Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Federal Idea

"Different cultures give a different prominence to the idea of the individual, but one can sense a growing feeling of impotence, everywhere, in the face of institutions and government, local and global. Democracy used to mean that the people had the power, but now that translates into the people have the vote, which is not the same thing.

The vote is an expression of last resort, a useful reminder to our rulers of the source of their bread and butter, but hardly a way for individuals to influence what is going on around them. Moreover, in the institutions of everyday life, particularly those of business, the only people with the vote are those outside, the financiers or the governors. Those who work in them are effectively disenfranchised. Democracy has its limits.

If we want to reconcile our humanity with our economics, we have to find a way to give more influence to what is personal and local, so that we can each feel that we have a chance to make a difference, that we matter. We have no hope of charting a way through those paradoxes unless we feel able to take some personal responsibility for events. A formal democracy will not be enough. We have to find another way, by changing the structure of our institutions to give more power to the small and to the local. We have to do that, with all the untidiness which it entails, while looking for efficiency, and the benefits of coordination and control. But more is needed than good intentions to empower the individual to do what we want him or her to do. The structures and the systems have to change to reflect a new balance of power. That means federalism.

Federalism is an old idea, but its time may have come again because it matches paradox with paradox. Federalism seeks to be both big in some things and small in others, to be centralized in some respects and decentralized in others. It aims to be local in its appeal and in many of its decisions, but national or even global in its scope. It endeavors to maximize independence, provided that there is a necessary interdependence; to encourage difference, but within limits; it needs to maintain a strong center, but one devoted to the service of the parts; it can, and should, be led from that center but has to be managed by the parts. There is room in federalism for the small to influence the mighty, and for individuals to flex their muscles.

We think of federalism as applying to countries-the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Canada. Her politicians might not admit it, but the United Kingdom is really a federation of its separate regions, as is Spain, and, increasingly, even France, as its regions gain more autonomy. The concept, however, goes beyond countries. Every organization of any size can be thought of in federal terms. Hospitals, schools, local government, and most charities are, if we look at them with federal spectacles, made for federalism, local and separate activities bonded in one whole, served by a common center. All businesses of any size have federal propensities, and a need to be all the things which federalism offers.

Why has such a good idea not been so obviously popular? Few businesses are consciously federal, nor does history provide many, if any, examples of a monarch or a central power voluntarily moving to a federalist structure. The hard truth is that we are always reluctant to give up power unless we have to, and federalism is an exercise in the balancing of power. The federal idea is an example of the second curve, but one which too few institutions or societies develop until they are forced to. It is a very different, and very uncomfortable, way of thinking about organizations. It is messy, untidy, and always a little out of control. Its only justification is that there is no real alternative in a complicated world. No one person, or group, or executive, is so all-wise and so all-sensitive to be able to balance the paradoxes on their own, or run the place from the center, even if people were prepared to allow them to. We have to allow space for the small and the local.

Federalism relies on a set of Chinese contracts between its various parts and operates through doughnuts of varying size and shape, which leave, of necessity and of right, considerable space for local decisions. The goals of the parts have to adjust to the requirements of the whole, and vice versa. No one in a federal organization can have everything exactly as they want it. Therefore, it is an excellent example of putting the preaching of this book into practice, with all its difficulties as well as opportunities.

Let us be clear, federalism is not the easiest of concepts to make work, or to understand. Yugoslavia is hardly an advertisement for the concept, nor is Canada. California is creaking under an excess of federalism from within and without. IBM proclaims its conversion to the idea, but may not be its most successful exponent in the years ahead. A federal Europe frightens many, and not just in Britain. Nevertheless, we have to persevere because it is the best way to return some sense of meaning to our larger institutions, a way of connecting their purposes with their people.

Much of the confusion and difficulty arises from a misunderstanding of what federalism is. A confederation, for example, is not the same thing as a federation. A confederation is an alliance of interested parties who agree to do some things together. It is a mechanism for mutual advantage. There is no reason for sacrifice or trade-offs or compromise unless it is very obviously in one's own interest. A confederation is not an organization that is going anywhere, because there is no mechanism or will to decide what that anywhere might be. The Confederation of Independent States, which replaced the Soviet Union, will never be an effective body. The British Commonwealth, another confederation, is a thing of sentiment and language, not a real organization. These are not the stuff of federalism
Confederations adapt when they have to, usually too late. They do not lead, nor do they build. They are organizations of expediency, not of common purpose. The British would like Europe to remain an economic confederation, a common market. Many in the rest of Europe want a more federal state, one with a greater common purpose, within which sacrifices and compromises are acceptable, one in which the rich are readier to help the poorer, one with common standards and common aspirations.

What is true of Europe is also true of organizations.

Alliances, joint ventures, and networks are the tools of confederations, arrangements of mutual convenience, inevitably fragile as the conveniences change. Organizations with a clear purpose will want to be federal, not confederal. The distinction is important.

The key concepts in federalism are twin citizenship and subsidiarity. They are old ideas, re-invented for today's world."

From: The Age of Paradox, Charles Handy, Harvard Business School Press, 1995

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