TBC 2: From Platforms to Governance

February 6, 2015 § 7 Comments

In our first installment of my series on Transforming the Bay with Christ (TBC), we talked about how platforms enable us to tackle problems and markets too big for any one entity to manage directly. Because of that, though, it is much harder to create a successful platform than it is to create a successful program. In this installment, we will talk about how to do that.

Characteristics of a Platform

The first thing to realize is that every platform is characterized by three distinct but interrelated factors:

  • Policy (governance)
  • Incentives (business)
  • Infrastructure (engineering)

The health of a platform is determined by how well these three factors support each other and the overall purpose of the platform.

This has two interesting implications:

  • Every complex human system (states, markets, corporations, etc.) can be considered a platform
  • The reason most platforms that wonks, suits, and geeks only worry about their layer of the platform (politics, economics, or technology, respectively) and tend to despise or ignore the others

Governance

The second thing to realize is that an organization like TBC needs to start with governance rather than infrastructure or incentives. Let me explain.

The first and hardest question when starting any endeavor is how to frame the scope of the project. That scope will undoubtedly change over the life of the project, but the initial framing provides a context for all further plans and arguments.

The context that TBC has chosen is the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area. By first specifying a geographic context – rather than a particular business model or technology – TBC appears to be implying (consciously or not) that it wants to be an integration point for everyone in that area who shares their mission. Which means it has an obligation to invent and reinvent whatever processes are necessary to serve that population.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly what a government is supposed to do!

Models of Government

Going one step further: if you accept the idea that platforms require governance, it becomes obvious that different platforms employ different modes of government.

Monarchy

For example, all corporate platforms are monarchies. “I have conquered this territory, therefore you must pledge me absolute allegiance to live and work here.” This worked tolerably well for the church until the 17th century or so, but isn’t really an option for TBC.

A better model for the 21st-century church is open source platforms. These are technologies such as Node.js and Ruby on Rails that developers adopt because they want to, not because they have to in order to access valuable customers. The overriding reason developers use — and build — these tools is because of the values they embody. This tends to confound traditional economists who measure utility primarily in financial terms.  However, as any trip to the mall will confirm, the desire to assert and express our values is one of the most primal human urges!

Oligarchy

In contrast to corporate platforms, large Open Source platforms are meritocratic oligarchies. They are run by a small circle of “core committers”, who have publicly demonstrated allegiance to the platform by doing the hard work of maintaining and improving the technology. Healthy projects work hard at continually bringing promising new contributors into the core; those that do not risk losing control by being forked (what we would call a “church split”).

Implications

If TBC is serious about building a platform, I believe we need to accept that we are really building a government. If that’s the case, then the most urgent question is franchise:

  • Who does this government represent?
  • What power does the membership have to define and redefine what we do?

The best way to answer that, I believe, is to start with the model developed by Joel Korkin (which I learned about from Eric Swanson’s well-researched To Transform a City). In Joel’s view, a city consists of three components:

  • Sacred space (values)
  • Security (boundaries)
  • Market (productivity)

This meshes very closely with how George Gilder imagined the historical development of commerce in his thought-provoking Soul of Silicon.  It suggests a process whereby we:

  1. Create a sacred space
  2. See who shows up to worship
  3. Draw a boundary around them
  4. Establish legitimate governance over our “city”
  5. Grow a market in between
  6. Expand organically

In this view — which I used in my own company — the essential first step is to establish a shared set of transcendent values, and make that the centerpiece and touchstone for everything that comes afterward.

For example, one possible “sacred space” for an organization like TBC might be a simple declaration of purpose along the lines of Romans 10:9-10: [v3, updated 2/7]

Bringing the Kingdom of God
To the San Francisco Bay Area
By Unifying and Growing the Body of Christ
Around the Good News of God’s Transforming Grace
From the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus our LORD
Who Loves Us into Loving our Neighbors
Through the Power of the Holy Spirit

Any individual or organization who affirms that mission should be part of our community.  To get there, we would need:

  1. An initial team and board that represents the current diversity of that community
  2. A robust process for incorporating new leaders who demonstrate an ability to fulfill that mission.
  3. Some sort of democratic process for holding us all accountable to the wider membership

The first two are relatively straightforward.  The third will be a topic for our next installment…

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