It is fun to look at the Baha’i administration through the prism lens of organizational studies. It is rather difficult for a Baha’i to have such knowledge and not indulge. So allow me the indulgence.
Recently Steve featured an article which tried to depict the Baha’i administration as inhabiting the ‘sweet spot’ inside a theoretical framework of organizational behavior. The theory, in this case, is that organizations are either “spiders” or “starfish”. Which is just a cute twist on the old top-down and bottom-up notation most people use. The analogy being that a starfish would survive if you cut a limb off (decentralized) whereas a spider is centralized. Obviously the analogy is a false one since cutting off a spider’s leg won’t kill it.
In case, if you’re not familiar with these concepts, very simply put, a top-down organization is one in which decisions, policy, culture and pretty much everything that matters is decided at the top and then forced down the line to the last subordinate. The article argues, rather weakly, that the Baha’i organizational structure, has both these elements. While I can empathize with the author as he tries so hard to show the Baha’i administration to be “decentralized” I can’t help but notice that he fails rather dramatically. Simply asserting a thing, is not proving it.
This sort of mistake is a conceptual fallacy. Where we start out with the premise that we want to arrive at and then mercilessly torture the data and facts until they fit, mangled and distorted, into the right cubby hole. The scientific approach, is instead, to start with a neutral stance, without any conclusions, and then to look at all the facts and infer from them. Allowing them to lead us to whatever conclusion they may.
If we do look at the facts, we see an almost exclusive top down bureacracy. One that hands down X-year plans, forces the community to take mind-numbing regurgitation classes (Ruhi), appoints and directs all aspects of Baha’i administration, and one which micromanages to a neurotic degree.
A great example of this happened just recently. You remember the surprisingly frank admission of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, right? Well, it would seem that that did not sit right with the House of Justice. So they sent a representative, Ms. Penelope Walker, from the (you guessed it) International Teaching Center to the National Convention to set them right.
She kindly informed the delegates that rather than being interested in something as “old world” and impractical as listening to the grass roots and finding out what is really going on (things like facts), the ITC and the House were more interested in them understanding that nothing is wrong with the plans or guidance given. That they must keep on keeping on. Do Ruhi. And if in doubt, do more Ruhi.
If that doesn’t result in anything positive for the community, then it is your fault. You must have done something wrong, or maybe you didn’t take Ruhi enough times. Did you do all books? how about in a second language? did you try doing them standing on your head? Aha! You lazy, no good bum!! You’re the reason why the enrollments have been shrinking for the past 5 years!
Heaven forbid that the delegates at the National Convention have a discussion of what is truly going on in their communities and gasp! tell it like it is. I mean, whoever suggests that the National Convention is a place for that? Or that the National Assembly would want to listen to their own members rather than a guest flying in from another continent. Obviously the guest has a more intimate knowledge of how the United States Baha’i community is doing than the very Baha’is in that community. Right?
How tenderly and carefully the grassroots are attended to. It is simply breathtaking!
It must be noted that the Baha’i administration as we see it today, would not be recognized by its architect, Abdu’l-Baha. In His Will & Testament, the administration is laid out to function with two parallel but separate pillars: the elected institution (Universal House of Justice) and the appointed institution (Guardianship). But that is not what we have today:
The arrows going to and from the House of Justice and the International Teaching Center are meant to illustrate the fact that since the early 1980’s all new House of Justice members have just happened to be current members of the ITC. This revolving door has lead to group think and a drastic narrowing of leadership perspective.
Which reminds me that it’s been a good while that I promised part II of the look at Baha’i elections and how we can improve them. I’ll be writing about that very soon. Probably tomorrow. Rather apropos as it coincides with the ongoing National Conventions.