(P3): Meta-Systems Advocacy-Part 1

A map of Meta-impacts of systems- Evidence-informed effective policymaking: Policy rules promote evidence us and transparency; Sustained relationships, mutual trust, aligned medium and high level beliefs; deliberative processes systematic, collaborative. Political Forces: Advocacy for inclusion of broad groups and skilled chairing; Advocacy for establishing and maintaining relationships across the policy community; Advocacy for evidence use enhancing meta policy structure and processes.

How would we create a Complex Adaptive System whose purpose was to produce individually customized and emergent supports for individuals over the course of their lifetime?

First, we need to have a clearer grasp of the difference between mechanical causal outcome systems, and Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). The planning systems we all use now were designed from a framework of mechanical causality.

Mechanical Plans

Governance of a Mechanical Plan (say, a logic model for a grant proposal) is through a valued outcome. The outcome serves to organize the process of its achievement. The plan is a series of parallel linked steps that mechanically lead one from the other until the outcome is achieved. The adequacy of the plan is evaluated in the concreteness and causal (read measurable) links of the steps to the achievement. The point of the plan is that it works like a machine/computer if it is implemented properly. If it doesn’t work, the plan is treated like a broken machine/computer; we look for a broken part/process and replace it without changing the rest of the plan.

CAS Plans

Governance of a CAS Plan is through an outcome, as well, but the outcome is more like an intention, and the issues of measurability that arise in a mechanical plan are turned on their head. An intention is a governing constraint that does not dictate the steps required to achieve it. Instead, the governing constraint creates a space of possibilities within which we expect to find the realization or creation of the outcome/intention. Such an open approach is much more in line with how we all actually achieve an intention to do something we have never done before.

Imagine a pair of fraternal twins, both about 6 months old. A new ball is placed the same distance from each of them. Maybe the ball has flashing lights or bright colors on it, and each of the infants forms the intention of getting to the ball, grabbing it, and playing with it.

One of the infants carefully reaches out with a hand and carefully moves bit by bit to get closer to the ball until getting close enough to grab it. The other infant rolls about energetically until getting close enough to grab it.  Both strategies for reaching and grabbing the ball are part of the possibility space that the original intention creates.

There are many others. For example, the infant might communicate to a parent to bring the ball closer, or ignore the ball out of frustration, etc. Which strategy is picked is about the specifics of the CAS; the infant’s temperament, where the infant is in relation to the ball, the environment in general, other things that are around, and so on.

The strategy is not mechanically determined, but more felt through by trying approaches and muddling towards a solution. The second time the approach is tried, it is easier to reach the outcome and gets increasingly easier with practice.

This CAS-based way of thinking also has the advantage of being progressively customized to the dynamic actions of the infant. It matches the reality of the uniquess of the infant, and this uniqueness is reflected in the organization of the specific child’s brain.

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(P3): Advocacy within Local Communities

A tryptic of pictures; in the center a crowd of persons with disabilities in a rotunda surrounded by police; On the left side a police officer arresting a blind person; on the right police

Our disability community needs a community advocacy strategy that is about more than disability-related issues. All the following issues deeply affect our lives as well as the lives of many others where we live:

  • Health Care and Supports: Impacts children, elders, poor people, workers, LGBTQ communities. all oppressed communities
  • Climate Change: Impacts everyone, most especially our community
  • Transportation: Impacts elders, poor people, workers
  • Housing: Impacts all oppressed communities
  • Access to Healthy Food: Impacts people who are poor or who don’t have access to easily accessible transportation
  • Physical and Program Access to Supports: Impacts everyone who needs supports
  • Education: Affects all oppressed communities
  • Pollution: Especially affects oppressed communities
  • Community Development Policy: Impacts all the other issues listed here, and affects small business creation and survival

In the past, our community has focused on issues that  were concretely connected to the immediate experience of individuals with disabilities. We need to change our narrow focus and expand our advocacy through alliance with others who share the impact of these local community issues with us. This means putting continuing effort into getting to know one another, building advocacy alliances around specific issues of interest to other communities, using these relationships to create mutual education about how different community issues impact different local communities, and working together to build an effective and continuing advocacy presence in our local area.

The goal in community advocacy is secondarily to stop one political decision or action, and more to make the governing constraints of our local social/community CAS more effective at supporting enabling relationships and activity for all the members of our larger community. This strategy is a different view of every aspect of organizing for change and requires us to broaden our existing idea of inclusion to reach everyone affected. This, in turn, requires us to rethink every aspect of our organizing and advocacy.

In effect, it requires a more radical vision of inclusion and advocacy that reflects an expanded understanding of “Nothing about us, without us”.

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(P3): Legislative Advocacy-Part One

A typical hall of a legislature, with tourists, lobbyists, advocates with disabilities, and legislators moving about.

Legislative Advocacy (whether focusing on local zoning rules or appealing a lawsuit to the US Supreme Court) is the traditional arena of what has been referred to as “systems advocacy”. It includes policy, rules, regulations, and all the astounding number of areas that government touches.

As a community, we have worked on macro-frameworks, like universal special education, Social Security Disability and SSI, Medicaid, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the downward flows from these frameworks to the state, local, and individual level.

I believe that the current macro-frameworks have largely exhausted their potential for expanding personal autonomy and choice for our community. They are becoming increasingly brittle and rigid. In fact, to the extent that these macro-frameworks represented an entitlement to expanded autonomy and freedom of choice, they have contracted more or less steadily from their initial promise to smaller and smaller opportunities for tweaking existing patterns. Along with a dramatically contracted arena of possibilities, they have all shifted from a vision of who might be eligible for their benefits to a growing effort to make it more difficult to use them. Put another way, they are no longer vehicles for expanding supports, but increasingly vehicles for denying support.

I don’t view this conclusion as hyperbole. I think that more administrative funding is spent on ways to deny eligibility and reduce supports than is spent on fostering those promises from so long ago.

These symptoms of support system aging have impacted our systems advocacy. Lawsuits are now used to prevent contraction of rights, less so to foster their possibilities. We organize and mobilize to stop disastrous outcomes rather than to foster positive ones. Our targets of change have become smaller, sometimes focusing on word changes in what exists now.

Even in the development of civil rights advocacy for communities left out of the old macro-frameworks, we use the arguments we used then, not unfairly, to expand the meaning of existing rights, without asking ourselves if the macro-frameworks can actually handle the weight of the justice they are asked to bear. Or will they simply fail to deliver?

To some decreasing extent, of course, they can. But I see them less able to produce the kinds of outcomes we would hope would represent our best take on what rights can mean to people’s lives. And now, even those more limited possibilities are shrinking in the face of relentless assault.

In summary, the system’s vehicles for rights definition, expansion, and protection, are degrading over time and we are less able to use these vehicles for our advocacy purposes.

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(P3): Advocacy with Individuals and Families

Cartoon of IEPC with school staff explaining the legalese poorly without providing any real information and the parents obviously confused

There is a standard way to advocate on behalf of an individual or that person and the family. The weak constraint in this standard scenario is ordinarily a set of rules regulating the target’s interaction with individuals, commonly described as individual rights. There will be one form or another of negotiation over customized supports for the person, and a set of rules for how supports are developed and implemented. There is typically a complaint system, an appeals system, and a fair hearing system to organize the process of resolving disagreements.

The ordinary reality of negotiation in this kind of weak constraint is that the target tries to manage the negotiation process by discouraging family or individual involvement, making the entire negotiation as complex and intimidating as possible, not providing support to the person or the family about how to use the regulatory framework of the support system, offering an existing support even if it clearly doesn’t provide the customization needed to actually succeed, framing the request for supports as an individual unrealistic demand rather than a system problem, using the argument of policy or practice to claim that the request is invalid, threatening the family or individual with punishment, repeated use of the strategy of denial, followed by pulling back on the denial at every successful advocacy step, and so on, and so on, and so on. All these tactics are designed to restore the constraint to its past usual managed cycle.

When we successfully destabilize this constraint management approach, on the other hand, the system must do things that it ordinarily does not do (our destabilizing of the weak constraint is enabling). This requires the target to commit resources (funding, expertise, staff and administrator time) to non-normal workflow. The target makes a judgement about whether they can contain the destabilized constraint or not. Under the impact of the destabilization, it is this judgment that advocacy tries to manage.

If the destabilization is successful, and the advocated change occurs, the target accommodates the change and remodels the destabilized weak constraint so that it is moved back to a predictable cycle.

To get some of the depth of this advocacy framework, think of the difference between a pick-up game of basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. by a bunch of 10year-old kids. They set all the rules, make all the ethical judgments, preserve competition in a way they believe to be fair. Also, though such a game seems to be a competitive one, it is in fact enabling, since the experience of the game by the participants develops social skills that the participants will use throughout their adolescence and adulthood. In a word, this kind of competition socializes the participants. This is the way that the basic successful advocacy pattern described above works.  At its best, it socializes the target system to be more responsive to the participants.

Now think through what happens to the kid’s “competition” when adults formalize their sports events over time and tie them ultimately to the behavior and constraints in professional sports (without the money). There is no enabling relationship. Every part of professional sports is engaged in a war with no ethics except those imposed from the outside. Money, fame, celebrity, and cult status are the only meaningful goals, none of which are enabling in any human way. While competition does not have to be winner-take-all (WTA), it has largely become that in every arena of adult behavior, far beyond the obvious example of professional sports.

The individual and family form a complex adaptive system, with the purpose of the advocacy forming the governing constraint on the CAS. When a family reaches out to an advocate, they are trying to enlarge the space of possibilities to increase the likelihood of a valued outcome.

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(P3): Destabilizing Strong Constraints

a balloon being pricked by a person's hand and collapsing

I have touched on these ideas earlier, but it is important to reframe them in the context of strong constraints. What follows is a story about how constraints develop and how they are destroyed.

For large CAS (like a state-organized society), the general pattern of strong constraint development can be thought of as starting from an authoritarian control system over subjects (think Egyptian Pharaohs). Over time, social relationships develop that make the CAS more efficient but undermine to totalitarian control that originally unified the state. This process in states used to take centuries to occur. This aspect of system aging has been sped up dramatically in the last couple of centuries.

These social relationships gradually become the central driver of the state society, and they become ensconced in meta-ideas like democracy or community. These relationships are “enabling” constraints because they allow groups of people to network in order to accomplish more complex, sophisticated outcomes.

Once the day to day operations have become more entirely dependent on local social relationships, the CAS is about as stable as it will get, and aging of the CAS will continue. Elites come to see the CAS as not allowing them to exploit it as easily as they once could (this perception has nothing to do with the number of assets they control). Which is to say that the increasing brittleness of the CAS as it ages is viewed as a loss of freedom by the subjects and a loss of power by elites.

In twentieth-century modernism, the idea of macro-change of an entire societal CAS evolved from the modernist belief that social reality was a machine and the arrogance that powerful superior human beings could control anything, reconstructing it to their liking. The early approaches  to manipulating governing constraints (strong constraints) clustered around two approaches:

  • Elites could take control of government power and restructure society to their liking.
  • The society could be entirely dismantled and rebuilt from scratch.

The Soviet system under Stalin is an example of the first, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia is an example of the second. Mao tried to blend both methods in his effort to remake China.

None of these approaches worked. They annihilated, each in their own way, the underlying social network of enabling weak constraints in the CAS they attacked and replaced enabling constraints with winner-take-all constraints. The outcomes were appalling.

Today, elites in nation-states and insurgents are once again trying to increase their control. The method they are using might be described as modernist lite. Actors have developed a wide range of destabilizing techniques that can be used to undermine a target and replace enabling constraints with winner-take-all (WTA) constraints.

One technique is to delegitimize the current leader. Any group who can get lots of people out in the streets over a relatively short period of time to call for resignation can likely accomplish that. This technique doesn’t guarantee that the replacement will support the insurgents, or that someone who does support the insurgents and replaces a current leader can change the CAS for the better.

A second technique (with an astounding number of variations) is to disrupt and destroy existing social relationships to undermine the political structure that currently exists for personal or political gain. Examples include:

  • Eliminating tolerance by demonizing cultural, ethnic, religious, and political beliefs.
  • Exaggerating the impact of targeted “enemies” to social order regardless of their actual impact.
  • Making a social difference of any kind illegal in law, culture, or policy.

And so on……

The point of these disruptive actions is to replace enabling relationships with WTA ones. These techniques are political weapons that ignore the reality of the loss of enabling social relationships that took, in some cases, centuries to build, and will revert the target of destabilization to a kind of competitive anarchy in which it is much more difficult to build stabilizing social relationships. Chaotic low-level war results, leading to one or another form of authoritarian control, and a dramatic loss of social, political, economic, and environmental action effectiveness, and personal freedom and choice.

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(P3): Destabilizing Weak Constraints in Advocacy

Image of the Night King from Game of Thrones Series

  • I came to a stark realization: chronic surpluses could be almost as destabilizing as chronic deficits. –Alan Greenspan
  • One of the points about distractions is that everything they do is destabilizing.
    -Bruce Sterling
  • Yet, history has shown that if material force can defeat some ideologies it can no longer obliterate a civilization without destabilizing the whole planet.
    Abdelaziz Bouteflika

In a Complex Adaptive System (CAS), any form of interaction between the system and the outside world can be usefully viewed as a weak constraint and a potential target for destabilization. Obviously, some constraints are closer to the heart of your advocacy outcome than others.  But there are always more ways to go after a valued change than whatever works the first time we use it.

The biggest problem we advocates have in interacting with the CAS is that we settle on a technique or procedure that has worked for us in the past. This approach, while understandable, dramatically reduces the palate of ways we might destabilize the CAS for a valued purpose.

When we use the same techniques with the same CAS over and over, the CAS will adapt to them, making our advocacy more complex and expensive for us to use. Additionally, when the larger environment in which our target faces the same set of destabilization techniques, that larger environment will also adapt, narrowing the impact of our efforts to destabilize and making the outcomes we achieve more predictable, and, thus, more manageable by targets. Both the target and our advocacy become more rigid.

An example (in the next post) will give you the idea of how local, state, and national CAS and our advocacy approaches adapt over time to successful advocacy.

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(P2): A Weak Constraint as a Potential Insurgency

A painting of a medieval revolt. Many people and soldiers fighting one another.

Mostly, CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems) view both internally generated and externally driven encounters as disturbances or perturbations. For purposes of understanding how you can advocate for change in a CAS, I prefer to think of these triggers as insurgencies.

An adjacent possible is something you can do readily from where you are right now. Some insurgencies keep resurfacing, an indication of an adjacent possible.

There are always more adjacent possibles than you know. They are often weak constraints, and we tend to pick one, stick with it as our preferred novel change target, and fail to see the other possibilities lurking close by. Our ability to survey the possibilities of the uncertain world around us is encumbered by our automatic focus on the easiest possibility to perceive.

Insurgencies subvert by their mere existence. In fact, a traditional way to turn a weak constraint into an insurgency is to trigger a response from the Target CAS. This is part of the reason why they are so hard to eliminate. Failed insurgencies are typically replaced by changes that will also trigger a new set of possibilities and a new insurgency.

Subversion is always possible. There is no way to build a fortress that is impervious to an insurgency. In fact, I think it is reasonable to describe the ongoing human conflicts in every State in the last 7,000 years as an insurgent struggle for change and freedom against a status quo struggling to increase and preserve control.

So, an insurgency is a kind of constraint, and it can move from a “weak” constraint to a powerful force for change just because the target reacts to its disturbance.

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(P2): Safe-to-Fail Experiments as Weak Constraints

Strange yellow and black bicycle with a perfectly square frame and no brakes.

The idea of Safe-to-Fail Experiments was developed by Dave Snowden as part of his Cynefin framework. The technique is a way to learn about a complex adaptive system without triggering unintended consequences that are out of your control (See the link above.) But the concept of using probes to learn about complex systems is useful in many other contexts, most notably, in social justice advocacy.

Most advocacy is premised on the idea that there are legal constraints on the behavior of target systems, and that these constraints can be used to change the behavior of the system. In other words, advocacy can use procedures repeatedly to create change. Implicitly, we only need to understand the legal constraint under which a system operates and the change procedures (complaints, lawsuits, etc.). We don’t need to understand the politics or history of the system we are trying to change, all of which are, of course, other kinds of constraints.

But we do need to appreciate these aspects of a system before we can hope to successfully change it. This is because even the most apparently logical procedural path of some bureaucratic machine is, as we all know, a little “Peyton Place”, more complex and messier than the bones of the procedure would suggest.  Which is to say, all bureaucracies are Complex Adaptive Systems using much of their available energy to prevent disturbance from creating change through forcing them to modify existing constraints.

From inside a bureaucracy (or any large organization, including for-profit corporations), creating change must involve experiments too small to trigger annihilation of the experimenters or the CAS, but enabling you to learn something useful about the systems dispositional trajectory, about its system of constraints.

Safe-To-Fail is also a useful tool for changing that most personal of CAS, yourself.

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(P2): Weak Constraints Can Change Future CAS Behavior

Black and White photo of a small child trying to move a large boulder.
High Hopes

In addition to the obvious effect of weak constraints on the target system described earlier, we also need to understand weak constraints as fulcrums for coordination, in the same manner, that our bones, joints, and muscles serve as fulcrums for our movement, even the most sophisticated.

If there are no such constraints the system seems freer than it is when these constraints to movement are present. But, this freedom is like that of an amoeba. You can move anywhere but without any sophistication. You are “free” to do much less than you could do if the “constraints” were present. This idea of using constraints as fulcrums for sophisticated advocacy is the key to understanding how we can use the weak constraints (and sometimes the strong constraints) in a system to leverage change. What constraints enable, among other things, is the coordination of our advocacy work to achieve meaningful impact.

Because strong constraints are well defended in target CAS, it can be difficult to change them directly. But the strong constraints still represent fulcrums that the target must respect. So they can be used in much the same way as Aikido or Jiu-jitsu, by channeling the investment in energy that the target CAS must provide in order to prevent damage to itself, into “forced” change. This is different from trying to eliminate or replace strong constraints, which, frankly, almost always ends very badly.

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(P2): Surprise and Weak Signals

A goldfish with a look of surprise on the face.

  • Learning By Surprise
  • What is the Adjacent Possible?
  • The Hindsight Bias
  • “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
    ― Gilda Radner

Instead of glossing over surprises as failures of understanding, we should focus on them until we have grasped their novelty and how that novelty needs to change our view of reality. We need to avoid abstracting from surprise to make it only another example of what we already know to be true.

Novel occurrences are novel for us, but they are also typically some “next step” from that with which we are already familiar. They are often called the “adjacent possible” because once they have occurred, it is fairly easy to see how they came about. This is true even if no one anticipates them. It is important to remember that in a Complex Adaptive System, there are always many adjacent possibilities for the future.

There is another common problem that results from rationalizing surprises. We look back on the surprise and try to figure out who accurately anticipated it. We think this will improve our prediction capability in the future.

Looking back does improve our understanding of the current situation. It doesn’t improve our ability to predict any genuinely novel future. If we examine what people thought about the future before the novel occurrence, we will see a very large number of ideas about what might happen.  The particular idea about the future that turned out to be accurate had no more or less information about its likelihood than many of the other ideas. The novelty tells us something useful about the current state of the CAS we are in and where it might evolve in the short term. It doesn’t improve our ability to foresee the genuinely new.

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