Democratic Oversight and Authoritarian Organizations

Organizational Oversight

How do people in your organization:

  • Make binding decisions?
  • Enact intervention?
  • Resolve conflicts of all kinds?

Your answers to those questions may determine whether your organization is an authoritarian one.

What does an authoritarian organization look like?

An authoritarian organization:

  • Has authoritarian rules, processes, and policies: they only specify who gets to approve what, without specifying resolutions to what-if scenarios.
  • Allows organizational authority to have immense power of discretion: people in power don’t have to make decisions, enact interventions, and resolve conflicts in consistent ways.
  • Relies solely on good will to make oversight happen: there’s no way to make sure effective and efficient oversight actually happens.

In other words, an authoritarian organization sustains a power structure that prevents any form of democratic oversight from happening.

Does your organization have democratic oversight?

BSRTC: A Model for Democratic Oversight

Here’s a simple way to assess:

  • Binding decision. Who make binding decisions? The more people who do, and the more spread-out those people are across the organizational hierarchy, the more likely does your organization have democratic oversight.
  • Structured resolution. How “what-if” scenarios are addressed? What if the decision maker is wrong? What if the approver is wrong? What if there are conflicting opinions? What if we find out the wrong after the decision? If there are clearly defined protocols that specify how those scenarios are resolved, then it’s more likely that your organization has democratic oversight.
  • Resolution performance. Are those “what-if” scenarios addressed effectively and efficiently? The easier it is for anyone to address them, the more likely does your organization have democratic oversight.
  • Tendency of risk-taking. How easy is it for anyone to take risks? The more people there are who are willing to take them, the more likely does your organization have democratic oversight.
  • Constructive criticism. How much is criticism allowed and encouraged? Constructive criticism and debate are fundamental to improvement of any kind. The more criticism is allowed and encouraged, the more likely does your organization have democratic oversight.

Accordingly, the five factors critical to determining oversight paradigm are BSRTC:

  • Binding decision (B)
  • Structured resolution (S)
  • Resolution performance (R)
  • Tendency of risk-taking (T)
  • Constructive criticism (C)
Figure 1: The BSRTC model

Different BSRTC profiles reflect different power structures.

Organizational BSRTC Profiles

Here are a few examples of common organizational profiles.

Democratic Oversight

When all factors score high, we’ve got true democratic oversight:

Figure 2: Democratic oversight

Oversight Theatre

Oversight theatre is a fascinating case:

  • An illusion of oversight is created by making sure conflict resolution protocols are duly followed and by allowing constructive criticism
  • Even though conflict resolution protocols are followed, those conflicts are rarely really resolved, but, instead, only suppressed, not unlike how celebrities or politicians get over a viral scandal
  • Decisions are still not binding, especially when it comes to working-level decisions
  • Risk aversion remains the norm
Figure 3: Oversight theatre

Oversight theatre is also commonly known as “paying lip service” to things like digital transformation, design, innovation, and empowerment, among many.

Meritocratic Oversight

Meritocratic oversight is in place when an organization:

  • Encourages risk-taking
  • Allows binding decisions be made, even at the working level, by establishing an accountability system based more on expertise rather than on the good old bureaucracy
  • Resolves conflict effectively and efficiently, regardless of whether there’s well-defined resolution protocols to follow, often through expertise-driven decision making
  • Doesn’t rely on constructive criticism, often because the expertise-driven decision making becomes effective and efficient
Figure 4: Meritocratic oversight

Autocratic Oversight

Autocratic oversight can be quite effective and efficient, because conflicts are almost always aptly resolved by a single person or a small group of people with total power.

Figure 5: Autocratic oversight

Admittedly, that works pretty well when the people in power happen to be rather benevolent and full of goodwill. But of course, if only it was that simple!

Intellectual Rubbish

And of course, nothing can stop intellectual rubbish when intellectuals are at it:

Figure 6: Intellectual rubbish

The thing is, constructive criticism can be very addictive, and, smart people being smart people, they are sometimes trapped in a pleasurable and yet vicious loop of thinking, losing touch with the reality of actually doing it.

Déjà vu?

So, does your organization have democratic oversight?

And if not, what do you think you can do?

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