Ouishare - Governance

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Dissensus Governance in Ouishare

Jaya Klara Brekke, Kate Beecroft and Francesca Pick:

"Ouishare is a globally distributed community of approximately two hundred members started in 2012 as part of the “sharing economy” movement. Connected through shared values,5 Ouishare is a community with a highly relational on-and-offline culture, experimenting with new ways of organizing. Ouishare runs on “do-ocratic” principles, meaning that individuals choose their own roles, and authority lies with those who take action, rather than elected persons. Although this way of organizing was regarded as a highly unusual and innovative at the time, horizontal and network forms of organizing principles have a long history that can be traced back to the alterglobalization movement, its inspiration from the Zapatistas in the 1990s, and through to Occupy Wall street, the Arab spring, and May 15th movement in Spain (Maeckelbergh, 2012). Inspired by the practices developed in these social movements, former activists, such as the founders of the software tool Loomio from New Zealand, began to transfer lessons learned from participating in them and encode these into software. The “Occupy-Inspired App” (Rushkoff, 2014) that turned Occupy’s consent decision-making practice into a scalable, online process was adopted by Ouishare in 2014, to make its participatory decision-making more explicit. We can see that through these inspirations and influences, Ouishare both explicitly and implicitly adopted successful practices from these movements described by Maeckelbergh, such as holding meetings in a circle, the use of hand signs, embracing conflict as energizing, and the heavy use of facilitation. At the same time, Ouishare’s governance was intended to help overcome limitations of horizontal organizing that social movements often faced. As identified by Maeckelbergh (2012) with the example of the May 15th movement, these limitations are a focus on unanimity leading to drawn out decision-making processes, and general assemblies becoming a “higher” authority, creating bottlenecks and stifling creativity and autonomy.

During Ouishare’s first two years, it had been difficult to make collaborative decisions outside of the biannual community gatherings (Ouishare summits), and even then, time was always lacking for thorough discussions with the large group. Due to Ouishare’s distributed nature, it was impossible to know what everyone was doing throughout the year. This combined with a culturally diverse composition of members resulted in an organizational culture with a high tolerance for ambiguity and contradicting opinions. This was embedded in various governance elements as Ouishare matured. For example, in 2014, two principles that are borrowed from the Swedish Pirate Party (Falkvinge, 2013) were institutionalized on Ouishare’s wiki: voting as a last resort and the “three Connector rule,”6 which states that all day-to-day decisions without significant budget or brand impact can be taken by any three “Connectors” (Ouishare’s most active members). To overcome the above-mentioned efficiency and autonomy problem of consensus with large groups, “lazy consent” decision-making became the default, which is a voting mechanism that allows groups to move forward despite disagreement, and does not require a minimum participation. To ensure that people anywhere in the world could participate easily, Loomio quickly became the primary place for structured discussions and consent decisions. Following the principle of voting as a last resort, Loomio threads are not expected to end with voting, as Ouishare’s Loomio group history clearly shows, with only one-third of threads including a consent vote (total of 869 threads, 7354 comments, and 252 votes)7. For all the benefits of this form of distributed governance, it is important to note that it comes with many challenges which Ouishare as an organization continues to face, such as a lack of alignment between its many projects and local communities. Interestingly, this challenge of creating alignment between actors is one that many DAO projects aim to solve through various experiments with incentive designs, which as of yet have not achieved broader use.

To further illustrate the ways that dissensus has been navigated in the context of Ouishare, we focus on a discussion from 2017 about Ouishare partnerships, a historically contentious topic in the community as an example of a negotiation of incompatible positions, which created a collective transformative process. Participant and company names have been anonymized, and quotes are taken directly from the Loomio transcript.

In this case, a Ouishare member raised a Loomio post about partnership guidelines. The intention was to gather “opinions and feelings” about working with organizations such as corporations from the oil and gas industry, after having already delivered a workshop to the innovation department of such an organization (referred to here as The Company). It was also emphasized that this discussion was not about whether to publicly associate the Ouishare brand with such a company, which was considered out of the question. As for many organizations working on systemic change, partnerships are a complex and often emotional topic. There are manifold assessment criteria, including ones that can have significant financial consequences, making it difficult to determine when a red line has been crossed and a partner is not sufficiently aligned with the organization’s values.

The group was asked whether, or under which conditions, it would be acceptable to work with an organization in the oil and gas industry. What unfolded was an intense, argumentative, and at times philosophical debate that carried on asynchronously for three weeks. A broad range of community members contributed to the conversation, many with long, structured, and reflected opinions, and others with short messages of agreement, acknowledgment of how challenging this topic is, and admitting to not knowing what is right or wrong. After initial supportive and thankful messages from participants, seven days later, strong dissenting opinions began to be shared. “Working with The Company seems to me a ‘lost cause,’ and really off my limits, both for ethical reasons, and because I think energy can be better invested working with other corporations.” And, “I am even more AMAZED that ‘John’8 and whoever else you are working with thought this was ‘ok.’ The naive excitement of working with a name outside of our echo chamber of OuiShare Fest Buddies will not change the world.”

This encouraged others to follow with their own comments or emoji reactions of agreement with the disagreement. Some individuals who had expressed indifference before shared that they had been holding back their disagreement. “I [previously] didn’t take a stronger position against, as I feel I should after having read ‘John’s’ and ‘Anna’s’ brilliant, elaborate, well-considered, and thoroughly researched statements [...], I agree with ‘John’ and ‘Anna’ to abstain from working with The Company.” Over the course of the discussion, many varying perspectives on the issue surfaced, making its complexity very tangible and revealing how differently each person weighed the various factors at play. Despite the highly opposing opinions, the group reached the conclusion that what was needed was continuous dialogue on the question to foster critical perspectives. Those working with such companies would share what they were learning and tell the story of this case, which became a common reference that could be built upon in future partnership discussions. Two months later, the insights from the discussion informed a proposal by the same person for Ouishare’s first partnership guidelines, giving mandate to members to make their own decisions on who to work with, considering a list of criteria that had resulted from this debate and the willingness to document the process openly.

In conclusion, dealing with the issue of partnerships through asynchronous dialogue enabled new and wider understandings to be adopted in the group. Dissensus took place in the form of dialogue only, and there was no voting. This debate and its outcome are an example of dissensus leading to group transformation, rather than reinforcing division. It shows that the community’s ability to collectively embrace the uncomfortable, ambiguous, and contradictory opinions enabled a high level of collective learning and group development that was only possible by working through the dissensus as a group. This outcome could not have been achieved through voting, which may have even hindered a discussion of this quality from unfolding and forced the group to split, rather than accept and work with their differences."