Monday, March 30, 2015

Balancing democracy, transparency, and efficiency

I tend to avoid being on committees. However, this year I became chair of one, leading to this reflection. How do you find a balance between democracy and autocracy, between transparency and secrecy, and between efficiency and wasting a peoples precious time?

Over the years I have noticed committees can tend to one of two extremes.

1. Some are very democratic and transparent. All business is discussed in great detail. Votes are held about many things. Between meetings, committee members are emailed about the latest "urgent" matter, asked their opinion, and sometimes asked to vote to approve some small action.
The problem is this takes a lot of time. It would be quicker and more efficient if on these small matters that the chair or a subgroup simply made a unilateral decision.

2. Some committees are secretive and merely "rubber stamp" a bunch of decisions that have already been made by the chair or a select subgroup of members. This is efficient, particularly with regard to the small matters. However, it is problematic when this happens for weightier matters for which committee members could have given useful input and/or have a significant stake in the outcome.

Is this a fair and useful characterisation?

Humorous aside: When I was a teenager, I remember seeing the satirical movie The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. If I recall correctly the main character becomes a dictator by a devious strategy. First, he makes every citizen vote on every piece of government legislation. They quickly get sick of this and so pass all power and authority to him.

I am not sure what the appropriate balance is between the extremes. The compromise I made so far for my current committee, is that I have a shared folder in which I put all my documents relating to the committee. That way members who want to can see what I am dealing with. However, between meetings I try to make unilateral decisions on small matters that I think they would agree with but don't want to be bothered with.

Having written this, I realised that similar issues actually arise in scientific collaborations, particularly international ones, where the collaborators rarely meet in person. From my experience with many different collaborators, I have noticed there is a challenge to find a balance between two extremes.

1. A collaborator is constantly asking others for approval of or suggestions on next steps [should I do this extra measurement or calculation?] and/or changes to a draft manuscript. For small initiatives or changes this can be very inefficient, particularly when there are a large number of co-authors. On the other hand, for large changes clear communication and discussion is important.

2. A collaborator communicates little and sometimes some of the co-authors see a draft manuscript that contains large sections (including methods and results) that had never been discussed before. This is problematic if one could have been asked earlier and had the opportunity to make useful comments before some major parts of the project were embarked upon. The horse has already bolted.

Again I am not sure what the balance is. Some depends on personalities, tastes in working styles, and respective expertise. But, one practical option is to have a shared Dropbox folder containing progress reports, detailed results, and draft manuscripts. Then, all the collaborators can peruse these as frequently as they want.  

I welcome suggestions or experiences.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, as usual!

    (Sadly, I don't think I have any insight to contribute. It's hard to imagine good answers to this question.)