Out of the backroom

Backroom dealing is a phenomenon to be discouraged in any public institution. It limits participation by perpetuating the concentration of power in few hands and stifles open discussion by effectively widening the gap between the desire of constituencies and their leaders’ agendas. Perhaps more importantly, it creates distrust, encourages protectionism, and in extreme cases it enables prioritization of self-interest. Even for the most purist and honest decision-makers, being in a safe (close) circle of trustees will makes it easier to underestimate the urgency and complexity of issues. This will increase the chance of resorting to easy and quick justifications.

Under the current circumstances at the UvA, designing bold and visible precautions to avoid backroom dealing, real or perceived, will help in re-establishing the lost trust between managers and workers.

We want to propose a simple solution to unconscious agreement-trading.  We suggest installing independent observers in executive bodies and deliberative committees whose proceedings are not generally open to the public.

Executive bodies, and even regular meetings of ad hoc committees, have a tendency to develop their own group dynamics. Dominant and less dominant people sit around the table, and voices can be easily subdued through conscious or unconscious intimidation. Even when dynamics are positive and favorable to an open discussion, socialization can undermine critical engagement. Committee members are all humans, perhaps with different levels of ambition or self-confidence. Some may wish to gain social capital, while others may simply try to maintain a friendly atmosphere. Both acts can sometimes discourage them from raising a different view or an unpopular solution. Pre-existing relations of hierarchy and collegiality between group members may also act as barriers to open discussion.

The presence of an external observer who is not directly engaged in the conversation and is not directly responsible for the outcome of the meeting can offer an important perspective, one that can correct or at least illuminate and warn against a committee’s veering into less conducive directions. The observer’s main role is to oversee the open discussion and the democratic process within the decision-making elaborations, irrespective of the final result. As such, it will be straightforward, and certainly helpful to assign different observers to prolonged serial meetings of a certain committee. An external observer, with access to the discussions and pre-circulating materials on which they are based, can also ensure that participants are well informed, apply the relevant skills, and go through the agreed-upon agenda during a meeting.

Such a role is not unprecedented in the university and is practiced daily during PhD-defenses by the chair of the examiners board. Just like the chair, the independent observer that we have in mind does not participate in the conversation, even if s/he have an opinion about it or is a stake holder in the debate. These conditions can be made clear during his or her selection procedure. The observers report to whatever body a given committee is appointed by, but can also be a witness if the university community demands it.

An independent observer should be a regular member of the university community, preferably not a high-ranking academic. The observer’s role should not turn into a profession by itself, but should remain a voluntary service to the community.

To clarify, we are not proposing a one-size-fits-all solution, or ask that observers vouchsafe any and all executive meetings. Departments and faculties should be free to decide when they think this is important, and experiment continuously with this function, including selection criteria that are acceptable to the relevant community.  Above all, we hope that having observers that are trained and well-informed can be a great learning experience for anyone involved, keep transparency to a maximum, and reduce a broadly shared perception that there is a wide gap between what and how matters are discussed and the outcome of such debates. And yes, in principle certain technologies can provide the same service, although it is sometimes not available or for other reasons not desirable.

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