Consensus decision-making is a group decision-making process in which group members develop, and agree to support a decision in the best interest of the whole. Consensus may be defined professionally as an acceptable resolution, one that can be supported, even if not the "favourite" of each individual. Consensus is defined by Merriam-Webster as, first, general agreement, and second, group solidarity of belief or sentiment. It has its origin in the Latin word cōnsēnsus (agreement), which is from cōnsentiō meaning literally feel together. It is used to describe both the decision and the process of reaching a decision. Consensus decision-making is thus concerned with the process of deliberating and finalizing a decision, and the social, economic, legal, environmental and political effects of applying this process.
As a decision-making process, consensus decision-making aims to be:
Consensus decision-making is an alternative to commonly practiced group decision-making processes. Robert's Rules of Order, for instance, is a guide book used by many organizations. This book allows the structuring of debate and passage of proposals that can be approved through majority vote. It does not emphasize the goal of full agreement. Critics of such a process believe that it can involve adversarial debate and the formation of competing factions. These dynamics may harm group member relationships and undermine the ability of a group to cooperatively implement a contentious decision. Consensus decision-making attempts to address the beliefs of such problems. Proponents claim that outcomes of the consensus process include:
In groups that require unanimous agreement or consent (unanimity) to approve group decisions, if any participant objects, they can block consensus according to the guidelines described below. These groups use the term consensus to denote both the discussion process and the decision rule. Other groups use a consensus process to generate as much agreement as possible, but allow participants to finalize decisions with a decision rule that does not require unanimity. In this case, someone who has a strong objection must live with the decision.
Giving consent does not necessarily mean that the proposal being considered is one’s first choice. Group members can vote their consent to a proposal because they choose to cooperate with the direction of the group, rather than insist on their personal preference. Sometimes the vote on a proposal is framed, “Is this proposal something you can live with?” This relaxed threshold for a yes vote can achieve full consent. This full consent, however, does not mean that everyone is in full agreement. Consent must be 'genuine and cannot be obtained by force, duress or fraud.' The values of consensus are also not realized if "consent" is given because participants are frustrated with the process and wanting to move on.
Furthermore, consent, as within Sociocracy, is defined simply by the absence of reasonable objections. An objection is a reason why doing what is proposed stands in the way of satisfying needs or goals, which the proposal aims to satisfy. Consent deliberately seeks objections, which reveal wisdom that can be used to improve proposals and agreements.
Healthy consensus decision-making processes usually encourage expression of dissent early, maximizing the chance of accommodating the views of all minorities. Since unanimity may be difficult to achieve, especially in large groups, or consent may be the result of coercion, fear, undue persuasive power or eloquence, inability to comprehend alternatives, or plain impatience with the process of debate, consensus decision-making bodies may use an alternative decision rule, such as Unanimity Minus One (or U−1), or Unanimity Minus Two (or U−2).
Condorcet consensus is defined as the decision which is the Condorcet winner as in Condorcet method. The Condorcet consensus does not require unanimous or near-unanimous consensus - which cannot be realistically reached in big group sizes - but maximizes satisfaction rate. It can also be argued that when a Condorcet consensus is reached, further deliberation will only strengthen and further specify this consensus.
The outcome of a multi-option ballot, if measured according to the Condorcet rule, will often be the same as the outcome of another preferential form of multi-option voting, the Modified Borda Count, MBC. Furthermore, if the outcome of the latter passes a pre-determined consensus coefficient, that outcome may be regarded as the consensus.
A consensus process can also be concluded with a majority or super-majority vote. This is especially common or useful in large and diverse groups that share the values underlying consensus. Consensus process, by definition, seeks the maximum possible levels of agreement or consent. Thus, if a group using a majority vote decision rule is dominated by a majority faction that does not seek the agreement of all participants, the process would not be considered "consensus." Regardless of the decision rule, the process is only "consensus" if it has embodied the value of striving for full agreement or consent. Sometimes the outcomes of consensus can be contrary to majority.
To ensure the agreement or consent of all participants is valued, many groups choose unanimity or near-unanimity as their decision rule. Groups that require unanimity allow individual participants the option of blocking a group decision. This provision motivates a group to make sure that all group members consent to any new proposal before it is adopted. Proper guidelines for the use of this option, however, are important. The ethics of consensus decision-making encourage participants to place the good of the whole group above their own individual preferences. When there is potential for a block to a group decision, both the group and dissenters in the group are encouraged to collaborate until agreement can be reached. Simply vetoing a decision is not considered a responsible use of consensus blocking. Some common guidelines for the use of consensus blocking include:
When a participant does not support a proposal, he or she does not necessarily need to block it. When a call for consensus on a motion is made, a dissenting delegate has one of three options:
Blocks are generally considered an extreme measure—only used when a member feels a proposal endangers the organization or its participants, or violates the mission of the organization (i.e., a principled objection). In some consensus models, a group member opposing a proposal must work with its proponents to find a solution that works for everyone.
There are multiple stepwise models of how to make decisions by consensus. They vary in the amount of detail the steps describe. They also vary depending on how decisions are finalized. The basic model involves
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.
In the spokescouncil model, affinity groups make joint decisions by each designating a speaker and sitting behind that circle of spokespeople, akin to the spokes of a wheel. While speaking rights might be limited to each group's designee, the meeting may allot breakout time for the constituent groups to discuss an issue and return to the circle via their spokesperson. In the case of an activist spokescouncil preparing for the A16 Washington D.C. protests in 2000, affinity groups disputed their spokescouncil's imposition of nonviolence in their action guidelines. They received the reprieve of letting groups self-organize their protests, and as the city's protest was subsequently divided into pie slices, each blockaded by an affinity group's choice of protest. Many of the participants learned about the spokescouncil model on the fly by participating in it directly, and came to better understand their planned action by hearing others' concerns and voicing their own.
The group first elects, say, three referees or consensors. The debate on the chosen problem is initiated by the facilitator calling for proposals. Every proposed option is accepted if the referees decide it is relevant and conforms with the UN Charter on Human Rights. The referees produce and display a list of these options. The debate proceeds, with queries, comments, criticisms and/or even new options. If the debate fails to come to a verbal consensus, the referees draw up a final list of options - usually between 4 and 6 - to represent the debate. When all agree, the chair calls for a preferential vote, as per the rules for a Modified Borda Count, MBC. The referees decide which option, or which composite of the two leading options, is the outcome. If its level of support surpasses a minimum consensus coefficient, it may be adopted.
Once an agenda for discussion has been set and, optionally, the ground rules for the meeting have been agreed upon, each item of the agenda is addressed in turn. Typically, each decision arising from an agenda item follows through a simple structure:
Quaker-based consensus is said to be effective because it puts in place a simple, time-tested structure that moves a group towards unity. The Quaker model has been employed in a variety of secular settings. The process is intended to allow hearing individual voices while providing a mechanism for dealing with disagreements.
The following aspects of the Quaker model can be effectively applied in any consensus decision-making process, and is an adaptation prepared by Earlham College:
Key components of Quaker-based consensus include a belief in a common humanity and the ability to decide together. The goal is "unity, not unanimity." Ensuring that group members speak only once until others are heard encourages a diversity of thought. The facilitator is understood as serving the group rather than acting as person-in-charge. In the Quaker model, as with other consensus decision-making processes, by articulating the emerging consensus, members can be clear on the decision, and, as their views have been taken into account, are likely to support it.
The consensus-oriented decision-making (CODM) model offers a detailed step-wise description of consensus process. It can be used with any type of decision rule. It outlines the process of how proposals can be collaboratively built with full participation of all stakeholders. This model lets groups be flexible enough to make decisions when they need to, while still following a format based on the primary values of consensus decision-making. The CODM steps include:
Some of the specific contributions of the CODM model include: 1) Starting important topics with open discussion rather than by presenting a pre-formulated proposal, so that a truly collaborative process can ensue. 2) Gathering a list of all needs and concerns expressed by the group to form criteria for all potential proposals to address. 3) taking turns in a unified attempt to build each proposal idea into the best possible proposal before choosing between them. And 4) using empathy in the closure stage to address any unresolved feelings from the process.
Consensus decision-making models overlap significantly with deliberative methods, which are processes for structuring discussion that may or may not be a lead-in to a decision.
The consensus decision-making process often has several roles designed to make the process run more effectively. Although the name and nature of these roles varies from group to group, the most common are the facilitator, consensor, a timekeeper, an empath and a secretary or notes taker. Not all decision-making bodies use all of these roles, although the facilitator position is almost always filled, and some groups use supplementary roles, such as a Devil's advocate or greeter. Some decision-making bodies rotate these roles through the group members in order to build the experience and skills of the participants, and prevent any perceived concentration of power.
The common roles in a consensus meeting are:
This section may contain too much repetition or redundant language.(November 2015)
Non-verbal means of expression can also reduce contention or keep issues from spreading out in time across an entire meeting. Various methods of agenda control exist, mostly relying on an explicit chairperson with the power to interrupt off-topic or rambling discourse. This gets more difficult if there is no such chair and accordingly the attitude of the entire group must be assessed by each speaker. Verbal interruptions inevitably become common, possibly in the form of grumbling, muttering, and eventually sharp words, if there is no effective means of cutting off persons making false factual statements or rambling off a topic.
The Levi Hand Signal Technique (LHST) employed by Otesha "allows meeting participants to register their intent to make two distinct kinds of comments: those that are directly in response to someone else's comment ('reactive comments') and those that are separate thoughts ('unique comments'). Intent to register a reactive comment is signaled by a different hand signal than is intent to register a unique comment. We used an index finger for the former and a full hand for the latter." This clears direct responses to a contentious comment faster—and makes it harder to insert it in a long speakers' list and count on a long delay between the utterance and the challenge to create the appearance of agreement.
"Twinkling fingers", similarly, is a nonverbal way of expressing strong agreement, similar to applause but without the interruption and possibly less intimidation of disagreement than applause or cheers can create. The Occupy movement has used these methods.
Some consensus decision-making bodies use a system of colored cards to speed up and ease the consensus process. Most often, each member is given a set of three colored cards: red, yellow and green. The cards can be raised during the process to indicate the member's input. Cards can be used during the discussion phase as well as during a call for consensus. The cards have different meanings, depending on the phase in which they are used. The meaning of the colors are:
Some decision-making bodies use a modified version of the colored card system with additional colors, such as orange to indicate a non-blocking reservation stronger than a stand-aside.
Hand signals are often used by consensus decision-making bodies as a way for group members to nonverbally indicate their opinions or positions. They have been found useful in facilitating groups of 6 to 250 people. They are particularly useful when the group is multi-lingual.
The nature and meaning of individual gestures varies from group to group. Nonetheless, there is a widely adopted core set of hand signals. These include: wiggling of the fingers on both hands, a gesture sometimes referred to as "twinkling", to indicate agreement; raising a fist or crossing both forearms with hands in fists to indicate a block or strong disagreement; and making a "T" shape with both hands, the "time out" gesture, to call attention to a point of process or order. One common set of hand signals is called the "Fist-to-Five" or "Fist-of-Five". In this method each member of the group can hold up a fist to indicate blocking consensus, one finger to suggest changes, two fingers to discuss minor issues, three fingers to indicate willingness to let issue pass without further discussion, four fingers to affirm the decision as a good idea, and five fingers to volunteer to take a lead in implementing the decision. A similar set of hand signals are used by the Occupy Wall Street protesters in their group negotiations.
Another common set of hand signals used is the "Thumbs" method, where Thumbs Up=agreement; Thumbs Sideways=have concerns but won't block consensus; and Thumbs Down=I don't agree and I won't accept this proposal. This method is also useful for "straw polls" to take a quick reading of the group's overall sentiment for the active proposal.
A slightly more detailed variation on the thumbs proposal can be used to indicate a 5-point range: (1) Thumb-up=strongly agree, (2) Palm-up=mostly agree, (3) Thumb Sideways="on the fence" or divided feelings, (4) Palm down=mostly disagree, and (5) Thumb down=strongly disagree.
Other useful hand signs include:
Dotmocracy sheets provide a way to visibly document levels of agreement among participants on a large variety of ideas. Participants write down ideas on paper forms called Dotmocracy sheets and fill in one dot per sheet to record their opinion of each idea on a scale of "strong agreement", "agreement", "neutral", "disagreement", "strong disagreement" or "confusion". Participants sign each sheet they dot and may add brief comments. The result is a graph-like visual representation of the group's collective opinions on each idea.
Sometimes some common form of voting such as First-past-the-post is used as a fall-back method when consensus cannot be reached within a given time frame. However, if the potential outcome of the fall-back method can be anticipated, then those who support that outcome have incentives to block consensus so that the fall-back method gets applied. Special fall-back methods have been developed that reduce this incentive. Some specific fall-back methods include:
Critics of consensus blocking often observe that the option, while potentially effective for small groups of motivated or trained individuals with a sufficiently high degree of affinity, has a number of possible shortcomings, notably
Consensus seeks to improve solidarity in the long run. Accordingly, it should not be confused with unanimity in the immediate situation, which is often a symptom of groupthink. Studies of effective consensus process usually indicate a shunning of unanimity or "illusion of unanimity" that does not hold up as a group comes under real-world pressure (when dissent reappears). Cory Doctorow, Ralph Nader and other proponents of deliberative democracy or judicial-like methods view the explicit dissent as a symbol of strength. Lawrence Lessig considers it a major strength of working projects like public wikis. Schutt, Starhawk and other practitioners of direct action focus on the hazards of apparent agreement followed by action in which group splits become dangerously obvious.
Unanimous, or apparently unanimous, decisions can have drawbacks. They may be symptoms of a systemic bias, a rigged process (where an agenda is not published in advance or changed when it becomes clear who is present to consent), fear of speaking one's mind, a lack of creativity (to suggest alternatives) or even a lack of courage (to go further along the same road to a more extreme solution that would not achieve unanimous consent).
Unanimity is achieved when the full group apparently consents to a decision. It has disadvantages insofar as further disagreement, improvements or better ideas then remain hidden, but effectively ends the debate moving it to an implementation phase. Some consider all unanimity a form of groupthink, and some experts propose "coding systems...for detecting the illusion of unanimity symptom." In Consensus is not Unanimity, consensus practitioner and activist leader Starhawk wrote:
Confusion between unanimity and consensus, in other words, usually causes consensus decision-making to fail, and the group then either reverts to majority or supermajority rule or disbands.
Most robust models of consensus exclude uniformly unanimous decisions and require at least documentation of minority concerns. Some state clearly that unanimity is not consensus but rather evidence of intimidation, lack of imagination, lack of courage, failure to include all voices, or deliberate exclusion of the contrary views.
Some proponents of consensus decision-making view procedures that use majority rule as undesirable for several reasons. Majority voting is regarded as competitive, rather than cooperative, framing decision-making in a win/lose dichotomy that ignores the possibility of compromise or other mutually beneficial solutions. Carlos Santiago Nino, on the other hand, has argued that majority rule leads to better deliberation practice than the alternatives, because it requires each member of the group to make arguments that appeal to at least half the participants. A. Lijphart reaches the same conclusion about majority rule, noting that majority rule encourages coalition-building. Additionally, opponents of majority rule claim that it can lead to a 'tyranny of the majority', a scenario in which a majority places its interests so far above those of an individual or minority group as to constitute active oppression. Some voting theorists, however, argue that majority rule may actually prevent tyranny of the majority, in part because it maximizes the potential for a minority to form a coalition that can overturn an unsatisfactory decision.
Some advocates of consensus would assert that a majority decision reduces the commitment of each individual decision-maker to the decision. Members of a minority position may feel less commitment to a majority decision, and even majority voters who may have taken their positions along party or bloc lines may have a sense of reduced responsibility for the ultimate decision. The result of this reduced commitment, according to many consensus proponents, is potentially less willingness to defend or act upon the decision.
Majority voting cannot measure consensus. Indeed - so many 'for' and so many 'against' - it measures the very opposite, the degree of dissent. Consensus voting, in contrast, the Modified Borda Count, MBC, can identify the consensus of any electorate, whenever such a consensus exists. Furthermore, the rules laid down for this procedure can be the very catalyst of consensus.
Outside of Western culture, multiple other cultures have used consensus decision-making. Perhaps the oldest example is the Iroquois Confederacy Grand Council, or Haudenosaunee, which has used consensus in decision-making using a 75% super majority to finalize decisions, potentially as early as 1142. In the Xulu and Xhosa (South African) process of indaba, community leaders gather to listen to the public and negotiate figurative thresholds towards an acceptable compromise. The technique was also used during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. In Aceh and Nias cultures (Indonesian), family and regional disputes from playground fights to estate inheritance are handled through a musyawarah consensus-building process in which parties mediate to find peace and avoid future hostility and revenge. The resulting agreements are expected to be followed, and range from advice and warnings to compensation and exile.
Although the modern popularity of consensus decision-making in Western society dates from the women's liberation movement of the 1970s, and anti-nuclear movement the origins of formal consensus can be traced significantly further back.
The most notable of early Western consensus practitioners are the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who adopted the technique as early as the 17th century. Anabaptists, including some Mennonites, have a history of using consensus decision-making and some believe Anabaptists practiced consensus as early as the Martyrs' Synod of 1527. Some Christians trace consensus decision-making back to the Bible. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia references, in particular, Acts 15 as an example of consensus in the New Testament. The lack of legitimate consensus process in the unanimous conviction of Jesus by corrupt priests in an illegally held Sanhedrin court (which had rules preventing unanimous conviction in a hurried process) strongly influenced the views of pacifist Protestants, including the Anabaptists (Mennonites/Amish), Quakers and Shakers. In particular it influenced their distrust of expert-led courtrooms and to "be clear about process" and convene in a way that assures that "everyone must be heard".
Consensus voting was first advocated by (a) Ramón Llull in 1199. Next by (b) Nicholas Cusanus in 1435. Then by (c) Jean-Charles de Borda in 1784. Later by (d) Hother Hage in 1860 and (e) Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1884. And finally by (f) Peter Emerson in 1986. With the possible exception of (e), none of these 'inventors' knew anything about the inventions of any of their predecessors.
Japanese companies normally use consensus decision-making, meaning that unanimous support on the board of directors is sought for any decision. A ringi-sho is a circulation document used to obtain agreement. It must first be signed by the lowest level manager, and then upwards, and may need to be revised and the process started over.
In the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), decisions are assumed to be taken by rough consensus. The IETF has studiously refrained from defining a mechanical method for verifying such consensus, apparently in the belief that any such codification leads to attempts to "game the system." Instead, a working group (WG) chair or BoF chair is supposed to articulate the "sense of the group."
One tradition in support of rough consensus is the tradition of humming rather than (countable) hand-raising; this allows a group to quickly tell the difference between "one or two objectors" or a "sharply divided community", without making it easy to slip into "majority rule".
Much of the business of the IETF is carried out on mailing lists, where all parties can speak their view at all times.
In 2001, Robert Rocco Cottone published a consensus-based model of professional decision-making for counselors and psychologists. Based on social constructivist philosophy, the model operates as a consensus-building model, as the clinician addresses ethical conflicts through a process of negotiating to consensus. Conflicts are resolved by consensually agreed on arbitrators who are defined early in the negotiation process.
The United States Bureau of Land Management's policy is to seek to use collaborative stakeholder engagement as standard operating practice for natural resources projects, plans, and decision-making except under unusual conditions such as when constrained by law, regulation, or other mandates or when conventional processes are important for establishing new, or reaffirming existing, precedent.
FUM/FGC Friends conduct business in yearly meetings of perhaps 100 to 500 participants. Over the last three centuries they have evolved a number of practices peculiar to their aims. The following practices are traditional in both New York Yearly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting:
Every 20 or 30 years, each yearly meeting's consensus practices are re-codified in a new edition of that yearly meeting's Faith and Practice book.
As a notable example of the failure of unanimity in the Western canon, New Testament historian Elaine Pagels cites the Sanhedrin's unanimous vote to convict Jesus of Nazareth. To a Jewish audience familiar with that court's requirement to set free any person unanimously convicted as not having a proper defense, Pagels proposes that the story is intended to signal the injustice of unanimous rush to agreement and Jesus' lack of a defender. She cites the shift away from this view and towards preference for visible unanimity as a factor in later "demonization" of Jews, pagans, heretics (notably Gnostics) and others who disagreed with orthodox views in later Christianity. Unanimity, in other words, became a priority where it had been an anathema.
High-stakes decision-making, such as judicial decisions of appeals courts, always require some such explicit documentation. Consent however is still observed that defies factional explanations. Nearly 40% of Supreme Court of US decisions, for example, are unanimous, though often for widely varying reasons. "Consensus in Supreme Court voting, particularly the extreme consensus of unanimity, has often puzzled Court observers who adhere to ideological accounts of judicial decision making." Historical evidence is mixed on whether particular Justices' views were suppressed in favour of public unity.
Another method to achieve more agreement to satisfy a strict threshold a voting process under which all members of the group have a strategic incentive to agree rather than block. However, this makes it very difficult to tell the difference between those who support the decision and those who merely tactically tolerate it for the incentive. Once they receive that incentive, they may undermine or refuse to implement the agreement in various and non-obvious ways. In general voting systems avoid allowing offering incentives (or "bribes") to change a heartfelt vote.
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