Consensus decision-making in crisis

Consensus decision-making is in crisis. I suspect it always has been and possibly always will be simply because it’s a process used by human beings.

Wherever you look groups, coops and networks are struggling with consensus. Moreover they’re often having to adopt or invent mechanisms to deal with a breakdown in the process. And many of those mechanisms are aimed at exclusion – silencing a persistent minority that is seen as blocking the flow of consensus, sometimes forcing them out of the group. That wouldn’t be the stated intention of the group, but it’s often the reality. When this happens consensus becomes a form of majority voting – even if the majority needed is 70%, 80% or 90% rather than 51%.

That this happens is understandable. When groups are deadlocked and there’s a sense that ‘most of us’ want to move forward and that irritating minority is blocking progress it can seem like the only way out. We can justify excluding people, or restricting the rights of the few. We can find fault with their behaviour and merit in our own.

In essence we default to our factory setting, which believes that we should act in the interests of the majority (it’s probably more accurate to say that it believes we should act in the interests of whichever group we are in, and we try hard to ensure that that’s the majority). It’s a factory setting because we exist in a factory – an education system, parenting, government all aimed at turning out predictable and malleable individuals. What’s natural is a different matter. I suspect we’re born capable of a lot more cooperation and collaboration, but I’ll leave that to the neuroscientists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists to decide.

And yet most, if not all, of those using consensus don’t see themselves as part of that norm – the thoughtless consumers, the 9-5ers, the reality TVers etc. etc. If you ask people why they work in a coop, live in a cohousing group, take part in political action groups, work for the benefit of their community, it’s usually an implicit or explicit criticism of the norm. Yet we, the minority, solve our problems with our egalitarian decision-making processes by adopting their mentality – majoritarianism – when the going gets tough.

So what’s the answer? I wish there were a sentence I could type that would shift the future course of egalitarian working, lift the scales off our eyes and solve all our problems. Sorry folks! But it has something to do with the following:

Consensus as values not process.

I feel we need to stop assuming we can collaborate just ‘cos we’re well-intentioned people and do the work to embed a culture of consensus into our own lives and our group lives. If we use consensus as a decision-making process it can only take us so far, and we will hit difficulties. If we adopt consensus as part of our values system, and make it part of the culture of our thinking and our group thinking we may still hit difficulties but at least we’ll have a compass to help determine the right direction for the group. We need to live consensus not just do consensus.

But that’s hard work. Constant introspection. Learning to communicate (with others and ourselves) compassionately and honestly. Learning to read the signs that it’s our ego talking. Learning to do something about it once we’ve read the signs. And doing all of that cheerfully so it’s not all sackcloth and ashes. Who has the time, right? There’s a world to save, a co-operative business to run…… so we do consensus up to a point. And then we revert to factory settings.

Acceptance of our flaws

So let’s accept that we’re flawed individuals that come together to make flawed groups and networks, and that consensus is aspirational. No-one gets it ‘right’ first time. But not getting it ‘right’ doesn’t mean getting it wrong, or that we’ve failed as long as we’ve sincerely tried. After all who lives up to their values all of the time? Let’s practice consensus and accept that we all need more practice. Essential to this is cultivating the ability to laugh together, cry together and learn from our mistakes without defaulting to a culture of blame and judgement.

Honesty about our decision-making processes

If we find the demands of consensus too rigorous for our group, if we realise that we do have an element of pragmatic majoritarianism in our thinking, and that that’s OK with us, then let’s not do consensus. Otherwise we set ourselves on a collision course with conflict between what we state we do and believe and what we actually do and believe.

There are plenty of decision-making systems that have elements of consensus in them without demanding the commitment to collective self-awareness that consensus does demand. There’s sociocracy, holacracy, consensus-oriented decision-making. There are systems such as crowd wise and the soon-to-be renamed dotmocracy. These are all far, far superior to the norm that consensus-types want to move away from.

Consensus is in crisis, and as I said at the start, probably always will be. It’s the age-old crisis of living up to our values not just as individuals but as part of a collective. It’s the crisis that makes life interesting and makes consensus both so infuriating and so compelling.

Matthew

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Crowd Wise brings out the wisdom of the crowd: the case of Transition Town Lewes

The curse of the consultant is to be forever moving on, often never hearing the results of his or her work. So it was a great pleasure to hear from a couple of people who had been involved in something I helped with in 2010, all the more so as they were so appreciative:

  • I still feel very grateful for the process you took us through as a group and how we formed the Steering group from that time.. it was a brilliant process.
  • The steering group process has worked really well as a collaborative group without being in any way directive or authoritarian.  It was well worth doing.

 

Transition Town Lewes (TTL ) has a number of working groups, including Energy, Waste, Food, Communications, Finance, 10:10 and Heart/Soul. Up to the time of the event, there had been no overall decision-making body. Representatives from each working group made up a steering group known as the forum. But it had no mandate to take decisions. Nor was it clear how much authority the working groups had.  The result was that some decisions that needed to be made didn’t get made, or only were only made late in the day. Furthermore, the lack of a procedure for making decisions put a great burden on those at the centre who got most involved in trying to resolve problems, to the point of burnout.

In October 2010, in order to tackle this, we organised a two hour meeting, to which 23 people came. To start with, five pre-prepared options were voted upon – using preference voting, which is also known as consensus voting. The existing ad hoc structure came last, and was dropped. That left four options, all involving a steering group. There were two that scored well and which drew the members, at least initially, from the existing group contacts. The notion that the steering group should be elected also did well. The last idea, not scoring so well, was that the Steering Group be run as an Open Space: anyone could turn up and contribute to decision making.

In the next stage, small groups discussed the various options in more detail, identifying the pros and cons, refining them if they wished. A further option was put forward at this stage. One of the options involving members drawn from existing group contacts also proposed that they then put out a call for more members from the whole of TTL, and co-opt anyone who was prepared to commit to attending the monthly meeting. The extra option added the proviso that the initial members could then choose who joined them on the steering group from among those who put themselves forward.

After this discussion, there was a second consensus vote.  The two options described in the last paragraph came equal top, a long way ahead of the rest. So it was decided that they would be merged to create the final consensus option. The rest is history….

Perry

crowd-wise.org

We’ve blogged about Crowd Wise, a consensus voting technique, on a number of occasions on this site. And indeed, Perry Walker its originator is one of Rhizome’s members nowadays.

For those keen to learn more crowd-wise.org is now up and running complete with several case studies to show you how it’s worked in practice in remarkably varied contexts, from football clubs to Transition Towns.

Formal consensus and Crowd Wise

Perry and I were delivering a day’s training on consensus for Talk Action yesterday. The day covered an overview of formal consensus (often simply called consensus or consensus decision-making) and an introduction to Crowd Wise. We rounded off with a ‘clinic’ – collectively troubleshooting a consensus-related issues for one of the group and trying to apply the day’s learning to that organisation’s needs.

One of the things that makes this training more interesting and perhaps challenging is that it draws in people from a wide range if backgrounds and organisations – those whose work involves participatory engagement, such as community workers and freelance and local authority planners; staff and volunteers for small charities and community organisations; staff from NGOs of varying sizes; as well as those with an activist or campaigning background. Yesterday we had participants from a local authority, Garden Organic, the Occupy movement, a local CVS support organisation, a network of residents associations and more.

This was the second time out for the training and we’d had a good clear out, de-cluttering the content and focusing on the experiential activities wherever we could. It seemed to go well, and there was a lot of energy and warmth at the end of the day.

Inevitably there are a couple of activities we will tweak again for next time. Our warm up activity produced less clear learning about consensus than last time. Similarly the clinic tended towards broad group dynamics topics where we had hoped it would be more obviously consensus-focused. Talk Action have the evaluation forms, and we’ll come back to you and share some headlines when we get a look at them. We’ll also let you know when the next course is running. Maybe see you there?

As an aside, Anna from Talk Action tweeted her way through the morning – not something I’m used too, but an interesting insight into what at least one participant was taking away from the course:

Consensus training: Talk Action, January 26th, London

Rhizome don’t put on many open courses, though we do get asked. As it happens 2 of our facilitators are at work in an open course on Consensus Decision-Making next month, courtesy of the team at Talk Action.

We’ll look at the values that underpin effective consensual decision-making as well as at 2 models of consensus: formal consensus and Crowd Wise.

We’d love to see you there.

An appreciative audience for Crowd Wise

I spent the afternoon in London on Wednesday at a meeting of the Capacity Building Forum. You may be glad to know that there was, finally, talk of agreeing a new name (the current one hardly trips off the tongue) and creating a website so that the outside world can locate and get involved with the Forum. Essentially it’s an informal gathering of staff from various network based campaigning organisations, with a few odds and ends like Rhizome thrown in for good measure.

An hour of the agenda was given over to a skillshare on Crowd Wise, which Perry came along to offer, with Adam from the Fairtrade Foundation and myself as backing vocalists. When we’d suggested Crowd Wise as a topic for the day, I knew there would be interest, but it was actually met with very palpable excitement.

We tried out the method, and whilst Perry added up the votes from our practice session, Adam and I took questions on our recent experiment with Crowd Wise as part of a consultation with Fairtrade Foundation campaigners. The questions we were asked give a glimpse of why people are finding Crowd Wise exciting. There were several questions just to clarify the possibilities –  for example how were people kept in touch with the process when, like with the Fairtrade Foundation, Crowd Wise was used over a series of events.

We also talked about marginal voices – were they really heard in the process? Our experience from recent work is yes. The group builds a collaborative way forward that includes recognisable elements of those voices. Indeed 2 such voices attended a feedback meeting I ran for the Fairtrade Foundation, and seemed in no way resentful that the outcome ignored their views.

We also had a short discussion on whether Crowd Wise brought the possibility of consensus to organisations with hierarchical structures. The answer? Yes. And this is where a lot of the excitement lay. I suspect Perry might be kept busy over coming months and years….

Matthew

Crowd Wise: ongoing learning

Here at Rhizome we’ve recently completed a piece of consultancy work for the Fairtrade Foundation.

We used the Crowd Wise consensus process as a central plank of the work – running five regional Crowd Wise conversations with grassroots fair trade campaigners to develop options around grassroots membership of the Foundation, prioritise the options and then move towards agreement.

Crowd Wise is a relatively new approach, and it’s still developing. This is the first time it’s been used across a series of events. Naturally we’ve had a chat about how that worked and the lessons we learnt.

So what was the main difference about how we used it here? Previous Crowd Wise sessions have been a single event. Usually the options under discussion had been created in advance, but in a few cases the session time had to be used to identify possible options, discuss and develop those options and then reach an agreement. Given that some of these sessions have been quite short, that’s a tall order. But it was also cleaner. One event and it’s done and dusted.

Here we had five events, so we could take our time, and gently nudge our way towards agreement. Alongside Foundation staff, we drew together five options based on the views we’d heard in the first stage of the consultation (through interviews, surveys, meetings and so on). The longer time frame meant that in the first four events we could concentrate on shaping options, merging them and then de-merging them, prioritising and so on, leaving the final event to pull together the threads of the previous four.

That’s not to say that each individual session had no time pressure. We had about 2 to 2.5 hours for each session, and could easily have filled more time.

So it was a more spacious process, but one that left us with some choices to make.

  • For example, we chose to allow the options to evolve between meetings rather than present each group with exactly the same choices to discuss. Often this evolution was subtle – a shift of emphasis within the same rough parameters.
  • We chose to leave one particularly ‘weak’ option in the running. Partly this was in deference to our client, who had proposed this option, to ensure it got a fair hearing. But it also did no harm to leave it there. It was part of the wide package of information that stimulated discussion, thinking and ultimately decision. On the other hand, if circumstances had been only slightly different we might have ‘culled’ it, as a visible sign of moving towards consensus.
  • We chose to involve Foundation staff in the conversations between each event about the evolution of the options. This collaboration had real strength. The Foundation have a much more intimate and connected relationship with the process because of it. We also benefited from their perception of each event – it wasn’t possible for us to hear every conversation. But it did take time – theirs and ours. On balance though it was the right thing to do.
  • We kept all the stakeholders informed through a project blog. After each meeting we blogged about the meeting, the key conversations and the outcomes. We then gave an indication of how we were developing the options for the next event based on what we’d witnessed at that event. This gave the project transparency and integrity. And of course allowed readers to interact and leave comments, some of which gave us very useful feedback on how the process was working from a participant’s perspective. We made useful changes to the information participants were given based on these comments.
  • We chose to do the final event differently. The first four involved small groups exploring one or two options each – strengths and weaknesses and potential for mergers between options. Each group then put the case for the options it had discussed to the full group before more discussion and a final vote (using a consensus voting system). Whereas in the final event each group was asked to consider all options and specifically look for a way forward that took the best from all options.

Most of these choices were intuitive ones. There’s no Crowd Wise rulebook, which is why we want to share these thoughts here as part of the process of developing a body of thought and hopefully best practice.

Other observations and learning

  1. Part of the process in this case was about developing trust – trust in the process and in the wisdom of the group. It’s Crowd Wise after all. We had to trust that each group would pick up, to an extent, where the previous group had left off. And we had to trust that the final group could discern the developing consensus of their peers from the previous events and pull together a solution that fully considered their views. It worked wonderfully.
  2.  The process also confirmed the power of collective process to change individual perspectives for the better. At each event we started with a quick vote on the options before any discussion had taken place. This gave us a benchmark, and gave the group a chance to get a sense of how the consensus voting process worked. It allowed us to clearly see the changes of mind that the group had undergone. For example in several sessions one option ranked highly in the opening vote but came last in the final vote.
  3.  We were reminded about the power of the individual within the collective. There were several examples of individuals making contributions that shaped the process and outcomes as a whole. One person making a distinction between having access to the Foundation’s AGM and access to the Board (where he considered real power to lie) had a significant impact on the conversation at that session and the two that followed. Another participant shared an idea about randomly inviting campaigners to sit on a national committee in order to involve people who would never think to stand for the position. A simple idea, but one that leapt out as useful and found its way into the final report. The Crowd Wise environment seems to nurture this possibility both because it’s based on face-to-face meeting, but also because it explicitly values exploration, innovation and creativity.
  4. We learnt the importance of carefully setting the context. Despite a reasonable amount of background material being available ‘out there’ in one form or another, face-to-face briefings prior to the Crowd Wise session on the background and purpose of the consultation made a significant contribution to the quality of the event.
  5.  We were reminded that groups will talk about what interests them – not all of the questions posed to the Crowd Wise sessions elicited a response. Some fell flat and it became clear that in these cases campaigners were happy to leave the detail to the Foundation. Our job was to pick up on this and not force the question, leaving the group to talk about the issues it had energy for.

Conclusion

At Rhizome we bring very different perspectives to consensus building. I have been using and then facilitating and training folk in formal consensus for getting on for 18 years. Perry, who developed Crowd Wise and facilitated the sessions for the Fairtrade Foundation, is twenty years a facilitator and tells me that until he developed Crowd Wise, he knew little about this field, and his concerns were more about how to create dialogue in a world that thinks that conversation in politics – however small the ‘p’- means debate.

If I hadn’t been aware of Crowd Wise, I could have proposed to the Foundation a method called ‘Small to large group consensus’ which shares several of the characteristics of Crowd Wise. But in reality I probably wouldn’t have done so because it would have felt like imposing my consensus ideology on them (I’m certain that they are interested in consensus in that ‘broad coming together’ sense of the word that is in common usage, but probably less so in the formal consensus process with its non-hierarchical values and its particular process quirks like blocks and stand asides).

Traditionally consensus works well among co-operatives and non-hierarchical activists who are committed to its values and for whom any form of voting can be suspect. Crowd Wise, by contrast, may need less commitment to consensual values, which makes it more suitable to situations in which there is some form of hierarchy. It may also appeal more to those happy to use (consensus) voting in the cause of speeding things up. The dividing line – if indeed it really exists – is unclear. We’ll be exploring it further at a training course run by Talk Action on 26th January 2012. You’d be most welcome.

Building a strong grassroots foundation…

We’ve not been reporting back on so much work of late. It’s not that were not working, just that we’ve been working more on one project – facilitating a dialogue between the Fairtrade Foundation and their grassroots campaigners.

The Foundation wants to offer campaigners membership – a place in the formal governance structure of the organisation – in recognition of their amazing energy and efforts in building awareness of fair trade here in the UK. Rhizome has spent the last few months gathering campaigner responses, talking to other membership organisations and testing options and facilitating an emerging consensus using the Crowd Wise process.

Although the initial brief was for a fairly traditional consultancy approach, we pitched a few other ideas at the Foundation. These included using a combination of techniques such as Open Space and World Cafe at regional or national level to initiate a conversation, uncover the issues and suggest ways forward. We suggested coupling these with Crowd Wise to test out possibilities and build towards a widely owned outcome. We settled on a fairly traditional opening process using discussion groups, phone interviews, phone conferences and a web survey to elicit concerns, excitement and other responses, followed by a series of 5 regional events at which we’d employ Crowd Wise.

We kept campaigners and other stakeholders informed of every step through a dedicated project blog, which allowed those not able to make an event to follow and interact with the process.

It all culminated in a short report earlier this week, and in a report back workshop at the Foundation’s annual Supporter Conference, today.

For Rhizome the work created an exciting opportunity. Our paths had crossed that of Perry Walker a few times of late. You may have noticed his biography appear on our Who We Are page as we invited him  on board. Perry’s a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and developed Crowd Wise (amongst other things). And alongside Perry we were able to test Crowd Wise in a new situation – a series of 5 connected meetings. We’ll talk more about what we learnt from that soon.

The Foundation seem happy with the outcomes even though they differ significantly from the initial proposal they had developed. They also found the process valuable and plan to share their reflections with colleagues in other countries.

One interesting reflection that I heard today from a veteran Fairtrade Town campaigner was that he had been surprised at the regional event that he attended that many other campaigners weren’t interested in the offer of a governance role. Then he remembered that when he was less-than-veteran he had also been focused on more immediate and more directly campaign-related concerns.

This was one of the strengths of the process – it brought campaigners of all stripes and experience together in a way that challenged their assumptions and asked them to step into each other’s shoes.

Catching up…..

Seems like a while since I got round to reflecting on the work we’ve been doing on the blog, so here’s a quick catch up. Common Ground Since its inception Climate Camp has been an amazing experiment in working by consensus, a kind of petri dish or hothouse. It’s tried to create a process capable of bringing together hundreds of activists spread across the whole country to plan and carry out very complex action camps as well as many other activities. The process has had to be capable of dealing with large group consensus,  and a structure that has included spokescouncils, emergency spokescouncils, working groups,  a neighbourhood system, and open meetings. All that on top of the usual challenges that face a group using consensus decision-making. Inevitably it’s had its highs and lows. And some of those highs and lows have seemed exaggerated – as you might expect from anything grown in a hothouse. I still meet people for whom Climate Camp has been their introduction to consensus decision-making, who have found it empowering and liberating. But the process hasn’t managed to build a coherent and united community, which effective consensus should. As a result, in early June there was a meeting of some of the survivors of the process, coming together to take stock, reflect and begin to move forward. Myself and Emily Hodgkinson, mentioned elsewhere on this blog, and doing her first piece of work under the Rhizome banner, co-facilitated the 2 day meeting. We negotiated considerable time and space for looking at process (not enough by any means, but a significant proportion of the overall agenda). Climate Camp has had action at its heart. Any activist movement has a huge momentum for doing. Being and processing often suffer as a result. Besides, what’s the point of having a process oriented psychologist on the facilitation team if you don’t tap into her considerable skill? It was a useful weekend for everyone involved. I continue to learn loads from the process work approach to groups and what at first seemed almost mystical is now making loads of sense. They’ve invited us back for the next meeting, so it can’t have been that bad an experience for them. Evaluation comments included the very affirming “Wow, incredible stamina, energy and capacity to ground the group”, and “Very impressed with the focus you managed to inspire and great diversity of methods” to a couple of comments suggesting we “intervene a bit less, sum up less” and a challenge to explore the dynamic of own working relationship more deeply “Perhaps Matthew – as a white male you could look out for moments where you appear to be silencing or overriding Emily”. That provided the topic of conversation for the journey home…

The following weekend I was facilitating a 1 day workshop for Transition Towns folk, and related groups on Facilitating Consensus. A follow on from an introductory workshop last October, this one drew folk from Transition Leicester and Chesterfield as well as the local Steiner School community. My sense of the day was that the participants found it useful. There was a wealth of experience in the room (isn’t there always?) and the interactions between participants were clearly very valuable, and once more I’m reminded that our role is simply to put structure to those interactions. I was left aware that the group was quite diverse and that finding scenarios that worked for everyone in the various experiential sessions was a challenge. I certainly didn’t get it ‘spot on’, and that impacted on the depth we go to. We played with doing some of the group ‘discussion’ activities in silence, which had a profound effect on the group dynamics and opened people’s eyes to how they usually work. As is my current wont, we focused primarily on the role of facilitation in cultivating the co-operative values behind consensus rather than the ‘technical specification’ of the decision-making model.

definition of facilitation negotiated by the group in silence

The last few weeks have been dominated by some work we’ve taken on for a large NGO with whom we have a long-standing relationship. We’re supporting them in involving their grassroots supporters to design a participatory approach that gives those supporters a more effective voice in the organisation. We’re currently engaged in a consultation exercise, though time constraints mean more is being done by phone and web than face-to-face. We’ve brought in Perry Walker, originator of Crowd Wise, and we’ll put a raft of ideas that emerge from the consultation into regional Crowd Wise sessions where the grassroots will get a second chance to engage: shaping, prioritising, and merging proposals into one front-runner that has widespread support.

What’s coming up in the near future? We’re at the Peace News Summer Camp, UK Feminista Summer School, facilitating some training for mediators, and facilitating an Open Space and skill sharing day with the NGO Capacity Building Forum….

Near-consensus alternatives: Crowd Wise

In our last post on consensus we talked about near-consensus alternatives.

Here’s the first in a series of posts that explore near-consensus alternatives. By near-consensus, I simply mean methods that share some of consensus’ analysis if the problems of traditional majoritarian decision-making and are trying to explore ways to deepen dialogue and produce results that work for a larger section of participants.

So let’s look at Crowd Wise. I’ll be co-facilitating a course with Perry Walker, originator of Crowd Wise, in the near future, so Crowd Wise seemed like a good place to start

How did Crowd Wise evolve?

PW: Six or seven years ago, I met Peter Emerson of the de Borda Institute, based in Belfast. For thirty years, Peter has single-handedly flown the flag for consensus voting, which is the type of voting used in Crowd Wise. This form of voting involves people putting a series of options in order of preference. Those preferences are then turned into points. If there are six options, and you vote for all of them, your first preference gets six points, your second preference gets five points, and so on. At that stage, I had a sense that there was a really interesting approach in what Peter was doing, but I couldn’t work out what it was. Peter and I managed to get a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust , and I then got a further grant from the Democratic Innovation Fund of the Ministry of Justice. This enabled us to run a number of trials. I slowly realised that while the consensus voting seemed very powerful, the way in which Peter incorporated it into an overall process did not work for me. So I gradually stripped that away and built my own process around the method of voting. I used to have a postcard that said, “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes that I think I’ll make another one”. Fortunately, I managed to make enough mistakes in these trials that I was able to work out how to help others avoid them. A process that felt right slowly emerged, and that process is Crowd Wise.

Crowd Wise is consensus voting, but many proponents of consensus see voting as its antithesis. Tell us more….

PW: I wouldn’t say that Crowd Wise is consensus voting. Consensus voting is the form of voting that Crowd Wise uses. Crowd Wise also involves discussion – or ‘deliberation’, to be a bit more technical. Now the voting and the deliberation are closely entwined. People who disagree with each other nonetheless have an incentive to talk to each other. The proponent of a particular option will seek to persuade the other person to give that option a higher preference in the consensus vote than they originally intended to. Indeed, the form of voting means that people who disagree may have more of an incentive to talk to each other than people who agree. And that same incentive also encourages that talk to be constructive.

I understand the incentive to talk to someone to persuade them of my argument. But what’s the incentive to listen to theirs? Many people would assert that that’s not the norm in argument and debate within our culture. Why does Crowd Wise foster a constructive response?

PW: I’m supposing that everyone wants to advance their preferences. So everyone wants to influence people who support options different to those that they prefer. And I think most people accept that it’s a good thing to listen to somebody, when you want that person to listen to you! Saying all that enables me to respond to the second part of the statement. When ‘proponents of consensus’ describe voting as the antithesis of consensus, what they have in mind is majority voting, known in British politics at First Past the Post. Now, because this is by far the best known form of voting, people tend to equate it with voting as a whole. The Seeds for Change website, for example, says “voting creates a majority and a minority – a situation in which there are winners and losers”, and only remembers to qualify this system of voting as majority voting in the next paragraph. In sum, then, I entirely agree with proponents of consensus that majority voting is the antithesis of consensus. But rather than conclude that all forms of voting are to be avoided, I have discovered a form of voting that does not have the drawbacks of majority voting.

What are the main similarities and differences between Crowd Wise and consensus as it’s used in many non-hierarchical activist networks?

PW: Doing a little bit of research for this interview, I have been struck by the extent of the differences. The end, in terms of reaching general agreement, is pretty much the same, but the means are very different. I see that the Rhizome website is happy to use the Wikipedia explanation of consensus decision-making, so let’s go with that. Wikipedia says that:

The basic model involves collaboratively generating a proposal, identifying unsatisfied concerns, and then modifying the proposal to generate as much agreement as possible. After a concerted attempt at generating full agreement, the group can then apply its final decision rule to determine if the existing level of agreement is sufficient to finalize a decision.”

The differences with Crowd Wise begin right at the start of this basic model. Crowd Wise starts with a range of options, with six a typical number. In addition, the ways in which these options are generated vary a great deal. At AFC Wimbledon, the options were generated by a working group of twelve or so, drawn from a much larger electorate of the 1500 members who own the club. At an event in 2009 at the University of Gloucestershire, the six options were generated in advance by people who were not part of the summer school for whom the event was held. Now it is true that Crowd Wise involves looking at concerns, but the way in which this happens is different from traditional consensus decision-making. In the case of the University of Gloucestershire event, which was about the future powers of parish and town councils, these concerns were identified by the proponents of the various options, who then amended their options to make them more appealing to the electorate.

Furthermore, in Crowd Wise, there is no question of an individual blocking a proposal, or even standing aside. For the way in which people formally give their view is by voting, and the most hostile they can be to any option is to rank all the options, and to put it last. You could of course devise a voting system that allowed people to express the strength of their opinion, whether in favour of their best option or against their worst option. But what you would then lose would be the incentive for people who disagree to talk to each other.

There is another difference where Crowd Wise could be at a disadvantage. This has to do with the decision rule. The possible decision rules for traditional consensus decision-making seem to be pretty clear. The conclusions to be drawn from the final consensus vote (usually the second vote, sometimes the first) are not always as clear. Sometimes they are.

In 2010 I ran an event for Transition Town Lewes (TTL), which wanted to select a new governance structure. The two options that came top, well ahead of the rest, were very similar. Both involved setting up a Steering Group which initially comprised the contacts for their existing working groups, and then invited other members of TTL to put themselves forwards. They differed slightly in how people to join the steering group were chosen from among the people offering themselves. It was an easy decision for TTL to decide to combine those two options. By contrast, the six options used by AFC Wimbledon were all stories about how the club could evolve. I was asked to interpret the voting results to work out which strategic criteria took priority. I said that the main conclusions were:

“There was a strong desire to retain ownership by the fans. This applied to the ground as well as the club. There was a desire to get back to Merton (the London borough that was home to the original Wimbledon club), with Kingston (where the club are now) in particular and south west London in general as acceptable but second best. Wimbledon fans are cautiously ambitious. They do not want ambition to jeopardise fan-ownership, and balance it against the wish to return to Wimbledon or Merton.”

In other cases, the interpretation relates more to the mathematics of the voting. With majority voting, it is at least clear who has a majority. With consensus voting, there is no rule that tells you what score by the option that comes top, or combination of scores, is good enough. It’s a question of feel. I have never found that to be a problem, but it could be, especially in situations of conflict.

The final difference relates to ethos. Consensus decision making as usually understood puts stress on having a shared ethos, on the importance of the common good, of listening, and so on. I have never found it necessary to emphasise any of these points with Crowd Wise.

Because they happen naturally or because Crowd Wise has different foundations?

PW: I hope because they happen naturally. I gave reasons why I thought people would listen to each other above. But I am probably being a little naïve. I am sure that there are settings where the extent of conflict or the nature of the participants, say where they simply want to maintain their initial position, means that these things do not happen naturally and need to be encouraged. Furthermore, in a way that I do not yet fully understand, it is the desire of the supporters of the different options to win the vote, to have their option come top, that fuels the identification of consensus.

That sounds counter-intuitive, and you say you don’t fully understand it, but is there any more you can say at this stage?

PW: One example of this was the Crowd Wise event on the future powers of local councils which is on the back of the Crowd Wise briefing . In this case, the proponents of the different options adapted their options, after talking to the 60 members of the audience (the electorate) in ways in which made the options closer together. That in turn may have paved the way for five out of the six proponents deciding that they would do better in the vote, and not sacrifice anything fundamental, if they merged their preferred option with other options.

Now, it may be the case, that if the make-up of the audience had been different – very polarised for example – that the options would not have evolved in this way. But I have not had any examples of that happening in any of the fifteen or so events and projects using Crowd Wise that I have run so far.

Where does Crowd Wise get results when other forms of consensus don’t?

PW: All methods have settings in which they work and settings in which they don’t – there is no one perfect method that always works. I think Crowd Wise might get results when other forms of consensus do not in four circumstances:

  1. When the people taking the decision are not an affinity group. The attendees at the Summer School all had the same sort of job – parish council chair or clerk. But they did not know each other well. The members of the AFC Wimbledon all have their support for the club in common, but that is not the same as having a shared ethos.
  2. When there is naturally a range of options, as, for example with participatory budgeting.
  3. When you want to involve lots of people – like the 1500 members of AFC Wimbledon.
  4. When you don’t have much time – the event at the University of Gloucestershire only took a couple of hours.

Read our other posts on consensus