Consensus decision making
Consensus decision-making is a decision process that not only seeks the agreement of a majority of participants, but also to resolve or mitigate the objections of the minority to achieve the most agreeable decision. Consensus is usually defined as meaning: a) general agreement, and b) the process of getting to such agreement. Consensus decision-making is thus concerned primarily with that process.
The method is intended to deemphasize the role of factions or parties and promote the expression of individual voices. The method also increases the likelihood of unforeseen or creative solutions by juxtaposing dissimilar ideas. Because it seeks to minimize objection, it is popular with voluntary organizations, wherein decisions are more likely to be carried out when they are most widely approved. Consensus methods are desirable when enforcement of the decision is unfeasible, such that every participant will be required to act on the decision independently.
Minority views must be considered to a greater degree than in circumstances where a majority can take the action and enforce the decision without any further consultation with the minority voters. It is often thought that consensus can require more time and effort to achieve. Thus some groups may reserve consensus decision methods for particularly complex, risky or important decisions. However, there are many examples of groups who employ consensus decision-making in ways that enable them to both consider minority views and make decisions in a timely and efficient manner. These will be outlined in the section below on The promise of consensus decision-making.
Rather than simply list known alternatives, debate for a short time, vote, and then accept or reject by some percentage of majority (say 50% plus one, or 2/3), a consensus decision-making process involves identifying and addressing concerns, generating new alternatives, combining elements of multiple alternatives and checking that people understand a proposal or an argument.
This empowers minorities, those with objections that are hard to state quickly, and those who are less skilled in debate. Therefore, consensus decision-making can be seen as a form of grassroots democracy.
Egalitarian groups that seek to reduce the amount of power delegated to leaders, chairpersons or agenda setters often use consensus methods. Such methods can reduce the amount of harm or loss imposed on minorities (or individuals) by a majority. Consensus methods may be appropriate when personal (or emotional) risk to members is high, trust is low, and time is available for a prolonged discussion. Consensus may be used to remedy patterns of decision-making based on habit, subservience or carelessness.
Like any group decision-making, consensus decision-making can disempower those not present in the debating forum, as they cannot expect to have input on the new measures that are proposed (whereas they might have had the opportunity for input into the known alternatives prior to the debate). Accordingly, most systems of consensus decision-making place a premium on participation.
Three key issues tend to define a particular type of consensus decision-making:
- degree of agreement or unanimity required;
- timing of presentation including division of time among urgent versus important matters;
- follow-up to action including the monitoring that arises from dissent, and from claims of majority proponents whose preferred course of action is being taken over minority objections.
There is also the question of facilitation or process leadership, which is handled separately at the end of this article.
If consensus is not unanimous, who must agree?
A healthy consensus decision-making process usually encourages and outs dissent early, maximizing the chance of accommodating the views of all minorities. It also often assigns a role to the dissenter, e.g. the Vatican assigns the role of Devil's Advocate to a specific priest who argues against beatification of a saint, to ensure the case 'against' remains well represented. After the decision, the dissenting minority may have some role to play in monitoring the decision. In the Supreme Court of the United States, both the majority opinion and minority opinion are equally well documented, as the legal grounds for agreeing with either may exist in some court in future.
Many groups consider unanimous decisions a sign of agreement, solidarity, and unity. However, there is evidence that unanimous decisions may be a sign of coercion, fear, undue persuasive power or eloquence, inability to comprehend alternatives, or plain impatience with the process of debate. When there are concerns about these aspects of unanimity, various alternatives can be pursued. These include the following:
- Unanimity minus one (or U-1), requires all delegates but one to support the decision. The individual dissenter cannot block the decision although they may be able to prolong debate (e.g. via a Filibuster_(legislative_tactic)). The dissenter may be the ongoing monitor of the implications of the decision, and their opinion of the outcome of the decision may be solicited at some future time. Betting markets in particular rely on the input of such lone dissenters. A lone bettor against the odds profits when his or her prediction of the outcomes proves to be better than that of the majority. This disciplines the market's odds.
- Unanimity minus two (or U-2), does not permit two individual delegates to block a decision, but tends to curtail debate with a lone dissenter more quickly. Dissenting pairs can present alternate views of what is wrong with the decision under consideration. By focusing on a pair of dissenters, and allocating less time to lone wolves or 'consensus thugs', a U-2 system tends to form stronger bonds among those who find themselves "alone on an island" with each other. Pairs of delegates can be empowered to find the common ground that will enable them to convince a third, decision-blocking, voter to join them. If the pair are unable to convince a third party to join them within a set time, their arguments are deemed to be unconvincing, immature or self-interested. If two people dissent against some common measure, it is more likely that the discussion between them can be extended to third parties easily, since it is already verbalized and illustrated. Western European court systems recognize this by strongly encouraging criminal defendants or civil plaintiffs to get an attorney's aid, so that their case can be fully heard out long before the decision.
- Unanimity minus three, (or U-3), and other such systems recognize the ability of three or more delegates to actively block a decision. However, there is controversy over whether a small group of dissenters, (e.g., militants or terrorists), is morally different than a large minority, (e.g., an opposition party with support of double-digit percentages of the population). Accordingly U-3 and lesser degrees of unanimity are usually lumped in with statistical measures of agreement, such as "80%, mean plus one sigma, two-thirds majority, 50% plus one" levels of agreement. Such measures do not fit within the definition of consensus given at the beginning of this article.
The quality of alternatives considered is, all else being equal, proportional to the amount of time spent gathering and comparing and combining them. The term deliberative democracy reflects the deliberation that underlies all good consensus decision-making. Ralph Nader and others have advocated deliberative measures to extend the time for "sober second thought."
A fictional example of deliberative democracy is the Entmoot from J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Lord of the Rings. The Ents, who are large ancient living intelligent trees, spend days discussing the issue of whether to go to war, in their verbose and many-syllabled language. This is an example of a decision for which the stakes were high, the individual risk also high, and coercive force difficult or lacking; therefore suited to consensus methods.
Timely decisions are important. In some cases, a wrong decision taken in time can be better than a good decision taken later. Key responsibilities of facilitators of any decision making process, but particularly in consensus decision-making, include:
- Establishing measures to place items on the agenda, or deny them time on the agenda.
- Setting deadlines for changes to the agenda (e.g. can the agenda itself be changed during the meeting?).
- Agenda forming and presentation of issues at the right time, when there is sufficient time for their debate.
- Ensuring that less urgent issues are excluded from the debate, but dealt at another time.
To achieve a balance between urgency and importance, it is common to reserve enough time for matters that are not urgent, but are nevertheless important, (for e.g., the decision process itself, which takes care to maintain). Consensus decision processes tend to accelerate as rising trust over the course of the meeting, combined with fatigue, increase individual tolerance and the cost of dissent. Placing difficult agenda items first tends to speed a meeting, with the risk that important, but less complex decisions will not be achieved before adjournment.
Decisions about when to split up into working groups, how to handle agendas, how to deal with changes to agendas or working groups from the floor, etc., are all about the allocation of the group's time to urgent versus important matters. No consensus decision process can survive without close attention to these procedural matters. Attention must also be given to dealing with issues of safety, fairness, and closure that arise from their application in practice.
Action, monitoring and follow-up
Action is the point of decision; without action, the decision is just talk. Military leaders from Alexander the Great to the present have emphasized that orders simply do not get carried out unless they are personally followed up by the commander. The same applies to group decisions, perhaps even more so.
Obviously, the opposing minority is not going to do a good job ensuring that a measure is carried out, although they can ensure that problems that arise from it are well-documented, and that inconveniences of its implementation are contained. However, they can also take steps to ensure that the inconvenience of implementation is maximized, so as to make the point that the measure was impractical and ill-advised from the beginning. A major issue in consensus decisions is whose view of the actual outcome to trust, and who to permit time to present their view.
Consensus decisions are especially vulnerable to sabotage of all kinds, so the assignment of action roles, monitoring (from the original majority and minority opinion to some future time when the results of both sets of predictions can be debated), and other followup (e.g. assessing support of the public for a party after it has taken and publicized a particular measure), is a key responsibility of consensus decision leaders.
Aside from these abstract factors, one must consider the practical matter of the facilitation process. A hierarchical point of view is that leadership or management of the process (as opposed to leadership of a faction or party) is required.
The role of a facilitator in a consensus decision-making process can be much more difficult than that of a simple-majority-party leader if group members distrust each other or unconsciously use manipulative techniques. For a proponent of any given alternative, reducing objections to their plan by eliciting information or preferences from proponents of other alternatives is difficult if people distrust each other; maniuplative opponents will find it advantageous to misrepresent their concerns or refuse to negotiate. For these reasons, consensus processes usually require trust among participants and skilled, patient facilitators able to synthesise the state of a proposal.
An argument against consensus decision is that few motivated facilitators are willing to assign themselves a role guiding processes rather than pursuing and promoting specific measures empowering themselves. As Dee Hock described his role at Visa International, an organisation focussed on profit-making, it was something that anyone could do, but almost no one learnt to do well, and which was largely thankless. Similar sentiments have been echoed by many "leaders" of organizations committed to peace, ecology, and social justice, which tend to have diffuse benefits, and concentrated costs (the opposite of the factors leading to a tragedy of the commons, a key issue in political economy).
However, leaderless organisations committed to peace, ecology, and social justice, where trust builds up and where different participants are encouraged to learn facilitation skills, find that consensus decision making is a practical and powerful tool. An example of a prominent organization that uses consensus decision making is the Green Party.
Some organizations have abandoned consensus decision-making for simple majority, judging that the difficulty of building a process to formally weigh all of these factors is not worth it, and that these factors can be handled better informally (i.e. in offline discussions before and after debate) than through the process of consensus itself, at the risk of creating a de facto clique that makes the real decisions.
Before considering any consensus decision-making process, a group would be wise to consider the feasibility of building up sufficient trust among participants and the willingness of participants to learn facilitation skills, and whether or not these are compatible with the operational structure of the organisation. For example, an organisation with a President who hierarchically controls operations could only be compatible with consensus decision-making if the President sincerely respected the consensus decision-making process.
It would also be intrinsically difficult for a competitive organisation to use consensus decision-making, since consensus is a cooperative process, not a competitive process.
There are a number of criticisms of consensus decision-making. One is that it can lead to a situation where a relatively small number of people, (a faction), can block action that is desired by the majority (see Minoritarianism). Another is that there may be decisions in which polarization occurs and no consensus can be reached. In such cases a group or organization may become deadlocked. Charismatic leaders may persuade group members to go along with them, and, if allowed to continue, may thus, in time, remove the volition of individual group members. Consensus decision-making has also been criticized in that it allows responsiblity for a decision to be spread among group members, making no one person accountable for the consequences of a decision. Consensus decision-making may also be slow.
Consensus decision-making can also lead to some pathological group dynamics. For example, people may be discouraged from expressing dissenting views out of concern that this would break consensus. This can lead to a situation known as groupthink in which each person in the group believes a strategy to be flawed, but no one is willing to express this idea because they are under the mistaken impression that everyone else in the groups supports the strategy.
The promise of consensus decision-making
There has been considerable development in consensus decision-making in recent years. For example Quaker-based consensus has been applied to a variety of settings. Also, various intentional communities have developed processes that are both inclusive and effective. Two such approaches to consensus decision-making are outlined below:
The model used by the Quakers is effective because it puts in place a simple structure that moves a group towards consensus. The Quaker model works well when employed in secular settings because it gives everyone a chance to speak while limiting potential disruptors (e.g., people who want unlimited airtime, or who have a particular axe to grind).
The following aspects of the Quaker model can be effectively applied in any consensus decision-making process:
- Multiple concerns and information are shared until the sense of the group is clear.
- Discussion involves active listening and sharing of information.
- Norms limit number of times one asks to speak to ensure that each speaker is fully heard.
- Ideas and solutions belong to the group; no names are recorded.
- Differences are resolved by discussion. The facilitator identifies areas of agreement and names disagreements to push discussion deeper.
- The facilitator articulates the sense of the discussion, asks if there are other concerns, and proposes a minute of the decision.
- The group as a whole is responsible for the decision, and the decision belongs to the group.
- The facilitator can discern if one who is not uniting with the decision is acting without concern for the group or in selfish interest.
- Dissenters' perspectives are embraced.
A belief in common humanity and the ability to decide together are key components of Quaker-based consensus. The goal is unity, not unanimity. Ensuring that group members speak only once until others are heard encourages a diversity of thought. The facilitator serves the group rather than acting as person-in charge. By articulating the emerging consensus, members can be clear on the decision, and, as their views have been taken into account, will be likely to support it (see External links, below for more information and materials related to Quaker-based consensus).
Use of colored cards
Some intentional communities have also used consensus decision-making with good results. In many cases, with cohousing groups, business must be transacted within time constraints. Thus efficiency is important. If the group genuinely wants to make decisions by consensus, an effective method is needed. An open discussion needs to be animated by a process that moves towards a timely, and sound, decision that is supported by all. Some ingenious techniques have been developed whereby this can be achieved. One such method involves the use of color cards (green, yellow, red).
In some groups, the cards are used in two ways; one for discussion and another for decisions:
A group member who wishes to speak, holds up a card:
- A green card means "I have something to say" or "I have a question." When several group members hold up a green card, they are noted and placed in a "stack" of people waiting to speak. Each person speaks in turn, in a way that is similar to Quaker-based consensus.
- A yellow card means "I can clarify" or "I need clarification (on what was just said)."
- The red card is the process card. A red card, when raised, asks members to look at the process. For example, an individual who displays a red card might say: "Are we getting off track, here?" or "What is our objective in doing this?" or even "How about we take a break?" It gives all members an equal chance to be facilitator.
Following discussion, the facilitator articulates the proposal and calls for a show of cards:
- The green card means: "I agree."
- The yellow card means: "I can live with it."
- The red card means: "I don't agree, but am willing to work to find a better way, taking into account what has been said by all group members." Thus holding up a red card does not block progress, it signifies that the person who displayed it will work with others on the matter in question and bring it back to a subsequent meeting. This tends to ensure that red cards are not used lightly.
If groups agree to apply methods such as these, and all group members are willing to work at it, consensus decision-making can be both effective in meeting a group's goals and time-efficient.
- Dee Hock, "The Chaordic Principle"
- The Collective Book
- Consensus as a communication method, not a principle
- Consensus Decision Making (Seeds for Change)
- Consensus method to overcome male dominance
- Formal Consensus - General (Food Not Bombs)
- Formal Consensus - Specific Methods (FNB)
- Formal Consensus - PDF Format
- Making Sense of Consensus - ACTivist Magazine
- Manual for Meetings in the Uniting Church in Australia (pdf 235k)
- Starhawk, also "Consensus is not Unanimity"
- Materials on Consensus - Fordham College
- Comparison of Robert's Rules of Order and Quaker-based Consensus