Toward a developmental Basque political culture. Integrating Power and Caring among political actors.

Less than one year after kicking off an innovative experiment on transformation of a political culture with politicians and policy makers in the Basque Country of Northern Spain, we, Hilary Bradbury and Miren Larrea, completed Phase 1. One big surprise was just how much emotions and gender matter! First an overview below. And if you’re interested in the next steps underway, a description of our 2024 sandbox project that highlights gender issues in governance.

Origins of the work in constructivist developmental theory

The transformative learning process was designed and facilitated by Miren Larrea in her role as a senior researcher and one of the action researchers supporting regional politics through the Orkestra research institute of Deusto University. Hilary Bradbury in her role as curator and principal at AR+ Foundation brought a constructivist development approach and an assessment tool. In working together our idea was to experiment with raising awareness about how actors work – and might transform – power, collaboration and inquiry dynamics.

Developmental politics

By the terms develop and developmental we mean something specific. Not so much the bricks and mortar of so much international development work, but a constructivist approach. Constructivism is the idea that humans do not merely respond to external stimuli, but can learn and be creative in how they live and work together finding innovations in responding to whatever comes their way. In this kind of developmental approach, attention is drawn to the ways each actor makes meaning and takes action with others. Each also reflects on new experiments to take, given the explicit intention to co-create a new political culture together with all stakeholders.

More details on the initial steps undertaken last year are here.

Working with a shared focus on Action Research for Territorial Development, we framed this as the transformative intersection of external and internal territory. In other words, personal and group developmental processes were as important to the development of a new political culture as external territory challenges, such as green transitions.  

A key advantage to the work was new ways of coordinating action across agencies.

The most lauded outcome in the previous action research that had created a foundation was that better – more productive ways  – had become possible for policy makers in working with local agencies. As one senior official explained: instead of working in hierarchical, conflictual ways, which focused attention against one another, we started to could work together. We saw we could address common challenges. This led to the work of multiple agencies becoming more streamlined which in turn saved time, energy and money. There were, naturally, some challenges along the way.

Foremost  was the reluctance to look internally…

Our work to combine internal and external territories was controversial at first. Though neither the first nor foremost of the controversies the group managed – see more on this, which became a PhD topic,  the experiment we describe was neither immediately nor easily accepted by all. The challenge was stated first as a difficult dichotomy. Was our experiment promoting self-inquiry in opposition to cooperative transformation? In other words wasn’t it an Anglo-American style individualism in opposition to the local values of communitarian welfare?

We, Miren and Hilary, decided to make that very issue a central inquiry to the experiment itself. Rather than have an initial argument about concepts we agreed to have it be an evolving dialogue among equals. A group of seven agreed to be the first experimenters in taking the assessment as as way to personally reflect on their use of power and inquiry and then begin to discuss it with others.

It is rather rare that we reflect on how we use power. We might say that the very reflection is a way to consciously update our social software.  The assessment tool is a vehicle to have that reflection and dialogue together.  In taking the assessment people became aware of their (internal) “action logic.” This refers to signature patterns of sense-giving and meaning-making. These patterns are most evident in how we interpret our surroundings and respond when our power or safety is challenged. As these patterns are measurable the invitation was also to see how practice at evolving stages of sense making and action taking help us become measurably better collaborators.

Then we needed to know the default patterns of power, inquiry and collaboration. The “base line” action logics became evident with the use of the Developmental Assessment Self Instrument which enabled all involved to see also how they might shape their own future work in collaboration. All measured at the same action logic of “redefining.”

The action logic called redefining accounts for about 10% of professionals who have used this and other similar measures. Generally speaking it describes a mindset that recognizes that neither it nor any of the other action logics are “natural”; all are constructions of oneself and the world. This seemingly abstract idea enables those who assess at this action logic to contribute unique practical value to their organizations; they put personalities and ways of relating into perspective and communicate well with people who have other action logics. They are concerned with multiple perspective being heard and enjoy horizontal processes.


What sets redefining apart from conventional professionals (i.e., the majority with earlier action logic that work to achieve externally mandated goals) is their awareness of a possible conflict between their personal principles and their actions, or between the organization’s values and its implementation of those values. At the redefining stage, however, conflict becomes the source of creative tension, and a growing desire for further development. Note also that this action logic tends to ignore rules they regard as irrelevant, which often makes them a source of irritation to both colleagues and bosses. The later  – transforming – action logic accounts for just 4% of professionals. It becomes a potential next developmental step for those oriented toward the benefits it brings, namely a focus on organizational constraints, which they treat as discussable and transformable. Whereas the redefining action logic masters communication with colleagues who have different action logics, the transforming action logic masters the second-order organizational impact of actions and agreements. The transforming mind is also adept at creating shared visions across different action logics—visions that encourage both personal and organizational transformations. According to the transforming action logic, organizational and social change is an iterative developmental process that requires awareness and close leadership attention. The transforming action logic makes for highly effective change agents.

Learning processes over a series of short workshops

Using an interview format, each participant reflected on the results of the action logic assessment tool; they chose what they felt would be their step forward a next stage of development, “their developmental edge.” Then they shared how taking that step would  – in their estimation – affect the deliberation group. Finally, they also reflected on the impact that the previously mentioned transformation of the group would have on the policy ecosystem.

As a follow up each was invited to prepare a short narrative to present their experience with others present, i.e., outside an interview format. Everyone involved was invited to a group dialogue – to be held with Hilary Bradbury – and during which we’d agree on what learnings are to be brought back to the larger deliberation group, within which these seven members hold leadership roles. Together the group revisited the earlier controversy of “individualism versus collective.”


Seven Narratives of Inner Territory Development among political actors

The following narratives, excerpted from each of the seven who work with their assessment of action logic, show it is possible to imagine connections between self-transformation and transformation of the group and the wider community. Each person also summarized what was most important in their developmental journey. Captured in these following short phrases each sent a message about the heart of the work to create new political culture. The message was most immediately to the new government as a new election is about to happen.  But it is also, we hope, for other political actors who seek to understand what is required of individuals within new political culture.  

What is needed for co-creating new political culture is:

  • Overcoming dichotomous thinking and taking care of individuals involved;
  • Willingness to share, love;
  • Commitment and continuity;
  • Following on and opening more;
  • Share emotions; listen to learnings;
  • Authentic commitment, courage.

The narratives of the seven politicians and policy makers

These statements are fleshed out in the narratives each provided to document their developmental journey toward new political culture:

“Now I think of my development path and the next step, I especially feel the need for to support others. That is, I would like to help others develop their transformation skills. I see two ways. One is to do an exercise with two or three people who are starting their journey. The other, in collaboration with a researcher or someone else interested in the subject, could be to write about my lessons learnt. It would be very gratifying if one or a few people in the deliberation group, working with me, would become aware that they have transformative abilities and that it is very good to develop them. If I were to meet my developmental edge goal, all those involved would also have more ambitious goals. This would be a good result for the team, all of us! If I took that step and the team raised their level of ambition, this would help us to regain awareness of long-term collective vision. As an innovative community, a key question for all of us now is how do we want to face the global challenges facing the planet?”


“I need to develop self-awareness to make my voice more effective in the group. To achieve this  I need the feedback of the group. I pecerive today that the larger group cannot receive the contribution that I can make from my action logic, because my voice lacks legitimacy in the group. A step in my development would be to bring more awareness in interactions.  In doing so I would be helping to give legitimacy to the voice of those who do not have a hierarchy in the group, and this would make the group more authentic. A small gesture that is true can cause a great transformation. If we can get this group to be more authentic, if we really believe in collaborative governance, this can have a big impact. We are demoralized as a society and this group based can help overcome this demoralization.”

“My lessons learned working with this logic in the deliberation process are shown in different ways. There are tangible results (the knowledge we have co-created, the materials we have created, …) on the one hand. And on the other hand, I also recognize many intangibles (emotions, tensions, relationships, …). My next step would be to […] stop and consciously seek feedback from others. This would help the team to be bolder. If this group were more consciously transformative and bolder, there would be a recognition of learnings about complex processes such as collaborative governance in practice. We would have a process that has a path, that incorporates diversity and that can show what the internal transformation has been like. These learnings, if done honestly, can be a tool of transformation for others.”

“The exercise has helped me see that since the launch of the Think Tank, other people’s views have changed my own. I will try to make my own contributions, but above all to listen, reflect and accept those of others, seeing how they can change me. Consciously practicing permeability can affect the readiness of everyone in the team, which would strengthen the team, making it more productive and innovative. That is, if we are all ready to listen to the ideas of others and let them influence us, the team will be strengthened and more robust. This would strengthen the ecosystem, making it more productive and innovative. This can be done in spaces like the joint session we did in October. Others expect our contributions. The link is not so tight now, but if we open channels of continuous and face-to-face communication, beyond documents and books, it can be achieved. We should open a channel and have 2 or 3 face-to-face meetings with them a year to strengthen a community of practice.”

“To take a step in my development process, I would like to put myself in other people’s shoes more than I do today. That is, empathize more. There are people in the group who have different types of knowledge. If I could increase that level of empathy all people with different types of knowledge would feel more comfortable when it comes to their contribution.”

“In the spaces where I have worked in recent years, I have had responsibilities within the formal hierarchy and this hierarchy has had an impact on the dialogues I have had with others. Sometimes, even in the absence of hierarchy, my convictions lead me to express my ideas strongly. I have defined what needed to be done from that position. I think others saw me and interpreted what I did from that perspective too. A next step in my path may be to change that, to give and receive input with less influence from the hierarchy, to learn more from it, and to incorporate other people’s input into my decisions in a different way. If I took the previous step, it would affect the team. The work done together would be more shared, with a higher level of co-creation. If we were to take that step as a group, with a higher level of co-creation, I don’t know exactly what the effect would be on the ecosystem, but I think it would have a positive effect.”

“Doing this exercise has given me the freedom to start from “Me” within this group, and then think about the group. Sometimes I feel the urge to use my voice, however, I think that not doing it also gives me a safe place/protection, and I hide there. A next step in my development is to take on roles that require me to use my voice. If I took that step, somehow the group would gain a “process expert” and lose a facilitator. If I could cultivate my own voice to deal with epistemology, trust, shared vision, or conflict, perhaps I would help the group become more aware of, articulate, and share the work it has done.”


How versus what: One year in update, another year of polycrisis around us


As governance around the globe seeks to renew itself, global (and local) problems proliferate. Democracies that are healthy are seeking to be inclusive of more people while deepening the engagement of those already involved. New political ideas are expressed in new platforms (usually around election time).  Less often new parties are created.

The Basque experiment seems to walk a middle path. It’s seeking both to renew itself from within, while opening to new voices (young people) and new horizons (the desire to have the experience of more connection with everyday politics). The focus is on working directly to transform political culture itself through aiming to have a positive impact in citizens’ lives.


This work has precedence. Personal and collective development has been successful in the Nordic world as it moved to embrace the industrial era at a time of great poverty. Today the region is one of the most prosperous and peaceful in th world. The secret of development, with its action research orientation,is  described by Lene Andersen and Tomas Björkman’s Nordic Secret. In the meantime the pressures of climate change alongside millions of refugees on the move around the globe calls for capacity to deal with ever more complexity. We need deeper-wider-longer horizons as political theorist Elke Fein puts it. We need new government forms that can cultivate these horizons and move to action. We therefore ask whether our Basque experiment can illustrate a new strategy for other territories too. We hope so.


Key for this work to proliferate is to invite a next set of stakeholders into a process that supports them in feeling part of a community of inquiry and practice for holding both the values of collaboration and democracy alongside their own personal development. Each comes to know their personal signature in using power and seeking collaboration. Each needs space – and facilitation – in meeting people who speak from their own experience about current needs and future visions. In this way a small group can develop innovations powered by authentic commitment that engages emotional, subjective energy to develop.

New political culture won’t simply happen on its own. Such learning requires cultivation of a brave space, that is a space in which learning with others allows the possibility for making some mistakes. Moreover, it’s a safe enough space that people stretch together. However modern political environments are often stamped by competition and shortsightedness. They have, after all, been predominantly masculine spaces, that is spaces in which feminine values – though sometimes lauded remain a punishing boys club.  In the recent resignations of popular women Prime Ministers, e.g., Jacinta Adern of New Zealand and Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland, we see stark contrast with examples of male executives – e.g., Donald Trump, Boris Johnson – who have clung to power.  While both women demonstrated the ambition to reach the summit of national politics, they also demonstrate a balanced approach to leadership that many of their male counterparts do not. They also have not hid their vulnerability to the harsh trolling that women in public life experience. This issue of gender matters.

Gender – and gendered feelings – matter!

On the last day of meetings on the topic of new political culture, there was a public workshop on emotions in politics convened in the in the regional government hall in San Sebastian-Donostia. Policy stakeholders, politicians and interested citizens were invited to listen to three presentations. One from qualitative research done with Spanish students involved in conventional versus protest politics. The key insight was that positive emotions seem to galvanize students more constructive responses to politics.

Hilary Bradbury presented on developmental friendship as a practice, and how it’s possible also in politics.  Drawing from constructivist theory developmental friendship she described stages of practice in which those involved are integrating emotions and power that in time moves from being unilateral to allowing mutuality in caring for self and others, in service of our wide communities.

Finally, ex-mayor of Rentaria, Julen Mendoza, spoke more personally. He shared about his own experience of anxiety/panic attacks that made his work difficult. He then saw how the political arena does not welcome vulnerability. He reflected that men in politics have been trained to deny their own and others vulnerability. This has resulted in being oppositional towards the feelings of  caring.  These feelings are closely associated with the relational ways of being and working that we associate with women. We also associate them with being weak. He made it clear that any new political culture therefore requires us to notice how men and women have been brainwashed.

A new balance

It is time for a new balance between masculine and feminine in the political arena. It is time for more positive emotions. It is time to integrate power with love.

In the words of Martin Luther King,

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

In the words of organizational ARTist of the early 20th Century, Mary Parker Follett,

“Genuine power can only be grown … genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe, coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul .”

We look forward to this experiment continuing in the Basque region with a new set of political actors. We look forward to its also proliferating to a new region of the world!