Subsidiarity is a very dull word. Which is a pity, because it describes a very important idea. It is, in fact, the approach of authority or leadership most like the one that Christ taught us. In simple terms, it means that a higher authority should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at lower or more local levels. We have all experienced subsidiarity as parents or children.
Parenthood is an exercise in managed separation. At the beginning, the parent has to make all the decisions, but over time the parent must stand back and allow the child to take more and more responsibility. The apogee is when the child, now well versed in personal responsibility, is able to enter the independent adult world.
It is a parental task that requires endless courage and good judgment. Our immediate instinct is to keep our children safe, and it is easy to find reasons why our authority should prevail. But unless we take the risk of progressively passing on responsibility, we will ensure that we send inadequate adults out into the world.
The same principle of subsidiarity applies to organisations. And the need has become greater as these become more and more complex. Increasing technology has pushed decisions further down the line.
I have written before about how the efficiency of hospitals can be gauged by the degree and quality of communication between different levels, including the patients, and different departments – from the administrative to the medical. We communicate because we wish to share actively in our common objectives. And I would distinguish sharply between the organisation which only communicates what it is obliged to, and the organisation which only holds back communication when it has to.
But as parenthood shows, this is not black and white. There may be restrictions. For some years I had the experience of directing a large investment company. Since we were, in effect, the trustees of public money and were bound by a number of rules emanating from statute. And rightly so. It made it all the more important that everyone, down to the most junior, understood the position and took responsibility for their own accuracy.
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