Consensus case study: Helpline

Matthew and I prepared a case study of Helpline for a workshop. We never got to use it, so we thought we’d describe it in case anyone else would like to have a go.

‘Helpline’ was the pseudonym given to a project in Boston, USA, called Project Place when it was studied in the 1970s by an American academic called Jane Mansbridge. She described it in her wonderful book, “Beyond Adversary Democracy”. Helpline at that stage described itself as:

“this city’s 24-hour crisis intervention center, providing counselling and referral information for people with emotional, legal, medical, drug, or life-support problems, plus access to ambulance services, emergency shelters, short and long-term counselling, special programs for teenagers.”

Helpline had a strong belief in equality. Everyone was paid the same and decisions were made by consensus.

Mansbridge described Helpline in great detail. We drew from her description two documents, which together make up the case study. First, we prepared nine character cards. Some drew very directly from Mansbridge’s interviews with Helpline staff. We adapted others a little more freely.  Our aim was that participants using the case study could explore consensus from the perspective of a character who was unlike them.

For instance, there was Deborah, who says about herself,

“I’m the newest member here. I’m more hesitant to say something, or to try to control a business meeting, or try to lead the way in making decisions. I rely on people who have been here longer. I feel sometimes like I should be taking on more responsibility, but I’ve never been someone who speaks out actively in groups. I disagree if I have to, but I don’t like to. I felt quite intimidated for a while….”

Second, we described a decision Helpline had to take. Some members of Helpline wanted to take a $15,000 contract to work with some young Air Force recruits who had asked for help improving the hotline and drug counselling service they had set up at their base. They thought it straightforward: the hotline already existed, it was needed, the volunteers who staffed it were untrained, the work would not be any sort of prop to the military, and the money was much-needed. So they were surprised and offended when others objected, and insisted that the issue be taken to Helpline’s regular open meeting.

We planned to invite everyone to consider Helpline’s consensus process from the perspective of their character. What are their wants and needs? What behaviours are they likely to adopt or support? We then were going to ask them to pair off with someone who is in a different position from them, and discuss how their behaviour and their interaction will that affect the collective ability to do consensus .

Rather good, we thought. Anyone want to have a go? Let us know how it works, and any adaptations and improvements you make

Perry

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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

Consensus: on being right

Perry like’s stories and uses them to great effect in his facilitation and training. We co-facilitated this past weekend and decided the time had come to post some of them on the blog. So from time to time we’ll add a story or saying that offers insight into the process of coming to consensus. Here’s a couple of quotes on being right to start us off:

“The world is divided into those who think they are right.” Anonymous (popularised by Peggy Seeger)

 

“From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.” Yehuda Amichai

The importance of great facilitation for inclusivity and progress

The Edge Fund is a new grant-making body run by its members; who include donors, people directly experiencing and challenging injustice and those working in solidarity with them. From the beginning it was important to us that the power usually held by donors was devolved to those who do not usually have that power, but also who are the experts since they live and breathe the very issues we seek to resolve.

As our starting point was a desire to break down hierarchies of wealth and power it was important to live the values of social justice throughout the entire process of setting up and running the project. This had to be a project guided by many people, as diverse as possible, which meant meetings have mostly consisted of people who have not met
before, covering all levels of wealth, backgrounds and passions. We started in April with a fairly blank sheet so it could be built more or less from scratch and we’ve met five times since then with meetings attended by around fifty different people in total.

What are the chances of a group of strangers, brought together to talk about money, giving each other space and communicating with each other without falling out? Better than you might think! Whilst I’ve been part of many meetings which have broken down into shouting matches and achieving very little, for some reason I never thought for a minute that this would happen with the Edge Fund, even considering the often contentious subject matter. We have been extremely lucky to have meetings attended by people who are committed, smart, respectful and compassionate. If any one of them has an ego striving to take the lead, it’s been left at home.

Shared values and mutual respect have been crucial to being able to develop the project in a relatively short space of time. Having a committed facilitating group to do all the work behind the scenes so options can be presented clearly to the rest of the group, has also been vital. But without fantastic facilitation from Rhizome’s Perry Walker I very much doubt we’d be where we are now. I don’t have facilitation skills and neither do I usually feel very comfortable in large groups, so the idea of having the responsibility of facilitating the meeting was terrifying. That’s where Perry came in. Perry was able to help break the ice, allow people to get to know each other, keep an eye on who wants to speak, move the meeting along and clarify decisions made. We appreciated his laid back approach and willingness to play it by ear.  I especially appreciated the time he gave before the meeting to be clear on the aims, but mostly for being able to share the pressure!

At the last meeting 25 July, we decided on the structure of Edge Fund; we will have a large donor base (hopefully) and a smaller membership body who will make decisions collectively on funding and will make a financial contribution to the fund, no matter how small. Several other major decisions were made fairly smoothly and at the end of the meeting comments included “thrilled at energy levels, very exciting, great progress, definite hope for the future, awed by clarity and respect in the room, sense of achievement, sense of momentum…” and I put much of this down to the excellent facilitation.

Of course, nothing in this world is perfect. There have been people at the meetings who have spoken much more frequently than others and some who have hardly spoken a word all day. I would like to work out how to give those who find meetings difficult an alternative way to feed in, perhaps it means more personal follow-up afterwards. But our biggest challenge yet is engaging those outside of the usual activist networks; reaching out to those who are directly experiencing injustice for whom terms like ‘systemic change’, ‘activist’ or ‘consensus decision-making’ are alienating and the costs of travel, communication and time needed to participate are extremely limiting. Our efforts to reach out so far have, on the whole, failed, but we’re committed to making it happen and once everyone who needs to be in the room is in the room, we will need Perry more than ever!

Sophie, Edge Fund Co-ordinator

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:

Learning facilitation from Delia Smith

Charles Leadbeater, an expert on innovation, once wrote that just as Adam Smith was the key to the eighteenth century, so the key to our era is Delia Smith. Delia, he said, is the example par excellence of how we can learn say cookery from recipes, whereas our ancestors mainly learned from their mothers’ knee. I thought of Delia Smith a few weeks ago as I was teaching facilitation to the impressive members of Climate Rush. A good way to think about facilitation is in terms of recipes and ingredients. The recipes are the different methods – Open Space and World Café perhaps the best known – but there are many others. For a selection, look for the now old nef book, Participation Works!, on the web, or try peopleandparticipation.net Each method has various components. Many of these can be applied in a variety of situations, but rarely are because people stick to their favourite methods.

Here are two ingredients I like for the start of meetings. The first is about getting people comfortable with each other. A Future Search conference starts with three 10 metre long timelines made from flipchart paper. Each is divided into three sections, representing the three last decades. They are marked ‘personal’, ‘global’, and the name of the community or organisation whose event it is. People write in key events for each one, and as they do so start to realise how much they share with other people present. In doing so, they are fulfilling the Conditions for Effective Dialogue developed by social psychologist Solomon Asch, that we need to feel that we share a planet with the people with whom we enter into dialogue. The second is about finding out information from the people who come to an event. Sociometrics is a complicated name for a simple process of getting people to show where they stand – by where they stand. They position themselves as to where they stand on the floor, to show where they live, say, or (in a line) how strongly they feel about an issue. This is very quick, very visual, leads naturally on to asking people why they stood where they stood, mixes people up, and shows people’s capacity to self-organise. In chess terms, that’s the opening. More on the middle game next time.

Perry

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.

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.

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