A Short Walk through the 12 Concepts
In the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill W wrote about ‘Mr. Grassroots’ – your ‘average Joe’ member of AA. The structure of AA in Great Britain is built on the thousands of Grassroots who carry the AA message in groups from John ‘O’ Groats to Lands End. This structure is not built on what Conference Delegates or Board Trustees do at Conference and it’s not built on those people doing sterling work at the General Service Office (GSO) and on the Share magazine. The work people do in these areas is vitally important, but where do they come from? Concepts 1 and 2 tell us that they come from the Grassroots. We are not ‘us’ and they are not ‘them’. We are one.
Our service structure in the UK reflects what Bill W realised early on; that the ultimate authority and responsibility for AA’s services must reside in the AA groups. Bill knew that after he and Dr. Bob had passed away there would be no effective link between the grassroots members and the Board of Trustees, which had been co-ordinating AA’s early efforts to produce a uniform literature, maintain an effective public relations policy, and manage finances and public information. This board of trustees was little known to the AA members at large, so what if the trustee’s operation were to break down? To whom would they be accountable? Concepts 1 and 2 describe how the groups’ ultimate responsibility and authority is delegated to the General Service Conference, which in Great Britain meets once a year in York. The Conference is effectively the conscience of AA as a whole and it is this body of elected delegates that holds the trustees to account on our behalf.
The process of delegating our responsibility to Conference begins when a group elects a Group Service Representative (GSR). It is the GSR to whom group members delegate their authority and responsibility so that the GSR can vote at Intergroup on their behalf. The GSRs at Intergroup vote for Intergroup Region Representatives, to whom responsibility and authority is delegated so that they can vote at meetings of Region on our behalf (there are 15 Regions in the UK). The Region Representatives participate in electing a region’s delegates to attend the General Service Conference. These delegates are entrusted with delegated authority and responsibility to vote for the interests of AA as a whole.
It is clear that we need to trust each of these servants in the chain that runs from groups to the General Service Conference and the Trustees. If a group really trusts its GSR, it will allow the GSR the right to vote as he or she sees fit at meetings of Intergroup. For example a GSR might know that the group wants them to vote for Mr. X as an Intergroup Region Representative. However, at the Intergroup meeting it might become apparent to the GSR that Mrs. Y would be a more appropriate choice. In this case the GSR will have to explain to the group why he voted for Mrs. Y. The group quite rightly will need to decide whether the GSR has done the right thing, but it should remember that a trusted servant should necessarily be granted this ‘right of decision’ and that the conscience of Intergroup will invariably be superior to that of a group, because Intergroup will have more experience and information to hand. This right of decision is the essence of Concept 3 and it is the mechanism by which each trusted servant participates in the AA structure, from GSR to Conference Delegate and General Service Board Trustee. As tradition 2 says, our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern.
Tradition 3 says that I am a member of AA as soon as I say so. Concept 4 allows me a voting participation in AA the minute I become a member of a home group. When it comes to doing service in AA Bill saw, through experience of AA’s early service structure, that those elected to do service as PI, probation, health, prison and employment liaison officers would only work effectively and enthusiastically if they had a right to vote in proportion to the responsibility their jobs entailed. Today this means that these officers have a right to vote at service meetings such as Intergroup and Region. It means also that all members have a right of participation in the service structure in this country. Bill guarded this principle because he felt that we all have a spiritual need to belong and that there should be no second class AA citizens. It is by truly being able to participate, i.e. having a vote, that those doing service for us are truly trusted servants.
Having a right of decision and a right of participation means that my conscience will sometimes put me in the minority on certain issues that are being considered at meetings of my group, Intergroup, Region or at Conference and at Board level. Concept 5 recognises that minority views and the minority position should be protected as part of our safeguard against occasionally hasty or angry majorities. In AA this means that we should continue to debate important issues until a really substantial majority is in favour. This usually means establishing a 2/3 majority, as in the case of electing delegates to Conference. When a potential delegate receives a 2/3 majority vote they know they have real backing and are not just the winners of a contest. In the case of elections, and voting on other important issues, establishing a substantial majority means there can be no disgruntled minority left in its wake, because the minority knows that the matter has been thoroughly debated. Unity is therefore strengthened. This respect for the minority view is part of the checks and balances built into the service structure that helps to prevent a misuse of delegated authority.
AA services include important activities carried out on a national level such as public information, probation, employment liaison, prisons, health and the publication of existing and new literature as well as overseeing the constantly active General Service Office (GSO) and Share and Roundabout teams. It is much easier and more efficient for a dedicated team of people to run these affairs. This smaller group is the General Service Board (GSB) of AA based in York. Via the elected Conference we Grassroots delegate authority to the GSB to run these enterprises, which they do using the principles of right of decision, participation and deference to the minority opinion already discussed. In fact we hold the GSB mainly responsible for overseeing the day-to day operation of these activities and we hold the GSB to account for all the actions the Conference requires it to take on our behalf. This is mainly what Concept 6 is a about.
Not only do we grant the Trustees of the GSB this authority, they are also governed by a charter that gives the Board the legal right to manage the General Service Office any way it likes, including the legal right to use our money (The Board manages over £???? of the Fellowship’s money every year). Concept 7 explains why and how these undoubted rights need to be balanced by the power of the elected Conference, which should always have the ultimate authority because it is the effective voice and conscience of AA as a whole. What it boils down to, is that the GSB has the legal right to veto every decision that the Conference makes, even if a 2/3 majority of Conference delegates vote to have the Board carry out some specific task. However, in practice this legal right will almost never be exercised. As well as the traditional power of the General Service Conference Charter, which, unlike the Board’s charter, is not a legal document the Conference has the power also to withhold the AA Groups’ financial contributions from the GSB. In circumstances where the will of the Board departs seriously from the will of the Conference, the withholding of funds would eventually bring the Board into line. This principle, like all the principles of the 12 Concepts, can be applied throughout our service structure. For example, if your group believes that Intergroup is acting inappropriately, the group could decide to stop sending Intergroup its tradition 7 contributions.
Concept 8 describes the GSB’s relationship with GSO. While the Board oversees the work of GSO, it should not get involved in the day to day business of the Office, which is duly granted the freedom to operate without constant recourse to, or interference from the Trustees. It is GSO that implements the actions resulting from Conference recommendations and Board initiatives, such as mounting a new advertising campaign. The Trustees take care of overall matters of policy, finance and public relations, but it is the constantly active service office that is given the authority and responsibility to get things done. This makes for a more efficient operation. In the UK the job of General Secretary at GSO is the lynch pin of the Office and the direct contact Trustees have with what goes on. The Board has effective oversight of the GSO through its ability to hire the General Secretary.
Bill considered the idea of leadership in AA to be so important he devoted Concept 9 to this ‘ever vital need’. The preceding concepts describe a structure of service in AA and associated principles, such as the ‘rights’ of decision, participation and minority opinion, that help us to operate effectively and carry the message at all levels to the alcoholic who still suffers. However, the best structure isn’t much use if there are no capable and willing leaders to fill the service positions. This concept reminds us that we are to put aside our differences and vote people into service that are the best people for the particular job, whether it be that of GSR, Intergroup liaison officer or rep, Region Chair, Conference delegate or Board Trustee. Nothing less will do for the potential new man or woman. This concept includes a discussion on leadership put forward by Bill, who identifies some of the qualities a leader should have, such as vision – the ability to see what course of action will be best for AA in the long term. For example, your group may be considering whether to become a multi-meeting group and some vision will be required to estimate the future demand for another meeting night. While this concept tends to focus on the Trustees as World/national Service Leaders, it applies to anyone active in AA service including sponsors, who, like all leaders in AA, lead by example. This means that there are leaders in AA – most groups have leaders that we willingly follow.
Concept 10 reiterates that responsibility should be matched by a corresponding authority. Let’s say I am elected as a share finder for my Group. The Group gives me responsibility for maintaining a steady flow of sharers to speak at group meetings. Along with that responsibility I need authority from the group to choose the sharers and this authority should not be undermined by interference from group members that might be trying to influence my decisions, or just “making sure” that I am doing the job properly. This is where the “right of decision” (concept 3) and “trusted servant” principles are so important. Similarly, the Groups delegate some of their ultimate authority to delegates, who vote at Conference according to the dictates of their own conscience. If this delegated authority is misused then the groups can exercise their ultimate authority by electing new delegates. Leaders in service, such as Conference delegates will have to decide which matters they should deal with on their own conscience in this way, and which matters they should refer back to the Groups for consideration. The same principle can be exercised by Intergroups and Regional assemblies.
Concept 11 is concerned with ensuring that the people who do the main body of the work at GSO are well qualified and that the systems for obtaining these workers and relating them with each other are effective. Although the structure described in this essay is based on the US model, the principles in it hold for the GB structure, too. For example the Trustees are ably assisted by standing committees that include non-trustee volunteers. Such volunteers need to be suitably qualified and committed, as on the Literature Committee, which deals with the important task of producing new literature for the Fellowship. In our country the main ‘executive’ position at GSO is held by the General Secretary, who has to put in a great deal of work running the Office and advising Trustees. The Board hires the General Secretary then lets them get on with the work. This concept also describes the important difference between service workers at GSO carrying out established plans and policies and actually making new plans and policies. The qualities required of an executive (in our case the General Secretary) are also highlighted (this issue relates back to Concept 9, on leadership). Another principle is that we should well recompense paid staff at GSO: as Bill says, ‘cheap labour is apt to feel insecure and be inefficient’. This concept looks also at the differences between AA services and the outside commercial world, for example what to do about rotation among paid staff workers and how such workers should be able to participate in the service structure. Rotation among service workers is also a means by which we prevent one person from accumulating too much power, which invariably leads to its misuse.
Concept 12 is essentially article 12 of the Conference Charter and is considered so important to the spirit of AA service that it can only be changed by the agreement of a significant majority of the AA groups world wide. The six ‘warranties’ it contains exemplify spiritual qualities such as prudence in spending of AA money and prudence and humility in our relations with each other and the outside world that serve to align our actions with the 12 Traditions and keep us united as a Fellowship. The warranties spell out the great freedom and liberties of AA members while at the same time enjoining us all to conform to the Traditions.
Finally, while much of the 12 Concepts refer specifically to the General Service Conference and the General Service Board, these valuable principles are applicable at any level of service.
Jon F, Road to Recovery, Plymouth, June 2013