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The malady which OpenProcess attempts to cure. When group decisions are being made, sometimes the issue is effectively determined by a subset of the group without the input (or sometimes, even without the knowledge) of the rest of the group. In the worst case, procedural tricks may be used to prevent some group members from having their proper say.

BackRoomDecision is a problem because usually the purpose of the group's formation was for the entire group to discuss something and come to some sort of group decision, rather than for decisions to be made by some while others are ignored.

BackRoomDecisions rise rapidly and exponentially after the community finds themselves CrossingTheTippingPoint in the CommunityLifeCycle.

Closed process: the cabal

You will frequently hear online the word cabal bandied to describe the set of decision makers who use out of band channels to confer with one another. This AntiPattern has a number of poor consequences. First, those outside the process no longer feel obligated to be part of the process, feeling the oligarchy will maintain order. This puts an undue burden on these few (which is fair, since they foisted it upon themselves), which may burn them out. They may then exercise their RightToLeave, but since no one else was interested in the process, no one replaces them. This leads to a breakdown of the community.

Second, the few may be malfeasant, just as a GodKing might. They may be lazy, make mistakes, or actually act in bad faith. Adequate PeerReview is the only reasonable check and balance as the community's RightToLeave (or worse) provides the pressure necessary for those with a self-interest in maintaining a vibrant community to act properly. Very frequently, as well, keeping the process closed does not provide adequate consultation to meet the concerns and requirements of the community as a whole. Most people would be satisifed with a BenevolentDictator who acted silently on their behalf as long as their needs remain met as PoliticalAction is an odious burden most would like to avoid. However, often one's personal interests are not accounted for because they are simply unknown (let's AssumeGoodFaith). It's everyone's personal responsibility to take their charge of their own lives. The responsibility of those in power is to provide a FairProcess to give people influence.

Third, power concentrations attract AntiAuthoritarians who believe all forms of authority are inheritantly evil as they are actually limiting for those out of power. While TheCollective may benefit as a whole from a particular power structure, TheIndividual may not, at least certain incompetent or oppressed individuals. Anti-authoritarian rhetoric is very powerful as many people feel this struggle for control over their lives and the difficulty of projection into the world of their point of view on a daily basis, and often they attribute blame onto others (rightly or wrongly) for holding them up. The only way to undercut the anti-authoritarian is to be honest and act in GoodFaith; one must actually hold to a FairProcess because then most people in TheCollective will see that things are steadily improving, their points of view are being addressed in a methological fashion, and they maintain a reasonable degree of control over their own lives (while still maintaining respect for other people's lives). The anti-authoritarian will not agree, but supports will outnumber him or her.

Finally, trolls (WhatIsaTroll) use this power imbalance to sow discontent as it is easy to find conflict in any power imbalance. They will enrage one particular member of the cabal to the point where he or she will abuse her PeerPrivilege, thus demonstrating he or she "is not a peer." While it's reasonable to expect people will abuse their power occasionally, though we try to LimitDamage and ForgiveAndForget their mistakes and we AssumeGoodFaith on their part, the AngryCloud that trolls breath stickily onto the powerful disrupts this. The AntiAuthoritarian uses these results to show that indeed the situation is unfair. What can only be done is to keep trolls out, maintain OpenProcess with adequate PeerReview, DevolvePower to LimitDamage, and try to keep everyone on a level keel. But certainly it's true that it's a mistake to put so much power into one person's hands as they might go insane for a while. Everyone is equally responsible; remember we only delegate PeerPrivilege as we choose, but we can also take it away and do the work ourselves. At least that should be the underlying philosophy behind any power structure.

Classic examples

The classic example of a BackRoomDecision would be a small group of government policymakers having a clandestine meeting and deciding a policy issue not on its merits but because it helps them personally in some way; and where they do not want to have that discussion on the record because if they did, it would become clear to the citizens of that government that the correct decision is actually the other one. For example, they could decide to accept a bribe.

But there are less evil scenarios, as well. Perhaps people on a committee meet privately and talk about an issue and come up with what they think is the best solution. Later on, another member of the committee proposes something different, but the aformentioned individuals don't give the new idea proper consideration because their mind is made up. In this case, the third person may feel aggrieved because his idea was not given due consideration.


Back room decisions are nothing new. In 1944, C.S. Lewis gave [a speech called "The Inner Ring"] [http://clublet.com/why?TheInnerRing ] [http://www.freerepublic.com/forum/a3a1190b704d3.htm ]. He implies that there has always been inner rings, and always will be -- they are unavoidable. However, Lewis urges us to fight the temptation to do whatever it takes to join the inner ring.

"In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most."

Difficult of measurement

In reality, it is difficult for anyone in a group to know whether a given group decision was secretly pre-determined by some clique. Hence, often arguments erupt as to whether a group is being run by BackRoomDecisions or not.

Probability unknown

There seems to be no consensus in society at large as to the probability of an individual being correct if they believe they are being blown off in this fashion. For example, looking at all the cases in which an individual in Western Society has a hunch that a committee which they are on is making BackRoomDecisions, is that hunch right 80% of the time? Is it wrong 80% of the time? If such hunches are usually correct, then individuals in such a position should probably publically protest, and others should probably listen to them. If such hunches are usually incorrect, then individuals in such a position should probably try to AssumeGoodFaith and give others the benefit of the doubt, and others should probably ignore most accusations of back room dealing that they hear of (although consider the RumourMill). If you feel that a committee that you are on is being run from the back room, should you assume that such feelings are usually correct, and protest, or should you assume that such impressions are usually paranoia, and ignore them? (cf. DefendAgainstParanoia)

Perhaps different people make different assumptions as to the base rate. Some people assume that BackRoomDecisions are relatively common and try to expose it whenever possible. Others DefendAgainstCynicism? and assume that they are relatively rare and try to keep things moving while avoiding damaging controversy. The second type of person may see the first type as a paranoid jerk who stirs up trouble. The first type may see the second as either a naive pawn, or as a two-faced backroom operator. Of course, in addition to both kinds of well-meaning folks, there are plenty of true rats who try to cut others out of the loop on the one hand and also loudly accuse their innocent opponents of sinister back room machinations on the other.

(But even if everyone agreed on the true probability of back-room decisions, there would still be arguments over whether a particular group -- or even a particular decision -- was controlled by BackRoomDecision.)

Paranoia; further study needed

So, it seems that the situation is quite complex. The end result is that there are constant accusations that this or that group is being covertly controlled by some clique, that it can be difficult for group members to determine the validity or even the sincerity of these accusations, and that it is even more difficult for those outside the group to do so.

This seems like an interesting topic to study game-theoretically. Are there mathematically-measurable properties of the group's decision-record (or other measurable facts) which could give a probability of corruption? Can mathematics be used to detect conspiracies (stochastically)?

An image of fairness

Abstain from all appearance of evil. -- Paul

Because of all the uncertainty, sometimes members may incorrectly perceive that they have been cut out of the loop when in fact they have not been. Hence, it is necessary not just for groups to be fair, but also for them to avoid the image of impropriety.

Concrete suggestions

In addition, such pre-discussions allow each member to more accurately gauge the feelings of the rest of the group before the meeting takes place; this may smooth over the feelings of the losers (who might now know that they may be in the minority), as well as aid group cohesion (because those with extreme points of view will modulate them to be more acceptable to the median viewpoint).

Of course, such pre-discussions are contrary to OpenProcess, and may be regarded as a necessary evil. Perhaps some sort of new electronic group structure will allow meetings to be more continuous, removing the problem with someone abruptly being voted down at the meeting.


There are certain people who employ BackRoomDecisions through private communication such as e-mail to have their fights, afraid of going out in public for fear of open combat. These people undercut TheCollective silently and in the shadows by stirring a RumourMill about their victim outside the realm of defense. When confronted in the open, they are easily defeated. You will often hear them complain afterwards that you should take it "off-line" because they are so weak they need to level the playing field in the shadows, like the rats that they are.

They are often RecordKeepers as well since exposing private communication out of context is a very powerful weapon against a person.

See also BackStageCommunication
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