Shared Discretion

It often feels like people are constantly complaining that problems no longer get solved, that nothing ever happens. But why is that? In the age of the internet, should it not be easier to get things done?

To answer this question, we can take a quick look at a few traditional ways to get things done.

The first way to make changes in your community is to make noise. Call the newspaper, print flyers, talk to people.  If you raise enough awareness of the problem, it can motivate individuals to do their part out of personal concern or pressure the powers that be into acting.

However, the rise of internet media has made that harder to do. Many people get much of their news from the internet, meaning that a local newspaper might not have enough readers to actually compel change. In addition, the fact that more of our time is spent in front of a computer means that there are fewer opportunities to engage with the people who live around you.

Another way to enact change is through individual leadership. Sometimes, a heroic individual will step up and solve the problem on his or her own.

Allowing an individual to take charge, though, is a roll of the dice. Modern problems are rarely solved by the actions of one person, or even one sector of society (e.g., government), and while an individual might have the right skills, resources, and connections to get things done, that is not the case frequently enough that it makes for a lousy strategy. Furthermore, individual efforts often venture into a thicket of hidden agendas, pet ideas, and overblown egos, where they are doomed to fail.

What remains is the middle ground: a committee. We all know what happens when we make committees—the group takes a few months to agree on a general description of the problem, then a few more months to recommend the most obvious plans of action, inevitably requiring the formation of a new committee, which takes a few months to agree…

But there is something missing from traditional committees as we are accustomed to seeing them.

Take special note of the term ‘shared discretion’.

This is a phrase which we are all likely to see and hear much more frequently in the future as we move into a new era of much greater efforts to resolve conflicts and get decisions made for the public good.

We are more and more used to phrases today like ‘cooperation’, ‘collaboration’, and ‘joint decision making’, but ‘shared discretion’ means something more.

In the course of thinking through how people can accommodate various points of view, Richard Zeckhauser, a Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, came up with the idea of ‘shared discretion’ to differentiate how certain processes of working together can work differently and better than traditional methods of finding group solutions.

Shared discretion is an arrangement in which all the participants in a decision making process have agreed that the responsibility to make decisions will belong to all of them. They first agree that any failure to reach a timely conclusion will be all of their failure. And they agree the plaudits or blame for the consequences of their decision will be shared equally among them.

Such an arrangement leaves no room for a participant to drop out or dissent openly, which participants can (and often do) in more traditional committees. It is somewhat similar to how certain juries are required to return a unanimous verdict. The structure drives the whole group to enter into genuine, serious exchanges in order to find the common ground, which is always there somewhere.

If used properly, shared discretion can ease stagnation, deadlock, and frustration. The costs to modern society of such deadlock are enormous. Work is being done to estimate those costs, and while there is not yet any hard evidence of the benefits that could be reaped by ensuring that our decision making processes  involve shared discretion, it stands to reason significant benefits are there.

Experience repeatedly illustrates that decisions that result from shared discretion are better and more sustainable than decisions made by individuals or committees that do not agree to share discretion.

Of course, the assignment of blame and credit rarely works out so simply, as both are complex social and psychological phenomena (would that we had a shared discretion sauce we could sprinkle into everyone’s food!), but if a group can truly come together and agree to work with shared discretion, then it is far more likely to solve the knotty problems that plague modern communities.

On the website of The Intersector Project, you can read forty case studies of shared discretion in action, as well as explore and use a toolkit for creating collaborative solutions of your own.

People who talk together work better together.

People who share discretion solve problems better.

No time like the present to start!

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