Subsidiarity | Latin: subsidium means “help” or “assistance” – an organizing principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level. Thus, smaller, more local, or “lower”, human associations have proper social functions which should not be assumed by larger, or “higher” associations (i.e. performance on a higher/macro level should only be warranted in the pursuit of assisting a lower/micro level to fulfill their functions).
I continue to be fascinated by the principle of subsidiarity. My fascination with it stems, in large part, to the lack of its use within government today. More specifically, in the area that I operate professionally I find a lack of understanding, let alone appreciation, for what subsidiarity can offer the government process if it could be more effectively implemented.
In a previous article I wrote about the role of subsidiarity in its protection of man’s agency when properly implemented. What I am interested in exploring this time around is the aspect of time in the application of the principle of subsidiarity.
As previously touched upon, subsidiarity addresses the aspect of WHO should be making particular decisions recognizing the principle that decisions should be made at the lowest level possible. When this principle is used it then behooves higher levels of association to empower and assist the lower levels to make the necessary decisions and also to implement. As I think about this I picture in my mind the WHO aspect of subsidiarity as being on a vertical axis. The horizontal axis of subsidiarity would then be recognized as being the WHEN in the decision making process.
Andres Duany identified the need to incorporate time when he said, “Subsidiarity proposes that a decision is best made by the smallest competent group, at the most local level and at the latest practical moment.”
The aspect of time is a critical element to ensuring wise decision making. As I have contemplated the aspect of time in the equation I have identified four key components for the implementation of decision making which is rooted in Subsidiarity:
- Decision making system requires sensitivity to when a decision is actually needed
Because of the sensitivity associated with subsidiarity-based decision making there can be a much higher level of confidence for allowing decisions to be made at the point in time when the decision is needed. There tends to be a natural tendency to want to pull aspects of the decision making process as close to the present as possible, regardless of the fact that the need for a particular decision to be made may be months, or even years, into the future. When this becomes the standard for making decisions it should be easy to recognize that the opportunity for mistakes to be made increases exponentially.
- Decision making should recognize external forces which will impact the outcomes and execution of the decision
Within the role of government it must be better understood that regulatory policy is typically not the only external force which causes conformance in the decision making process. Yet, when it comes to seeking legislative or administrative approval on a particular item government seems to believe they are the only factor at play. When this is the case, decision making can be compromised to the detriment of all involved.
For example, within the arena of land development government often fails to recognize the role of the market in “regulating” a developer’s actions. Having to answer to the market requires a high level of sensitivity for the element of time because aspects of the “regulatory” demands of the market are directly tied to the present. This is not the case with government regulation, which is more reactive to the past and trying to prevent future mistakes. Ironically, the typical ignorance of the market’s role, relative to the present, often increases the rate of failure which leads government to further perpetuate their flawed cycle.
- Consideration must be given to the time horizon that is impacted by the decision outcome
When accounting for the aspect of time in the decision making process one must remember to fight the natural tendency to make decisions ahead of when the decision is actually needed. The element of time is often considered an enemy in the process, but when leveraged correctly time can actually be positioned as an ally. To do this one must remain aware of when the decision is actually warranted, and then use the available time to validate the potential decision options in order to find the most effective solution. Inefficiency is created when decision making occurs too far ahead of when the decision outcomes are actually needed.
- Consideration for the impacts when decision is made too early
One cannot afford to execute a short term mindset on a long term decision. The time horizon of a decision must be considered against all long term implications, followed by measurement against short term execution, until such time as a given decision truly needs to be made if success is to be achieved within the period of time in which a given decision is needed.
Time should be viewed as a friend, rather than an adversary, in the decision making process. While time does draw aspects of uncertainty into the process, it must also be recognized that it also provides clarity when allowed to work within a system that accounts for its application.
“There are no secrets that time does not reveal.” (Jean Racine)