Policy and Compassion

Posted 27th February 2014 by keenan from Keenan’s Twin Oaks Blog

How to be a bureaucrat and also a decent human

What Twin Oaks is is contained in our policies.  What Twin Oaks is not is also contained in our policies.  What Twin Oaks is likely to become in the future is contained in our policies. As individuals we are protected by our policies.  Our entire alternative income-sharing, non-violent, ecological and cooperative culture relies on the clear communication and effective enforcement of our policies.   Having policy is vital; understanding policy is vital; adhering to policy is vital.

However, given all that, I also believe that it is wrong and dangerous to then conclude that everything written in Twin Oaks’ policy notebooks is flawless. The vicissitudes of fate and the vast range of human behavior guarantee that policies will inevitably need interpretation and alteration.

Most people believe that unless they are on some decision-making committee, they don’t need to understand the arcane issues about the application of policy, but even two people in a relationship discussing whether it’s OK to have sex with someone else are “drafting policy.”   I think understanding concepts and issues around application of policy makes the world a healthier place.

Because there are so many ways we affect each other at Twin Oaks, we often have to interpret policy here.  An example:  It’s important that Twin Oaks drivers drive safely.  Periodically, the issue comes up of some people feeling unsafe with a tripper’s driving.   The policy is that an unsafe driver loses that job.  OK then. How unsafe is too unsafe?   Is one complaining passenger enough?   How many warnings is enough?  The policy is clear, but the implementation of that policy requires interpretation.  Really, the implementation of every policy requires interpretation.

The “check-down” analysis required in using policy is something like this: do we have a policy that covers this situation? Yes?  Great!   If this situation is unusual and no policy covers it, is it a truly unique situation that requires an exception to policy?  Or is this new situation something that is likely to recur and so this new decision isn’t an exception but, rather, a new precedent? Is the policy totally outdated?  Does it need to be ignored in this situation and then eventually rewritten?

Throughout all of these steps, the first and foremost thought should be, “Does this decision make sense?” and “Is this what a majority of the community would want to have happen?”


         Errors in policy interpretation:

To me, one of the least compelling arguments is that we should assume that the judgment of earlier bureaucrats is always better than the judgment of current bureaucrats. Another error is trying to re-draft a policy to cover an extremely unusual situation that will, in all likelihood, never occur again. If a unique situation arises, a unique decision needs to be made.  It’s best to announce that we don’t have policy for this situation and make a decision based on common sense—and let the policy alone.

The third error, and I think the most common, is mindlessly applying policy that is not relevant in this particular situation. For any decision-maker, the safest path is to hide behind policy and to not use independent judgment.   My take is that the mindless-adherence path is what most people mean when complaining about bureaucrats and bureaucracy.  If the gap between communal common sense and bureaucratic decision making becomes too wide, it leads to cruel outcomes,  mistrust and dysfunction.

        Enforcing policy

No one wants to be the bad guy, but there has to be an enforcer when someone violates policy.  But enforcing policy does not mean letting go of your basic humanity.  For most of us, enforcing policy is regrettable.  Communicating your personal regret, can take the some of the sting out of receiving bad news.  Also, telling someone the process they need to go through to change this outcome (even if it’s unlikely that the decision will change) goes a long way toward softening the blow of enduring sanctions, or being on the losing side of a policy debate. When the time comes to enforce policy, be sure you have the support of the community.  Don’t make it a dyadic power dynamic between the two of you If you think you are representing the community, be sure that you are representing the community and then include others in your enforcement campaign.


Errors in applying policy: secrecy

The whole design of our egalitarian community ensures that there are going to be amateurs in most positions, including decision-making positions. The temptation is to keep troublesome decisions quiet. Whether we make decisions that make someone unhappy, or we screw up the proper process, the right thing to do is to 1) make the decision public and 2) to make the thinking about the decision public.  By making information public, people understand how a manager or committee came to a decision. This serves several salubrious functions. The main function is that it helps everyone understand why and how a decision was come to and, usually, that it was a difficult decision.  This contributes to the second function which is increasing trust.  Trust is the foundation upon which our entire alternative culture rests.  Secret decisions erode trust and weaken the community; clearly explained publicly-announced decisions—even unpopular ones—even about a process mistake the group made–builds trust and strengthens the community.

An important additional function of explaining the thinking around a decision is that it helps educate everyone about the process of making decisions.   Decisions that are explained increases the overall competence of the community in making decisions. And, if you are making a decision and you can’t publicly justify that decision, or you don’t want to, then maybe you should go back and revisit the decision and make a decision that you do feel comfortable explaining publicly.

It is understandable that bureaucrats don’t want to explain their thinking in making decisions, because they(we) are going to get flak and—worst case scenario—the decision-maker might be wrong, that is, they may not represent the majority of the community, they may have misapplied policy, they may have done the process wrong.  And this is all the more reason to share decisions publicly—specifically to correct erroneous decisions.  Bad decisions that don’t represent the wishes of the community  erode trust. So, as awful as it can be to post a decision and have people rise up in outrage and then overturn the decision, that’s actually a good thing.  That means that people have the ability to correct poor decisions by well-meaning (we can assume) but misguided decision-makers.


         Errors in applying policy: ignoring your own conscience

Being in a decision-making role usually means not making up your own mind, but, rather, following policy and representing other’s interests.  Inevitably, there will be times when these can conflict with your own sense of what is right.  What to do?  Sometimes people recuse themselves; I think that they shouldn’t. The main reason for recusal is when there is a conflict of interests, that is, the decision facing you will affect your personal interests.  That is a good reason to recuse yourself  from a decision.  But the world is not made better if people of conscience recuse themselves from decision-making.  I ask you, who is left to make decisions then?  So, caring about the outcome of a decision is not the same as benefiting from that decision personally.  Because you have an ethical compass is no reason to recuse yourself from a decision.

But if a policy mandates that you make a decision that is at odds with your own conscience, what is the right thing to do?  In the world I want to live in, don’t follow policy if the outcome is ethically wrong! This is exactly the place where you should make the decision according to what you think is right, and then you publicly state your reasons for doing so.  Let those who disagree with you then attempt to overturn your decision—and make them explain why.

I believe that it is essential that we not lose our compassion, kindness, or essential humanity in coming to decisions.  It can be challenging to make a decision that is not backed up by policy, but I believe that is the essence of being not only a good bureaucrat, but a good human.  I believe that all of us want decisions that are guided by, not just proper process, but also by people who have a heart and are trying to make ethical decisions; in a community, I think that we should demand nothing less of our decision-makers. I believe that it is not only possible to be a bureaucrat and a decent human being; I think it is crucial.



[All photos from Twin Oaks archives–not in original article]



Policy and Compassion

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