One of the first conversations I have with people who have been tasked to build or manage a virtual organization centers on the cost/benefit issues of democratic governance. Given the usual shortage of funding and time, they have real concerns about the effort required to build a community-based governance system. These concerns are usually layered on top of the more general concern that the community (or rather, certain activists within the community) may use the governance system to push the organization’s goals toward their own interests.
Certainly, democratic governance increases the overhead (in terms of time and effort) spent on governance. Top-down decision making can be quite efficient up to the point where it tends to fail rather abruptly. Democratic governance is also more prone to being gamed by people with time and interest to do so. This is where the community comes in to play. When you build in enough democracy to give the community the opportunity to really govern, it will tend to resist the efforts of certain individuals to subvert this opportunity. This is one of the goods that democracy delivers to your VO.What are the goods that democracy provides for your VO? What does this do that you cannot do without committing to this type of governance? There are two types of goods (positive, valuable results) that democracy creates within a VO. The first type are community building goods. Democracy is central to your ability to build a community for your VO. The second type are decision support goods. These help align your decision making effort with the goals and vision of the community, and improve buy-in by the community.
The main community-building good you achieve by promoting democratic governance is inclusiveness. The divide between the funded VO team and its larger collection of stakeholders disappears. Governance provides the means for a wide variety of voices to be recognized. This encourages more participation (and more participants) building the size and the depth of community for your VO. The next community-building good is that of popular control. Popular control over your VO establishes the means for the community to have a say not only as an afterthought (e.g., a survey), but on matters as central as budgets and goals. The community is given real ownership over the VO’s efforts. This is the hallmark of any authentically “community-based” or “community-led” VO. Until your VO has achieved this level of community governance, your efforts to build a community will be met by a wall of indifference. Developing the means for community-based control of your VO breaks down this wall and builds the foundation for real community growth.
Decision support goods can also be expected from your democratic governance efforts. Once the community is fully involved you receive the benefits of their considered judgements. The whole point of your VO is to engage with larger numbers of people with expertise. Why not put this expertise to good use? Give intelligent people the reason to and means to reach a considered judgement on an issue of importance to your VO and they will work diligently in this effort. The second decision support good your VO gets is new leadership. Those in the community who have expertise, time, and interest will step up to take positions of authority/responsibility for the work that the community is contributing to the goals of the VO. Find the means to reward these leaders (give them resources to manage and build their reputations within the community) and they will become the levers to take your VO to the next level.
Of course, not all democratic governance efforts are equal. Your VO will need to work to maintain transparency in the governance activities, in part by making the staff fully accountable to the community. Your VO’s governance system will need mechanisms to be modified so that it can learn to be more efficient over time.
Using democratic governance to build community is probably the best solution for crafting a virtual organization that can survive its initial funding. There are no half-way democratic forms that will deliver the same goods. And if you decide to forego democracy, or delay democracy while you build your technology, there will likely be a day when the funds run out and you will turn to the “community” and ask them for their support. Good luck with that.
Here is a useful book that outlines how to study democratic innovation in terms of the goods provided:
Graham Smith. 2009. Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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