In Defense of A Working Group Model

Inspired by my comrade Dave Backer’s thoughtful piece, I decided to also try to sketch out my own recommendations for the Chapter’s structure. I agree with Dave that an ideal Chapter model would strike a balance between a purely horizontal and purely vertical structure. However, unlike Dave, I would not advocate for the LILAC model (which as Dave notes developed largely as an accommodation to our Chapter’s central committee style Steering Committee) if I were restructuring the Chapter from scratch. Nor do I share his somewhat negative opinion of “working group models.” What follows is a sketch of what I believe would be one possible model for a better Philly DSA; what I will call a coordinated working group model with room for priorities.

What Could a Better Structure Achieve?

My strong intuition is that the Chapter’s structure is downstream from the Chapter’s culture. Many other Chapters have substantially similar Bylaws to ours but organize in completely different ways. However, my equally strong intuition is that the two are dialectically related, that is changing the structure is one way to go about changing the culture. As I wrote elsewhere, “[m]y vision for Philly DSA... is one where members are encouraged to organize with one another around the widest possible array of demands, strategies, and tactics; discuss what is and is not working; offer constructive criticism. But, at the end of the day, we would support one another’s organizing even if we remain skeptical of its value, because we recognize that we could very well be wrong and our comrades could very well be right.” My hope is that the structure outlined below would help our Chapter achieve that vision.

Overview

In short, there would be 4 types of bodies: a General Body, Working Groups, Committees, and a Steering Committee. Just as it currently is, attending General Meetings, i.e. being a member of the General Body, would be the basic point of entry for members of the Chapter.

Working Groups

The next level of involvement would be in Working Groups. Such groups could be formed by some number of members (e.g. 5, 10, or 15) interested in pursuing any political goal, absent the overwhelming disapproval of that goal by the General Body (e.g. 60%, 67%, or 75%). Experimenting with these variables would allow the Chapter to find the balance between horizontalism and verticalism that works best for it. Once a Working Group is formed, it can act with the imprimatur of the Chapter, again absent the overwhelming disapproval of the General Body or the Committee with jurisdiction over that action (more on both below). The Working Groups would be open to any member of the Chapter in good standing.

Committees

Committees will be formed around strategies and tactics that Working Groups might want to avail themselves of in order to achieve their stated goal. Many of the current committees of the local (social, outreach, political education, and canvassing) would bequeath their names, albeit not their membership to these new Committees. Other Committees, like inreach, coalitions, mutual aid, base building, direct action, legislative/electoral, etc., would need to be formed to round out the list. The membership of these committees would be elected by the Working Groups. Each Working Group would decide which tactics they wanted to engage in to pursue their goal, and then elect a representative to the corresponding Committees. The Committees would then coordinate the Chapters use of that tactic across its many Working Groups. Committees would be places for people from various Working Groups to discuss what is and is not going well with that tactic, assess if its helping them meet their goal, and if not how they might want to employ it differently or not at all.

General Body

The General Body, in addition to approving new Working Groups, would also have the important tasks of setting priorities, and divvying up resources, particularly money, according to those priorities. Before each monthly meeting, each working group would submit a list of things they planned to do that month, and how much financial support they were requesting from the Chapter to do so. These would be published, along with the total budget for that month, in a meeting packet. Using simplified rules of order, such as Rusty’s Rules, that, importantly, allow for amendments to be made from the floor, the General Body could vote to give a Working Group less money than it asked for, or none at all. However, even if something was not financially supported by the Chapter, it would still be official work of the Chapter unless the required number voted against it. That is, the Working Group would be free to promote the event through Chapter channels, fundraise on its own behalf, and also do any work that did not cost money, so long as it was not substantially unpopular. Lastly, the General Body, by simple majority, would pick a few of the proposed actions, events, etc. to be Chapter priorities, i.e. things that it would prioritize driving turnout to. By this mechanism the Chapter could, if it wanted to, give certain goals, like achieving Medicare for All or electing Bernie Sanders president, some amount of priority within the Chapter.

Steering Committee

Lastly there would continue to be a Steering Committee, that would be elected each year by the General Body. However, this SC would primarily be responsible for administrative functions, as the political goals and their prioritization would come directly from the membership. The Steering Committee would do things like book space for the General Meetings, put the meeting packet together, update the local calendar with all the approved events for that month, organize the phone/text bank for the few priority events each month, and periodically coordinate drives for local dues. The elections for such an Steering Committee could therefore focus, albeit probably not perfectly, on electing people with proven administrative skills, rather than on the ideological bent of the candidate.  

Conclusion

Such a structure would, in my opinion, strike a better balance between horizontalism and verticalism than our current structure, or even LILAC’s structure. In particular, I think it would help the Chapter improve at several things at which it currently struggles:

  1. Trying more campaigns to learn what works well and what does not, not just in theory, but in practice;
  2. Getting more of our members involved in the work of the Chapter;
  3. Eliminating unnecessary and frustrating layers of bureaucracy;
  4. Lowering the stakes of factional disputes to allow all of the tendencies in our big tent organization to work more productively with, rather than against, one another.

Ultimately, I believe this will lead to a Philly DSA that is better able to confront and defeat capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

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