Saturday, July 19, 2008

Power and Structure

Wednesday—the last day of meetings discussing the future of PEACH [see my July 4 and July 13 blogs for more about this]—we tackled a tough issue around communication guidelines. There have been problems with the program representatives not always adequately informing their home communities what’s going on or soliciting member input before making program decisions. To what extent should we be attempting to address those concerns by requiring more steps for the representatives and administrators to take before making decisions, and to what extent should the burden of responsibility fall on the communities who have either not been making great selections in their representatives, or not holding them accountable for fully informing the community of what’s going on?

I’m worried that the easier solution is to shackle the administrators (asking for more frequent reports; not allowing decisions to be made unless everyone has voiced an opinion [that is, not allowing silence to be interpreted as assent]; dividing the administrative tasks into more jobs, so no single person is as powerful; pushing for more structure and limiting individual discretion), which is an example of addressing a power disparity by hamstringing those perceived as more powerful, rather than focusing on strengthening the weak spots. I don’t think it's a good approach.

That said, it’s still a real dilemma how to reasonably strengthen the community representatives. Most of the work is clerical, with the occasional need for serious consideration about a tough issue—around which tens of thousands of dollars may hinge. It’s hard to assign your best people to this job because of the low amount of challenging work, and yet it can be highly expensive to not have a heavy hitter in there when a hair ball comes along.

What we're going to try are two things, First, we'll attempt being more diligent about how groups select and evaluate representatives. (This is not now happening and it's tough to get cooperative groups to tackled accountability in a straight forward way. If you raise questions about performance, it tends to be translated into a personal attack and leads to bad feelings. Most groups simply don't try, and the price for this is that eventually some key job will get filled incompetently and the groups then don't have the will or culture to hold that person's feet to the fire.)

Second, we've established the importance of the representatives responding to requests involving decision making in a timely way and crafted a protocol for how we'll proceed when we don't get a response. The key feature of this is that we'll identify a responsible party at each community willing to be a back-up contact in the unhoped for event that the rep is stubbornly silent. Here's the sequence we adopted:

a) Initial email to the rep (we place "RSVP" at the start of the subject line to indicate that a response is required) with a deadline.
b) If no response is received by the deadline, a follow-up email is sent to the rep, with another (shorter) deadline.
c) lf still no response, we try to reach the rep by phone. If the rep is not in, a message will be left which will include a deadline for response.
d) If that fails, then the back-up contact will be phoned. If the back-up is not available a message will be left which will include a deadline for response.
e) If all of the above fail, the group can proceed to make a binding decision without input from the unresponsive community.

We'll see how well this works.

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