In recent weeks, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and numerous local and regional Occupy actions in the USA have brought ideas of “horizontal” governance into more common awareness. Occupy groups have mostly modeled themselves on the original OWS model, where “General Assemblies” that operate through a form of active, often large-group consensus are a primary means of decision-making. Inclusiveness and equality are commonly stated values of these processes.
The term “leaderless” is also used by Occupy organizations to identify their mode of operation. In theory, there are no leaders of General Assemblies, or the groups they are used by. There are facilitators who delineate assembly processes and attempt to insure that those processes are followed. There is allegedly no one person or small group of people “in charge” of decision-making, or even of any particular decision-making process.
This is contrasted, by OWS among others, with “vertical” governance – in general, a context where decisions are made by relatively few members of an organization, while nonetheless intended to be carried out by all members. Most often the term “vertical” is used as equivalent to “hierarchical.”
So if there are no leaders – how did this all get started? Who decided how a General Assembly would operate? What if someone just joining in disagrees? How is selection of General Assembly facilitators done?
As this article in The New Yorker illustrates, there is in practice always at least some starting point, some catalyst, which may be no more than one or two individuals. There are always “leaders,” whether by default or by conscious design. And, there are constraints that limit effectiveness of a purely “horizontal” mode of governance – just as there are constraints that limit effectiveness of a purely “vertical” one.
Neither OWS nor related groups nor the highly vertical organizations of Wall Street and “global capital” are immune from an “either-or” mode of thinking that is implicit in our culture. This mode of thinking is problematic if we want to create governance systems that have beneficial outcomes for a widest possible variety of organizations and contexts.
On the one hand, our story goes, there is vertical governance – hierarchy, command and control, top-down management, and so on. A few people make most decisions and some larger number of people carry them out – sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Those few people are in those decision making roles for a variety of reasons, historically including everything from “divine right” to force of arms to majority vote to Supreme Court majority.
On the other hand, this story continues, there is horizontal governance – everyone has “a seat at the table,” a right to be heard, an equal voice in decision making, something to contribute to desired outcomes. Decisions are carried out based on solidarity, enthusiasm, mutual committment, agreement with goals and intentions.
Wall street is on the one hand. Occupy Wall Street is on the other. What is missing from this story is what is possible when these two hands – vertical and horizontal governance systems – are put to work together, in mutually beneficial relationship. What would governance look like when the space between the one hand and the other is a spectrum of possible systems using both approaches to their best advantage?
Vertical governance is best suited to rapid and efficient carrying out of policies. For “getting things done” when decisions about what to do have already been made, an operational hierarchy is highly effective and efficient. Military operations are one major example of this. Most building construction sites and mass production factories are as well.
Horizontal governance is best suited to making policies that include information and input from all those affected by said policies. Equivalence and transparency in horizontal governance systems support a policy design process that consistently gives better results than other approaches. “Better results” means that policies reflect collective intelligence and wisdom and create beneficial outcomes for all involved. Examples include Quaker meetings and the General Assemblies of Occupy groups.
If the question is “which is better, vertical or horizontal governance?” – the answer is “both.” A synthesis of horizontal and vertical systems that supports equivalence and transparency as well as effectiveness and efficiency, and does not sacrifice one to the other. This is the essence of Sociocracy as a governance system. Sociocratic governance recognizes value in both approaches and establishes a context for using them together.