Responsible Setting for Social Innovation

Privileged irresponsibility in social innovation

Years of experience with social innovation projects have shown that privileged irresponsibility is one of the main barriers to social change. The concept of privileged irresponsibility has been defined by Tronto in the Ethics of Care theory. Privileged irresponsibility refers to the ways in which organizational structures and existing norms and values allow some individuals and organizations to escape from their care responsibilities.

Disclaimer: the content of this chapter reflects the current state of on-going research on privileged irresponsibility in groups and organizations.

Privileged irresponsibility can appear in different forms, we give a few examples:

  1. Hiding behind organizational rules and procedures: This type of irresponsibility is often found in organizations that strictly adhere to rules and procedures. On the one hand, the organization acts responsible because the law is not broken. On the other hand, it rules and fixed procedures can also be used as an excuse to refrain from taking up societal responsibilities. These organizations are ‘doing it right’, but the question is whether they are doing the right thing. This could turn out to out to be a dilemma: verification (doing things right) versus validation (doing the right things) to be sorted out in the SI process.
  2. Hiding behind a lack of individual/ organizational resources: A lack of time or money are often used reasons not to take up care responsibilities. A lack of resources can be a problem, but it can also be used as an easy excuse. If a lack of resources is the problem, efforts should be paid to change these circumstances or to find different solutions.
  3. Hiding behind diffuse care responsibilities: In complex organizational contexts, the division of individual care responsibilities is often unclear which makes it easy for people in a privileged position to pass on their care responsibilities. It often happens that a person in a privileged position takes the credits when things are going well but blames others when things are going wrong. When care responsibilities are not met sufficiently, factors beyond individual or organizational control can also be emphasized to mitigate responsibilities.
  4. Misusing a power position: Subordinates can be pushed to do things for the (individual) benefit of their superiors. This is called ‘cornering’: people with a privileged position are using their power position to force someone or an organization to do something against their own interest, will or principles.
  5. Neglecting care responsibilities: When people with power position are not, or not properly, providing the care they should provide they are neglecting their care responsibilities.

As illustrated by these examples, privileged irresponsibility can manifest itself in many different ways. It takes a close eye and knowing what to look for to recognize it. It is important to realize that, in almost all cases, power plays an important role. Power provides someone with a privileged position from which the needs or desires of others can be ignored. In addition, privileged irresponsibility can be intended (deliberate) or unintended. In the latter case, people and organizations may be unaware of the consequences of certain behavior.

In practice, privileged irresponsibility can pose a barrier to social change. When people hide behind organizational structures, a lack of resources or a diffuse distribution of responsibilities, ample reasons are provided to justify inaction by some stakeholders. Because making progress in a societal challenge requires the involvement of every stakeholder, it follows that the presence of privileged irresponsibility inhibits the possibility for sustainable change.  

To create a fruitful environment for social innovation, privileged irresponsibility needs to be minimized. This fruitful environment can be created when, from the start, all involved stakeholders are willing to take up their care responsibilities, which refers to ground rule 1: co-dependency implies care responsibility.

Towards a responsible setting for social innovation

Below we provide guidelines to prevent privileged irresponsibility and to create a fruitful environment for social innovation.

Advice: before the start of the innovation process, discuss the principles and ground rules for social innovation with all potential stakeholders.

The three principles are: 1) we got to move, 2) create room for change, and 3) determine the right direction. The two ground rules are: 1) co-dependency implies care responsibility and 2) diversity in opinions is a basic and essential right. If, during the process, things become tense and some stakeholders are perhaps on the brink of giving up, the other stakeholders can refer to the ground rules as a code of conduct. The ground rules also emphasize that stakeholders have care responsibilities towards each other. Each stakeholder facilitates other stakeholders in addressing the societal challenge.




Statement: Each stakeholder facilitates other stakeholders in addressing a societal challenge.

Aspect: Ethics of Care, Principle: Co-dependency, Principle page: Principles and Ground Rules

Statement page Statement
Investigating Identity Ethics of Care is a retreat to first principles to be part of a group to protect and to provide meaning.
Responsible Setting for Social Innovation Each stakeholder facilitates other stakeholders in addressing a societal challenge.
Some-thing from No-thing We rely on each other and therefore we should care for each other.

Principles, aspects and statements overview

Taking part in a social innovation process requires that stakeholders are willing to act beyond their personal or corporate boundaries in favor of addressing a societal challenge. This commitment involves being open to critical reflection and taking up care responsibilities.

Stakeholders must be made aware of the potentially difficult position of representatives of their organization. During the social innovation process, representatives create a group identity with the purpose of making progress together. However, representatives also have to deal with their own corporate identities. If there is a mismatch in certain aspects of these identities, this can lead to identity conflicts.

Figure: Responsible setting for social innovation.

If, at some point during the process, management of an organization is not willing to act, the representatives are empty handed and cannot make progress. Three things can done to avoid this. First, involve management (i.e., decisions makers) from the start. Second, make the social innovation process transparent so that every stakeholder is aware of other stakeholder’s needs and dilemma's. Third, invite stakeholders to look and act beyond the boundaries of their companies and organizations and facilitate each other in such a way that mutual obligations can be fulfilled (a requirement of Ethics of Care).

Advice: evaluate whether personal and corporate goals align with the overall goals of the societal challenge.

To make sure that stakeholders can commit themselves to the overall goals of the societal challenge, there is a need to evaluate whether their personal and corporate goals align with the overall goals of the challenge. The PQR formula can be used to identify the P ‘what’, Q ‘how’ and R ‘why’ for each stakeholder involved in the process (see Facilitator Guide). After this, overall goals in addressing the social challenge can be identified. The facilitator guide provides techniques to achieve mutual understanding. Defining an overall goal usually requires, as is reflected in ground rule 2 (diversity in opinions is a basic and essential right), that stakeholders look beyond their own or their organization's interests and take other interests into account in order to move collectively in the right direction. Each stakeholder must be committed to the overall goal, otherwise this may disrupt the social innovation process.

By following these guidelines, a transparent social innovation process can be carried out in which there is little room for privileged irresponsibility because stakeholders committed to the case will take corrective measures, with the caveat that a union of stakeholders can actually stand up against a few powerful ones if needed.

Once the right setting for social innovation has been established, the social innovation process can proceed along the lines discussed in the facilitator guide and the social innovation process. In particular, the social innovation process provides the means to establish an assessment framework to guide current and future code of conducts in which Ethics of Care principles are continuously applied and evaluated.