, biking, shared car trips, public transit.
  • We support commitment, innovation and personal courage.
  • We aim to make a positive difference in the lives of all.
  • We encourage the development of leadership and group facilitation skills.
  • We promote involvement with the larger community.
  • We practice self-governance with a modified consensus decision-making process.
  • We provide regular common meals which include food grown from our own lands.
  • We gather frequently for mutual appreciation and celebrations.
  • We are committed to non-violent communication and conflict resolution.

The Community

We’re Vermont’s only urban cohousing community; urban in the sense that we’re right across the street from the University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care, and about a mile from downtown Burlington. On the other hand, we’re also right next to Centennial Woods, a 68-acre nature preserve. And, as this is Vermont, we’re within easy reach of a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities – Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, the Adirondack Mountains, etc. Our 32 homes and common house are located on 4½ acres of land, out of which more than 3 acres is open space, woods, and gardens.

Our homes are a mix of one, two and three-bedroom apartments, two and three-bedroom townhouses, and two single-family homes. We share a large common house that includes a living room, kitchen for preparing shared meals, dining room with outdoor terrace, a large roof deck, guest rooms, multipurpose room, laundry room, and mailroom.

Most of our buildings have flat roofs to minimize visual impact and to facilitate the installation of photovoltaics.
By January of 2011, 113 rooftop photovoltaic panels had been added. By the fall of 2012, an additional 48 panels were installed.

Burlington Cohousing is legally structured like a condominium. Each household owns the interior of their unit, but also collectively owns the common elements including the common house, the roofs, outside walls, and structural components of the buildings, as well as the land. The common elements are managed by the residents, through the homeowners association. The legal documents for the community include the Declaration of Condominium and the By-Laws.

We have two solar photovoltaic arrays. You can see the information we receive on how much power they generate by visiting: Enlighten (powers the indoor common spaces) and Enlighten Public Systems (powers the unit owners who installed their own panels). Click on the Reports tab.

There is much more information about the community, their environment, and cohousing on the community website. 

What Is Sociocracy?

Gerard Endenburg, Yukon Conference, 2010
Gerard Endenburg, Yukon Conference, 2010

Literally, sociocracy means the sovereignty of the socius: I myself, the next person, the alter ego, the otherness. From a structural point of view this corresponds with the definition of sociocracy as a situation where the principle of consent predominates or is socially all–determining in the sense that it governs the making of decisions at all levels of society. The sociocratic circle organization is a cybernetic means of making this possible and then, as a dynamic balance, it maintains, regulates, and develops it.

From Sociocracy as Social Design  by Gerard Endenburg (English Translation, 1998)

Consensus and Personal Preferences

Personally I object to the use of the word “block” as synonymous with “objection” and this entry explains some of the reasons why.

What is a block? This is not a facetious question. If this is the word people want to use, what does it mean? From the accounts on the Cohousing-L email discussion list between cohousing communities that  uniformly use consent/consensus decision-making, block is used to describe an objection is more a veto. The discussion goes like this:

First the word block is used to describe someone who after much discussion still doesn’t consent to a proposal. Almost inevitably, a block is explained as being based on personal preferences. It’s the personal preferences that seem to be the problem. A “valid block” has to be based on community values. If it isn’t, it is based on personal preferences it is an “invalid block.”

Since a block is an objection based on personal preferences, rather than community values, a skilled facilitator is needed to step in and “fix” it. A magician to assert community values. Someone who can persuade the unpersuadable.

Objections in sociocracy are based on logical arguments and not personal preferences, but in a community where one lives, an objection based on personal preferences may be perfectly logical and thus valid. For example, the right to object to a tree being planted in front of the only window on the north side of your unit. Since your unit only has two exterior walls, north and south, and your personal preferences are to have light and to be able to see the rest of the community from your window, do you have the right to object or are these personal preferences? Others  want a tree there to balance the landscape and address water drainage issues, but these are also personal preferences because there are other ways to balance the landscape and solve drainage issues. Whose personal preferences are based  on community values and whose are not?

Values are important. They give purpose to life. They make us human. Values are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Values have to be translated into actions before they are more than words that make us feel good. For example:

— We value the lives of birds so we will feed them all winter.
— We value the lives of birds so we won’t allow outdoor cats.
— We value the lives of birds so we will have a large bird sanctuary in the common house.
— We value the lives of birds so we will have outdoor cats to reduce the population to a manageable level rather than having them starve.

All of these actions are based on valuing birds. Many actions will rely on  many personal preferences about how to express values. Which result best addresses the value. The key is on what basis will success be determined? Feeding birds all winter is considered to be dangerous to birds because they become dependent on being fed. If the action is to restrict outdoor cats, will that accomplish the purpose? Is a bird sanctuary really any life for a bird? How in danger is the bird population anyway?

What is the aim of valuing birds? Why do you value them? An action is something you can measure. Without measuring whether the aim is being achieved, it won’t be clear that it is being accomplished.  The what and the how is the decision that can be done on the basis of logical argument and then improved by trial and error.  But the aim has to be clear for that to happen, not just the values.

Conditions for Consensus Decision-Making

The people who consent to a proposal also have personal preferences. Weren’t their preferences blocking the preferences of the person who is labelled as blocking? Isn’t this just majority vote but the majority wants everyone to go along because another value is consensus in decision-making?

Consensus decision-making only works when

  1. everyone has a common aim,
  2. is willing and able to deliberate together long enough to resolve all objections, and
  3. chooses to make decisions with this group.

It is said that consensus can’t work in cohousing communities because people can’t choose with whom they make decisions. But the premise of cohousing is that one has chosen to make decisions with everyone who lives there—a diverse, self-selecting group. That group, however, still needs to have a common aim in relation to the decision being made and they still have to sit together long enough to resolve objections.

Consent and objections in sociocracy are based on the ability of the person to support/respect/implement the actions required by the proposal. The ability to do that may indeed be based on personal preferences. If planting  a tree in front of a window causes a person to move away because they can’t do their job of being a good community member, whose  actions have supported the values of the community.

Vision, Mission, Aim

Values relate to a vision statement. A vision is a dream. It’s what you want the world to be. A vision is intangible and not a good plan for action. Measurements based on visions and values will always be based on person preference. You need more: a Mission.

For those reading this website, the mission will probably be cohousing or cohousing plus ___. Plus a bakery, an eco-village, a home school, etc.

The vision and mission together lead to the aim. The aim is the tangible basis for taking action. Actions can be measured to determine their success. Did that action achieve our aim? How do we need to improve it?

I think groups may be trying to make decisions based on their vision, not their aim. What is called a “personal preference” is really a values issue and can’t be measured as valid or invalid. Though values may guide actions, only actions and results can be measured. The resolution of objections should be focused on the aim of the proposal, how to accomplish it, and how to measure the results. Is the aim shared by everyone? Who decided that?

If there is no common aim, how can there be a consensus? If the proposal has no aim, no measurable result, how can it be useful?

The problem with “blocks” is usually:

  1. lack of a common or well-defined aim and/or
  2. avoidance of using a more appropriate decision-making method, like preference rating or majority vote.

Unless the group can meet all the conditions necessary to use consensus, “blocks” will continue to occur as the result of trying to use a decision-making method that isn’t appropriate.

Moving Objections to the Beginning

One of the ways the methods used in sociocracy that speeds up decision-making is going directly to objections instead of or before discussing the advantages of a proposal. The perceived advantages of a decision should be stated in the proposal or its presentation. The presenters will probably recount the issues and options they considered. There is usually no need to repeat the discussion that has taken place in previous meetings or to hear arguments in favor again.

The Process for Making a Decision Effectively

Prequel: Discuss or request comments from everyone who will be affected by the decision. A formal discussion in a  meeting of the circle may be preferable, but is not necessary if there are other ways to collect information and multiple viewpoints.

1. Present the proposal.

2. Answer clarifying questions.

Questions should be clean questions with no embedded messages. If there is an embedded message, don’t discuss it. Answer as if it had been a clean question or defer it for rounds.

4. Do a quick reaction round.

Responses of 1-2 words will indicate if there are concerns or objections that seem serious or unresolvable. Is the proposal ready for consent or should it be referred back to the proposal writers?

5. Ask for concerns and objections in detail.

(a) Refer these back to proposal writer(s) or
(b) Begin consent rounds to resolve them.

Asking for detailed concerns and objections should usually be done in a round but if there are only a few this can done more effectively by asking each person individually.

6. Consent rounds.

Several rounds may be needed to reach consent. The early rounds will suggest resolutions and later rounds to clarify remaining objections.

The decisive question is: “Do you have objections that will influence your ability to support this decision?”

Clarifications

Addressing concerns and resolving objections is a group process, not the duty of the facilitator. The facilitator decides how to proceed but this decision is subject to objections.

The facilitator participates as an equal, including in rounds.

The goal is consent to a decision that everyone can support in day-to-day operations.

Effectiveness, transparency, and accountability are the prime values in this process:

  • What will produce the most effective decision?
  • Does everyone have all the information relevant to this decision
  • Who will be accountable for the outcome of the decision

Rounds may be interspersed with discussion:

  • Rounds establish and maintain equivalence in the room. They keep decision-making balanced by encouraging everyone to participate as equals—the reticent as well as the more expansive.
  • Discussion, free form or dialogue between 2 or more persons, can be helpful to clarify questions or to give information others in the group may not have.

A proposal needs:

  • a person(s) to implement the decision and
  • a method to measure outcomes.

If there is no plan for implementing the decision or means of measuring effectiveness, the decision will probably be meaningless. Not worth the time.

Moving Objections to the Beginning

Moving objections to the beginning of consideration of a proposal instead of considering them at the end of the process moves time and attention to the issues that may not have been considered or that are in opposition to the proposal.

The arguments are then more likely to be presented and examined clearly, not in the context of a back and forth of pros and cons by skilled and unskilled orators. This kind of rhetoric can easily obscure the aim of the proposal and the nature of the objection.

The endpoint of decision-making is an action that works. Consensus decisions, those in which all the objections have been resolved and/or measurements set to test them, work best. They are not always possible but they work best.

Consensus, Consent, and Objections

Heresy, I know, but I think Holacracy has a good point in using “objections” and not “consent.” Brian says in his Introduction to Holacracy video: “Consent has no place in Holacracy.” We want to hear objections to the proposal.

Restrictions on Consent

One of my criticisms of groups using full-group consensus is that first they commit to one for all, and all for one, then they begin putting restrictions on it. All for one and one for all except when only one person doesn’t consent. Or except when only 10% don’t consent. And that the objection has to be based on group values, which are often non-existent or unclear in respect the policy.
People who consent are never asked for the reasoning behind their consent. What restrictions are placed on consent? What does it mean? Do people explain their reasoning?
The number of restrictions placed on withholding consent proliferate almost as soon as consensus is adopted. Even sociocracy adds  restricts consent to  “paramount and reasoned.” “Reasoned” is logical but “paramount” is in the eye of the beholder. Who ever refused to consent who didn’t think their objection was paramount?

Consent Means No Objections

Holacracy has avoided the ambiguity and contradictions of the words consent and consensus by going straight to the definition that Gerard Endenburg realized would work in a performance-based organization in the first place — “no objections.”
I suggest that it is a historical artifact that the word “consent” exists at all in Endenburg’s implementation. Just as I think it was a historical artifact in Comte’s to think that a panel of sociologists should be, not just advise the government. He was steeped in autocratic his experience of a single ruler or ruling body. In 1850s France, democracy was admired but not all so accepted as practical. It’s cracks were showing even then.
In the 1940s, Boeke clearly meant consensus in the traditional Quaker sense. Everyone had to consent that a proposed action was in the best interests of the whole and all individual interests had to be considered. Even though Endenburg was educated in Boeke’s tradition, he actually stepped outside it in his method by using the logic of the physical sciences, not religion or politics.

The Basis of Objections

Endenburg based his definition of consent on the absence of objections and objections based on a specific criterion — the ability to work (or function) toward the aim if the proposed action took place. Consent is written in Sociocracy (1988) as “consent (no objections).” Since “consent” was the historically accepted word, he naturally used the word “consent.”
And I’m also sure he meant consent in the spirit of being inclusive. In the 1960s and 70s when he was developing his ideas there was a general reaction in the Western World to the exclusiveness and elitism of society. “Objection” was a harder sell with revelations of WWII still emerging. Objections had made no difference. Consent would have been more acceptable.

Branding Sociocracy in the United States

The letter S as a cattle brandSince sociocracy was introduced in North America, problems with the name “sociocracy” have hounded it.  Unlike European countries, Americans associate sociocracy negatively with “socialism,” sociocracy is harder to say in English than in many other languages. Unfortunately, the rejection of the word “sociocracy” and the use of alternatives continue to confuse the public and obstruct efforts to develop a cohesive image, a “brand” in the current marketing vernacular.

A Solution for Branding Sociocracy

Some of the various names for methods based on the principles fo sociocracy are  Dynamic Governance, Bio-Dynamic Governance, Dynamic Self-Governance, Holacracy, and most recently, Circle Forward. All are unique in emphasis and aim but share the same principles. One solution to unifying the field would for all to use a common phrase as a subtitle or in descriptive content.  “Implementing the principles of sociocracy” or “an implementation of sociocracy.” This would clarify confusion and  unify forces while allowing unique identities, business branding, etc.

Acknowledging a common methodological base would also encourage more dialogue about the nature if that base. This kind of dialogue about methods of teaching and practicing would be valuable to all. It would provide the kind of analysis that is necessary to the further development and application of sociocracy.

Techniques or Understanding

One criticism of We the People is that there is too much history and theory. Some people only want the “how to.”

“The book should start with the how-to.”

“Give me the technique, not the boring stuff.”

Techniques

But if you focus on techniques, you then require more detailed techniques—one for every situation. As if there could be a manual to cover all situations. If there were such a thing it would look like Robert’s Rules Order and you would have to have a specialist—a parliamentarian—in every meeting to cite the rules. No one else would learn them, and if you stop the meeting to look them up the meeting could become all about the rules. Robert’s is a thick book. With small type.

With a focus merely on techniques the meeting content would be downed in searches of the right techniques.

Understanding Is Fundamental

Techniques are important but not by themselves. They are applications, not understanding. Without understanding you can’t develop new or unique techniques, ones to fit the situation confronting you. People are unique and changing. Situations are ever new. The techniques are almost universal in application but not always.

Learning techniques without understanding is like learning tactics without a strategy. When memorized tactic fails, you won’t know what to do. With and understanding of strategy, tactics can be adapted to the situation.

If you understand the historical development of sociocracy and the intentions of the principles, you can figure out a technique for any situation. You think first of the desired result and then how to produce it.

Focus the “Why?” First, Then the How

Understanding the reasoning behind the principles a much richer, developmental experience for everyone.