Guest essay by François Knuchel. First published at The Common Weal, October 2013, as part of an exploration on the future of democracy in Scotland, in light of the independence referendum September 2014.

What could a real participatory democracy for Scotland look like?

The Common Weal has identified six transitions required to move towards its vision for Scotland. If I were asked which one of them to start with, I would begin with the last one – Democracy and Governance. The first five are about policy, but the sixth is about process, and most importantly it is about getting the whole Scottish population behind a vision. This is the participatory democracy it seeks. If there are lessons to be learned from the separatist movement of Quebec in Canada, for instance, it is that a democratic process must underpin independence, one which allows all voices to be heard. What strikes me about the Common Weal transitions is that the first five seem political in nature; not all in Scotland may necessarily agree with them; whereas democratisation is about ensuring all those views are heard, respected and considered.

But what exactly does it mean to have a participatory democracy? Participation in what and how? What is a “deeper democracy”? Allow me to muse about these questions, let me trot around the world, including back in history, and ponder how democracy and participatory leadership have been practiced in different ways here and there, in civic life as well as in business and communities. I shall first look at different shades of democracy or participatory governance in both business and governments and then explore newer and “deeper” forms of democracy for the future, including a true gem – dynamic self governance.

Catch-ball” Consensus

Anyone who has worked in a ‘lean’ (Western adaptation of Toyota management system) context will be familiar with the adage, ‘when a problem arises, tackle the problem, don’t attack people’. Our tendency is to focus on accountability and blame, spending resources on finding whose fault it was, whose head should roll etc., rather than on rectifying the problem itself, i.e. putting all our collaborative energies into co-creating solutions that ensure the same thing does not recur. One basic premise behind ‘lean’ is to get everyone to focus on problems or issues in a collaborative and evidence-based way, to learn collectively and listen to all perspectives, and thereby to tackle the issues smartly, not to attack people.

After the devastating industrial revolts of the late 1950s at Datsun, now Nissan, and at many other plants in Japan, local managers decided to reject US style management (imposed on them after WWII), and replace it with a more bottom-up, consultative style, which through Toyota, lean manufacturing and ‘gemba’ (workplace) principles became the bedrock of Japan’s economic ascent. This pattern is now being repeated in China, India, Brazil and many ‘developing’ economies. The Japanese consensus management approach is underpinned by the principles of ‘nemawashi’ (sounding out, picture forming and tuning perspectives), ‘ringi-sho’ (circulation of proposals, like planning applications, transparently inviting objections) and ‘hoshi kanri’ (policy deployment). The latter is a management system for strategy or policy deployment involving consultations up and down the organisation, what the Japanese refer to as ‘catch-ball’, from baseball, refining proposals every time the ball metaphorically goes back and forth; whereby catching, listening, is crucial. This form of collaborative leadership in companies could be called a form of industrial democracy, a democracy that is focussed on tackling issues, plans and policies, not on attacking people.

Direct Democracy

Over 700 years ago, in 1291, some foolhardy farmers from three valleys in the centre of the Alps got together to join forces and swore an oath to free themselves from the Habsburg command rule. This was done by a simple show of hands, voting to rebel against their autocratic rulers, and represents one of the earlier modern forms of self-organisation. Whether the subsequent Wilhelm Helm legend has any historical fact remains questionable, nevertheless the story served to instil the resilience of these rural inhabitants in fighting off their persecutors and eventually formed the core of what is now Switzerland.

Several features are notable – there were no leaders, and decisions were taken by vote on the policies and issues in an egalitarian way. The ‘federal charter’ was really a confederation of different regions and localities who vowed to stick together against the domination of the surrounding feudal rulers of the time, while deeply accepting and respecting the variations of local customs and practices of their different regions – indeed as the country expanded later, even the different languages were honoured (the four official languages of Switzerland). Here were the seeds of a highly decentralised form of direct democracy, direct because the people decide by vote directly on the issues and policies, and not per proxy as in most Western democracies. Both ‘parliamentary democracy’ (UK, Germany, Spain..) as well as ‘presidential democracy’ (France, USA…) are variations of ‘representative democracies’ where people vote for representatives to do the governing for them, and this contrasts with ‘direct democracies’, where they decide on policies directly.

While a primitive form of Switzerland’s direct democracy has its roots over 700 year ago, it would be wrong to think that direct democracy had prevailed since. Being decentralised each region ruled in its own fashion, and indeed most of the Confederatione Helvetica (CH), especially the richer merchant cities, was ruled autocratically, only a few regions maintained the practice of voting on issues by show of hands (even nowadays some rural communities vote by hand). Because of these discrepancies Switzerland went through all sorts of struggles, trial and tribulations throughout the centuries, and it was not until the violent revolution of 1798 followed by decades of bloody rioting and a short civil war in 1847 that the current form of direct democracy was anchored in the Swiss Constitution of 1848, comprising a confederation of over 20 relatively autonomous cantons.

As a semi-Swiss living abroad, every 2-3 months I get sent the federal voting documents and I cast my votes on the 3 – 5 issues (new regulations, changes to existing laws, constitutional matters, ‘referenda’ or popular ‘initiatives’) at hand. Nowadays it is done very simply online via a secure internet connection. Occasionally there is also someone to elect to parliament – parliamentarians are a bit like stewards or enablers, serving the people: They make sure the new laws are written appropriately, ensure all procedures are followed correctly, and draft new law proposals for voting in response to what is happening in the world, domestically and internationally. They have lots of prestige and respectability, but they have little power! Officially, the power is with the people.

Representative or Direct?

There are flaws with direct democracy, and I would not recommend it lock, stock and barrel. But if my only choice, as a voter, was between representative democracy and direct democracy (and as a dual Swiss-UK national I’m in a unique position to experience both types), there is absolutely no doubt in my mind which I would choose. Compared to direct democracy representative democracy feels a bit like a joke. It’s like a group of people unable to agree which café to go to, so you decide by vote – you can either vote on your choice of café and the café with the highest votes gets selected, or you can vote to elect a chief who once elected decides for the whole group what café to go to. How unsatisfactory is the latter?

Why on earth would I want to elect someone to decide for me, for us, when we could voice our choice directly? I would rather vote on the issues than on 4-year ‘chiefs’ to represent me. The problem with electing people who then decide for us is that gradually the governance process shifts away from the issues and policies, towards the elected people themselves, their personalities and egos, their allegiances, their wheeling and dealing, and ultimately the arrogance they develop of knowing best what’s good for us. Suddenly decisions are about people power, rather than about issues, and this distorts the collective Geist.

Majority Flaw

Having said that, direct democracy has flaws, and if any nation or state were to adopt direct democracy, it might be worth learning from those mistakes and jumping straight to a next deeper level. The main pitfall is voting itself. Majority voting has major drawbacks, because of its exclusive and polarising nature. Voting is divisive, leads to winners and losers, us and them. It is antagonistic, in that it is either one or the other, rarely can it be both/and. This is a deep flaw – it can lead to a kind of tyranny of the majority, with minorities excluded.

There are some dire examples of exclusion caused by majority voting: although Switzerland has one of the oldest and longest lasting democracies in the world, it has also managed to exclude half the population from voting at all until very recently. Every time the one half of the population with voting rights were asked to vote as to whether to give the other half without voting rights the right to vote, they voted ‘no’, almost as a foregone conclusion, and there was no way the other half could have a say in the matter. And so it was that Switzerland, despite having a more progressive form of democracy, was the last of all democracies in the West to give women the right to vote, finally in 1971!

Another example demonstrating how majority voting on issues can lead to some deeply racist or ostracising attitudes was evidenced a few years ago when the Swiss voted yes on an ‘Initiative’ (a proposal to change the constitution which can be initiated by 100,000 signatories) to restrict the number of Muslim minuets to just the three existing ones. Representative democracy advocates hail this an example showing how if you leave it to the masses they behave like a lynch mob. The ruling is indeed discriminatory, racist and exclusive; and embarrassing to the more internationally minded Swiss. At the time it was deplored and hugely criticised in the world press (though the press has its own agenda), and rightly so!

Paralysis in the U.K.?

The funny thing was, however, that while people in the UK seemed to know, through the press uproar, that the whole Swiss population had voted on this, none of us asked, hey, hang on, how come we don’t ever get to vote on these and other issues? Indeed how come we don’t even have any direct say on governance matters? It does not cease to amaze me how the UK can quite happily go to war in the name of ‘democracy’, yet we the people do not determine how the country is run, other than by proxy once every four years. Such a fuss is made over one potential referendum about one issue (the European question) once every forty or so years, whereas the Swiss population votes on 4 – 5 issues every 2 – 3 months!

In Britain it is as if it was totally ingrained in our psyche not to claim a voice in the governance of our lives and workplaces. We have permission (“freedom”) to express ourselves, and to protest, but this is not the same as co-determination. As if voting for a party pitched against another party (and recently a third), all promising the world, all poised against each other, each out to hurt the adversary, totally focussed on egos, once every four years, was satisfactory. Satisfactory enough to go to war! How brainwashed can one be? I do not buy the argument that our adversarial opposition system enhances political thinking. On the contrary in the end it just leads to wheeling and dealing, and to winning the day at the cost of the opposition. Attacking people rather than tackling issues.

Unfortunately, I do not see much changing in England in the foreseeable future; I mean real change, not just tinkering. But Scotland? Is there an opportunity for Scotland to take democracy to a new level, to a deeper democracy?

Hearing People Out

If there is anything history can teach us, it is that if a region wants to go its own way, to go in a different direction, whether through a formal separation or other informal arrangements, doing so democratically has the highest chance of success. If the existence of Switzerland can be deemed a success at all, then rebelling and separating itself from its rulers only succeeded in the long run, because it did so democratically from the beginning, by that show of hands.

The same has not succeeded (so far) in Quebec. I suspect this is partly due to the somewhat autocratic nature of its separatist leaders. In an intensive 3-day meet-up in 1991 an interesting experiment was done by Maclean’s involving twelve Canadians of opposing convictions and cultural backgrounds trying to establish common grounds. It revealed how radical political stances arise when people do not listen to and respect each other. After a total discussion breakdown, the Quebec “separatist” there revealed the fundamental reason why she felt already out of Canada boiled down to “hurt”, massive hurt, hurt from being ignored, hurt from not being respected, hurt from not being heard. After this open candidness was acknowledged, the participants heard each other out at a deeper emotional level, and were eventually able to form an agreement. Not hearing people out, ignoring people’s voices crying out, can lead to radical and entrenched positions.

People must be able to co-determine the direction of their lives, communities and institutes directly. Organisations need to be able to listen to their employees, to those who actually do the work. Employees must be able to co-direct the running of the organisations they work for. To achieve this may require a leadership paradigm shift, one could call it organisational democracy, economic democracy, or workplace democracy; or, as in the Common Weal, industrial democracy.

Need for Inclusivity

While direct democracy allowing people to decide on issues and policies directly themselves is an improvement over electing representatives to do it for us, voting is not the right way, because of its binary yes/no, and either/or nature. Majority voting is antagonistic as it seeks to eliminate opposition and exclude diversity. As a collective form of thinking voting is impoverishing, precisely because it excludes refinement, and through its polemic can escalate opposition into blockage. What

is required is a more inclusive form of collective thinking, one which takes all perspectives and viewpoints into account, and constantly retunes policies in a dynamic iterative manner. Diversity, conflict and objection enrich collective thinking holistically, and should be welcomed for pointing out potential pitfalls or blind spots, and for enabling a richer innovation and value creation process.

Consequently direct democracy can only serve us as a model up to a certain point. It is noteworthy that Swiss direct democracy has not translated from politics to its businesses and workplaces over time: Most Swiss institutions, companies and corporations are not democratic at all, but are run very much in an old-fashioned command and control way. There are no worker representations like on German boards, nor is there any of the Nordic egalitarian or Asian consensus leadership style. In the same way that 150 years of direct democracy has not transferred across over to Switzerland’s neighbouring countries politically, neither has it transferred even within the country to its own companies, institutions or schools.

Democracy in Business?

It is somewhat ironic then that the launch event in 2012 of a meta-movement embodying participatory bottom-up management practices, ‘STOOS’ (synergising new business models such as agile, lean, beyond budgeting, collective wisdom, conscious business, chaordic commons, open souce thinking, etc.), should have taken place in Stoos, a mountain village overlooking the meadows across the lake where the initial democratic revolt started 700 years earlier. Stoos aims to shift the role business plays in society by bringing together various strands of ‘new economy’ thinking under one umbrella, and is a welcome move towards a more direct form of democratic or participatory governance in our workplaces, in our institutions and in our companies! In particular conscious capitalism, focussing on multi-stakeholders without tradeoffs, purpose before profits and employee engagement, requires full participation of all in decision-making to achieve a conscious culture. This is a big shift in leadership thinking.

Many business schools and policy makers talk of the need for more engagement in the workplace. Engagement does not come about easily, however, if employees are not somehow involved in the decision-making process of the organisation’s direction. Motivational events put people on a high today, but that is gone tomorrow. The real question as to how to get everyone in organisations involved in decision-making in an efficient manner is overlooked or ignored.

There have been a few attempts at ‘democratic organisations’, the most notable being the Brazilian Semco. The Indian IT company, HCL Technologies, have completely turned their fortunes around for the good by folding their company inside out: managers are evaluated by employees, all reports are posted openly and transparently, and forms part of their salary review – managers work for their employees. The UK ‘upside-down’ company Timpson with autonomous branches is an interesting case in point too. And the growing cooperatives usually have democratically elected chiefs. While there are plenty of experiments happening here and there, there is as yet no accepted mainstream governance system which enables full decision-making by all employees across the board efficiently.

Empowering consensus management works in Japan, because of the pre-decision consultation processes involved – slow to decide, but quick to implement. Contrast that with the West, where a few ‘decisive’ individuals at the top make decisions swiftly, but where implementation is incredibly slow, if at all, due to resistance. Could the Japanese consultation process be applied here? This is unlikely, because the Japanese approach is supported by certain priority cultural values we do not have, such as humility, modesty, social harmony, listening and face-saving. Without these values the Japanese catch-ball consultation approach cannot work well here. Moreover, consensus itself is questionable, often a fudge, and nearly impossible to achieve, because it demands agreement.


One European company has been grappling with this self-governance problem for the last 40 years: Endenburg in Holland. Gerhard Endenburg used his own electric company as a ‘management lab’, to experiment with different ways to achieve participatory governance efficiently. Applying principles of cybernetics and systems thinking to organisational governance, he developed and tested a few ingenious practices which also tackle and resolve the majority voting flaw on an organisational level, thus enabling decisions to include multiple perspectives and diversity. This is sociocracy, also known as Dynamic Self Governance (DSG).

Dynamic Self Governance enables a whole workforce to participate directly in co-determining the direction of its workplace and company in a highly adaptive, collaborative and creative way. It does this by organising in circles which apply consent rather than voting or consensus. DSG has been applied successfully in various organisations and communities in Holland, France, Germany, Australia, Canada and the USA. Sociocracy is based on some fundamental principles:

  • Organisations are structured in self-managed ‘circles’, each with own aims
  • Circles are ‘double-linked‘ to ensure feedback flow across the organisation
  • Decisions are taken by all circle members by consent, both on issues and policies, as well as for selecting people for certain tasks and functions.

Consent Principle

The principle of consent is most important as an alternative to majority voting and consensus, because all perspectives in policy proposals can be taken into account. Rather than expel opposition, consent incorporates objections, thereby enriching thinking. Consent is fundamentally different from consensus. The latter attempts, often vainly, to reach agreement between all parties, normally with very convoluted ineffective and wishy-washy results, not untypically also with remorse on all sides. Consent, on the other hand, does not presuppose agreement, but simply the lack of ‘paramount objections’, that is objections that would prevent the group from achieving its aims. Objections are thus positively welcomed.

We take it for granted to stop the car and deal with the problem when we have a flat tyre; the flat tyre indicates that the whole, the car, cannot reach its target unless the problem has been dealt with. We do not carry on driving on the basis of a majority of three to one! And yet this is how most democracies rule our countries – we carry on driving on three wheels!

In sociocracy our flat tyre would be analogous to a ‘paramount objection’ in that it disables the group, the car, from reaching its target, the car must stop and the problem dealt with. If, instead, one wheel were red in colour, and the others were black, this might not be aesthetically agreeable (many of us would not like it), but it would not prevent the car from reaching its target; so however objectionable the red wheel would not in this case constitute an objection which was paramount. Note, however, that consent is context-driven, i.e. what is deemed paramount varies depending on the context. If for example the goal was to sell the car at the best price, then having a wheel of a different colour could massively reduce the perceived value of the car and in this situation a red wheel could well be deemed a paramount objection, requiring a retuning.

Dynamic Self Governance in Wider Society

It is not my purpose here to describe how sociocracy or dynamic self governance works (for that see John Buck, We the People, Consenting to a Deeper Democracy ). I am simply presenting it here as an alternative form of collective decision-making to majority voting. While DSG is brilliant, it has one small disadvantage, in that it requires a few simple principles and practices to be learned and applied for it to work well. Even so, these can easily be learned and practiced, and the learning of

these skills can be cascaded up and down organisations. As organisations increasingly follow a stoosian multi-stakeholder conscious business model, they will need to learn effective ways to decide co-creatively, and sociocracy will gradually come to the fore. Moreover, let us not forget that democracy itself had to be developed and learned socially over many generations, so the need to learn some new consent-building skills should not itself constitute an excuse for not introducing DSG. DSG is not a quick-fix, but it is not difficult either!

So far there has been little experience of implementing DSG at a regional or national civic or governmental level. I would like to suggest, however, that by combining DSG with practices from ‘collective impact’, such as a network of meta-or backbone organisations, shared values and measurements, together with the decentralised issue-centred practices found in direct democracies, one could apply DSG on a grander scale. DSG is compatible with both private enterprises and the public domain. As companies behave more as organs of society through stakeholder principles serving communities, and as public civic bodies become more entrepreneurial, innovative and efficiency driven, it is fortunate to have a participatory governance system that works well in both worlds. DSG/sociocracy will play an increasingly vital role, once it catches on.

Horizontal and Vertical Communication

Through double-linking DSG relies on feedback and communication vertically up and down organisations. This makes them agile, iterative and dynamic. Like all living systems a sociocratic organisation relies on cyclical feedback processes to stay in tune with its members, clients and environment. Larger organisations, and by analogy larger civic society, however, may require extra feedback mechanisms which are horizontal, in order to maintain holistic coherence across entities.

In the case of Japanese organisations vertical communication takes place in the hoshin kanri catch-ball process up and down the organisation, somewhat akin to sociocratic double-linking; this is complemented by a horizontal feedback system where communication centres on the flow of production or service delivery of the business, i.e. flowing across the processes where client value is added. This is achieved through such mechanisms as pull value stream mapping, kanban and and on. By means of the ‘internal customer’ principle, feedback loops flow horizontally across the organisation (this is not the same as matrix management). This horizontal feedback flow is often missing in UK organisations; hence we have far greater silo fragmentations and system failings.

Emerging Interconnectivity

In larger society additional forms of cross communication may be required, especially where people meet, who not connected to specific groupings or circles with common aims, i.e. from different organisations or sectors of society. One such ‘carneval’ of interconnectivity can be achieved through Open Space Technology (OST). Like direct democracy and sociocracy, OST recognises that decisions in the brain are not taken by single leader cells, but rather through the very elaborate network of cell connections and patterns, which themselves constantly reform and regroup into new interrelations, leading to new learnings and perceptions. Coincidental connections, cross-pollination of ideas and patterns, and synergy emerging out of synchronicity are all aspects of a highly evolving mind – in group interactions OST and similar large group interventions achieve a similar degree of synchronicity and interconnectivity between people.

By this measure our current reliance on decision-making by just a few ‘leaders’, or cells, “at the top” is a highly disjointed form of collective thinking, primitive compared to the elaborate and intricate ways the brain works. Representative democracy may be a slight improvement over autocratic rule, but it is still a rather blunt instrument to govern. Direct democracy and consensus improve collective thinking, in that decisions are now taken by all people, all cells, and on issues, not proxies. Nevertheless these are still flawed: Consensus is cumbersome and inefficient, and majority voting in direct democracy leads to polarisation and fragmentation. The next ‘deeper’ step beyond direct democracy is sociocracy. DSG seeks to tune into collective wisdom, considers all possible obstacles and steers entities in a continuous learning and adjusting manner. There is no doubt that sociocracy is a next step in our governance system evolution.

DSG can sometimes appear somewhat engineered (which is exactly its strength – with it one can truly demonstrate equivalence in decision-making), and in a wider civic context one may also need to hold space for open cross-fertilisation, coincidental encounters and synchronicity, to let choices emerge holistically. This is where OST in particular offers a good complementary approach to enable conversations that matter, letting new dynamisms to emerge. It also supplements horizontal feedback well, as it enables people from different circles, different departments, different companies, different communities and different institutions to cross-pollinate ideas in a highly engaged and magical manner.

As such, DSG is more left-brain (yang), OST more right-brain (yin). While DSG works particularly well for governance in organisations with common aims, and can be expanded through a meta-network of backbone organisations, OST could supplement deeper conversations across civic society where people are not necessarily working towards the same common aims. In my view it is just a matter of time before sociocracy, combined with some other approaches like OST, will become an accepted mainstream way of self-organisation and governance.

And Scotland?

So when Scotland talks of real participatory democracy, what exactly does it mean? Does it mean its own variation of representative democracy with people voting for their own parliamentarians every few years? Or will it strive for something more evolved, like direct democracy, or even better, sociocracy?

Will Scotland be the first country to try out a truly deeper democracy on a larger scale? And potentially lead the way forward into the future?