From Quaker Process to a Model of Governance
At the end of World War II, a Dutch educator and Quaker named Kees
Boeke, was imprisoned by the Germans for harbouring Jews. In his pocket
was a declaration entitled “No Dictatorship” which came near to causing
his death. He had developed his ideas while building up a school, the
Workplace Children’s Community school.
“Very early on I suggested that we should talk over how we should
organize our community life… At first the children objected saying
they wanted me to make decisions for them. But I insisted and the idea
of the “Talkover” or weekly meeting was accepted. Later I suggested that
one of the children help me with the leadership of the meeting; and
from that time on it has become an institution, led by the children,
which we should not like to lose.” “When I began these talkovers, I was
aware that I was using the procedure of the Quaker business meeting, and
I saw in the distance, as it were, the great problem of the government
of humanity. It was also curious to discover whether the art of living
together, understood as obeying the rule we had all agreed upon, would
be simple enough to be learnt by children. An experience of some 20
years has shown me that it certainly is.”
It was this experience which led Kees Boeke to adapt Quaker egalitarian
principles to secular organizations for a kind of democratic society. He
called it sociocracy.
Gerard Endenburg was a pupil at the Workplace Children’s Community
school and later he trained as en electrical engineer. After designing a
flat speaker, which is still used in small electronic equipment today,
he was challenged by his father to manage a small, failing electrical
business which his father had brought the previous year. In less than a
year Gerard had made the business profitable and merged it with his
father’s company. In the late 1960s he took over his father’s company,
Endenburg Electrotechniek, Inc. He ran the company as both a profitable
business and a laboratory for testing innovative management ideas
whereby he refined the concept of sociocracy.
Sociocracy is defined as the rule of an organization by the socii (L.
socius = companion or colleague) or people that regularly interact with
each other and have a common aim. It is a form of governance. It
reinforces the self guiding capacity of the individual as well as the
position of the leader and integrates top down and bottom up policy
Sociocracy is based on a hierarchy of circles, where the hierarchy is
related to function rather than to any overtones of political power. In
fact it is similar to the hierarchies which occur in ecology. Hierarchy
theory uses a small set of principles to keep track of the complex
structure and behaviour of systems with multiple levels. Likewise there
are four guiding principles of sociocracy which allow it to be applied
to every kind of organization. It is a fractal structure so the
procedures at the highest level are as clear as the procedures at the
grassroots level. It also does not require many levels to include a
great number of people.
The four principles of sociocracy are:
Governance by Consent: A decision can only be made when there are no
reasoned nor substantial objections. Sociocracy does not ask for a YES
but does provide an opportunity to give a reasoned NO.
Circle Organisations: The organisation consists of circles of
semi-autonomous groups. Each circle has its own goals, which must
satisfy the constraints set by the goals of the next higher circle and
therefore the goals of the organization as a whole. Each circle must
also perform the three functions of directing, operating and measuring,
and maintain its own memory system.
Double linking: Coupling a circle with the next higher circle is handled
through a double link. This means that at least two persons from each
circle, (usually) the leader and at least one elected member, belong to
the next higher circle. Sociocratic organizations are connected to
outside organizations by external double links.
Elections by Consent: Persons are elected exclusively by consent, after
open discussion aimed at uncovering pertinent information about the
members of the circle.
Sociocracy is simple in principle, powerful in practice and adaptable to
all levels of social constructs from families to nations to global
governments. It is claimed that on the road which we have taken as
organizing beings, sociocracy follows on from democracy.
Decision-making is ruled by the principle of consent. Consent and
consensus share common aspects. They are both a process for group
decision-making and they both require people to work through differences
to reach a mutually satisfactory position. They both promote the growth
of community and trust and increase the likelihood of unforeseen or
creative solutions by incorporating the wisdom of all members.
The differences are more subtle. Consent decision-making takes less
time than consensus and does not demand solidarity. While consensus
decisions are considered a sign of agreement and solidarity they may
also be a sign of coercion, fear or undue persuasive power. In consensus
the participants must be for the decision in consent they must not be
An underlying rule of sociocracy is the recognition that the
interests of others are as real and as important as one’s own. This
engenders a spirit of goodwill which can bind people with the most
varied points of view. Sociocracy also allows us to be social beings, to
be human, to be at times uncaring, idle and unreliable egotists. At all
times the principle of consent emerges as a guarantee of equal say for
all participants in the decision-making process. Thus each individual’s
potential is given the optimum opportunity for development and more
human solutions to problems are found.
Sociocracy is now used in more than a hundred different
organizations: schools, businesses, cohouses and ecovillages and a
police academy. Sociocracy in principle is simple, can be used by
anyone, and cannot fail if the four principles are followed. On the
other hand this simplicity can be deceiving. Although consent decision
making is not “sense of the meeting” in the context of Meeting for
Worship, expertise with the Quaker system may translate into some
expertise in sociocracy.