The case for ‘loose coordination’ by a non-secret Secretariat

Or “Is it possible to get/keep people involved in social movements without expecting them to come to soul-sucking meetings?”

I don’t know, but it had better be, or we are all really stuffed. Meetings (at least, the many, many that I’ve attended) are – with rare exceptions – dispiriting, boring, formulaic and unhelpful for people looking to actually DO something.

We need to do two things at once
1) Drastically improve the form and content of our meetings, thus
a) making them more attractive to those who currently attend out of a sense of duty,
b) making them LESS attractive to those who currently attend for the grandstanding opportunities/as a social activity rather than as a way of being useful.
c) making them more attractive to those who want to know more about issues/perhaps see how they can help, without having to worm their way into the group’s controlling clique.

But I’ve covered that extensively elsewhere, so this post is about the second thing we need to do. Which is, (drum roll please)

2) Create the infrastructure and expectations that people can gain public esteem as a pro-active part of a campaign/group without attending soul-sucking monthly/fortnightly/weekly meetings.

For there are (I hope) people who will never attend meetings or consider themselves “activists” (footnote one) but who might well be willing to offer a specific amount of their time and expertise if asked by the right person in the right manner. And, naturally, without that acceptance of a specific task then being followed up with relentless emotional blackmail about attending a march or rally or whatever…
There are also activists (I’m one) who would be delighted to support other groups’ activities, but not if it can only be done after attending poorly chaired/facilitated meetings that start late, are riven with irrelevancies and often go nowhere.

The first thing is, the campaign group has to have some plausible medium term goals, under a “SMART” rubric (be that business world’s “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic timeframe”) or Political Dynamite’s smart or rhizome network’s smart).

If the campaign is staggering blindly from next rally to next march to another meeting, none of the techniques suggested below will alter its final painful death (though they might, sadly, prolong it).
If a campaigning group can’t – or won’t – “orient,” then within the “OODA loop” there can be no sensible decision or action… And anyone who cares about their long-term mental and political health will be walking quickly without panic to the exits.

The comments below are aimed at that mythical beast, the organisers of groups who want to Do It Better. (footnote two.)

Before a meeting

Think about the purpose of the meeting. How will it help the broader growth of your group, and of a social movement on climate change in general? Is it mostly to “give information to people”? Are there better ways of doing that (hint: almost invariably yes – newsletters, youtubes, podcasts, powerpoints etc. The World Wide Web, people!!!)
Why will people be coming to the meeting? What will they want? What will success look like to them?

You as an organiser have to be able to answer the following questions –
At the end of the coming meeting;
How will it be clearer to everyone what their ongoing participation in the group could be?
How will it be clearer what they will get out of involvement in the group, what the hoped-for change is in the short to medium term (six months to two years).
How will it be clearer to them how success is defined?
How will it be clearer to them how they can decrease (or increase) their level of involvement with the group over these coming months, without losing touch or being “forgotten.”

This technique is so that people who want to take on specific tasks can do so. It is NOT to force everyone who comes into the meeting space leaves with their “marching orders.”

Phone/email out an agenda framed around “questions” and “tasks.”
* Ask people to say if they are coming or not! If they are not coming, is it because there is a one-off clash/weather/they are dog-tired, or is it because life is on top of them at the moment to such an extent that they can’t commit. If the latter, do they have ANY time this month to be involved? Even an hour is helpful…
* At this stage, it might arise that the person no longer wants to be part of the campaign/group. Do NOT try to convince them otherwise!! If you bully/guilt them into staying, they will simply resent you and go soon anyway. Say you understand, and then choose any or all of the following
ask them if they would be willing to say why (brutal honesty) – is it because their time and energy and priorities have changed? is there a personality clash with other member(s) of the group? Do they feel the group is not effective? Is there anything that would make them change their mind/reconsider at a later date? (Obviously you can’t promise that, but it’s useful info.)
When a person withdraws from a group, there are usually a set of reasons. Some reasons will be “good,” others may be covers for other issues. This is information that is crucial to the long-term sustainability of the group. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by arguing the toss with the individual. Not arguing does not mean you accept their perspective as correct, just that you accept that they have their views and are entitled to them.
N.B. This information should be considered confidential (for sharing only with other core people, under conditions of anonymity). If you start blurting this stuff out, you destroy your own credibility, and – even worse – you will not get honest feedback from other people who leave the group at a later date, since they will be worried their views are going to be broadcast.
ask them if you can contact them in six months to see if they’ve got more time/energy/enthusiasm/etc.

At the meeting

after welcomes, house-keeping, intros, “agenda agreed?” etc.

Focus on the campaign in question – very quickly remind everyone of what the specific problem it hopes to address is, what change is hoped for, when the campaign started, successes so far, when it hoped to “win” by, where things are up to right now, and what the next step (under discussion) is.
In a perfect world, it will not be the facilitator or the same person doing this bit. If you can get someone else to do a recap of this, this will stop it seeming like a one-person/two-people show, and it will also give the person who does give the spiel valuable experience…

Recap briefly what has been done since the last meeting by people who are not at the meeting (this goes in the minutes too). This will give people a sense that a) there are others not at the meeting who are also pulling in the same direction (useful if the meeting numbers are low!) and b) that their efforts will be recognised if there are meetings they do not attend.

It may then make sense for a quick-go-round of who has done what since the last meeting. It could be energising and give a sense of momentum. BUT this can quickly create a hierarchy of who has done the most, and also rub the noses of those who’ve done little/nothing/are new in the fact that they are ‘second class citizens’/not Heroes of the Soviet Union. A judgment call…

Alternatively, you can have a “traffic light” system of a flip chart sheet with all the tasks that need to be done, and if they are completed/on track (green), behind but under control (yellow) or way behind and mission critical/have been lunched out (red).

ALSO consider having Gantt charts and Ishikawa diagrams to represent progress. Much snazzier than a list!

Allow time for questions from people either new or returning to the process. They may well come up with time and energy saving ideas, shortcuts, new perspectives. The trick here for the facilitator is to keep the ideas/suggestions/volunteering offers coming, without letting the attention focus onto a Shiny New Thing when there is some mundane “who’s going to get the leaflets printed and distroed” decisions to be made…

Small groups focused on specific tasks will generate ideas/solutions more quickly than one big group. It is also easier for new people to volunteer ideas etc in small groups (though the quality of this process depends on reliable reporters-to-plenary, who capture the ideas without ignoring those of newbies/those they don’t like and highlighting their own).

REMEMBER, people are going to be scared if they stick up their hand for one thing, they’ll be then be volunteered for a load of other things. And remember, that some people will want to come to multiple meetings before they make any decision to get involved.

(timing of this bit is tricky)
Tough as it will be, it is also important to look at the tasks that weren’t done by the initial person/team who said they would?
Did those people hand over the task to others in a timely manner (in which case, they should get a round of applause)
Was the task then completed by a new team? At what if any cost to their other work/morale/energy?
If the task wasn’t done/handed over in a decent time, then the questions “why not?” and “what assurance is there that this was a one-off?” must be asked.
What were the consequences of the tasks non-completion? How did this affect other people’s work? Were their efforts rendered useless or less effective?
If there weren’t any consequences of the task not getting done, is there a lesson here – why do work that doesn’t matter (while not condoning the fact that the task got lunched out).
But be careful not to do this at the start or finish of the meeting. If at the start, you’ll lower everyone’s enthusiasm. If at the end, it’s what people will remember the most! Maybe do it immediately before the break? Trouble is, sometimes the issues take time to thrash through, and are uncomfortable, and people will use the need for a break as a way of closing the discussion down. Maybe immediately after a break?

Have a break in the meeting

People who have said they might be up for things are texted/phoned to see if they are willing to do a task.
Mingling, flirting, eating a biscuit, browsing flip charts etc

Second half

Maybe do the debrief? (see above)

There is then a report back after the break to say who has taken on what task, who has declined and who couldn’t yet be contacted.
This will tell newbies that they don’t HAVE to come to every meeting, and that they might get a phone call/text at some point, but they are free to say “no, too busy”.
“Declined tasks” will then definitely have to be re brainstormed – who else can do it? Who will ask them? If no-one comes forward, does the task need to be redesigned?

Have a standard proforma for jobs, on either A4 or A5 sheets (anything smaller will get lost)

“Task description” (in max of two sentences)
Materials required:
Skills required:
Estimated time needed:
Completion date (“if cannot be met, please tell us”):

Have two copies, with carbon paper in between (or take a digital photo of it), so that one copy goes with the person accepting the task and the other stays with the organiser.

Finish the meeting

Recap to everyone that
* the group’s chosen tasks are worthwhile and achievable
* what the next objective is and how tonight’s decisions/input help towards that
* there are people not in the room tonight who are making valuable contributions and will continue to do so.
* what we do matters. If we can’t complete a promised task, it’s crucial to communicate this to the organiser(s) in a timely fashion, and to get an acknowledgement that the message has been received (texts and emails can go astray)
* that we are winning.

After the Meeting

Aha. Now the fun starts. If at all possible/appropriate, the organise(s) should go on to the pub with people from the meeting. Let your hair down, live a little, etc. And if you need to tell yourself that sometimes the best ideas come from a pint, then tell yourself that, but also seek professional help for that nasty case of chronic puritanitis.

BUT, the next day the outcomes of the meeting must be communicated to the wider world.
You can do this just by typed-up minutes.

And you DO need to circulate minutes, that contain “decisions taken”, “tasks taken” (does not have to include names etc, because those people AT the meeting have taken a task slip, and those who weren’t at the meeting but said yes via text/phone message will be getting a separate email) and “tasks outstanding, with description, deadline”.

BUT, since when were YOU ever inspired by a word document? Think of all the campaigns you’d help out with a few minutes of your time and expertise if they seemed like they wanted it and that your input would make a difference…

Why not try – podcasting the “decisions made” and “jobs that need doing” of the meeting? People can then listen to the list while answering their emails etc.

Why not slap together a quick youtube with some good music over the top of it?
Here’s what I mean

“Hi, we’re group x. (Logo) We’re doing y to solve problem z. We had a meeting last night and divvied out loads of worthwhile jobs to ourselves to make y happen. BUT we still need people with [x amount] of spare time in the next [number] weeks to do the following tasks.

Scroll list of outstanding tasks
With music: perhaps “take this job and shove it” or “working for the weekend” or 9 to 5” or some other song – can be a different one each time…

“If you can help with any of these, please get in touch via either this facebook account or this email.” [and an image explaining you won’t try to draw them in to other stuff against their will]
If you want to know more about us, but don’t want to come to meetings, check out our website xxxx
If you want to come to our next meeting, you are very welcome. It’s on xxx at xxxx.”

And ask people to share the video etc. It creates knowledge among the “general public” of what it is your group is up to, why, what skills you are looking.”

Put your “jobs list” on the website, and then put a comedy “taken” sign on any that do indeed get volunteered for. Maybe a cheesy way of showing how many tasks still outstanding after a week.

Inevitably, a small group of people are going to do MOST of the work, but with effort it is possible to push from 80:20 to say 65:35. And to nurture some new inner core people. I hope.

Between Meetings

Once someone has said they’ll do it, they ARE going to need to be chased, with a progress report/part of the work needed before the deadline, so that if the task isn’t going to happen, there’s time to get a Plan B.
That’s just how it is. Before you know it, it’ll be time to think about the next meeting…


Footnote One: There’s a scene from the late 80s film Soulman. The central character is a white guy whose solution to his father refusing to pay for him to go to Harvard is to pretend to be black so he get a scholarship. Once there, he meets an attractive (black) woman who invites him to a political organising meeting. In a panic about what to wear, he turns up like a Black Panther (beret, dark sunglasses combat trousers, boots). My point? People have the strangest conceptions about “activists” and “activism.”

Footnote Two: So, why doesn’t this difficult work of “loose co-ordination” happen? Well, nobody likes to be a nag.
The anarchists and “non-hierarchicals” don’t do it because it isn’t glamorous, goes against their ideology of there being “spontaneity” in all things at all times. A core group of people giving directions to less-committed people would be labeled a recipe for liberalism. All must be (equally) involved. Except, of course, they never are and never could be.
The Trots don’t do it because they don’t really know how to get people involved, and they already know how to book coaches for marches and have someone shout through a megaphone. Everyone else is simply there to be sheep.
The NGOs don’t do it because – like the other two types – very little of what they actually do is supposed to achieve a specific result. They sort of hope that the vague wishes of “society in general” will magically percolate through politicians and the political process, producing the Wished-For Thing.

To be fair to all three typologies, what I am proposing is the sort of work that businesses and governments hire bureaucrats to do, to be a “secretariat.” And activists don’t, by and large, become activists in order to be other folks’ secretariat. So it goes…

UPDATE: Here’s the graphic I was too lazy to do yesterday…

See Also

Decruit me some more
What scares newbies off?
The final flouncedown

“This union. Are there going to be meetings?”
“Of course”
“No meetings”
Start at 2.55 or so

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
This entry was posted in activism, bureaucracy, climate, competence and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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