Subsidiarity is a principle applied in many circles and across industries. It originated from religious organizations. The word itself is a tongue twister and is often confused by writers and spellcheck as subsidiary. But it is subsidiarity. It is a management principle that essentially spreads out decision-making to different levels of an organization so that, when decisions need to be made, they are shared rather than top down all the time. This principle works effectively in organizations that are participatory and democratic rather (Theory Y) rather than authoritarian and autocratic (Theory X). Some would say, it is best applied in Theory Y types of organizations. (In 1960, Douglas McGregor defined contrasting types of management styles and saw them as either X or Y, as he called them.There is plenty of information available about this work on the Internet and in most management history books.)
As McGregor might have argued, subsidiarity builds on the idea that people like to work, are motivated and want to participate. Hence, when we add the notion of subsidiarity, we can create an environment where those who wish to participate are given the space and the authority to involve themselves in decisions that might have been more traditionally delivered in a traditional top down way. The idea is that when subsidiarity is used with skilled people, whose abilities and judgment are valued and considered, and whose work can be affected by pending decisions, are allowed and encouraged to make decisions, their decisions are more effective and better informed than those made by others higher up in the organization. In effect, decisions made by using this principle consider how any decision will impact those who work where that decision will affect the organization. The closer to the actual level where the decision will make impact, the better the decision will be is how the subsidiarity principle works. Make decisions at the lowest level of the organization as possible. This empowers people, motivates them to see that decisions they make work well; they are more readily invested in the success of their own decisions and they are more likely to want to continue to contribute and feel appreciated by management for what they bring to the job or task. This principle can be used in any number of settings: may work well in the form of task forces, work groups or teams with ad hoc assignments. It is less important what management calls this than that management recognizes the unique power of all to contribute to the greater good.
This principle is really well applied in NPOs where staff already have a commitment to the mission and want to be helpful and supportive of human activity. And where democratic, participatory management styles are preferable and the culture allows for all to participate and contribute some measure of themselves.
For argument sake, let's say that your organization is considering changing its transportation system. Who might be the most knowledgable people to have deciding whether to use larger or smaller vehicles, lengthening or shortening routes to reduce travel times, make more efficient use of resources, cut operating expenses, etc.?
I'd start by having my drivers involved from the get go. Who knows the challenges better than they do? No one. The CEO who has never driven a van loaded with clients could not possibly know what the drivers know. I'd involve the riders, their families and anyone who has complained about the transportation services. Have you ever heard that your transportation system keeps people on vans too long? That travel times are a burden and cut into service delivery time? If you have, then this illustration should ring true. In fact, it is one I confronted in my own career. And needless to say, once the working group knew that management wanted to improve the system we had by shortening travel times, rotating vehicles to better maintain them and to shorten leases as we moved to a more mobile, smaller sized vehicle fleet, creating more jobs and better working conditions for them, as well as improving the quality of the service for the benefit of the clientele, this was a bound to be a smash success. To boot, the move to more efficient vehicles allowed us to reduce gas and repair costs, more flexibly use funds to upgrade our fleet of 35 vans to smaller and newer models and to get in and out of vehicle leases more quickly so that our fleet was always no more than three years old. This alone saved thousands of dollars a year in repairs and maintenance.
Could senior management have done this without everyone's participation? Sure. Would it have taken less time? Maybe. Would the outcome have been as successful? Likely not. Were employees squarely behind what they came up with? You bet. That is the subsidiarity principle at its most effective. Keep decisions at the lowest level of the organization. Once employees are invested, get out of their way and let them work. Your job becomes seeing to it that resources are made available for them to succeed.