Civic Accountability for the Commons

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Civic accountability for the Commons

By Denis Postle ([email protected]), October 24, 2012

"What follows derives from my experience of participation in the UK’s Independent Practitioners Network (IPN). Founded in 1995, IPN is based on an open network of autonomous small groups functioning as a commons producing civic accountability. For detailed background see or Therapy Futures - Obstacles and Opportunities PCCS Books, forthcoming, this also contains a narrative case study of successful resistance to a notably toxic form of state sponsored accountability.

This brief account looks at how civic accountability may be a necessary aspect of commons flourishing and thus of the economics of commons.

Accountability is commonly presumed to take the form of institutions of social control. Its primary ethos is compliance with the imposition of externally derived (but socially conditioned) standards, performance benchmarks and external ‘independent’ audits of behaviour. These are usually accompanied by claims of ‘user protection’ and fear of exclusion.

By contrast civic accountability in a commons frame can be defined as taking responsibility for my role in the commons to which I belong, and with others, taking responsibility for the culture and behaviour of this commons in relations to other entities. In this instance, civic accountability is a virtual product that arises out of a more or less intense rapport, generated and sustained between persons committed to the same commons.

Civic accountability presumes that persons involved in a commons are in some form of peer relationship with each other, i.e. ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’. And also that persons involved in a commons are jointly in a relationship with entities other than their commons i.e. two inter-leaved dimensions - personal and political.

A strong version of civic accountability for participants that supports commons flourishing seems likely to require us to move towards developing a variety of intra-personal, inter-personal and political capacities that include:

  • awareness of how historical antecedents shape my preferences, expectations and aversions and those of others, especially around dominance and deference.
  • openness to hierarchies of skill, influence and experience.
  • an installed capacity for learning from experience.
  • an ability to move adroitly between feeling, imagination, discrimination and action.
  • an ability to ‘voice’ opinions, proposals, insights and objections
  • some awareness of the elements of group dynamics.
  • a commitment to honouring the uniqueness of others through negotiation.
  • a developed capacity for confrontation of both deference and dominance.

Together these can contribute to the building and maintenance of sufficient adequate interpersonal safety, the foundation of a thriving creative, non-collusive, entrepreneurial, cooperative zizz.

This is vital because the second dimension of commons civic accountability, relations with other commons and/or non commons entities and those seeking to enact enclosures, depends on non-collusive group cohesion. The above capacities plus the following, seem essential for this task,:

  • an appreciation that resistance is creative,
  • a willingness to set aside phobic perceptions of engagement with opposing or exploitatious others that block contact.
  • a willingness to gain entry to, and show up in the Other’s culture.
  • an appreciation that enclosure is ubiquitous, that language itself is a form of enclosure, a reification of perception,
  • an appreciation that some forms of enclosure are predatory and toxic.
  • An awareness of the cultural power of trance-induction, claims that such and such is ‘inevitable’ or ‘natural’.

IPN shows that civic accountability can be demonstrated in small groups. Can the work of such groups be scaled? Networks of small groups with a shared commitment to a particular commons seems promising.

At any size governance is critical. The building of governance through bottom up, consensual, accumulated structures of governance that are perceived as appetizing and congruent with participants’ values seems essential. Such forms of tried and tested governance can be adopted and then adapted. Forms of governance for commons that involve the imposition of protocols seem likely to repeat the ethos that drives enclosure.

Developing civic accountability is a form of production, of work in the form of virtual economy.

The virtual product of the IPN commons is twofold: minimising the risk that clients will be subject to any form of abuse due to unresolved practitioner distress, coupled with management of the boundaries of this civic accountability with other competing forms of accountability.

Mirroring open source software structures, the IPN network is open to any practitioner. As participants, they have the task of establishing each other’s competence and ethos to the group’s mutual satisfaction. This process of disclosure and demonstration to other group members can occur in the form of entry to an existing group, or through mutual exchanges in a newly forming group.

A minimal annual IPN participation fee funds network communication and thrice yearly National Gatherings. Apart from that there is no monetization, we neither rent nor own premises.

While I was a founder participant, I don’t represent IPN but have learned to speak freely as a conduit into and out the network. It may be worth noting that the perception of IPN as a commons and of its work as the virtual production of civic accountability has no official status and may be news to some participants."

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