by Paxus Calta
Around 50 years ago the founder of Twin Oaks decided that they were going to radically depart from conventional decision-making techniques. They disliked voting, consensus had not been secularized by the feminists yet and waiting for everyone to agree seemed time-consuming, so they thought they would develop something new.
Almost everyone in community makes decisions in meetings, but Twin Oaks was founded by writers. They thought a dynamic writing-based decision system could get around some of the big problems associated with running a complicated community. To this end they developed the O&I Board. O&I stands for Opinions and Information. Critics of this system occasionally quip that the name really comes from “Oh am I bored”.
The way it works is pretty straightforward. There are 2 dozen clipboards placed on a wall and anyone can put up a paper with a proposal for something new on one of them. At the end of the proposal you have posted you leave blank pages of paper so that other members can make comments or suggestions.
There are several advantages to this system. The first is that you don’t need to gather everyone in the same place at the same time to discuss something. On our busy, large farm this is significant plus. People can read everything that others have written, or skim it if that is their interest, or skip it completely if the topic doesn’t resonate with them. Readers can comment in whatever length they feel appropriate, from multiple pages, to simply dittoing something someone else has written and signing your name (this is a pretty common practice). Members can make alternative proposals or point out unaddressed problems and hopefully the proposal becomes stronger for all this input. The pressure to agree with someone who is talking to you and who you want to make happy as well as some groupthink problems are decreased.
But there are problems as well. Written communication is much more likely to result in flame wars than face-to-face communication. If you can see how what your saying is upsetting someone, your humanity kicks in and you may tone down your words – the O&I looses this important control. Because you are somewhat more likely to be attacked on the O&I than in a meeting, some members shy away from this format not wishing to be in the center of a controversy. Written communication is difficult for some people. If there are many comments on a proposal, the later ones do not get as much attention as the earlier ones and there is no notice that new important comments have been added, so you have to keep checking on papers with which you are concerned.
The real problem with the O&I board is none of these described above, nor is it a problem with the board itself, but rather with it as an entrance ramp to our decision-making process in general. The real problem is once you have posted on the O&I board, if there are any significant number of comments your next steps are unclear.
Sure, if everyone says “This is a great idea, lets do it!” then it is clear, but this very rarely happens. If your proposal is contentious or has several sets of recommendations on how you should change it, you as the author of the original proposal are at a crossroads. Should you push on with your proposal? Should you do a community survey? Should you call for a community meeting? Should you go talk with the people who seemed most upset about your proposal and see if you can find a compromise? Should you talk to the people who are most supportive of your proposal and ask them to help you advance it unmodified? Should you talk with the planner or the council about it? Should you just give up and drop it completely?
This is, for many members, simply too many options. Especially since, if the proposal is at all controversial, no matter which one you choose some critic is going to call “bad process” on you for not having done it the way they want it done. Perhaps this is why after 50 years no other community has decided to mimic the O&I board as their central decision-making tool.
Pictured is Gil Cambia, photo credits Paxus