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Consensus

This week's social reporter theme is People and Connections. Others have written beautifully about their colleagues and friends and what it feels like to be part of a group. I'm coming at it from a different angle, focusing on consensus decision making.

There's something a bit childish about the traditional adversarial style of making decisions. You know, the idea that there's more of us than you so we get to win. I say childish because it's a kind of badly thought through technique that works, in that there's an outcome, but which resorts to a kind of bullying brute force to get there. Of course it doesn't really work. A system that has built-in winners and losers has built in its own demise. The losers have never bought-in to the idea, they've had it imposed on them, and now they'll never want to agree with it. The psychology doesn't work, the process is self-defeating. It's weird how we've got this process of decision making right at the heart of our society.

But look at consensus decision making. Now there's a grown up way to get things done. I've been reading a little about it recently on the wonderful Seeds for Change website. I love the underlying principle that so long as the group has a shared aim and that there's respect between us, we can come up with a solution that takes on board the diversity of opinions that exist. The process encourages us to have a mature acceptance of what is – that people have different points of view, that people do not have different ideas without reason. Instead of just steam rollering over others by out-voting them, consensus encourages us to actively listen to their point of view and the proposal (the proposed solution you're working towards) will get modified to take what they've said into account.

Although consensus can take longer than voting, it's much more powerful. It means that everyone has buy-in. It also forces us to be more creative in coming up with more sophisticated solutions. Because the underlying principle is that there's a shared aim, people who don't really agree with the idea but don't want to stop the group moving forward can express their reservation or not get involved with the implementation of the proposal. They can “stand aside” and let the proposal pass. The point is, they're explicitly saying that in spite of their concerns, they support the group moving forwards. Resentment is being built out. Win. Win. If it comes to it, people always have the right to block a proposal if they fundamentally cannot allow it to happen.

I don't have that much experience of consensus decision making but I've seen enough to have confidence in it. I saw it happening at climate camp on Blackheath with at least 50 people, at one of their morning meetings. The proposal was something to do with whether they should let a certain group of people sell non-vegan beer in the camp. Here were some of the views:

  • Of course the beer should be vegan since all our food is and that's always been our position.
  • This is just vegan fascism. We shouldn't be dictating what people eat or drink.
  • Why are we letting people drink alcohol in camp? It's disruptive and alcohol does lots of damage in society.
  • Why are we letting people make money in camp? We're trying to come up with an alternative economic model here.

After discussing this some more, the proposal was modified and the facilitator “tested for consensus” by asking if there were any blocks and then stand asides. There were still too many stand asides, so the proposal was modified again and this time there was enough of a consensus to accept the proposal. The facilitation was skilful and I was truly impressed.

If, as a society, we're looking for a new way of doing things, a way to avoid recreating the process that got us into this mess, consensus should definitely be part of our kit. At the moment, decisions that affect our lives are made so remotely they are almost meaningless. It's easy for decision makers to exploit / pollute other people when the impact isn't apparent. And we've kind of allowed this to happen, due to, I don't know, a collective inertia? Apathy? We don't feel responsible for decisions that are made, because, we aren't. And then we end up doing things as a society that we know we wouldn't personally do. But decision making IS going to become more localised, either officially (e.g. the new Localism Act) or unofficially (e.g. your community's improvised response to some kind of shock). Let's start modelling and utilising this process now so that we can take more active responsibility for our decisions. Let's make decisions that are truly 'ours' and be able to look our neighbours in the eye afterwards. Consensus allows us to be truly adult, to be the best that we can be, considering other people's point of view, getting past our egos, being 'right'. As the lyrics to Pow Pow by Lcd Soundsystem go “From this position / I can see both of them / From this position / I totally get how the decision was reached”. And in the hugely interesting film, “The People Speak”, Pink says, “If you don't stand for anything, you'll fall for anything.” We need to stand for consensus because the spoilt brat fist of traditional voting doesn't serve us. We've simply grown out of it.

Comments

Ben Brangwyn's picture

Very timely post. Just want

Very timely post.

Just want to do some nuancing on the term "consensus". It seems quite confusingly to cover subtly different forms of decision-making and I think it's very important to make the distinction between: 

  • "consensus" typically meaning that EVERYONE SUPPORTS a proposal, it's very time-consuming and requires huge commitment to the concept. Because of the time element, it often causes people to "drift away"
  • "consent" meaning that NO ONE IS BLOCKING the proposal with a "paramount and reasoned objection". It's faster, and demonstrates collaborative compromise. "Paramount and reasoned" are excellent criteria, and quite difficult in practice

Sounds like "consent" was what was operating in the camp, and that's why it worked quickly. If it had been consensus, then it may have taken a lot longer, modifying the proposal till everyone supported it.

Your objections to confrontational decision-making can be equally applied to the extraordinary interaction that dominates our decision-making institutions - the debate.

 

Josiah Meldrum's picture

 I wonder how this might work

 I wonder how this might work in a small community - perhaps like my own - where there are 3 or 4 thousand people.

How about in this soon to be much more familiar situation:

------------

Supermarket X wants to open a new superstore on the edge of town: they leaflet every household telling them about the 150 jobs they're about to create, how if they build a store their money will be spent in the community, how they engage with local good causes, how they'll attract shoppers to town and revitalise the high street, bring choice and how everything will be really, really cheap.... (and by extension that this is the market doing things well - helping those on low incomes). It's glossy. There is a pre-paid reply card that allows you to say 'yes please' to Supermarket X.

This is the adversarial system gearing up for action. Supermarket X has made its glossy pitch and it looks good and sounds exciting.

But quite a few people in town know things aren't quite that straightforward. They know why the stuff Supermarket X sells is so cheap, how little of their turnover is recirculated locally, how profits are whisked to tax havens before HMRC gets a look in, how rather than largess legislation ensures 106 money is spent locally, how high streets whither, local producers struggle, how rather than helping those on low incomes Supermarket X is helping to perpetuate their situation.

And so they produce a leaflet. It isn't quite so glossy, they can't afford the reply card - and actually it's a bit depressing and full of numbers that support its case.

Two sides have emerged. The town is polarised. This is how things seem to be.

A local referendum is called under the Localism Act. It's going to be quite costly. A lot of people are cross about that and don't feel they want to engage anymore.

There is a public meeting (there have already been lots of private meetings). A few hundred of the town's most vocal people turn up. They all want to be heard - it gets messy and personal. Some are very pro, some are very anti: there is shared ground - both groups have the good of the town and the townspeople at heart - but on this specific issue the gap is such that no compromise or modification of Supermarket X's proposal will work and the opponents of Supermarket X can give no ground.

The referendum happens and someone wins and someone loses. (and most people don't care)

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Clearly, and as you say Jo, this is an awful way of doing things - destructive, painful and probably not producing the best outcome.

I find the idea of decisions made by consent really attractive - and I've seen it work in smaller groups. But can it be scaled up? Can it be worked into existing systems - because I think it will probably have to be. It'd be great to hear some thoughts from those that have used this approach on a bigger scale.

 

Jo Homan's picture

thanks for the clarification

Ben. It is confusing since Seeds For Change describes the process I described as 'consensus', and I hear people at Occupy describing their process as 'consensus', whereas you'd call it 'consent'. In general usage, people often use the word 'consensus' to mean that the general feeling is for an idea. I imagine there's a historical reason for this muddiness.

Josiah, I don't have experience of this process, whatever it's called, being used on a huge scale. But I don't see why it shouldn't work. I guess if a community is working out its response to supermarket X, you'd want to avoid arriving at the polarised debate you've described. The ideal would be that some of the people at the meeting were already experienced at this process; I don't think it would be a good place to try it out for the first time! There's probably a critical mass of consensus/consent savvy people required to prevent people regressing into combatitive debate. I'm suggesting that we, as transitioners, should be doing the groundwork now. I've toyed with the idea of us camping in Finsbury Park, copying the Climate Camp model. In the first year, the idea would be that transitioners themselves would become familiar with the process. And then in subsequent year I would imagine more effort at outreach so that more locals can get a taste. Massive project though. Perhaps we could simply host debates about local issues?

Also, as Mike says, the pre-meeting discussion and the big conversation at the start of the meeting, BEFORE a proposal is first created would be key. People should try and come into the discussion with a genuine "what should we do?" in their minds rather than an existing outcome. A skilled facilitator would, I imagine, be able to bounce back responsibility to people to reach some kind acceptable response (to supermarket X's plans) which drew on the common ground, as you say, " the good of the town and the townspeople".

Mike Grenville's picture

 This new book looks like a

 This new book looks like a useful resource (though i havn't read it yet) 
The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups by Starhawk. A comprehensive guide for groups seeking to organize with shared power and bottom-up leadership to foster vision, trust, accountability and responsibility. Drawing on four decades of experience, Starhawk shows how collaborative groups can generate the cooperation, efficacy and commitment critical to success. Her extensive exploration of group process is woven together with the story of RootBound—a fictional ecovillage mired in conflict— and rounded out with a series of real-life case studies. The included exercises and facilitator’s toolbox show how to establish the necessary structures, ground rules and healthy norms. The Empowerment Manual is required reading for anyone who wants to help their group avoid disagreement and disillusionment and become a wellspring of creativity and innovation.
http://www.starhawk.org/writings/empowerment_manual.html

Mark Watson's picture

about that beer

What did happen about that beer in the end? Just out of curiosity, Jo. 

Jo Homan's picture

hmm, it was a while ago

I think they ended up allowing people to sell beer, someone was going to do research on the feasibility of getting hold of vegan beer and they were going to address people's concerns about the anti-social late night drinking. (The precedent the group had set for only serving vegan food had become an underlying principle, so it couldn't be undone.) So the proposal created quite a lot of work for some people, but it actively addressed most of their concerns.

Ann Owen's picture

Start with the kids

Just imagine hearing Cameron and Milibant engage in respectful discourse, discussing the best way to bring prosperity to the nation, willing to listen to each others points and agreeing that that they reach some form of consensus or consent. Then listen to the jeering and sneering that is the daily fare in the house of commons. Intelligent, adult decision making from our "leaders"? Not in my lifetime, I fear, but we can make a start with our children...They'll be grown-ups sometime and by then, hopefully not accepting of the kind of infantile behaviour we take as "normal" from our politicians.

mike boulton's picture

Consensus

Consensus is more dificult than simple voting and I have seen folk getting very worked up about it.  On one occasion people at a meeting refusing to take a vote to test the groups feeling because concensus not majority was the aim.  Of course consensual decision making does not mean an end to voting just that the vote has a different puropose and meaning.

On that occasion the meeting had actually reached unanimity but those present acclaimed consensus as if that was the best result.  Unanimity is far better. Consensus is after all no more than the worst result that all present can accept.

Consensus is more difficlt to achive where more people are involved but the answer must be to work on it address the issues and try to find common ground.  Often the way a proposal is set out blocks agreement. usually the pre-conceptions are the problem as in politics where if one party proposes something the other must reject it.

When making a proposal these problems should be born in mind the value of pre-meeting preparation and discussion used to smooth the way to a less polarised debate.

Mike Boulton

Josiah Meldrum's picture

 Perhaps we could simply

 (This is a reply to Jo's reply to me further up the thread... but it's popped up in the wrong place)

Perhaps we could simply host debates about local issues?

I think that's a very interesting idea - a lot of the ideas being discussed by Occupy can seem quite abstract if you haven't already given them some thought, and clearly using the process in a group that fundamentally shares a lot of common ground - whether an intentional community, climate camp or a transition initiative probably isn't a useful test for its wider use. 

Getting another 'type' of group, perhaps with very different objectives - a town or parish council or a sports club or art society for example - to experiment with it would be interesting too.

Ben Brangwyn's picture

Perhaps we could simply host

Perhaps we could simply host debates about local issues?

Debates are conceptually (and in practice) based on the confrontational approaches that consensus is trying to overcome. This would be like the Combatants for Peace in Palestine having a decision-making process that involved a rifle shooting competition. It's kind of a massive backward step.

Josiah Meldrum's picture

Hi Ben, I don't think, in

Hi Ben,

I don't think, in fact I'm convinced - it's clear from her post - that Jo meant 'debate' in the conventionally understood sense. Discussion would have perhaps been a better word, but also comes with a fair bit of baggage.

And after all it isn't just how we make a decision but how we come to the point where a decision can be made, this will naturally require the formulation of positions or proposals and in order to do that there will need to be some kind of discussion - a deliberative process of some soort where information is collected, collated, tested and perhaps only then presented to the/a wider (and wider?) group in the form of a proposal. Where it will be presented and discussed again (I would hope).

To be honest I can see no harm and a lot of good in debate, discussion or any other kind of structured argument to test ideas and concepts if it is guided by a clear set of well understood rules. The problem is when the 'argument' becomes the purpose rather than the tool and when the polarisation and win/lose scenarios that those processes inevitably encourage end up becoming the only possible outcome. 

In addition, and returning to my Supermarket X question, aren't there times where it is very hard to see anything other than an adversarial situation? How do we deal with these? 

Josiah

Jo Homan's picture

you're right Josiah

I didn't mean the traditional kind of debate with motions etc.

We have just had supermarket X happening here in Finsbury Park. We could have hosted a debate/conversation/discussion about how our community wanted to respond. This would have covered, I imagine, all the points about the supermarket providing jobs or more choice (though of course the Sainsbury's is offering much less choice and charging much more for the fresh produce than the lovely Turkish supermarket that was there before). If there were enough people there who had had experience of consensus then we could have organised the meeting in that way, but at the very least we would have probably tried to ensure that people were listening respectfully to other people's point of view. I like to think that this would have made us feel empowered. One fantastic thing that our local newsletter woman, Nicolette, has done since the opening of Sainsbury's, was send around the following email:

To mark the opening of a Sainsbury’s on Blackstock Road, here is your print-out-and keep guide to some of our favourite Blackstock Road food shops, with special reference to products they stock that supermarkets don’t. Do not miss out on these local treats, avoid the queues and protect the independents. (I’ll send a second list out if anyone wants to add anything.)

FRESH BAKED NAAN BREAD Sold at 51A Blackstock Rd, corner of Somerfield Rd (opposite Ambler Rd). Good, inexpensive bread made on the premises. Recommended by Carol.

ITALIAN ICE CREAM  Fresh ice cream made daily: Cremeria Vienna 145 Blackstock Rd (corner of Brownswood Road). Recommended by Laura, Lorie, and anyone who has ever tried it. (Also someone who recently emailed listing their favourite flavours and I can’t find the email!  So sorry.  If you resend, I shall circulate.)

GOZLEME a kind of Turkish flatbread calzone, with a cheese and spinach filling, at Leziz, 17 Blackstock Road (Nick) ...

... and it goes on.

As I seem to keep on saying, you get more of what you focus on. I suppose we have to keep our focus on the common ground, the shared intention to do the best for our community.

Rhizome Co-op's picture

Hi folks,   I hope I can

Hi folks,

 

I hope I can offer a few clarifications.

Consensus?

The process that commonly gets called consensus in some circles (such as Climate Camp) is technically known as formal or simple consensus. It's a long way from what gets called consensus in wider society. There are some specific features that Jo mentions, such as the possibility of standing aside from a decision that you're not entirely happy with, and blocking decisions that risk fracturing the core ethos of the group. As Ben figured out, it's about reaching full consent but not full agreement. So if I stand aside, I consent to the decision whilst not agreeing to it. Those features make it a more sophisticated process than the average.

Values or process?

One thing I would like to add is that consensus is a state of mind or a set of values more than a process. It's commonly described as a process (complete with flow charts), but the process without the values of respect, deep listening, empathy and co-operation will eventually let a group down.

Community using consensus?

There is a town called Caspar, in California, that governs itself via consensus. It's also been used by temporary autonomous communities such as Climate Camp, the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle and many more - often involving anything from 500-10,000 people. There are mechanisms known as spokescouncils to help this process along. Christiania, the hippy quarter of Copenhagen, also uses consensus, though first hand reports I've heard imply the process doesn't work as well as it might (maybe some of those values are lacking??)

There's loads more on our blog, including a brief history of consensus. And you've already identified at least 2 other good sources of info - the Seeds website and Starhawk's writings. Tim Hartnett has also written an interesting book on Consensus-oriented decision-making which suggest a consensus based process for groups to use, even when they then make the final decision by methods such as voting.

Jo Homan's picture

Thanks to the person from Rhizome

I love the point that you make about the underlying values of consensus being more important than the process itself. It's like the difference between one teacher memorising a lesson plan (and then getting hung up on the detail) and another teacher understanding the point of their lesson and doing whatever is necessary to get that point across, adapting things according to how the students respond etc. You can imagine which lesson would go best.

Thanks very much for the other pointers. It's obvious there's a huge body of experience to learn from.

Jo Homan's picture

Companies Limited by Guarantee and Consensus

ELL, the community plant nursery and learning project I run, is a company limited by guarantee. We chose that form because it was the cheapest and easiest and because I thought most of our values could be reflected in our articles of association. I've just discovered (thank you Mark Simmonds and your amazing Simply Governance document) that although we may try to opereate using consensus, this could be over-ridden by company law. This law says that decisions can be made by 75% of those at a (quorate) meeting. Stand asides would be treated as a "no" vote. It is, however, possible to "entrench" clauses within a company's governing documents, so that 100% of the votes would be needed to alter them.