Rethinking ‘devolution’: The devolved nonprofit

**I’m teaching a new class this semester: Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Groups, Organizations, and Communities, and it has prompted a lot of thinking about group development, in particular, and some new ideas about organizational impact on practice, too. This week, I’ll have a few posts about some of the topics that I’m raising in this class, tying in some of the reading I’ve been doing around these ideas. I (and, I’m sure, my students!) would appreciate any of your feedback, too.

So, um, obviously, I haven’t exactly made my disdain for the ideology of devolution a secret, right? And, when we’re talking about devolution as code for “the federal government abdicates its responsibility to provide for the citizenry and uses devolution as an ideological shield”, then I’m still against it.

But, I realized as I was preparing lectures on organizational structure and its impact on social workers and their clients, and in reading The Wisdom of Crowds, my disgust with the politics of devolution led me to disregard some of its underpinings in an illogical way, especially because, in general, I believe very strongly in shared governance and real empowerment.

And it’s empowerment that this kind of devolution–the kind that flattens organizational hierarchies, gives people tools and power to make their own decisions, and stops pretending that specific individuals with influential titles hold exclusive patent on good ideas for solving social problems–is really about. We need to embrace dissent within our organizations, knowing that too much deference can lead to disaster. We need to give people real authority, because there’s nothing worse than having to be part of group deliberations with the knowledge that you can’t really do anything together.

Some of the best evidence I’ve seen for the wisdom of this approach to organizational power and decision-making comes in Surowiecki’s revelation (which, of course, shouldn’t be as surprising as it is) that there’s really no evidence that anyone can even become an expert in something like ‘decision making’ or ‘strategic planning’. Really, expertise is far more narrow and far less applicable to broad social or organizational problems to be very helpful in those cases. This means that, for those types of problems where there are no clear-cut solutions (um, social workers–heard of any of those?), our best chance at getting the best answer is in promoting the free exchange of conflicting views and aggregating the opinions of those hashing out the decisions.

I had a few flashbacks of the Reagan revolution when reading about the role of the populace in Athenian democracy, or even Moses’ decision to rule only in ‘great matters’, leaving all other decisions to local rulers. We still need to be sure that we’re talking about real decentralization of power, not just responsibility, and we must recognize that the infatuation with decentralization can be as dangerous as its dismissal.

There are certainly some problems that don’t lend themselves well to decentralized solutions (income inequality, environmental destruction, and labor standards come to mind), but the nonprofit organization that can figure out when and where and how to harness the wisdom of their respective crowds can build fairer, more nimble, more responsive organizations, and likely get better results, too.

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