Finding a balance between efficiency and participation: better assemblies, not less of them

Ce texte a originellement été publié en marge de l’assemblée publique du 26 février 2023 à titre de texte de réflexion dans le processus ayant mené à la fondation de l’Organisation révolutionnaire anarchiste (ORA). Ce processus s’est étalé sur près d’un an et demi et a rassemblée plusieurs dizaines de militant-es autour de comités de réflexion et d’assemblées publiques.

TL;DR summary of main points:

  • Continue to organize assemblies as part of forming the anarchist organization.
  • Engage with the lessons learned from prior assemblies to improve how we organize future ones.
  • Based on the experience of the first two assemblies:
    • Integrate more of the previous discussion outcomes into the structure/agenda of the upcoming assembly
    • Prioritize decision-making on near-consensus topics
    • Identify the unresolved questions that need further work
  • As proposed by the suivi committee, additional committees could be formed to work between assemblies on preparing proposals regarding specific aspects of the organization.
  • The committees could report on the status of their work enough in advance of each assembly to give participants a chance to write and/or audio record replies that will be distributed before the assembly takes place.

Following our second assembly on December 4th 2022, the suivi committee for the formation of the anarchist organization proposed to replace the assemblies with working committees that would develop proposals for the core elements of the new organization. These major proposals would then be the basis for a « founding congress » where they would either be approved or further debated.


This is a counter-proposal, arguing that we should continue organizing assemblies and intentionally work on making them more effective. However, I also agree with suivi that it could be beneficial for committees to working on proposals between assemblies. This in itself could be one of the important ways to make the assemblies more effective. To encourage informed participation, the committees could share the latest status of their work enough in advance of an assembly that there is time for replies to be written and broadly shared. 

Though some of my response is necessarily critical of their proposal, I appreciate all the work that the members of the suivi committee have done to support this difficult process of forming a new organization with lots of people already involved. To the extent that I have been an opinionated participant in the assemblies but not been contributing to the suivi work to organize them, this counter-proposal can also be read in part as a self-critique. I write this as part of trying to translate my critical opinions into constructive contributions and I encourage others reading it to do the same.



Critical questions about the suivi proposal, and arguments for why we shouldn’t get rid of assemblies

If there are no broader discussion spaces, how are the committees getting feedback on their work from anyone not already on them, including from people on other committees?

I agree that in many contexts a smaller group of people can work more quickly and efficiently towards developing a plan. However, there will inevitably be political perspectives or priorities that are absent from the participants in this smaller group, and without broader feedback guiding their work there will be problems with the outcomes. This is especially significant when the work is as creative and open ended as the formation of a new organization. Thus, there is a balance that must be found between more efficient work by smaller groups, and more participatory political direction from a larger group. The current proposal from suivi risks prioritizing the former concern while completely neglecting the latter.

In order for people to be able to give feedback, a committee would need to more broadly share updates on the status of their work, such as through the existing email list. Once this information is shared, there would have to be some way for people to respond and discuss it. One option would be for the time and place of the committee meetings to be publicized to allow people to show up and share their opinions with the committee though having random people with potentially strong opinions show up to smaller working meetings sounds potentially stressful.

A solution to this problem could be to periodically organize larger, more formal meetings where the direction of the work of all the committees could be discussed together, either to confirm that they have broader support, or to find out that some parts are controversial and may need to be reconsidered. Whether we call these broader meetings assemblies or some other label, it seems unavoidable that something like this is necessary if the formation of the organization is going to be relating in any meaningful way to anyone beyond a handful of individuals who will decide to work on these committees.


Why should all of the potential debate about the formation of the organization be postponed until the end of the process, at a single founding congress?

The proposal of the suivi committee does include one mechanism for feedback and debate about the proposals of the committees. Unfortunately, this is confined to what sounds like a single big meeting, the « founding congress », and positioned after the committees are supposed to have already completed their work and therefore the organization as they have defined it is ready to officially begin.

To the extent that the organization benefits from broader participation by more people, we should hope that there are many people who want to show up to the founding congress to debate these proposals. However, if this positive outcome is achieved, it greatly increases the chances that the debates are not concluded by the end of a single founding congress meeting. As we all well know, big assemblies debating contentious issues are often not very efficient! Perhaps this means that the committees have to return to their work to modify the proposals based on the feedback they have now finally received, and a second founding congress or assembly or whatever it ends up being called has to be organized to continue where things left off at the end of the first one.

If we want the organization to be larger and more participatory we need to provide a real mechanism such as an assembly for a broader range of people to be involved in its formation. Postponing this mechanism until the end of the process is either going to result in an organization that is smaller and less participatory (which runs counter to the vision of the organization that has been articulated thus far), or it is going to postpone the real work of forming the organization in a way that involves broader discussion and debate.


Why would an organization that is planning to structure itself in part through large assemblies not also use large assemblies as part of the formation of the organization?

Both as individuals and collectives, the only way we get better at doing things is by doing them, seeing how it goes, and learning from the experience. If we want to more effectively organize big assemblies or meetings that discuss and make decisions on political questions, we need to keep organizing them and learn from our mistakes when they don’t go well.

If the organization is formed through a process of smaller committees that don’t receive broader feedback, it is much more likely to continue operating as an organization of smaller committees that don’t involve many other people. In the first two assemblies, the vision of the organization that has consistently been articulated has focused on it being public facing and open to the involvement of new people. Clearly such an organization will have to be good at organizing assemblies or something like them, and in light of this it seems like a mistake to not continue doing so as part of the formation process.




Specific ideas for how to improve assemblies based on evaluation of the first two

The shortcomings of the assembly form briefly listed in the suivi proposal are that it has been « demobilizing, prevented the creation of unity and promoted inertia ». For myself, and many people I talked to afterwards, the first assembly was actually surprisingly mobilizing, giving a feeling of energy and momentum to the formation of this organization. The decision-making outcomes of the first assembly were limited and quite general, but this is not surprising considering the newness of the process.

That leaves us with the second assembly, which considering its timing is the more direct basis for the decision by suivi to make their proposal. I agree that this assembly did not go well, but I am not convinced that one bad assembly is a sufficient basis for stopping assemblies altogether. Instead, I think it is worth reflecting on that second assembly to identify reasons why it may not have gone well, and how similar assemblies could be done better in the future.


Build on the existing work

For the first assembly, the suivi committee did a good job of drawing on the proposals and other sources to create specific topics for the discussion groups to start the day. However, for the second assembly, now further along in the formation process with more existing work to draw from (the first assembly notes, and the second round of proposals), none of this important information seemed to have been integrated into the planning of the assembly. Furthermore, what outcomes there were from the second round of discussion groups (which didn’t have specific prompts) also didn’t get meaningfully integrated into either the larger afternoon discussion or notes for future agenda making. Future assemblies would benefit from having their content more structured around the priorities and insights of previous discussions.


Start with the near-consensus decisions

Based on the work that has already been done, as well as more subjective impressions of how people related to the discussions, it should be possible to identify at least a few topics that everyone is more or less in agreement on but have not yet been formalized. Prioritizing these points in the assembly allows us to more easily consolidate consensus on how to move forward with forming the organization. I remember this was being done in some way by the facilitator in the first assembly, but seemed to be absent from either the planning or the facilitation of the second assembly.


Identify the unresolved questions that require more work

Even if there is near-consensus about many important things, inevitably there will still be disagreement and lack of clarity on some issues. However, we can actually view the impasses in our discussions reach as useful to the extent that they indicate the areas where more work is needed to come up with creative solutions, and build consensus across difference when this is possible. In the first assembly, there was more clarity reached about the general political direction of the organization, but very little about its structure. Afterwards, this provided the basis for a call for proposals that focused on structural questions. For future assemblies, we should be seeking to identify the issues in the discussion that are contentious or unresolved so that they can be prioritized for further thought and discussion.
The second assembly not going well is an opportunity for us to learn how to improve how we do assemblies of this kind. To stop doing assemblies at all following one less successful attempt cuts short that learning process and makes it less possible to integrate the relevant lessons into future organizing. This new organization will benefit in both the short and long term from working on improving how we organize, facilitate, and participate in assemblies.