Consensus: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

Over at Organizing Change, Drew Serres is writing about the problems of consensus and how to fix them. It’s good stuff and I’d urge you to read it and join the conversation. He shares some of the problems of contemporary consensus and offers five thoughts on dealing with those problems.

Critiques of contemporary consensus are not new. Movements such as Occupy lead to both a resurgence of consensus decision-making and a new flurry of writing on the weakness and naivety of consensus as a model.

Alternative (competing?) models of consent-based decision-making such as sociocracy and holacracy have emerged specifically to deal with some of the perceived flaws in consensus. At this year’s UK Cohousing Network’s gathering one of the main attractions was renowned US co-operator Diana Leafe Christian speaking on sociocracy as an alternative to consensus decision-making for cohousers.

Personally I’m less sure consensus is as broken as you’d think from the energy that goes into critiquing and replacing it. There’s very little that other systems do that can’t happen just as effectively in a living consensus process. I think there are 2 fundamental problems:

1. The flexibility and adaptability of consensus is poorly understood. Time and again I hear folk talking about the clumsiness of bringing all decisions to the full group for agreement, for example. Time and again I wonder what decision-making process they’re using. Somewhere along the lines we’ve adopted a series of unquestioned ‘rules’ of how consensus must be done, and these rules don’t work for most groups. In recent years mass movements such as Camp for Climate Action  and Occupy may have aggravated these, with the best of intentions, confusing democracy with everyone needing to be present for every decision. There are plenty of other examples we could explore. Rest assured consensus can do whatever you can imagine it can do (as long as that’s referenced to those central values of participation, inclusion, co-operation, empathy and compassion). Consensus can:

  • allow individuals or small groups to follow their own path alongside the path of the wider group
  • mandate working groups to make decisions about their own areas of work
  • mandate working groups to make decisions, accountably, for the whole group
  • make decisions in short periods of time, if that’s all the time that can be given to a decision
  • embrace diversity and conflict and come out stronger
  • break traditions (such as hearing from speakers in the order they indicate they wish to speak) to support the margins of the group to be heard

and so much more…

2. We’re all human. I don’t see consensus as a flawed process. I see it as a living process undertaken by flawed human beings. If we bring the ideals of competition, getting our own way and so on the the process then it will struggle. So isn’t that the flaw in consensus then? It requires us to be perfect co-operators before it will work… I don’t think so. I think consensus supports us to be better co-operators. It helps create a space in which we can risk letting go of our own agenda, of ego, of competition. And when we do that, collectively, it rapidly rewards us with the benefits of co-operation – empowerment, a sense of the rightness of our collective actions. Problem is that most of us are force-fed competition until we start espousing it ourselves and it’s a tenacious ‘value’. So consensus will take us a while to achieve, but it’ll support every step of the way if we let it. The big question is ‘do we let it?’. Do we keep competing because that feeds our ego whilst blaming consensus for our failure to co-operate?

I agree with the critiques of consensus decision-making. What we call consensus at the moment largely isn’t working. I disagree that that discredits consensus as a process; a set of values; an ideal; a model that can deliver just and co-operative decisions, and support the growth of just and co-operative groups and societies.

Matthew

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