(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 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): 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 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): Why you shouldn’t destabilize Strong Constraints

A collapsed bridged over a river in the summer

The effort to destabilize social groups and their relationships is currently everywhere, being used at every level of every human Complex Adaptive System (CAS) of any size. Mutual destabilization has become the way various parts of CAS politically relate to one another at a scale that was ordinarily reserved in the past for plagues, wars, and large-scale natural disasters.

Such destabilization is often justified on the grounds that once the destabilization is successful, a new era of prosperity and social value will automatically blossom. In psychology, this is referred to as magical thinking.

The only way a brittle CAS becomes simpler and more humanly useful (oriented to a valued human purpose) is through a collapse, though the collapse need not be total (apocalyptic). The real problem with using any method of destabilizing the governing constraints in a CAS is that there is no way to predict or control the actual outcome of successful destabilization since the whole point of WTA (winner-take-all) constraints is the way they allow creative exploitation to run wild. The social relationships that enabled successful outcomes will become competitive one person at a time, and there is no way to see how that breakdown will spread and change the CAS. Think of a novel infectious disease and how poorly we predict its spread (say, for example, tick-borne diseases).

There is no automatic rebooting. There is no way of assuring that the “better angels of our nature” will drive the dynamic of recovery, and many reasons to think it won’t be those “angels” that drive the resulting change. Instead, the recovery will reflect the second by second interactions of what remains, not what we think should replace the past system.

It took millennia for humanity to evolve enabling social/physical systems that reflected significant support for the system’s members. It took all this time to build individual social relationships that were oriented toward general social improvement (enabling). These relationships were hard to build and hard to maintain. Destabilizing them (which is the point of the methods described in the last slide and this one) will destroy those enabling weak constraints, and there is no telling what will result.

If you review the links above, you’ll find that all recovery from collapse always takes much, much longer than the collapse itself.

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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): How An Advocacy/Target System Evolves

The pattern problem: An example becomes a lesson; A lesson becomes a method; A method becomes a practice; A practice becomes a doctrine; A doctrine becomes death.

In 1981, I went to work for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service as a field advocate in the counties around Michigan’s Thumb. About half of my work involved representing students and their families in special education disputes. Over the next four years, I got to observe first hand how my special education advocacy and the approach of the special education systems in my catchment area evolved. It was quite enlightening.

Initially, school districts viewed special education largely as a new program only partially paid for by the federal mandate (this remains true today). The important aspects of it to the district CAS were how to pay for it and what impact did it have on their previous model of education services. There was, early on, and continuing to this day, a constant source of tension between regular education and special education systems (SPED services receive roughly twice the funding per pupil than regular education receives). Demands by special education students for supports and services that were outside the ken of past education practice were either ignored or denied.

This framework was ripe for effective advocacy. In the first few years of special education advocacy, it was very easy to win programs, supports, and services because the district didn’t really think it had to do anything to win other than obstruct demands. Advocates had time to prepare, to deepen their understanding of the law at both Federal and State levels, and to become adept at using the state and federal rules in the negotiations.

This advantage, like all advantages in the competitive interaction between different CAS, didn’t last.

One set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was a dramatic increase in the number of students and families that requested advocacy assistance. Since the MPAS budget didn’t increase based on demand, this resulted in less time and resources for pursuing advocacy outcomes. In turn, this made our interventions less effective, overall.

The other set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was to be taken more seriously by the districts. They began to commit resources to fight our advocacy including, eventually, hiring attorneys on retainer to improve their obstruction.  This also meant that the cases would be more complex (basic failures of civil rights were avoided), requiring more time from advocates and less successful outcomes. The upshot of these various forces (including successful State efforts to eliminate large amounts of state funding for MPAS) was, over time, to dramatically reduce individual special education advocacy by our organization.

Similar shifts in response by the system took place at the State and Federal level. The current state of special education law is an extraordinarily rigid narrowing of the possibilities that seemed just over the horizon in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There have been some separate increases in advocacy effectiveness in ways other than the single student advocacy model of the early years, which I will talk about later.

This pattern of initial success followed by a slow steady reduction in advocacy effectiveness and the reduction of civil rights to rigid requirements is so common across all areas of disability rights that I think of it as a standard development pattern in the exercise of advocacy.

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Part 3: Advocacy

A poster listing many names of PWD killed by their parents or caregivers; entitled Mourn for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living. From ASAN

Advocacy is the active representation of interests. You can advocate on behalf of another, on behalf of yourself, on behalf of a network, or an entire community. You can work as an individual, in a group, professionally, or as part of a larger movement.

Advocacy is a framework for change, and since change admits of no boundaries, neither does advocacy.  Advocacy is not an end in itself, no matter how necessary or relentless it might seem.

You must embrace a personally and genuinely valued purpose to truly advocate. Otherwise, advocacy becomes just another kind of inauthentic political gaming.

I chose advocacy as the metaphor for changing complex adaptive systems, because most people have some understanding of the concept and because using that concept makes it easier to remember that changing a complex adaptive system (CAS) is for a valued purpose, not simply a logic model for obtaining a grant.

While advocacy can be used by anyone, it is a creature of great diversity. The most basic frame for advocacy is to threaten a target with more change than the target would experience if it accepted your claim for change.  Most basic advocacy negotiation entails this kind of trade-off for the target.

The target of advocacy can be almost any system from an individual to large bureaucracies, local governments, global coalitions. The target you choose is the one you believe can make the community interests you value real.

The trade-offs that frame any advocacy negotiation can also, and usually are, extremely varied and complex, and revolve more around constraints that might be destabilized than, say, for example, the simple cost of the advocacy demand. The cost can always be “managed” but forced change in the basic operating framework of the target is typically viewed by target systems as an existential crisis of some importance, and something to be strongly resisted.

If I tell you that the negotiations in a special education disagreement are mostly around the dimensions of expense and precedent for the school district if they agree to your demands, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also highly personalized dimensions in every education advocacy process, for example.

These personal issues in what seems to be a procedural or legal negotiation are important to advocates because of how the personal impacts the value of the advocacy outcome. For the target system, there is no more powerful constraint that must be managed than the relationship the system has with individuals to whom it provides services. Systems don’t like customizing anything for anyone who is entitled to disturb their peace.  If you can sustainably change the obligations that any system has to the uniqueness of those it serves, you are creating an entirely different system, and deeply altering the purpose and behavior of that system.

In effect, learning to use, create, exploit, and leverage constraints is the heart of advocacy toward any target system.

While achieving a valued advocacy result requires the use of tools, don’t make the mistake of assuming that the tool is somehow sacred because it helps you to achieve the result you want. There is no holy path to advocacy success. There is only the uncertain struggle to make complex adaptive systems change.

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