(P4): Multiple Advocacy Initiatives

A fictional print of a huge squid attacking a 19th century sailing boat

“Release the Kraken!!”

One of the operational possibilities that modern technology and rights laws support is the use of multiple advocacy initiatives to increase the destabilization that is necessary for successful advocacy negotiation.

The systems that we use advocacy to change have a superficial and abstract appreciation of how their environment can destabilize them. They tend to try to manage weak constraints individually, by stabilizing each one of them separately. Naïve advocacy also tries to destabilize the weak constraints individually. This is a tactical advocacy failure.

For example, filing a complaint is typically done using a single set of regulations or rules (for example, special education laws, regulations, and rules). Even when a complaint covers violations of both Federal and State special education laws, the approach tends to be narrow and focused on a single remedy.

But, the use of, say, Section 504 as an additional complaint about the violation of civil rights, or the use of state civil rights laws where they are applicable, can add a remarkable complexity to the necessary response by the system. Using multiple complaint systems based on different statues and partially overlapping conceptual frameworks of what civil rights mean places a difficult burden on the system trying to re-establish stability in the weak constraint as quickly and cheaply as possible.

My observation is that if these multiple frameworks are used in sequence to poke the system from different directions over a relatively short period of time, the system tends to perceive that advocacy threat as far more powerful and unmanageable than the threat from a single framework where the system has long experience in responding to the advocacy issue raised. This is a misperception on the system’s part, but a useful one to advocates.

Also, if an advocacy issue (say, a failure of supports provision) has a public face and general application to a reasonable number of students, it is worth considering making the advocacy case public to increase pressure for a negotiated outcome and to let other students with similar issues know that it is possible to resolve them.

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(P3): System Aging and Our Organizations

A model of how corporations age. See long description link below the image for details

Long Description of Image

There are patterns in the aging of our advocacy organizations. Because these patterns arise out of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), they are not mechanically or programmatically determined. They arise out of the interacting possibility spaces created by the governing constraints that allow the creation of the CAS in the first place. These governing constraints are Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy.

So, there is no rigid development pattern in advocacy organizations. Instead, there are a series of choices about enabling relationships in the complex possibility space that create the actual pattern of the organization that arises. What follows are some observations I’ve made about these patterns during the last half-century of my personal development as an advocate and the many organizations to which I have belonged.

Early Patterns

When an advocacy or social support organization is first created, it usually prizes Mission over Reproduction and Hierarchy. Partly this is because small new organizations don’t have much money, the people who are in the organization generally got into the work they do because of the way they value that Mission and the non-mission skills they have are relatively unformed compared to their understanding of the importance of the Mission. The effect of this reality is, in many ways, to set up the organization for a difficult transition that accompanies the successful growth and expansion of Mission impact.

Transition to the Two Missions Framework

There is a transformation of the organization as it tries to create the infrastructure that is necessary to sustain the work. Creating this infrastructure can be thought of as creating a new governing constraint called Reproduction. This Reproduction infrastructure includes a Board, improved methods for getting program income. a system of accounting and monitoring the use of the funds, community relationships, etc. It is typical that building this infrastructure produces mistakes. Boards crash and burn, the bookkeeper that was handling the limited funds is discovered to have embezzled some of the limited money, lack of HR experience produces very poor management decisions about the people who work at the organization, etc. The punishment (however that plays out) of these errors either destroys the organization or shifts it to a model of Two Missions (Mission as Purpose and Mission as Reproduction). If the punishments are severe enough, but the organization survives, there is a tendency for the surviving managers to value the financial/social (Reproduction) Mission over the original purpose. This causes an organization-specific development (i.e., aging) process focused on managing the relationship and value of both Mission and Reproduction.

Long Term Paths for Two Missions Organizations

Once an organization has transitioned to the realities of the Two Missions, there are many paths that the organization can follow as it struggles to manage the relationship between the sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting demands of these two governing constraints.  It is common to try to use Hierarchy to manage these challenges.

As a Governing Constraint, Hierarchy never exists separate from the Two Missions. But, management beliefs about hierarchy themselves constitute a governing constraint that defines the possibility space for the management view of the quality of solutions to organization problems.

Management view of the level of control necessary to solve management problems is often set in concrete, narrowing the range of “acceptable” ways to solve problems, which in turn guarantees poor problem-solving. Under ordinary circumstances, some public failure of the organization (embezzlement, reputation failure, or similar organizational system issue) must occur, and it is not unusual for the existing governance structures, like the Board and the senior managers to turn over before there is any major change in the Governing constraint of Hierarchy.

The usual choice to resolve this problem is to increase the control offered through Hierarchy. This choice is made out of fear, not because it genuinely offers integration of Mission and Reproduction, and increasing control often starts the organization down a path of technocratic zombism, where the original Mission no longer has any meaning.

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(P3): Legislative Advocacy: Part Two

A diagram of how Advocacy Coalitions affect systems. See link in resources for image text.

Ultimately, if we wish systems advocacy to approach the scope for which we hoped, we will have to change both the kind of macro-frameworks within which we advocate, and the methods and mobilizations we use to impact both the existing frameworks and the innovations we wish to build.

This post will cover how we need to change our methods and mobilizations, and a later post will cover the creation of new visions of support systems that reflect the reality of complex adaptive systems, and the rejection of bureaucratic and mechanical forms of support.

How will we do systems advocacy differently in the future?

I am old enough to remember the talking points we used to mobilize against discrimination, institutionalization, the taking away of rights generally, and the de-valuing of people in our community. Rather than go over those points, I would like to reframe our values for talking points that could be used in this era to begin the creation of systems with governing constraints that promote our current understanding of what it means to support our community in the expansion of life possibilities, personal autonomy, and the endless exploration of choice.

Some preliminary notions of how we might talk about the governing constraints of potential new systems of support:

  • All systems must permit broad customized collaboration among all relevant actors organized around the hub of the person who is creating the personal support, and that person’s social network.
  • Systems of support must embrace the tension of locally developed mutual support alternatives or complements to the System’s closed approach as a normal and expected part of deeply engaged collaboration in creating customized supports for a person.
  • Collaboration is viewed as necessary to enable and coordinate the emergence of genuinely customized and flexible support over the lifetime of the person.
  • Supported Decision-Making is the core mental framework and skill set for making new support system governing constraints genuinely effective.

These principles can’t be implemented in a closed system of rule and regulation that limits outcomes to the preconceived. As Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety points out, only “Variety absorbs variety” ( see the link above). The systems that can collaborate to realize the values in the preliminary notions above must create a temporary Complex Adaptive System (CAS), the planning collaborative group, that can creatively marshal resources and enable the emergence of a customized support in the actual life of a real person. This is no different in principle (though different in size and scope) from anyone embracing an intention to do something they have never done before, and then exploring their possibility space to produce an emergence of something that reasonably matches their intention.

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(P3): Advocacy with Groups of Persons and Families

A group of adult citizens engaging in a public conversation at a Santa Cruz library.

Usually it is easier to produce systems change through advocacy with a group that has related advocacy goals. It is easier to destabilize a weak constraint in the system if there are several similar but somewhat different ways for the system to lose control of the destabilized constraint. A standard model of this process might involve eliminating a segregated classroom by arguing that each student in the class has a right to an integrated educational experience and doing this through a group collaboration.

Each student can pursue a separate action to move to an inclusive environment, since the typical reason why a system would segregate a group of students is to reduce the costs of similar supports for these different students. If the system loses even one of these advocacy initiatives, they will have to provide the supports outside the cheap classroom, and they will have to absorb the cost of the hearings that advocacy triggers. So, 6 students can mean 6 hearings, six separate hearing costs (maybe $20,000 each). It is cheaper in the long run to develop a model that provides the supports that would be ordered in a hearing result.

Also, systems have developed methods to isolate single family advocacy efforts by demeaning their competence, educational knowledge, purposes, impact on other students, and so on. These tools are far less usable when there is a group of similar advocacy efforts.

A group with a common purpose forms a temporary complex adaptive system (CAS). This purpose is the governing constraint and frames a set of possibilities that the group will explore as it moves toward a valued outcome in their work.

In addition, a group with a purpose can more easily pursue destabilization of many additional weak constraints that are part of the system. Political activities, public relations, educational initiatives, public policy planning, and many other possibilities for advocacy are much more feasible in a group.

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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): Other Examples of Weak Constraints

Stylized figures of generic viruses, bacteria etc.

Because the CAS that we target for advocacy are very complex systems tied to a very complex larger environment, there are a very large number of weak constraints (WC) available for potential destabilization. Obviously, not all weak constraints might be similarly effective in producing a specific advocacy outcome. And, in fact, we tend to use multiple weak constraints to effect a positive advocacy outcome.

But because it seems easier or more efficient to use techniques that have proven successful in the past, we build habits of ignoring other possibilities (a kind of faux “efficiency” argument). I would argue that creativity is an essential part of successful advocacy, if only because the target system will adapt to your advocacy efforts, and you must have a ”habit” of introducing novelty into your advocacy efforts to not have them degraded significantly over time.

So I offer this list, not as anything like a complete one, but to allow meditating by review of the possibilities. Perhaps one of these might trigger a realization on your part that would point to a more sophisticated novel approach to a high-quality advocacy outcome.

Legal WC:

  • Complaints
  • Fair hearings
  • Lawsuits of various kinds

Political WC:

  • Publicity
  • Politician-targeted problem solving
  • Boards and Councils
  • Elections

Financial WC:

  • Public Funding
  • Resource Allocation
  • Financial Disparities

Systemic WC:

  • Threatening Governing Constraints
  • Introducing Novelty

Organizing WC:

  • Emerging an Insurgency
  • Building local or community resistance
  • Effective Advocacy Training
  • Building Community Advocacy Supports

Any single or combination of these WC’s could be targeted for destabilization in a specific advocacy strategy.

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(P2): Activism as Bricolage

Theatre showing Tosca with a phrase projected onto the screen curtain, 'Power is always temporary'

Bricolage is rightly viewed as one of the “Powers of the Weak”. Elites typically view power as something exerted by a predictable machine of propaganda, sanctions, and punishments, and they view insurgents trying to change this as working to replace their machine of power with some other one.

So, bricolage, used as a tool of subversion, misdirection, or organizing, is hard for elites to see, or target. This is especially true if the bricolage is used to solve a local problem.

The point of using bricolage rather than using the system is to avoid having the problem-solving bricolage subjected to the services logic of the system.  This system services logic includes assumptions of:

  • Spending scarce resources to detect fraud
  • Using “failure demand” as a tool for managing system work rather than actually providing the service
  • After an initial period of seeking out persons eligible for the support, gradually turning the point of the system increasingly toward denial of supports.
  • Etc.

Bricolage allows a more coherent connection between support purpose and behavior. This coherence is lost once the support is subjected to the support logic of the system.

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(P2): Tinkering and Bricolage

A room full of various unexpected things for you to play with and make something new

Tinkering is standard behavior for anyone who is curious. Bricolage is a French word defining tinkering as finding a solution to a problem with whatever is in your immediate environment. Bricolage makes problem-solving local and personal and is more than just playing. Bricolage reliably produces solutions that are inexpensive, easier than managed solutions to implement, and well matched to the actual reality of the problem rather than the “planned” reality of the problem. In fact, in modern life, bricolage is a common response to solutions that are imposed by organized management.

I suspect bricolage was a primary way our hunter-gatherer ancestors engaged the problems of their daily lives. Adequate solutions would become part of a multi-generational exploration of what possibilities these solutions held, a kind of socially organized exaptive process. Bricolage speaks to the personal “engineering” drive we all have.

My father was an extremely capable chemical engineer who worked for Dow Chemical for 45 years. His primary focus over the course of his career was something called “process engineering”. His task was to take a reasonably successful research project and find out if the project had commercial potential. Researchers tend to think that you scale their successful research by simply making it a bigger version of what they used as their research methodology.

In reality, designing and building a commercial pilot that is a million times larger than the research process, respecting the physical environment of seasonal temperature changes, the length of pipes, the delivery of chemical components at the right temperature and with the catalysts and pre-product components at the right time, so the next step in the process can be successfully initiated, and so on. Process Engineering is a particularly large form of bricolage, and the difference between ideology (research) and engineering (bricolage) has many lessons for any attempt to change any CAS.

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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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(P2): Perceiving Weak Signals Overview

A woman with bruising injuries on her face from partner abuse, holding a sign that says 'Did you notice me?'

  • Great things are done by a series of small things brought together – Van Gogh
  • Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things –Vernor Vinge
  • You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things so that all the small things go in the right direction –Alvin Toffler
  • Men don’t pay attention to small things – Katherine Johnson

Because our usual habits make us ignore weak signals, we need to cultivate new habits that make it more likely we will notice them. These new habits can’t be automatic. They must involve reflective attention-not just attention to something that is there, but consideration of it’s meaning. Below is a list of techniques and concepts that I hope will aid you in seeing what is important, but almost not there:

  • Surprise Can Point to Weak Signals
  • Environmental Scanning for Weak Signals
  • Tinkering and Bricolage to find Weak Signals Right Around You
  • Learning About Weak Signals Through Safe-to-Fail Experiments
  • Thinking of Weak Signals as Insurgencies

I’ll try to amplify each of these in the posts below.

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