What Is "Open"?
From: Sharon Villines (sharonsharonvillines.com)
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 2016 09:30:21 -0800 (PST)
(This is my blog post for the day. I’m sending it to more than one email list 
and blog so it isn’t meant to address a specific problem. All of them have 
questions about how to involve more people in community decisions.)

When lying awake last night reflecting on various decisions made in cohousing 
and in my neighborhood community, I explored some questions about what is open 
and transparent in a world where everyone belongs to several organizations and 
tries to involve and represent a larger community. 

What is required to truly inform and solicit information about the needs, 
desires, or preferences of “the community.” How does a group know when it is 
being inclusive and transparent? And accountable?


"The meeting was open to everyone” is a common standard. But when the meeting 
was announced once on a neighborhood email list, scheduled on a week night at a 
time when single parents can’t attend, some people are not home from work yet, 
and people also have other meetings is it an open meeting? 

Then the agenda, if published at all, says, “Spring planting.” 10 people of the 
14,000 that the landscape affects, show up and decide to plant Giant Sycamore 
trees in the middle of Cozy Lane to resolve water drainage problems. Cozy Lane 
is lined with small historic one-story bungalows. The Giant Sycamores, at  
replace the traditional rose bushes. Giant Sycamores will absorb more water and 
provide more shade. They can grow to 90 feet tall.

The group, having put much work into researching the water problem and the 
requirements of Giant Sycamores, moves forward. As representatives of the 
community, they spend many hours obtaining various permits from the city and 
funds from foundations. This takes months during which there are no other 
notices to the community.

Is that an open process? Is it wise? Does it invite people to get involved in 
local governance? Or contribute to building a stronger community? Or to 
understand and respect the group’s process and decisions?

Or when everyone in a cohousing community, resident managed, wakes up on Monday 
morning to find the laundry closed down for two weeks with no announcement. 
When the people who use the laundry say, “What?”, they are told that they all 
consented to the decision to replace the floor 6 months ago. They had to know 
it was going happen sometime.

When a neighborhood street is closed for repairs. Residents wake up to find 
they can’t get out of their driveways. The city says the signs were put up the 
day before. Does everyone go out everyday to see if there are any signs on the 
trees? Or do they come home earlier enough at night to notice that there are 
signs. Does this build confidence in the department of transportation?


With all the means of communication — digital, print, telephonic, in person — 
it seems to be getting worse, not better. People often chose one and pay little 
attention to other. Face to Face (F2F) is becoming almost impossible on a 
representative or comprehensive scale, but some still believe it is the only 
way. The real way. Have a meeting and those who come, decide. Those who do the 
work decide.

Many people commute to work across town, or even in the next town. They belong 
to 1-2 organizations and work on projects for the common good. Does that mean 
they by default have no say in a decision by another organization that directly 
involves them on a daily basis because they couldn’t go to that meeting too?

In cohousing there is a tension between those who want to communicate by 
bulletin board and those who haven’t looked at a bulletin board since email 
lists became almost universal. Yes, email does give advantage to those who 
write easily. But F2F and bulletin boards give advantage to extroverts who like 
the "being there together” and thinking in groups — and those who work at home. 
Extroverts like gathering around or bumping into each other in front of all the 
notices and sign up lists. Others come home from work late and tired and want 
to be able to do things online from where ever they are during the day. Or 
check a forum or a website.

Meetings alone are not, and perhaps never have been, the best and certainly not 
the only way to communicate with people. Email list,s for example, not everyone 
is on the neighborhood email list, but hundreds out of 14,000 will be. That is 
better than 10 in a room together.


In my neighborhood, creating a dog park required more tangible evidence of 
support than a decision to bulldoze a stand of beautiful cherry trees in a 
small neighborhood park. 

In cohousing everyone is on the main email list, or if they aren’t have a 
partner who lets them know what is going on. There are still times when people 
complain of not being informed, but there is far less exclusion. And far less 
opportunity for one person or a few people to push their own agenda in the name 
of the community. Or to be accused of doing so.

There are many online opportunities for F2F now. Zoom allows 30 people to talk 
together. There are webinars where one or a group of people can give a 
presentation and others can submit questions and comments real time typing on a 
chat forum that everyone can see. This allows people to participate from 
anywhere. In their cars, at work, in the lobby of the daycare center. Will 
they? Who knows? 

Meetings as the only forum for input and decisions is not inclusive and not as 
open as possible when there are more flexible and accessible means of informing 
and participating. One other factor of meetings is that they favor people with 
common views to work together. Those who disagree are likely to cause 
dissension and not really welcome.

Research on groups has found that people who agree with each other like working 
together, but those who represent diverse points of view make better decisions. 
One problem with meetings is that they usually confuse the two. When those who 
like working together (operations) also make the decisions (setting policy or 
requirements) means the only options are those the people who like working 
together believe are viable and to be necessary. 

When a harmonious group prepares all the material and presents all the options 
for decision, diversity is weeded out before a decision is even close.

(I know some believe I am beating a dead horse, but I’m one those people who 
think a park is never dead and can always be revived in a better form.)

Sharon Villines
Sociocracy: A Deeper Democracy

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