Why I’m in Venezuela where mob rule is the law

[Leer una version en español aqui]

I have been in the town of Cumaná on the eastern coast of Venezuela for four months now. Growing up in Toronto, Canada, I’m far away from home and everything I knew. While the climate and exchange rate are obvious pluses, I have had many a friend and stranger ask why Venezuela? Why go to a “developing” country known for its violent cities? Isn’t that where Hugo Chavez, the president, is a crazy dictator?

Two kids in Simon Rodriguez community in Cumana, Venezuela

Two kids in shanty town community of Simon Rodriguez in Cumanà, Venezuela.

My answer is quite simple: I think a better future is dependent on participatory democracy, and there is no country in the world that has more of it than here.

In Toronto most university graduates don’t know what the term “participatory democracy” means. Here I ask a taxi driver, seamstress or street cleaner and they explain it from experience. And they will also tell me Chavez is their popularly elected hero who is making it happen.

Before coming here I had done much research on the different models of democracy. In most of the world we are quite familiar with the concept of representative democracy where we elect ministers, councillors, senators, directors and other political types to make decisions on our behalf. On rare occasion some places have some additional citizen participation in the form of referendums (e.g Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden) and ballot initiatives (e.g. in most of the US western states) or where folks can vote on specific questions to decide on potential change in public policy. If you are lucky you may live in a town where the mayor supports higher levels of public consultation on select decisions or maybe even practice participatory budgeting where citizen forums and comittees help decide a small portion of the city budget (e.g. Porto Alegre and many other cities in Latin America and Spain). Venezuela has all the above but they also have what most of us would probably assume to be impossible: weekly citizen assemblies in every neighbourhood to discuss and vote on public projects and policies, known as communal councils (“Consejos Comunales”). You can read my detailed definition of Venezuelan Communal Councils on Wikipedia.

To be clear, the communal councils are a new experiment within the evolving peaceful democratic socialist “Bolivarian Revolution” happening here. The law for communal councils was enacted in April 2006 and has yet to get the regulations needed to clarify the details of its practice. There are a guestimate of 18,000 councils, most of which are still in the early stages of formation, legitimization and learning how to conduct their work. Yet even before many councils are completely legitimized, many have already received funding and administered local projects to build homes, fix electrical systems, plumbing and other public works.

Fundacomun office, Sucre

In the Sucre state Funadcomun office.

Fundacomun is the state agency responsible for educating and assisting the communal councils. From my plastic lawn chair in their 15 person office that administrates all 1300 and growing councils in this less populated state of Sucre, I can tell they have their work cut out for them. Every day spokespersons young and old from various communities come through the door asking for help on legal questions, problems accessing their co-opertive controlled bank accounts, neighbourly disputes and other council issues. All too often their are complaints of corruption, generally in the form of nepotism where some citizens take advantage of the chaos of the new system to give preferential deals to their family members. Unlike the million dollar offshore bank account corruption of the north or the old Venezuelan government, these local profiteers are more likely getting enough extra cash to buy a new TV and eat out at a fancy restaurant. But corruption is corruption and it could get worse.

The community workers in the Fundacomun office are found of saying in their blurred eastern Spanish accent “¡En asamblea!” to educate and reinforce to their clients that the highest decision making authority is the assembly of citizens. What ever question they have about their communities future, what ever project idea or problem that needs resolution, what ever local policy or plan that needs to be decided, it is to be decided in the local assembly of citizens. Not a president, nor a board of directors, nor committee of executives. The mob rules. The problem is that how an assembly is supposed to make efficient and wise decisions is not every explained, and in general I don’t think anyone knows.

A communal councils meeting about to begin

A communal councils meeting about to begin.

I’ve been apart of enough big meetings to know that when you put more than 15 random people in a circle they are generally not very constructive or wise in their collective decision making. With a professional facilitator involved you may get some decent deliberation and popular decisions among 30-40 participants. With high-end software, a team of consultants and technicians, and months of planning you can get hundreds of citizens to discuss issues and present policy recommendations (e.g. AmericaSpeaks’ 21st Century Town Meeting service). In comparison, communal councils tend to have between 50-150 citizens in attendance every week, the meetings are often conducted in the street, they don’t have enough budget for pizza delivery and they are expected to make concrete decisions on every important issue for their community.

First I take my hat off to those communities that have succeeded in making any decisions in this context. They are blessed with enough comradeship, good natured neighbours, socially minded local leaders and obvious community needs to accomplish such amazing feats as building small community centres, installing public lighting, improving transportation and building new modest homes for the poorest of families. A new family home being built by the communal council to replace a shanty shack.

A shanty shack is being replaced by a new family home being built by the communal council.

Also it must be said that unlike most of the North American assemblies I’m familiar with, these people have talked extensively to each other before the meeting. Venezuelans are fond of sitting in the street chatting with their neighbours who are are often family. Since most people don’t tend to move far from home there are generations of people who have had many a warm night to discuss and debate what’s right and wrong in their neighbourhood. No need for ice breakers and get-to-know-you games at these meetings.

An average Sunday afternoon in a Venezuelan community.

An average Sunday afternoon in a Venezuelan community.

That all been said, these people are crazy to expect citizen assemblies to effectively make every important community decision. Sure it’s also crazy to elect some self-serving politician to misuse public resources for private agendas, with distant bureaucrats to make standardized and inappropriate decisions that are enacted at a snails pace, but at least we know that crazy and have some experience doing it less than horrible when you have a G8 nation’s budget to back you up.

Or maybe they are not so loco. Maybe the leaders of the “Bolivarian Revolution” have confidence that with time and experience citizens will learn to harness their collective wisdom of crowds. Maybe they know that if you have thousands of community assemblies happening every day, at least some of them will learn to do it well and in time those functional models will get shared with all the other communities via the new community media systems they are developing. Maybe Venezuela is on the verge of demonstrating to the world a new model where every citizen is empowered to help define the collective direction of their community and politicians are joke of the past.

That’s my bet. That’s why I’m here to witness and assist in this new model of participatory democracy. My main focus is to demonstrate at least one model of how citizen assemblies can more easily find popular and initelligent agreements using the advanced dotmocracy materials I have designed. So far I have seen one shanty town recognize over 30 agreements on how to improve their community in 40 minutes using dotmocracy or “¿Que opinas?” as it is known here (see case study, see more pictures). Not bad compared to the common trend of 3 hours and no agreements. But will it work in other situations with more challenging issues? Will dotmocracy catch on? These are my questions and my quest. Communal council members in Simon Rodriguez join me for a photo to celebrate the completion of their first dotmocracy session.

Communal council members in Simon Rodriguez join me for a photo to celebrate the completion of their first dotmocracy session.

 

That’s why I’m in Venezuela. I hope I’ll have more success stories to share soon.

– Jason Diceman May 24th 2007.

P.S. If you have simple Spanish group facilitation resources to share please send them my way and I’ll do my best to pass them on. You can also contact Fundacomun directly.

Online Tools for Brainstorming, Deliberating and Rating Ideas

While my main interest is in tools for group decision making and governance that people can us without the need for computers, I am frequently asked by the geek types “Hey, I bet dotmocracy would work great online. Do you have a web version?” In short, I don't but there are web applications for brainstorming ideas, deliberating them, rating and recognizing the level of agreement among participants, similar to the paper based dotmocracy process. Here is short list of the best ones I found:

dialogr.com

dialogr free web service allows user to quicly register, create topics, post ideas on each topic, rate each idea out of 5 stars and post comments on ideas. Unlike dotmocracy it does not include the “Confusion” rating option, nor does it graph the number of votes per each star, thus users don't know if voting is poloarized or not. That said, so far this is the best out-of-the-box free web based collaborative decision-making tool I have found.

FacilitatePro

An excellent collection of tools for brainstorming, categorizing, priortization / voting, action planning, surveying and documenting. Unfortunately you are looking at around $18,000 USD for license fees and training.

CoVision’s WebCouncil software

This is a key application used by AmericaSpeaks for their 21st Century Town Hall Meetings. They don't tell you much about the software on their public site but I can tell you it cost over $10,000 USD for set-up, training and license. You can peak at a demo at www.webcouncil.com/wcapps

GroupSystems.com

Software and services for live large group decision-making. Their latest application called ThinkTank looks quite ideal, except for the price, which was around US $35 seat/day, $105 seat/week, or $200 seat/month (a seat is required for every logged in user).

CrowdRules.com

This is a new web service for controlled and structured posting and voting on content, at last check it was just videos. Seems like it has a lot of potential.

Delphi Decision Aid

This is a free-ware application for hosting a basic Delphi method which has similar characteristic to dotmocracy. unfortunatly the usability is a bit lacking in the software interface.

Hosted groups with rating features

Both free Yahoo groups and Google groups allows users to post topics, comment and to rate each comment. I'd like to see if any organizations are formally using these features for collective decision making.

Content Management Systems with rating options

Drupal CMS with VoteAPI module and probably some modules/plug-ins/features on other content management systems or forum tools (e.g. phpBB) could be configured or modestly upgraded to provide for similar idea rating, commenting, and graphing that is core to dotmocracy.


If you can suggest other applications for brainstorming ideas, deliberating them, rating and recognizing the level of agreement among participants, please let me know via a comment below. Thanks. -JD

A Positive Review of “Collaboration Handbook”

Collaboration Handbook - coverCollaboration Handbook – coverSolid advice on how to make collaboration work between community organizations.

Collaboration Handbook: Creating, Sustaining, and Enjoying the Journey

Co-Authors: Michael Winer, Karen Ray
Publisher: Fieldstone Alliance
ISBN: 978-0-940069-03-9

This text definitely earns its Handbook title. It is a complete 178 page manual on how to initiate, grow and support a successful collaboration between not-for-profits, community groups and institutions.

It starts with detailed story of a fictional “Tri-County Collaboration for Homeless Services” that goes through every stage of development. This story is then referenced through out the second part of the book which gives detailed insight and advice on the specific tasks, stages and milestones throughout the life of a successful collaboration. The manual concludes with annotated resources and 30 pages of simple template forms and worksheets that cover everything from meeting agendas and decision-making protocols to joint agreements, promotional plans and guides to systems change.

The book has excellent formatting with lots of easily digested and referenced lists, information boxes and sub-headings. The many illustrative examples help provide real world context and the side bar quotes are a nice spice that help keep the text light. The perspective and language is from the front lines of community organizations in the USA, although generally applicable to collaboration between any type of organizations in any location.

The target audience is definitely real world organization leaders and consultants who aim to coordinate effective teamwork between multiple organizations either for funding reasons or out of their own initiative. At times the language and metaphors may cause a raised eyebrow or two from a hard nosed executive director, but such flowery bits are brief and easily overshadowed by concrete tasks and experienced insight.

Michael Winer and Karen Ray did a great service in authoring this handbook back in 1994. It would be interesting to see what revisions would be made in a second addition that could take into account the web technologies and techniques that are now part of our everyday work. Until then this handbook is still a very useful resource for the good people who want to do good work together.

A Review of “Collaboration: What Makes it Work” 2nd Edition

Understand the 20 factors influencing the success of collaboration between community organizations.

Collaboration: What Makes It Work, 2nd Ed.
Co-Authors: Paul W. Mattessich, Marta Murray-Close, Barbara R. Monsey
Publisher: Fieldstone Alliance
ISBN: 978-0-940069-32-9

The heart of this 75 page report are two chapters that describes the twenty factors that have repeatedly proven to have influence on the potential success of a collaboration between multiple organizations, defined as “The Wilder Collaboration Factors”. Outside of these twenty pages the content is mostly contextual information and academic details, save the Factors Inventory survey (PDF) which could be useful for diagnosing potential strengths and challenges in a collaboration.

This text was first published in 1992 and has ever since been referenced by many academics and practitioners in the field of organizational collaboration. The research base comes from 22 selected studies of collaboration between community groups, not-for-profits, and state institutions mostly, if not exclusively, in the USA and Britain.

If you are an academic working in this field than this should definitely be in your collection and will probably find its way in to many of your bibliographies. If you are an organization leader or consultant working to conduct effective collaborations than you may find the detailed descriptions of the 20 factors useful, but if your budget is limited you would be better served with the “Collaboration Handbook” (see my review) which includes a one page summary of the 20 Success Factors along with 170 other pages of insight, instructions, advice and templates.

Attachment Size
Wilder_Collaboration_Factors_Inventory.pdf 19.06 KB

A Positive Review of “The Community Planning Handbook”

Community Planning Handbook coverAn excellent resource for conducting citizen consultation and engagement into neighbourhood development.

The Community Planning Handbook:
How people can shape their cities, town and villages in any part of the world.
by Nick Wates.
Published by Earthscan Publications Limited, 2000.

This book is the A-Z of community lead local planning. It includes 200 pages of concise and clearly explained principles, methods, example scenarios, forms, check lists, a glossary, contacts and other incredibly useful how-to resources. This manual is very useful for urban planning consultants, progressive municipal authorities and communities leaders that want to ensure the voice of the people who will be affected by local construction are part of the decision making process. Nick Wates writes from a perspective of real world experience with lots of practical tips for situations that vary from ideal community owned projects to last minute public consultation in a traditional city planing process.

This manual is designed to be easily searched for ideas and practical direction in planning and organizing events, managing processes and establishing organizations to involve and empower citizens to give informed direction to the designs and implementation of changes to the architecture in their communities. The text is written from a UK perspective although there is considerable effort made to include photos and context from other nations, especially from rural villages in places like China, India, Fiji, Kenya and the Philippines. Jeremy Brook’s graphical design is very user friendly with hundreds of illustrative photos, diagrams, time lines and information boxes.

Although “The Community Planning Handbook” is written within a limited scope of physical planning and design for villages, towns and cities, many of the principles, methods and suggestions are still applicable to other situations of participatory planning, such as public policy and organizational change. If you want to help manage organization and community efforts that are bottom-up, buy this book and keep it on your desk.

A Review of “The Deliberative Democracy Handbook”

An excellent collection of case studies of public deliberation in the aim of influencing government decision-making.

The Deliberative Democracy Handbook:
Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century

John Gastil (Editor), Peter Levine (Editor)
ISBN: 978-0-7879-7661-3

John Gastil and Peter Levine have done important service for the academics and practitioners in the field of public participation in government decision-making. This 300 page text book provides 19 chapters of research into diverse contemporary demonstrations of deliberative democracy mostly within the U.S.A. but also some in-depth reviews of important European, Australian and Brazilian systems. An excellent variety of models are discussed including all levels of government decision-making from city planing to national policies. The research is presented by diverse authors with first hand experience. The writing is a good balance of academic rigour and perspective as well as practitioner friendly explanations and observations.

The only problem with this text is the use of “handbook” in the title. While the clearly written case studies are insightful for practitioners and the various practical suggestions found through out book could help inform a processes plan, they do not constitute the definition of handbook, which is supposed to be an easily referenced manual for implementing a system. For a real handbook in deliberative democracy try “The Community Planning Handbook” by Nick Wates which clearly written and structured to guide people in the practical implementation of community deliberation to direct local decision-making. You may also be interested in handbooks for specific participatory democracy systems such as the classic “Preferred Futuring”, the popular “Open Space Technology”, the proven “Consensus Conference” or the new and ultra-simple “Advanced Dotmocracy”.

Venezuelan Communal Councils – a new model for participatory democracy

I recently wrote and posted a complete article on Wikipedia describing Venezuelan Communal Councils. This new model of community based deliberative and participatory democracy is being intensively promoted accross Venezuela as the base of popular power in their effort towards demonstrating a new kind of “21st Century Socialism”.

In April 2006 the Venezuelan government passed The Law of Communal Councils (consejo comunales) which empowers citizens to assemble, deliberate and vote on the creation of neighbourhood development plans and to elect local spokespersons to oversee their implementation. Meetings regularly include 50 to 150 citizens and are often convened on a weekly basis.

Read the full article at
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venezuelan_Communal_Councils

Also special thanks to Josh Lerner for his research and contributions.

I'll be inviting others to help revise the article and will add details as learn more from my research here in Cumanà, Venezuela.

A Critical Review of “The Change Handbook” (first edition)

A good introduction to the field of participatory change implementation and an overview of known methods, but not enough detail to actually implement anything.

The change handbook: Group methods for shaping the future
Editor: P Holman , T Devane
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
San Francisco, CA Copyright 1999

The first edition 1999 textbook gives basic descriptions of 18 different methods for getting many people to collaboratively make a plan for system wide change in their organization. The language and examples are written mostly from a Western business management perspective, although they do include references and useful insight for community organizations as well.

“The Change Handbook” begins with a brief discussion of the nature of change and some general points to consider when planning a change process. It continues with 18 chapters each dedicated to a different method, written by the model’s creator or leading practitioners. Models are presented with standardized sections that include: success stories, basic explanations, how to start, roles and responsibilities, impacts on authority, conditions for success, theoretical basis, sustaining results and biographies. It concludes with several synthesized implementation suggestions, interesting predictions for the future, a great list of resources and a pull-out “Comparative Matrix” chart of all the models.

The text provides a birds eye view on the variety of organizational change models, which is is a much higher level of perspective than your typical manual of ‘101 Meeting Facilitation Techniques’. In fact, it does not include any specifics for how to practically structure or facilitate the various meetings called for by each model, or how to address potential problems that are likely to pop-up. The self congratulating format of the success stories lacks the critical and independent perspective of academic case studies. Many of the how-to type sections and advice from experienced consultants are useful for leaders looking to support change, although you will have to sift through many paragraphs of ‘promotional speak’ and repeated advice.

Peggy Holman and Tom Devane do a great job in selecting experienced contributors, but unfortunately it reads more like a catalogue of consultants and their approaches than a practical handbook for practitioners and organization leaders to use in the field. The reader gets a taste for each method, but is never satisfied with enough details of how to fully implement any process. This is not so much a fault of the editors as it is of the reality of trying to survey a field that is filled with consultants each selling their own slightly different magic approach and each wanting you to buy their own books and services.

With names like “Future Search”, “Search Conference” and “Conference Model” it is not easy to clearly identify the differences between models, besides the names of the consultants, their particular focus and their preferred jargon. Across all the methods there is a common process of getting dedicated support from leadership and including representatives from all types of roles and stakeholder groups related to the organization in a series of meetings where they discuss to understand their situation and deliberate to plan for a new common future that generally includes empowering workers and improving communication. Most of the differences between the models seem to be concerning what topics and approaches to address at each meeting. Other differences in applications can likely be attributed to the philosophy, style and skill of the consultant, and the culture and situation of the organization.

As a consultant, manager or board member this book provides you with many useful nuggets of insightful advice and suggestions for innovative approaches to organizational change, but you will probably find the lack of specifics to be frustrating, the redundancy to be tiresome and the stories and academic sections of little value.

For those who need to lead a system wide change in an organization or community you would be better served with a facilitators manual for participatory meetings and an in depth book on one method of choice. If you are not sure what method to choose, the recently released second edition of the “The Change Handbook” with 61 models, might be worth purchasing first.

– Written by Jason Diceman (jd AT cooptools.ca) who is yet another consultant promoting his own magic approach to collective decision-making: Advanced Dotmocracy (www.dotmocracy.org)