Complex Adaptive Engagement and Advocacy

If our change vehicles are to be complex adaptive systems engaged over the long term with those complex adaptive systems we call “Wicked Problems”, we need to understand how the evolution of this engagement is driven.

The deepest driver for advocacy in our community is the web of meaning we share that sees an individual as unique, and the purpose of advocacy as support for the realization of life’s possibilities through personal autonomy and membership in a supportive community. The old school label for such an intuition is “personalism”, which has a long secular, religious, and philosophical history, and has been recreated in every generation by some community for its members. Our disability community is the latest, and, I believe, has gone the deepest in making the personalist vision practical.

Person-centered planning is an expression of this, as are support concepts like intervenors and personal assistance. Even a technologically focused conceptual framework like assistive technology is only meaningful in the context of a personalist perspective.

On the other hand, the deepest driver in the evolution of wicked problems and the vast majority of support organizations that are the Systems of Focus (SOF) for our advocacy, is the authority and responsibility they have for the resources within them.  This way of thinking about resources leads SOF to prioritize preservation and expansion of resources as their purpose, not the publicly stated mission.

Remember that the purpose of a system is what it does, not what it says it does. When we are advocating for the use of these resources on behalf of ourselves, others, or a community, we understand that use to be in service of personalist outcomes. When a system is engaged with us during our advocacy, it views the engagement as a negotiation about the distribution of the SOFs rightfully held resources (all types). Our advocacy is viewed as an unwarranted disruption of their  control and disposition of those resources.

Thus the conflicts that arise from advocacy.

If we activate an advocacy community through organizing, we build the possibility of long term-engagement, and at least some possibility of a renegotiation of our advocacy as part of normal reality, instead of a one-off intrusion by advocates into areas where we have no role. This change in how we and the SOF engage is less an epiphany than a change in ritual or a habit or a state of mind that makes the engagement easier to carry out, but does not change the fundamental purposes in our mutual engagement.

When such engagement becomes typical, we can invest our advocacy with more sophistication, understanding our SOF more deeply in its complexity and drive for the control of its resources.

Next: Long Term Advocacy Engagement and SOF Affordances

Third Order Advocacy: Organizing

Although Organizing to support advocacy has a long history of framing advocacy efforts, the easy availability of organizing models (and their diversity) undermines their usefulness.

The Midwest Model (see the Midwest Academy website), for example, assumes that an organized advocacy effort can identify an individual or a role capable of changing the current situation to an outcome valued by the organized advocacy effort. There certainly are many solutions that can be achieved through such an operational approach, and organizing needs to be a catalyst for operational success.

But, as we are starting to understand, many of the foundational problems that we face in the disability community, and intersectionally, across the full range of marginalized identities, are “wicked”. They arise through the ongoing and constantly evolving process of complex adaptive systems.

Wicked Problems don’t have authorities in them  that can change any specific issue to what we want.

Because wicked problems are complex and adaptive, there are a very large number of theories that can be generated to explain any such problem we might face. Furthermore, we will not be able to engage the wicked problem without SOME theory. But, there is no “correct” theory of the wicked problem. There are only different ways to engage the wicked problem system, each of which will cause some change in the Wicked System and adaptation by the System without necessarily resolving the issue.

This means that, while we might use a Midwest Model operational plan to engage with a specific issue, we will need to have a sustainable organizing vehicle for the long term if we expect to produce more systemic change.

Which is to say, that our organizing effort must become a complex adaptive system, and  we want it to be adaptive in its engagement with our chosen wicked problem.

Most organization work is driven by tactical (FOA) or operational (SOA) frameworks. Though necessary, such causal planning models are not sufficient to engagement with wicked problems. How we bundle our tactical, operational, and organizing efforts to impact wicked problems is the subject of the next post.

Next: Complex Adaptive Engagement Over the Long Term…



The Basic Practice of Second Order Advocacy (SOA)

Second Order Advocacy takes the tactics of First Order Advocacy and turns them into an Advocacy Operation. You can understand an Advocacy Operation as a coordinated web of FOA Tactics.

A System of Focus (SOF) has weak relationships with far more than just the legal/rights community that we typically use in a basic advocacy effort.

Remember that the basic tactic in advocacy is to disrupt a weak relationship. If your disruption is effective, the SOF still has to expend resources and time to rebalance it.

Some other kinds of weak processes to consider for disruption:

  • Local elections that affect the funding of the SOF.
  • Disrupting a part of the SOF that isn’t the focus of your advocacy (i.e., going after regular education disability discrimination when you are trying to change special education policy).
  • Making more work for the boss of the point person you are advocating with.
  • Getting your issue into the press.
  • Forcing the SOF to follow “all the rules”. This works best if you segment the multiple complaints, so that they seem to pop up without notice.
  • Filing complaints with multiple organizations, using related but different rights frameworks.
  • Pressuring local officials or allies for help.

By combining various efforts to disrupt over a period of time, you can create an operational campaign. This is especially effective if you can overlap the threads of disruption so that individual threads don’t get resolved before a new thread develops.

Next Time: Third Order Advocacy-Community Organizing

Second Order Advocacy (SOA)

We use First Order Advocacy (FOA) to destabilize and disrupt a weak process of the SOF related to disability education legal requirements with which the SOF must comply in order to legitimately use funding (and many other resources like staff, equipment, marketing, etc.). The SOF needs to effectively support these strong processes to reproduce itself successfully. Successful reproduction of the strong processes is necessary to assure the benefits of being part of the SOF, whatever they might be.

The legal requirements of special education are not the only type of weak processes the SOF must accommodate. The resources that the SOF might use to counter a legal disruption are not the same kind of resources the SOF would need to counter a disruption not based in special education law or Section 504.

Remember that the SOF countering a disruption doesn’t somehow restore the resources lost in doing so. There is no simple way to put the resources back into their “best” use in support of strong processes of reproduction. If the conflict (or conflicts) continues for a long time, there will be a more or less permanent redistribution of the available resources that were used.

For example, in the early years of special education advocacy, SOF tried first to negotiate with advocates using bureaucratic methods such as obfuscation, then hired attorneys for specific disruptions, then had a permanent legal presence through retainers, and now mostly hire counsel that have specific special education law expertise, as well as maintaining the retained resources. Each of these steps makes the resources involved unavailable for other purposes. They become the price of doing business and allowing some level of accommodation with the unavoidable presence and actions of advocates.

Once committed to the accommodation of a particular stakeholder, the resources are no longer “fungible”. The SOF will have much greater difficulty shifting significant parts of the resources to any other purpose, even if there is a real need by the strong processes of the SOF to do so.

Second Order Advocacy (SOA) takes these realities into account. Effective advocacy becomes premised on the idea that all stakeholder relationships that are part of a weak process accommodation with the SOF are potential sites of disruption.

Next Post: The Basic Practice of SOA

What the SOF Is, and How We Engage It

The System of Focus (SOF) might seem to be an easy concept to use, but it isn’t. Because “Everything is connected”, we choose the system we focus on, and that focus doesn’t eliminate all those connections.

The System of Focus is a real system in our current understanding of Systems. That is, the SOF is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). It behaves as it does because the relationships between its parts drive the state of the system as a whole. It is not a machine, and it can’t be changed the way we change a machine (changing parts one at a time). The apparent stability of a SOF is an illusion, and the stability is only maintained by active reproduction by the SOF.

A Simple Model

We can conveniently view the SOF as two circles, an inner one that contains all the strong processes that reproduce the system, and an outer one, consisting of the relationships the SOF has with its stakeholders in the real world. Strong processes reproduce the SOF, weak processes make small demands on the SOF.

The ordinary way the SOF deals with the stakeholders who are making weak demands on it is by negotiating an efficient predictable relationship with each stakeholder. The weak processes that are important here are the ones the SOF can’t just ignore, the ones the SOF must accommodate. These can be funders, political actors, and, of course, laws, regulations, policies imposed from the outside, and direct constituencies that it does not employ (like parents and students in an education system).

These Weak Processes, once accommodated, can be ignored, even though there is a small continuing resource cost to the SOF to accomplish this.

Enter the Advocate. Using the laws that allow access by our advocacy community to the resources available to the SOF, we disrupt the low cost, easily ignored relationship that the SOF has under ordinary circumstances with its stakeholders. Suddenly, our demand is requiring attention, time, and resources from the SOF that won’t be available to be used for some unpredictable period to reproduce the strong processes of the SOF. The way this is done by the advocate is to use the simple abstract script described in the last post:

  • Disrupt the ordinary process of the System of Focus (SOF) by challenging some part of its typical behavior.
  • Threaten to cause a bigger and less controlled change in the SOF if the advocacy demands aren’t met.
  • The SOF chooses to make a smaller adaptation to avoid a bigger, uncontrolled one.

This script operates in all First Order Advocacy, using anything from a simple verbal complaint to a federal class action lawsuit. Regardless of the scope of the disruption, the leverage for change is the same.

I will expand this model to show how we might also expand the impact of our advocacy with an SOF. I call this expanded model Second Order Advocacy.

Next Post: Second Order Advocacy

The Basic Pattern of Disability Rights Advocacy

There are as many ways to advocate for rights as there are systems, contexts that are oppressive, and creative advocates to invent disruptive engagement with those oppressors. Understanding advocacy as a tactical and operational tool of social justice transformation requires experience and practical knowledge of the concrete realities of the System Of Focus (SOF). To use advocacy to extend the impact of social justice transformation, we need to also extend our understanding of advocacy as a scaffold for making our Strategy facilitate that transformation.

Virtually all approaches to first order advocacy follow this abstract script:

  • Disrupt the ordinary way of business of the System of Focus (SOF) by challenging some part of its typical behavior or some relationship it has with the outside world.
  • Threaten to cause a bigger and less controlled change in the SOF if the advocacy demands aren’t met.
  • The SOF chooses to make a smaller adaptation to avoid a bigger, uncontrolled one.

Active advocacy is (thus) a negotiation process, no matter how the process proceeds. But, while advocates are focused on an individual or community outcome, the SOF is focused on the externally forced (re)distribution of resources that they believe they have the right to control as they wish.

This standard pattern of rights advocacy is reimagining the distribution of the tools of life-it is a political struggle. This is as true of a struggle over an Individual Education Program, as it is over a presidential campaign.

But, as an advocate, it is important to remember that this pattern is not just a negotiation over the distribution of resources. That might be true for the SOF, but it isn’t for the person or community whose life possibilities could be expanded by successful advocacy. Buying in to the SOF view of the purpose in the negotiation, is a slippery slope toward the financialization and politicization of advocacy as a social justice tool. It turns social justice advocacy into a  zombie.

Before going into the more sophisticated advocacy patterns available to disability advocates in our 21st century future, it is important to ground ourselves more deeply in the underlying dynamic reality of First Order Advocacy (FOA).

Next Post: What the SOF Is and How We Engage It

Expanding Disability Rights Through Advocacy

In the last half-century, the disability community has gone from a fragmented, cure-focused, disconnected aggregation of individuals isolated in their families or in institutions to an identity-aware, active, present, and organized advocacy movement.

The kind of advocacy that led to this blossoming of our community can be thought of as driven by the same model that black civil rights, feminism, and other identity-based rights movements have used:

    • The passage of legislation that mandates certain rights.
    • The development of procedures to define rights and due process when those rights are violated.
    • The use of legislative solutions to the trade-offs and detailed reification of those rights.

Essentially, rights, in this model, are only those which can be legislated and bureaucratized. This process of rights expansion is driven by presence, protest, policy proposals.

The successes of our common effort are real, but not complete. Both the larger world and the requirements of future success with advocacy have changed and will continue to change. The ongoing resistance to our advocacy over the last half-century has gradually muted our impact. We must face up to these realities if we expect to further our project of social justice and personal empowerment.

The core of a new approach to advocacy for our community requires an understanding of the advocacy environment as a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) , and not as a machine that we change as we would a car engine.
Seeing the constraints on our community as processes in a CAS is not a new technique of advocacy, though it does offer us a new way to view how we change The System.

There is a basic pattern that we have used to pursue rights, and in my next post, I’ll go over that pattern as a prelude to a version for advocacy in a complex adaptive system.

A Strategic Approach to Advocacy Success

We tend to value our success changing The System in tactical terms:

  • Creating this specific improvement in support; this specific elimination of discrimination, bullying, limits; this change in public policy or practice.
  • Enabling a move into a better or more expansive “adjacent possibility”, unavailable before this specific advocacy success.
  • Bringing with it increased funding, skill enhancement, recognition, and an expansion of our current reach.

But, underneath our judgment of immediate value lies a deeper and far more extensive meaning, that we would call a strategy if we understood what a strategy is.

We don’t understand. We think a strategy is a clever engagement with the System of Focus (SOF) to force them to accommodate us. It isn’t.

A Strategy is a scaffold for engaging our environment with effective decisions over time, when:

  • The future is unpredictable. If the future was predictable, we wouldn’t need a strategy. We could just make an operational plan like a logic model and success would roll out like a boulder falling off a cliff to the ground.
  • We don’t have enough resources. If we had infinite resources, we could just keep plugging away, through trial-and-error, until we succeeded.

The traditional view in the military is that strategy is embraced through ends, ways, and means, the “dimensions” of strategy implementation.

So, what should the underlying strategy in our disability community advocacy that allows us to decide on our ends, ways, and means, and be effective advocates?

I propose that we should embrace a two-pronged strategy:

  • We should continue to work to make The System on which we all depend, better at supporting our needs, and providing more ways we can control the supports that the system provides.
  • We should also begin building an alternative system based on our local, collaborative ability to supplement what The System locally provides, to make a base for supports that we control democratically and through the synergy of our various skills, abilities, and experiences. In other words, we band together to make up for the shortfalls of The System, and to provide support no governmental or private system would consider worth pursuing.

This strategy recognizes our current dependence on The System, and the complexity of reducing our dependence on it. It also says that we, as mutually supported and respected friends, families, and allies, can and should create what we want right now. This is true, even though the process of creating that alternative will be long and complex. Only through our mutual determination to take each step together will it be possible for us to realize what we should have had available to us all along.

(P8): Ice-Fishing for Tools

placing tip-ups in ice fishing using a sounder to test for depth and placing the bait about 1 foot above the weeds attached to the tip-up.
Placing Tip-Ups for Maximum Serendipity

Because The System is a CAS, and the building of Our System is the building of a CAS, there is no simple procedure for finding and using tools to take from The System what we can and create what we need in Our System. While all efforts to find useful information are doomed by the sheer amount of it, You can reduce the effect of that firehose by a combination of focus and allowance for serendipity.

Ice-Fishing is a decent metaphor that combines the concepts of focused and serendipitous search. You do not cause the fish to bite, you use their natural behavior to entice a bite. The “focus” part is the area you choose in which to fish, and the serendipity is the placing of a variety of locations for tip-ups covering areas that are not part of your immediate focus. When a tip-up is triggered, you check it to see if you got a fish.

Searching for what is useful to your individual path to personal autonomy and choice is very similar to ice-fishing. Your mental framework for what that path should be will orient you to the tip-ups that might be of value to you.

I will describe how I approach this, but the path you want will reflect your own evolving growth and experiences, and you will need to evolve a scaffolding that truly reflects you and those important to you.

There are some heuristics that you can use making decisions about that to include in your search scaffolding:

  • You need a diversity of search scaffolds, so that your choices, as a group, won’t reflect a bias that systematically prevents you from accessing useful information
  • You should actively add small numbers of new search algorithms as you run across them and eliminate ones that don’t show use to you in a reasonable time. I use a few months as a rough metric for assessing usefulness
  • Accept that a large percentage of what you review will not be of use.
  • Calibrate your judgement of what is useful to some self-chosen framework, like the headline, and have another layer of review that lets you quickly review the possible usefulness.
  • Trust your intuition about what might be useful.

The value of your scaffold depends on the linkages in the information universe you search. You will always miss items of great importance and must depend on the larger network you are sampling to find that which is of use to you.

Here is a sample of the tools I use for my scaffolding. There is nothing special about these tools. I evolved my current scaffold step by step over a period of years, and the evolution continues:

  • Feedly: This is an RSS reader. Though deprecated by many, RSS remains the simplest way I can sample many item summaries with little effort. At one point, I had 300 sources. Now, I have about 120.
  • Medium: I use the tools of following and item recommendations, and I mute or delete sources every day, so that there is an evolving focus. The Medium universe is constantly evolving, and the same must be true of your scaffold for scanning the possibilities.
  • This app allows for the creation of papers with themes that are published periodically. I have chosen a variety of papers with themes that I find useful. My regular scan includes the headline and a short description.
  • Social Media: I review Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, etc. and the scaffolding for this review includes both my personal and policy models. Since these two models have significant overlap, I get a lot of surprises, and the surprises often show me a profitable path or paths for expanding my search resources.
  • WordPress: I follow WordPress blogs that produce useful items for review.

Because, in systems theory terms, we are all “path-dependent”, every building of a personal scaffold will be unique. Strong efforts to reduce this uniqueness may have the unintended consequence of creating a systematic barrier to that which would be of use to you.

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(P8): Using The System

A buffet of many food choices in a restaurant.
A Buffet of Many Choices

If we must continue to use The System while we try to build supports that we can effectively control and scale, we will need to understand how The System operates, and what we might do to make the best use of it.

The first reality that we must accept is, “The purpose of a System is what it does”.

It isn’t:

  • The stated Mission of the System
  • The Strategic Plan of the System
  • The stated Policies of the System.

Does this characterization seem harsh to you?

For example, I have watched the changes in the Social Security system around SSI disability supports since the early days of the system. Starting in 1981, there has been an incremental alteration of the original purpose of the program (to provide basic income and health care access), to one that reduces real-time eligibility and bureaucratizes due process to the point that it has become a system for denying eligibility to the greatest extent possible without triggering too much bad publicity and political backlash.

My experience is not unique. Everyone who became an advocate in the early days has recognized the same overall deterioration in the purpose of SSI.

Because the purpose of a System is what it does, not what it says.

And our use of The System to support our community must reflect that reality.

The System is always corrupt (maybe disrupting is a better word). Not because the people in it are necessarily committing financial crime. The System is corrupt because, over time, its original purpose degrades, and the uses to which The System is put gradually become as diverse as the local needs of all its stakeholders, including us as members of the disability community. Such complexification of the original mission is a normal response of aging in any CAS, including each of us. If no one tries to alter this trend, you get a trajectory that tracks the following phases:

  1. Narrowing and self-centering of mission (Bureaucratic Narcissism)
  2. Mission and Self-Interest become Indistinguishable (Functional Psychopathy)
  3. Use of System assets for personal gratification (Frank Exploitation)
  4. Networked misappropriation (Gang Exploitation)
  5. RICO activities ( Corrupt Insurgency)

AND, at the same time:

The system is always different from what it was just before now. Novelty, broadly understood, is constantly changing The System. Novelty includes all our efforts to make The System work more effectively for us. All CAS create micro-diversity as part of their evolution. The people in the system are only dimly aware of this, which means the behavior of the system is often surprising. It is the micro diversity which give The System its resilience, but this micro diversity triggers in any bureaucracy a futile effort to eliminate that diversity. It is the inability of the system to eliminate this diversity or its production that provides us with a landscape in which we can become better at using The System.

We have two main methods for getting better at Using The System. One is scanning and learning (Fishing for Tools), and the other is Crowd-Sourcing our search for solutions.

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