Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Remember, tents aren't permanent...

Steve Cornett offers some ideas about the true crisis in the beef industry and its major member organization, the NCBA.  He makes very good points about the need to prevent splintering over single issues.

If NCBA is to be the “umbrella” organization for the beef industry, it should devise a system that would respect minority opinion. If I thought, for instance, that NAFTA was the reason my calves are so cheap, you’d have to forgive me for not supporting an NCBA that is fully committed to free trade. If I were an Iowa corn farmer, you’d have to forgive me for resenting an NCBA that opposes federal ethanol subsidies.
So what if NCBA only adopted policy that is agreed upon by a supermajority? Maybe two-thirds? If you can’t get that supermajority on an issue, then drop it and concentrate on the issues in which do have an industry consensus. They could get consensus on things like estate taxes and public lands issues and animal rights. Put the lobbying team to work on those issues and don’t drive off half your members because 49% of them think you’re working against their best interests. [More - and read the comments for responses equally as insightful]

Steve's suggestion, in short, is to ignore the divisive issues to prevent member loss and get a large consensus on those issues with wide agreement.  This seems reasonable.

I can see some problems however with letting go of simple majority rule.
  • Little ever gets done. Supermajorities are really, really hard to accomplish. If organizations adopt super-majorities they end up pandering to various factions to get those last few votesSee also: Senate, US.
  • Ignoring issues that are divisive encourages the development of minority opinions.  Keep in mind, remaining silent on an issue is in itself a position. Depending on what constitutes a "big enough" minority (30%? 40%?) to remove an issue for the agenda, single issue proponents will diminish the range of subjects the group can address.  In other words, the number of issues the group can address will dwindle rapidly, I think.
  • Without majority rule to enforce going along for the good of the many, there is no reason to ever agree - and I think we have ample history of how close votes in legislatures and courts have created the stable rules for advancing social and economic progress.
  • Most importantly, I cannot see organization staff members embracing eagerly taking items off the agenda simply because they are divisive.  That takes work and jobs from their profession. 
Majority rule - even by 51% - provides an historic and logical basis for managing divisive issues.  What is different today is the reluctance of most to abide by majority rule. That is the true problem for organizations.  When the number of members cannot find enough common ground to give way on single issues, it is time to contemplate whether the organization has a reason to exist. Pragmatically it could be we are entering a time for smaller tents - even pup tents with 1-2 in each.  The power of the individual has never been greater to affect public policy.

We can witness the results of other organizations struggling to erect bigger tents and then keep members inside them.  While I think Steve is perfectly right in suggesting hardline stances are organizational death sentences these days (and I think the Republican party is amply demonstrating the consequences of litmus-test adherence to issue positions, at least in rhetoric), the opposite means you end up with a group with all the dynamic governing efficiency of umm, well,... Democrats.

None of us wants that, surely.

And you also end up with policy that is little more than everything for everybody, which does not provide effective answers for progress because of wasteful duplication and blatantly counterproductive programs.

I think we will discover the answer to be the same as groups before. If the group has relevance and impact, abiding by the majority opinion (however narrow) is the only way to get anything done.  However, if groups cannot inspire in members any commitment to the good of all, the problem is much more profound than procedural rules.

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