Governance in Kommune Niederkaufungen
Governance relates to consistent management, cohesive policies, processes and decision-rights for a given area of responsibility. Governance is the kinetic exercise of management power and policy.
The commune in Niederkaufungen, founded in 1986, is a left-wing, income-sharing, intentional community of 60 adults and 20 children in eleven small living groups and mostly working in communally owned collective businesses. It has consensus decision-making and the collective ownership of land, buildings and the means of production and transport.(See : www.kommune-niederkaufungen.de ). By taking measures to live as “ecologically” as possible, such as use of rainwater and renewable resources, insulation of buildings, car sharing, practicing organic agriculture, etc., we have a low “ecological footprint” compared to the german average. (See : www.usf.uni-kassel.de/glww/ ). Although we are as large as some ecovillages and have some similarities to some of them, we do not see ourselves as an ecovillage, as ecovillages usually have other forms of ownership of land and buildings and other socio-economic structures. Thus our internal rules and regulations are fitted to other requirements and necessities than those of most ecovillages.
Unlike some intentional communities and ecovillages, we have no formal rule book or book of by-laws regulating the daily life and behaviour of members. As the commune is officially a registered association (Kommune e.V.), we have a formal statute and a few elected officials as required by german law to regulate the association’s affairs. However, this statute has practically no influence on our daily lives. A part of our life is regulated by our adherence to a pamphlet of Aims and Principles (Grundsatzpapier – available on our website) formulated in 1983 by some members of the founding group. This contains the basic main ideology of the commune and ideas about the structures thought necessary to put the ideas and ideals into practice. Acceptance of these Aims and Principles is a condition of joining the commune. However, they are not rules as such, they are either guidelines about how we believe social and environmental behaviour should be, or are proposed structures for our work and life here. (How some of the ideas are put into practice can be seen in our german language “Ergänzungspapier” on our homepage.)
As one of the main principles is consensus decision making, much of our conduct is regulated by the decisions which have been made through the years of the commune’s existence. These decisions are all gathered together in a number of files stored in our commune common-room. They are all clearly indexed, both by date of decision and by theme or subject. This accumulation of decisions covers a wide range of topics, but part of it comes close to being a collection of rules. For example, there are decisions made about limiting the use of mobile phones within the commune buildings and gardens, about types and levels of expenditure which have to be approved in consensus by the commune as a whole, about the minimum quantity of kitchen work which every member has to do per month, etc. There is also the (unwritten) principle of subsidiarity: many other rules of conduct are decided at a lower level, in the work collectives and in the living groups. The work collectives have a high degree of autonomy in how they work and conduct business, as do the living groups in how they structure the life in the housing space they share. At this level, too, decisions are made in consensus, usually by discussion until a solution is found which is acceptable to all. Most collectives and living groups have regular meetings for planning, discussing themes and making necessary decisions. Sometimes “3rd party” mediation or facilitation is needed to arrive at the decision.
Consensus decision making at commune level
Proposals for new decisions, or revising/renewing old ones, can be made by individuals or by groups of individuals (work-collectives, living groups, plenary meeting discussion groups or other commune sub-groups). Proposals for communal decisions, regardless of how important they seem, are always made in writing, with a clearly worded and (hopefully) unambiguous formulation of the decision, together with the proposed date when the decision should be approved, with an explanatory text giving the reasons for proposing the decision, with supporting arguments, extra details etc. The written proposal is hung up on our main notice board in the commune common-room at least one week before the plenary meeting when it is to be approved.
We have a weekly general assembly (Plenum), every Tuesday evening in the commune common-room, starting at 20.30h. The second part of this plenum is made up of a number of discussion groups meeting separately. These small groups usually go on until about 23.00h.
During the period after the proposal has been made public, communards are expected to read it and think about it. If they have criticism or worries, they can delay the decision by hanging a notice up, detailing their criticism, proposing modifications or changes, or asking for further discussion. If the decision has been proposed by one of the plenary meeting discussion groups, the critical communard is expected to join that group for a period to discuss the proposal and arrive at a formulation acceptable to all. If the proposal comes from an individual or another commune sub-group, extra meetings are usually arranged between the parties involved, sometimes with mediation.
Occasionally, an extra meeting for the whole commune will be called. Each communard has a veto on decisions, but the veto, in the sense of a clear and unreversable NO, is seldom used. On the other hand, depending on the criticism, doubts or problems with the decision proposed, the discussion can take a long time before consensus is achieved. A period of several weeks can occur between the original proposal and the actual (compromise) decision. If there is no criticism, or when the modified decision is accepted by all proponents and critics, the decision is read out at the general meeting. When no voice is raised against it here, it is taken as decided. The decision is noted in the minutes of the meeting. Copies of the decision are filed and entries are made in that file’s index and in a separate index file where all decisions are listed.
Only a small number of our decisions can be regarded as rules or some form of regulation of behaviour. As decisions have been made in consensus members of the commune generally adhere to the decisions, and it is in our interest to do so. On the other hand, we do not expect every communard to be an enthusiastic supporter of every decision made. It is enough that the person can live with the decision made without too many doubts or criticisms. This means that some decisions may not be followed 100%. However, there is no form of coercion to follow rules, nor are there any punishments or sanctions when people do not stick to a decision. Should a communard in some way not follow an agreed code of conduct other members of the commune will almost certainly speak with him or her, but social pressure or criticism is the only measure that will be taken.
Explaining Rules to new communards
During the 6 month probationary test period before a person joins the commune, she or he will get to know the general codes of conduct which exist in the commune. Each new probationer has 3 communards to “look after” her/him and say where things are and what the customs and rules of the commune are. From the very first visit, it is possible for a person to look through the files where decisions are collected, but most of the information about rules and past decisions will be transmitted by word-of-mouth. If a probationer or new communard makes some sort of mistake, e.g. arriving late for kitchen duty, leaving one of our cars without fuel in it, or using a tram ticket without writing their name on the mobility plan, etc, she or he will be told by other communards who are directly effected. No one is expected to know everything during the first months here, but, by the end of the first year, the written and unwritten rules should be clear to everyone.
As mentioned in the Preamble, an ecovillage or a co-housing project needs other forms of rules and regulation than an income sharing commune. However, some communes have more written regulations than the Kommune Niederkaufungen. For example, both Twin Oaks (USA) and Svanholm (DK) have much clearer rules about how much the members there have to work, and in other communes a minimum financial contribution and a minimum number of hours work for the community is also often clearly regulated. A lot depends on the legal structure of the project, its forms of ownership and its “housing/living stuctures”. An intentional community with private ownership of housing, small family structures, more financial inequality and less intensive contact between members than in a commune will almost certainly need more written rules and formal regulations than Niederkaufungen.