Informal Structures Privilege Those in Power

Commission on Institutional Change Collaboratory October 2018

In our work as the Commission on Institutional Change, we have found that an area in need of analysis is that of over-reliance on informal structures to carry out governance work whether at the local, regional, or denominational level. Informal structures rely on social relationships and thus tend to privilege people from the dominant culture in a community or organization. In the interest of not being “bureaucratic,” we leave structures informal because “we all know and trust one another.” Informal structures also sometimes bypass adopted procedures, ratified policies, and accepted governance agreements. Personal relationships are central to the work of organizations yet should not be used instead of sound governance structures. When informal structures are prioritized, the end result is that those in power benefit from decision-making processes and arrangements that not only benefit their perspectives but also are taken to be normal practices.

As we seek to add more and diverse voices into leadership among us, reliance on informal structures can mean that new people cannot figure out how to contribute. If the way to get something done is to know the “right” people, then this can perpetuate a narrower circle of leadership.

Informal structures create opportunities for hurt, discrimination, incomplete recounting of institutional history and can result in selective institutional memory. They fall short of our commitments to justice, equity and compassion among us as well as our commitment to democratic processes. When used as the predominant way of operating, informal structures undermine the mission, vision, and work of organizations. They also create difficulties when working towards transformation because they are taken to be part of the system in and of themselves; thus, they are not seen for what they really are: shortcuts to right governance. One sign of an informal structure can be when someone says the process or policy is not written down because “that is the way we have always done it.”

Sometimes organizations have policies written however they are not followed, replaced instead by informal agreements. When problems arise due to these informal structures, the first instinct of folks involved in and responsible for the concerns and conflicts is most often to call for a change of policies and structures, instead of addressing their own sidestepping of agreements which opened the path to the problems they face. In many cases, an analysis of whether or not policies and procedures in place were actually followed is warranted before calling for their suspension and revision.

Our point here is not to suggest that having governance based on written policies and more formal decision-making is a panacea. Policies need to be tended to, regularly reviewed and revised and modified in light of an organization’s evolving vision, mission, strategy, and stakeholders.

Structures are necessary ingredients of an organization's life. Whether we operate within local organization, a congregation, or our work unfolds within a larger institution, at one of the various ways to be engaged in denominational level work, our work takes place within structures. Structures set parameters for the work to be done within institutions. Organizational structures delineate the particular arrangements of authority and act as guides for how decisions are made.

In addition, structures also determine the flow of information and power between the various levels of management. It is important that an organization has clearly defined objectives as well as strategies to meet those objectives. The particular structures that give shape to the institution's workflow out of its stated Objectives and Strategies.

Deepening Spiritually

Read the following article about why written practices are important (though it comes from a different theological position, it offers another perspective with a similar conclusion.) Discuss this with at least one other leader in your community and ask yourself how this might be limiting the ability of more people to enter into leadership in your community:

Are Your Policies In Print? Or Left To Memory?