Book Notes & Thoughts: Organizing Locally, by Bruce Fuller

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Organizing Locally: How the New Decentralists Improve Education, Health Care, and Trade, by Bruce Fuller.

It’s been a full semester since my last post though I have certainly done a lot of reading in that time! My desk, nightstand, and bookshelves are perpetually stacked with library books or cheap used paperbacks from Amazon that I intend to read. And while I do read (or “Harvard“) most of them, I always intend to blog about them, but I don’t.

This first week back at work in my office, I sketched out my spring writing syllabus, made my plan for using Wendy Belcher’s “Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks” with my writing group, and stacked up six books I intend to read this semester. It all feels very productive – good new year kind of stuff.

My goal is to blog about 6 books this semester, and as part of that, to remind myself that these blog posts are NOTES and THOUGHTS. Mostly they include quotes I like or want to remember, thoughts or reflections that come up in the moment.They are not reviews, arguments, or critiques. This is my commonplace book in the cloud. One of Belcher’s strategies, if you are struggling to start writing, is to write down quotes from someone else. So I’m trying to put my blogging at the beginning of the semester – a way to warm up my fingers for typing the many things I need to write this spring!

With that, here are my notes and thoughts from reading Organizing Locally…


Way back when I was a new grad student, I read The Starfish and the Spider, which remains one of the coolest books I’ve ever read. I have always been interested in organizations – I loved taking organizational theory and even got to co-teach it last summer. When I saw the title of Fuller’s book, I was intrigued, and to find out he is a professor of education made it something I definitely wanted to read. And I did – every word. No Harvarding on this one!

The book begins with a dive into the of philosophy modernization and government alongside the emergence of nation states in Europe. One of the major things that reading this book did for me was give me a much longer, historical view of the organizational processes happening schools that I see today. For example, in our study of personalized learning here in SE Wisconsin, several schools describe becoming a district charter in order to gain more local authority over how the school is run. But they do so from a progressive, grass roots, democratic approach – not the neoliberal, market rhetoric that is so often attached to charters. These schools were exactly the kind described in his book, run by second-wave decentralists.

First-wave decentralists: “encourage organizational diversity and local competition, while constraining and disassembling big and cumbersome institutions, like hospitals, the once-modern bureaucratic form that had come to suffer high costs and erratic performance” (p.61)

“emerging from the 1970s [first-wave decentralists] took several steps forward, especially as they exposed the shortcomings of hierarchy and its compliance mentality. Pioneering decentralists on the political Left demonstrated how agile nonprofits could stimulate urban redevelopment, organize direct services inside poor neighborhoods, and offer a training ground for urban activists. A variety of inventive reforms have come from decentralists on the Right as well, spurring the creation of charter schools and education options for parents, making college aid portable (just like vouchers), and infusing market dynamics into various sectors” (p.42).

“First-wave decentralists focused on the mechanics and politics of breaking away from the bureaucratic center in the wake of the 1960s – the necessary but insufficient struggle over how to move authority, capital, and know-how down to local units. But these early localists often failed to touch or animate their clients any better than the centralized bureaucracies they hoped to dislodge” (p.42).

Second-wave decentralists:  “Second-generation descendants get it, and they now move beyond such a binary understanding of the interplay between center and local, hierarchy and individual. They are thinking as organizational leaders and situated practitioners, not so much as political strategists. And second-wave decentralists see little utility in being confined by notions of archetypal hierarchies or textbook renditions of the utilitarian individual maneuvering through a market” (p.43).

“So America’s new decentralists scrap a key page from the aging script of modernity, what sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls ‘the humanist agenda of emancipation.’ You will see how contemporary decentralists are no longer obsessed with breaking free of hierarchy, or somehow liberating their staff or clients in the neoclassical sense of becoming a lone actor. Instead, they seek to organize work through means that pull together local practitioners and clients in motivating, engaging ways – to lift learning, shift behavior, collectively tackle problems. The break from hierarchy is motivated not by an ideological desire to be free as a context-less individual. Instead, today’s decentralists voice the post-1950s desire for human connection, that is, forms of human cooperation that offer membership, a feeling of mutual support, and the possibility of learning from one another. The new decentralists are leaving the old Westner duality behind – less obsessed with finding liberation from bureaucratic centers and more keenly focused on engaging social relations on the ground” (p.29).

He describes the major drivers of this decentralization in postindustrial societies:

1. The shifting social organization of work – practitioners need to meet student/patient needs without waiting for far-off hierarchies
2. The faltering fiscal capacity and legitimacy of central government
3. The demographic graying of America
4. The rise of nonprofit and for-profit firms that pursue public projects

Fuller explores the key question of the book, how does second-wave decentralization work? How do locally centered forms of social organization motivate and engage?, through a comparison of three organizations: a health care management organization, a bank, and a charter school. Using a cross sector analysis illustrates how these trends are larger than just education. I was tempted to skip the health care and bank chapters, but they were just as good as the charter school. So I read it all.

As I discussed these ideas with my colleagues, summarizing the idea of second-wave decentralists and how these ideas might provide context for what we’re seeing in personalized learning, one particular question came up: What about the equity argument that pushes back on decentralization? What about Brown vs. Board and the fact that local autonomy usually means inequality? Fuller never explicitly talked about this, but his last chapter does make a statement to the liberal Left, those typically pushing equity arguments in education. Essentially his point is that old liberals cling to a an illusion – the “tightly packed nation-state” (p.213) – that standardizes everything to make it equitable. This both did not exist and did not work. Instead, I think he would say, the option is to acknowledge that there is this middle road between complete centralization/standardization and complete market-based neoliberalism. But it will mean finding the compromise between ensuring equity through centralized control and allowing customization and flexibility through local control.

Some quotes:

p. xiv “In a widening range of fields the “production process” is simply too complex and uncertain – whether to engage feisty students, move patients to healthier lifestyles, or life the well-being of families – to be shaped by a distant front office. Classic bureaucratic principles of reducing complex projects down to routinized tasks, engineered and controlled from above, have become less sensible technically and less legitimate socially. This is especially true in fields where the task is to buoy or shift human behavior, as in organizations dedicated to lifting learning, health, or trade.”
p.xv “Early modernists were deeply suspicious of the local, the provincial, the parochial. Their revolutionary way of organizing modernity – after storming the Bastille in Paris and purging the British from the American colonies – would only be hampered by village affiliations, kinship, and religion.”
p.xv “To this day, centralized reformers push for stiffer regulation…. Regulation of local work must trump the judgement of practitioners or the complexity of clients served.”
p.xviii “Quite early into our fieldwork we discovered a new generation of decentralists. Or, at least leaders and local practitioners that have moved way beyond the governance debates, no longer arguing over how to secede from a bureaucratic center or pitching the miraculous virtues of market relations. Instead, these inventive organizational architects have let local staff loose to experiment with novel practices, while becoming intensely curious over the motivations and human foibles of their clients. These reformers do not simply shrink their central office or preach the idealized magic of market competition. They have shred their parched, pyramid-shape organization chart; they think deeply about everyday social relations between practitioner and client not he ground; they adjust roles and routines aiming to spark more robust engagement. They talk little of autonomy or opaque notions of power, while constantly taking stock of social ties, trust, and ethical commitments to one another. The new decentralists rarely see their expertise or knowledge as a ’treatment’ that’s served up, delivered to a passive client. Instead, the student, patient, or customer must assume shared responsibility to learn, to engage more deeply, to pursue sustained relationships and social ties.”
p.xviii “When should we fight to preserve central real-setting, say to enforce fuel efficiency for cars or raise the minimum wage? Or, when should government or corporate managers opt to devolve authority, expertise, and resources to local practitioners? And how might we move beyond the blinding dichotomy between central rules and market freedom – since it fails to get to the crux, as the new decentralists emphasize. This toggle switch between freedom and control fails to teach us how to better engage clients, or how to advance the effectiveness of local practice across the nation’s vibrant blend of public and private organizations.”
p.4 “Contemporary work and postindustrial forms of human cooperation now involve lifting the learning or shifting the behavior of clients or patients, authoring design ideas or computer code, and inspiring the work of others. This means that the material tools and social agility required to improve one’s practice can no longer be proscribed and controlled from above.”
“Even government seeks to regain legitimacy by expanding hyperlocal organizations, from charter schools to vouchers for sectarian education, or seeding neighborhood health clinics and urban gentrification. Modernity initially aimed to stigmatize the “backward” ways of local associations. Civilization implied allegiance to formal roles and contributing to the productivity of hierarchical firms. Yet now reformers seek to “personalized” schools or build “professional learning communities” inside local branches. Medical staff members aim to understand the patient’s social context, while nudging her toward healthier behavior. It’s power to the particular, no longer to universal remedies that ignore the client’s local situation. Family-like gemeinschaft is fighting back against utilitarian and impersonal gesellschaft, to flip sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies argument a century ago” (p.22).
“This is the rub. As the industrial and commercial revolutions fostered the growth of mammoth hierarchies – firms that expanded way beyond early grain or textile mills set in pastoral rural scenes – the hierarchical control of work, often deskilled and regimented, would diminish the individual’s celebrated freedoms by the late nineteenth century. While modern political reform celebrated the sanctity of the individual and his Epicurean-inspired pursuit of happiness, these Enlightenment ideals would be undone by the industrial control of atomized workers. So the modern duality came into focus: hierarchical rules and routines set against the individual’s freedom and expressive fulfillment” (p.22).
“To mediate this divisive duality, modern philosophers like Rousseau had looked to the state – the only collective actor with sufficient heft to protect the sanctity and rights of the individual. In place of aristocratic control Rousseau proposed a “social contract” in 1762, by which the individual would pledge allegiance to a secular state, which in turn would protect one’s civil and property rights. What he dubbed the “general will” – individuals cooperating in the civic space to serve public interests – would enable the people to regulate and govern itself, a form of human virtue, going back to Seneca’s search for commonly held ethics, which Rousseau trumpeted as the basis of social integration” (p.24).
“Yet America’s rekindled faith in localism, stoked in contemporary times, helps to reveal the blinding limits of this duality. Freedom versus control. The ability to choose one’s faith or one’s job. The right to exist from a repressive institution. These constitutive rules, of course, are just, they challenge mind-numbing regimens that still characterize factory-like models of organization. But the modern duality leads contemporary reformers to assume that liberation from hierarchy or cultivating market dynamics will alone improve how work gets done, how practitioners motivate clients to lift the organization’s performance. If central bureaucracy is the problem, let’s free local units from the hierarchy, even let them compete for clients or customers. Sure, this thread helps to weave a more colorful array of decentered organizations within economic or social sectors. But it only opens up new possibilities, new conditions under which more effective practice and cooperative human engagement may flourish or not. This is a pivotal discovery by the new decentralists” (p.25).
“What’s remarkable is how the state hopes to advance its legitimacy by shaving back its own bureaucratic apparatus, then chartering private organizations to serve public interests. By directly funding NGOs, or indirectly through portable vouchers, government hopes to sustain a colorful panoply of local organizations, which presumably match the range of family and client preferences – shaking off modernity’s affection for standardization and regulated routines. In short, government now nurtures mixed markets of public and private firms, hoping to renew its own organizational efficacy. Then publicly funded institutions must vie for clients by playing the new competitive game the state itself devised” (p.38).
“The intensifying impulse to decentralize stems from the tandem desire for stronger institutional effectiveness (boosting learning, lifting health outcomes) and freeing up local practitioners to puzzle through situated remedies – “accountable autonomy,” as political scientists Archon Fung puts it. It’s actors of the Left – civil rights groups, Democratic mayors, neighborhood activists – pushing to detach from the regulatory center, not simply neoliberal elites. These constituencies aim to hold firms and public institutions stiffly accountable and enable local actors to craft inventive, culturally consonant solutions” (p.39).
“America’s contemporary story of decentralization, unfolding over the past half century, is unprecedented. Never before as a Western civilization placed so much hope and capital in nonprofit or for-profit organizations to advance public endeavors. Nor has such a colorful array of firms been harnessed within lightly regulated markets to blend private and public pursuits…. We are no longer simply debating western Washington or local governments should run our schools, watch after health care, or regular marriage and interstate commerce – the narrower terrain in which federalist battles are fought. Today’s debate pushes into deeper questions of how local organizations can deliver higher quality, less costly public goods and services, while being held accountable when they fail. The current conversation is not over whether to decentralize but how”.
“What lessons do second-generation decentralists take away from their first-wave ancestors?”:
  1. “the intertwined tenets of first-wave decentralization – liberation from hierarchy and liberalized consumer choice – have proven to be necessary but insufficient conditions for motivating practitioners and lifting clients inside local organizations. Witness the mixed student achievement results from charter schools, now in the movement’s third decade… Yes, hierarchies have been razed and diversifying populations of organizations abound, be they publicly funded or privately capitalized. But overall results are mixed, and knowledge remains thin on how decentralized organizing works, or not” (p.69).
  2. “Yet the policy debate – inside government, reform circles, and corporate headquarters, still flips between tightening the hierarchy’s capacity to regulate behavior or ‘liberating’ the individual to shop for better products or services in unfettered markets. Left out is the supply response and how a widening variety of organizations host more engaging social relations on the group, or often fail to do so. This is the second lesson from recent research. First-wave decentralists – naively accepting of neoclassical economics – assumed that liberalized customer choice would spark the creation of diverse and effective organizations. But the supply response, no matter how legitimated and incentivized, remains uneven across differing postindustrial sectors of society” (p.70).
  3. “how the organization’s center can induce behavioral change or engage clients on the ground. Neoliberal faith in markets and the decline of hierarchy will continue to spur incentives engineered from above. Promarket reformers urge portable vouchers in education, health care, and housing. Incentives blended with creative regulation encourage the growth of charter schools and HMOs” (p.70).
  4. urban tribalism: “does not have to result from the local confluence of disassembled hierarchies and mixed markets. Sharp and segregating forms of new organizations do at times serve to privilege and protect certain classes. The move by gated communities to create their own charter schools is a distressing use of taxpayer dollars. … Yet many contemporary decentralists voice a cosmopolitan set of social ideals – aiming to devise inventive fields of organizations that celebrate America’s blossoming diversity and the civic integration of these variegated places” (71).
“Tomcavage’s department incentivizes clinics to shift their own logic toward prevention, then to hit quality targets. This matches with what Stanford University sociologist W. Richard Scott calls a ‘shift in institutional logic,’ how a sector’s goals and tacit notions of how work is done begin to shift over time, whether tied to the firm’s formal goals or not. The deep culture of Geisinger has come to prioritize prevention and holistic ways of understanding patients, how they can take stronger responsibility for their behavior by drawing on their support network” (p.83).
Decentralizing as a Verb
“decentralization is a relational and negotiated process; it confronts deep-seated (highly institutionalized) practices, reproduced via the distribution of authority, expertise, and resources across the center and local clinics. Thinking vertically for the moment, Tomcavage and colleagues believe that it’s the doctor inside each clinic who holds the required medical expertise and power to arrive at diagnoses and make treatment decisions. But historically, doctors working alone have encouraged expensive tests, more hospital admissions, and inadequate understanding about what motivates a patient to get better” (p.102).
“Once again, we see this symbiotic cooperation between a bureaucratically thin, yet normatively thick center sharing responsibility with responsive managers at the grass roots” (p.126).
“As students come to see that teachers truly care about their futures, they share more, they buy in. This, as the new decentralists realize, sets necessary conditions for learning. Students grasp the personal and shared returns that stem from cultivating one’s own growth, and they see why this reading on health-care reform or solar panel design does matter” (p.136).
“The dilemma for decentralists – at least in this Iowa town – is that the practitioners feel efficacious in dealing with the veterans who stopped by , who took some risk in revealing their vulnerability and setting aside obsession with self-reliance. Yet these down-home organizations fell short in keeping track of clients who timidly expressed a need for help, or failed to show up at all. Stuflick and Waychus both tracked lists of returning members of army or National Guard divisions. But no one was responsible for connective with vets who disappeared from view, from the civic space in which practitioners could legitimately reach out to them“ (p.182).
“one huge lesson is that the diversifying of logics, cultivated within decentering organizations, sprout with colorful regularity. Driven by the search for more robust forms of human cooperation, these firms do not express a parochial form of localism. Instead, the new decentralists experiment with how social ties can lift and advance their clients. This rainbow of ways in which work gets done between client and practitioner – infused with ethical verve – cannot be explained by engineered diversification from above, or by the discriminating wisdom of consumers who express tidy channels of discerning demand. Rather, we are witnessing a poststructuralist process, in part, where shifting economic and institutional forces spark a variety of organizational adaptations. Some adjustments are shared and predictable, as I argue with the four distinct cornerstones of the new decentralize. But this contemporary localism spawns a thousand other organizational blossoms as well. Some will thrive; others will readily wilt. What’s key is that these varying ways of organizing work locally are not necessarily dedicated to advancing private interests or culled by any central authority. Our cases show how new forms of cooperation on the ground often seek to buoy the disadvantaged, offer alternative futures, and shape more fulfilling engagement among clients and practitioners alike” (p.109).
“The riotous range of pluralistic organizational forms that has come to characterize America – rooted in nonprofit and for-profit fields – has yet to eclipse the duality between hierarchy and market. As sociologist Todd Gitlin argued a generation ago, we can’t agree on how best to cooperate locally, since we remain split by two competing notions of society. ‘That of America as a force for individual freedom, and that of the Left as a force for equality [requiring public hierarchy].’ The modern project and its focus on settling social ideals at a societal level weigh us down. ‘They are the two great heavily burdened ideas of the Enlightenment,’ Gitlin says” (p.201).
“It’s not only the recalcitrant corporate executive or right-wing conservative who might think more carefully about the strengths and risks of decentralization, or the inevitable ebbing of modern centralism, the failed rationalizing of everyday life. It’s my progressive colleagues and fellow travelers – especially their penchant for burying their earnest heads in shifting sands – that worry me most. The political Left sorely needs a theory of decentralization that focuses on local capacity and democratic transparency, a model of social cooperation that blends economic justice and expressive variety. The Left’s ancestry stems from the Enlightenment, a bundle of ideals that spoke not only of individual rights and central government, but also celebrated colorful expression and cultural pluralism. Secular centralism aimed to enhance civil rights and bring fairness, rather than building gray and mechanical institutions that too often resort to regulating the human spirit” (p.212).
“America’s past half century of decentralizing drift tastes rather sour to many of my Left-leaning colleagues, being rooted in Berkeley after all. Don’t you remember, they bemoan, that it was Ronald Reagan who pitched market competition and privatizing ailing public institutions. His allies would push the Supreme Court to approve publicly funded vouchers for parents who opted for parochial schools. Or what about George W. Bush who stood beside the deregulated corral of Wall Street cowboys who rode roughshod over millions of home buyers, then made billions by trading bundles of bad mortgages? Will unleashing market forces truly bring down health-care costs and result in higher quality care? Why not instead simply rebuild the world of central regulation and hierarchical administration, many on the Old Left still argue. Would not a national curriculum and standardizing classroom life serve to narrow the dastardly achievement gaps that harden inequality? Why didn’t President Obama opt for a universal-payer for health care? In other words, why not hold onto the illusion of a tightly packed nation-state, a unified Parsonian social system?” (p.213).

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