Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Getting Lost in the Fun House: the Nuances of Delegation

This past week I got an inquiry from a friend who lives at a community I've worked with a few times. They're a consensus group that's wrestling with a question of delegation and what comes to plenary. Here's what my friend wrote:

A while back you helped us set up the idea of the Gatekeepers [Laird's note: to determine if and when a topic is appropriate for plenary consideration] and advised us on how to determine if a topic is plenary ready. We have a Finance Committee (FC) that handles all the money, leases, legal, budget, etc stuff for the community. Part of what that committee does is work with the Office Users Group (OUG) to handle the leasing of the shared office space in our common house. (This space is rented to members based on a formula that was negotiated and worked out a few years ago.) We have one member, Chris [Laird's note: I've changed the name] who thinks that the office users are not paying enough money for the space. Chris went directly to the Gatekeepers and requested time at the plenary. The Gatekeepers put Chris off for several months due to other priorities but eventually the topic got on the agenda. When the “Office Rates” item showed up on the posted agenda, a lot of people freaked out. The problem, according to members of both the FC and the OUG is that Chris never came to either of them to discuss any concerns. People are feeling defensive, blind-sided, worried, angry, etc; it’s pretty messy. Further, faith in the Gatekeepers’ role—and in the Gatekeepers' understanding of their role—is in question because this is a very hot topic. Those who worked on the leasing rates labored long and hard to reach an agreement, working through a lot of emotion and engaging professional legal and financial counsel into the bargain.

As far as anyone can remember, nobody has ever tried to put a topic on the plenary agenda that dealt with a committee's area without going to the committee first. So this is a test case.

My question is: Should the Gatekeepers have told Chris to work with the FC and/or the OUG before requesting plenary time? I understood the process to be that, should an individual fail to feel satisfied after consulting with the host committee on his issue, or should a person have an issue that doesn’t have an obvious host committee, then—depending on the topic’s relevance and readiness—the Gatekeepers could decide to put the item on the plenary agenda. Our Gatekeepers remember that it was not necessary to go through a committee as long as the person had an issue that was "ready." (I’m not sure how they determined that this issue was ready but I think that might be a separate question for another time.)

This is a great question, and I thought I'd share my response:

For the purposes of this explanation, I'll use the term "committee" to refer to either the Finance Committee, the Office Users Group, or both—whichever is relevant.

Here's a thorough treatment of the sequence I think should be used:
1a) If the committee has a clear mandate to set office rates (the thing Chris wants reviewed), then Chris should go to them first, and the Gatekeepers should have directed Chris that way.

2a) If Chris takes it to the committee, three things can happen:
i) Chris is satisfied with their response. Done.
ii) Chris is not satisfied, yet acknowledges that the committee acted within its authority. In this instance, Chris may be unhappy yet will have to live with it. Done.
iii) Chris is not satisfied, and believes that the committee acted inappropriately. This can be appealed to the plenary. (Perhaps because Chris believes the committee blew her off, or misapplied group standards in disagreeing with her.)

3a iii) Chris should automatically get a chance to make her case in plenary (with the Gatekeepers deciding when this item should fit in the queue for a plenary agenda topic). When this happens, the discussion will be in two parts:

A) The plenary first hears Chris' case for why the committee acted inappropriately. The committee, of course, gets to speak to its side of it as well, and the plenary makes a decision about whether the committee acted in bounds or not.

If the plenary decides that the committee did fine, then Chris must live with it. Done.

If the plenary decides there was ambiguity, or the committee acted inappropriately, the plenary can clarify any confusing parts of the committee's authority, and then decide to either hear Chris' issue directly, or refer it back to committee with the clarified guidance.

B) If the plenary decides to hear the issue, then it tackles the question of office rates.

1b) If the committee does not have a clear mandate about setting office rates, or Chris can make the case that it has exceeded its authority in this regard, or Chris can make the case that what she desires is outside the scope of what the committee can decide, then the Gatekeepers were right to have the issue come to plenary—though they certainly should have alerted the committee that this was in play at their earliest opportunity.

2b) The plenary decides to do one of the following:
i) To clarify or modify the committee's mandate to handle Chris' concern, and turn the matter over to committee; or
ii) To tackle the issue of office rates directly.

There is also another possibility: the Gatekeepers could be satisfied that the committee has the authority to tackle Chris' concern, yet the committee demurs. In that case, the matter must come to plenary for the purpose of clarifying the committee's mandate (and the plenary must further be available to tackle the issue if the committee steadfastly refuses to take it on).

• • •
I don't think it's all that hard to figure this out if you can: a) keep track of where you are in the conversation; b) manage emotional distress (without condescending, kowtowing, or freaking out yourself); and c) remember to solve process questions ahead of content questions.

Last, there is an issue below the surface here about regularly evaluating standing committees—both to review whether folks are satisfied with the mandate, and with the way that the current configuration is doing their work. In a healthy group, this should be done periodically (once every two years?) and it's possible that some portion of Chris' upset would have surfaced sooner—and in a less messy way—during a routine evaluation of FC or OUG.

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