Richard Bartlett Discusses Tools and Strategies for Decentralized Organizing
We spoke with Richard Bartlett, the engineer, activist, and author who co-created Loomio, the open source software for non-hierarchical distributed decision-making. He discussed his inspirations for the project, his insights on decentralized organizing, and the role of technology in organizing social justice movements.
MFU: Can you tell us what Loomio is and how this project began?
RB: Loomio is a digital space for deliberation and decision making. It’s open source software built by a worker-owned cooperative in New Zealand.
The project was born from two sources. First, you have the Occupy movement which was an intense and inspiring introduction to deliberative practice: sitting in circles, listening to everyone, constructing meaning from diverse perspectives.
Second, there’s Enspiral: a decentralised, self-managing network of about 200 people who support each other to do meaningful work. It’s a community of folks who believe business can be a significant force for good.
Loomio comes from this collision between Occupy and Enspiral. From Occupy we got radical values, a global connection to grassroots social movements, and a commitment to the transformative potential of participatory democracy. Enspiral added a dose of pragmatism to those ideals; that’s where we learned about business models, accountants, and product development.
MFU: Who is using Loomio and how has it been used?
RB: Loomio is mostly used by groups of 3 to 300 people, who have some commitment to deliberative practice, and the ability to use digital tools to support their work.
That is a very broad definition, reflecting the diversity of people using it. Some examples: cooperatives use Loomio to include members in decision-making; labour unions debate ideas and plan their collective actions; government departments engage citizens in deliberative policy-making.
Essentially, it is a discussion forum like many others you’ll find online. The key difference with Loomio is the decision-making functionality. There’s a set of tools like polls, proposals and votes to help the group to build shared understanding and move from talk to decision to action.
MFU: You’ve said that one of your frustrations with the current political system is that people are alienated from deliberation. In what spaces do you feel they are limited in this experience and what do you believe the effects are of both participating and being alienated from this process?
RB: The practice of deliberation has been hugely impactful for me. I learned so much: how to truly listen to others, how my perspective is always a limited piece of the whole, how there is a collective wisdom that can surpass the intelligence of any individual. I feel I have matured and developed a lot by returning over and over to the same circle of people, having deep discussions and making decisions together. My self-awareness, my concern for others, my communication skills, my sense of empowerment and creativity and agency are all developed through work in small democratic groups.
I believe for most people, the current political system does not provide an opportunity for growth. Most of us, if we participate at all, look at a list of voting options every few years and pick the one that seems the least bad. That’s not a very inspiring or animating or educating experience — in fact it mostly seems to fuel polarised tribalism.
I don’t have a blueprint or a grand plan for how the political system should be rebuilt. I just know from my own experience that there are decision-making procedures that encourage me to become a better version of myself. Imagine if our political processes helped us to listen better, to care more for others, to embrace nuance and diversity, to learn about the complexities of modern life, to take more responsibility for the wellbeing of our neighbourhoods!
It’s not just politics though, I think basically all group experiences are an opportunity for this kind of growth. Schools, workplaces, political parties, festivals, whatever: if I’m joining a group with some shared purpose, I want us to co-create the rules together, I want to decide the “what” and the “how” and the “why” of our togetherness.
I think if you don’t have access to deliberative spaces, you are missing out on a really potent opportunity to develop as a mature, engaged, active member of society. And you’re missing opportunities to support others in their growth too.
MFU: How has this project evolved over time? In a past interview you talked about the need to create a Loomio of Loomios to allow insular groups with similar goals to connect or create a coalition. Is this something your team is still working on?
RB: Like any engineer, I have plenty of dreams about how we could develop Loomio to do ever more sophisticated things. I would love to build the “Loomio of Loomios” network, and I’d love to develop all kinds of cool features, like integrating with financial systems, or decentralised project management tools.
However, over the years we’ve had a relentless focus on accessibility, which has forced us to keep things simple. We’re in a constant design process to polish and refine and make things as intuitive as possible.
The most noticeable evolution in features over the years has been to incorporate different styles of decision-making. When we started out, many of us on the team had a pretty fierce commitment to consensus. As we’ve progressed, we’ve learned the value of different approaches, so the tool is now much more flexible in terms of what decision-protocols we support.
MFU: Are there other emerging technologies or projects that you believe will transform activism and organizing?
RB: I believe we are living in the age of transformation. This is bigger than just activism, it includes economics, governance, energy and food systems, identity, knowledge, culture… it feels like everything is up for grabs in 2019!
I think in the 2020’s and 30’s we are either going to see drastic changes in how society functions, or we are going to see death and suffering on an extraordinary scale. That’s scary but it is also intensely motivating.
In the present moment, I am not particularly optimistic about technology. I was part of the techno-utopian generation that came up with the early Web, reading Benkler and Shirky and Lessig. I thought widespread connectivity would inherently tip the world towards freedom and collaboration. I underestimated the tenacity and creativity of old power. Over my lifetime, wealth and power have become massively centralised, despite the rapid spread of what should be liberating technologies.
So these days I am not so focussed on technology, much more focused on power. Who has it? How do we develop it? How do we make it accountable to the needs of humans and all the other life on this planet? How do we change course and derail the suicidal oligarchs that are accelerating the destruction of our habitat?
I have plenty of reasons to be optimistic:
The municipalists are reanimating local politics.
The metamodernists are opening up a new progressivism beyond the orthodoxies of the left.
SecureScuttleButt is a whole new internet built on principles of autonomy and solidarity.
There’s a genuine movement for the new economy in the UK.
Folks in Taiwan have made enormous strides towards direct citizen participation in lawmaking.
I think there’s widespread existential dread that has been slowly rising and it is now near the surface. It’s a good time to believe in something, and to take action!
MFU: Your work has also focused on creating healthy power dynamics in workplaces. What is your advice to workers who wish to democratize their work environments and to the bosses who might be apprehensive to do so?
RB: The last couple years I’ve worked less on the Loomio software, and more on training, facilitating and coaching with The Hum (a little consulting company that sprouted off the main Loomio trunk). We work with all kinds of groups that are trying to share power and distribute decision-making, whether they describe themselves as “decentralised” or “non-hierarchical” or “flat” or whatever.
My advice to workers who wish to democratise their workplaces? The first thing is to “find the others”, don’t go it alone. There is a growing movement of democratic workplaces, not just in the political tradition of worker cooperatives, but in the wider world of business. Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations is a good introduction, with case studies from many different sectors of the economy, proving that bossless organisations can thrive at scale.
My advice to the bosses: do you want to be in a team with more engagement, more innovation, more efficiency, more care, more accountability, more resilience? Do you want to have less stress and responsibility centralised on your shoulders? If you commit to sharing power throughout the organisation, these are the kinds of benefits you can expect.
Changing organisational culture and structure is immensely challenging, so if you’re going to attempt it, call in the support of people who have been there before. I’ve curated this mega list of resources for decentralised organising: if you’re looking for stories and examples of how shared power works in practice, start here. Read up on some context, and then find a friend or a coach or a consultant that can offer practical guidance.
MFU: Recently you’ve been focusing more on small-scale person-to-person relationships rather than structures. Can you talk about this shift in your work focus?
RB: I recently published this article Hierarchy Is Not The Problem, which was a kind of “bombshell” for my radical friends. The point is: I don’t care what your org chart looks like if your relationships are toxic.
I’ve seen toxic dynamics in radical organisations as well as in traditional ones. Yes I think it is helpful to have a democratic structure, with shared ownership, transparent decision-making, participatory governance, etc, but calling yourself “non-hierarchical” does not give you a free pass. Domination, manipulation, status games, exclusion, gossip, selfishness: these things tend to emerge in any group of humans. It takes self-awareness, vulnerability, commitment and a huge amount of care to keep tending to the quality of your relationships.
Most of us have been raised in hierarchical families within hierarchical societies, and learned how to behave in hierarchical schools and workplaces. Those experiences leave a deep imprint: our expectations, behaviours, beliefs, mindsets and habits are conditioned for hierarchy. I believe we can change, we can let go of the old conditioning and grow into a new way of being.
In my view, that reconditioning work primarily happens in relationship: within trusting, intimate, peer-to-peer bonds. That reconditioning work looks like your friend telling you, “That thing you did, that was shitty. I love you, I’m here for you, but you have to change that behaviour.”
MFU: Are you working on anything new?
RB: Like I said, I’m a bit scared of society possibly disintegrating in the next couple of decades. So my current project is basically looking for authentic hope in the face of existential risk. The most publicly visible face of that project is plan of action called Microsolidarity. It’s a collection of design patterns for small groups to form communities of economic and emotional reciprocity. Oh yeah, and I should really get on and finish my book…