How Citizenship is at the Heart of Self-Governance

Diederick Janse
Written by Diederick Janse May 17, 2023

I’ve been a passionate practitioner of self-governance for over 15 years. I define it as distributing authority and accountability so everyone in a community or organization can show up fully around a common purpose.

But lately, I’ve been wondering about the meaning of my work. What is it about, essentially, and what is its relevance today, given the state of our social, economic, and ecological systems?

What is self-governance for?

I used to think the point of self-governance was increased autonomy, which leads to many positive outcomes such as increased motivation and creativity, better decision-making, and high employee retention. Additionally, autonomy is valuable in and of itself, regardless of any outcomes. However, lately, that hasn’t quite been enough for me.

The way we think of self-governance and autonomy is often as negative freedom: that is, freedom ‘from’ things like arbitrary rules, bosses, bureaucracy, and outdated management practices that leave us feeling powerless and depleted.

Negative freedom, by itself, is an empty, open, and unimpeded space. But what do we do with that freedom? In contrast, positive freedom, is the freedom to do something, rather than just being free from something. It involves fighting for something, rather than against it. The absence of a bad thing does not equal the presence of a good thing. Therefore, the question arises: What is self-governance for?

“The way we think of self-governance and autonomy is often as negative freedom: that is, freedom ‘from’ things like arbitrary rules, bosses, bureaucracy, and outdated management practices that leave us feeling powerless and depleted.”

Bringing citizenship to work

When someone realizes that they are not powerless, but rather a part of a team and a system, and that they have a voice that they can use to raise their concerns, propose changes, or initiate experiments, it marks a significant shift. This realization brings a sense of agency and creativity to them.

Making this shift may appear new, progressive or radical in the context of our work lives. But in our ‘private lives’ of family and community, these behaviors are quite familiar and commonplace. Most of us are perfectly capable of making complex life decisions and actively engage in community initiatives such as sports associations, neighborhood programs, providing unpaid care, and so on.

Together, these behaviors point to a capacity that we might call ‘membership’ – to be part of something, to belong. Not just passively, like a subject or consumer, but actively. In its broadest sense, we could call this citizenship. Not a legal status, but a deep human capacity, a muscle, or as some would have it, a verb - something we do.

Citizenship usually belongs to the ‘life’ side of the work-life split. But what if we applied it to the ‘work’ side, to the part of our life that we spend in organizations?

We try to give ‘employees’ more autonomy, voice, and ownership. But the construct of employee was designed in a different age, to achieve control, compliance, and efficiency. Rather than stretching it to the breaking point – as I think we are – let's turn to a different concept. Let’s bring our citizenship to work.

Citizenship in and citizenship of organizations

Citizenship is the willingness and capacity to participate in a community and contribute to it. We commonly associate the term with the state, voting, and our passport, so why use it in this new way? Why not use the existing language of employee engagement, participation, or personal leadership?

I sense citizenship is a more powerful concept. It invites us to see organizations as communities: ones which shape us, but which we also shape, together. Citizenship is more than leadership. It’s about belonging. It replaces the autonomous individual (like the vaunted ‘leader’) with the more nuanced story of a community member. And at its best, citizenship is inclusive. It recognizes everyone has a voice and a role, rather than giving power to an exclusive few.

Applying the citizenship lens to organizations

Zooming in, we see citizenship in organizations. How can we invite and activate each other to practice citizenship in our everyday work-lives? And how can we organize for citizenship, rather than against it? What do we need to contribute our care, creativity, and practical intelligence to our workplaces?

And zooming out, we see citizenship of organizations, belonging to larger communities and capable of contributing actively. What does it mean for an organization to see itself as a citizen? Organizing is a deep human capacity with nearly limitless potential. It’s like a superpower… and then using it to sell a product and make a profit. Really?

I believe a different story can be told - one in which organizations are self-governing communities of citizens, driven by shared purpose, contributing in ways deeply meaningful and relevant.
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What a profoundly underwhelming story we tell ourselves, about what organizations are, what they are for, and what role we play within them.

I believe a different story can be told - one in which organizations are self-governing communities of citizens, driven by shared purpose, contributing in ways deeply meaningful and relevant. That, for me, is what self-governance is for!

I will continue exploring the lens of citizenship in and of organizations and share what I discover. What about you? What is the point and the potential of this wonderful, transformative practice of self-governance for you?

Written by Diederick Janse
Diederick Janse
Co-founder of Energized.org, a cooperative that helps organizations build cultures of ownership and citizenship through self-governance.
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