Tuesday, December 13, 2005

By Consensus or Majority Rule?

Reaching consensus has always been a difficult undertaking and I'm sure it will continue to plague future organizations and communities for years to come. The good points of "consensus" far outweigh the problems associated with the process in my opinion. The well known "You get what you pay for" philosophy comes to mind. One point to be considered would be that consensus attempts to create cooperation by allowing "all participants" to work together to reach the best possible decisions for the entire group. The process is simplified by just placing one proposal on the table at a time. I think the process of reaching a decision could possibly be as important if not more important than the decision itself!

Of course, it's much easier just to go with the "majority rule" structure because it's quicker and much easier for those involved, but this structure actually creates competition and conflict between participants. Often times as not, what discussion that exists within the "majority rule" structure resembles arguments and attacks of another's point of view, more than a discussion.

Okay, it looks like the "consenus" structure is more rational and probably offers a greater level of democracy also, as all participants have a voice in reaching the decisions. So how can we make the process more adaptable and easier for concerned groups? Firstly, I would think there has to be some basic thought on successful decision making via a consensus of the participants. Initially, it would seem rational that if an individual is affected by a decision, then that individual needs to be involved in the decision making process. There would need to be a commitment to active cooperation, as well as communication skills when it comes to speaking and listening. And every participant must show respect for everyone's contributions and actively participate. Disruptive behavior shouldn't be allowed, and I think we all know what I mean by that. Overboard flaming is what I'm referring to, and we all should know when someone goes over that apparent but invisible line! There will be some conflicts no doubt but all involved should be allowed to explain their stance and why they think it's in the group's best interest. Now I would reccomend everyone to reference On Conflict and Consensus and see how you feel about the handbook on "Formal Consensus".

Are there possible alternatives other than the majority-rule or consensus approaches to democratic decision making? There are also examples of groups which combine some features of both consensus and majority-rule voting. One of these is the school of Shaker Mountain. What they do essentially is take a vote using the majority-rule method but then those who voted in the
minority are asked if they want to explain their opinion. The group then listens carefully to the minority's opinion, allows full expression of the opinion, perhaps changing the decision of the entire group. But once the minority opinions are fully explored and there are no more options, then the majority's decision will be upheld. This method originated in the Iroquois Confederacy.


Two of the most common approaches to self-government are democratic decision making by the majority and decision by consensus of the group. Shaker Mountain school evolved an interesting blending of the advantages of both these approaches, being heavily influenced in the early years by their involvement with the traditionalist Mohawk Indians of the Iroquois Confederacy (We had regular exchange visits with them). This is perhaps quite fitting because it was the influence of the Iroquois confederacy that convinced Benjamin Franklin, among others, that democratic decision making was a good form of government and, therefore, a good one to be used for the fledgling independent colonies.


Another example would be the Coalition for Self-Learning, which focuses on "paradigm shifting" and the shift from teaching to learning, and from media consumption to media generation. The coalition defines itself as a matrix of individuals and groups, networking freely and acting in concert in mutual support of the Mission Statement, which states The Coalition for Self-Learning envisions and co-creates a world of cooperative life-long learning communities.

Life-long learning communities are diverse, open places where individuals develop meaningful ways to enhance, enrich, honor and celebrate each other, families, communities and society, acting as a significant element in an emerging cooperative commonwealth. The Coalition promotes ideas and actions for creating learning communities. The Coalition expands and advances the relevance of learning to societal change. The Coalition explores, develops, disseminates and implements new concepts for organizational systems that result in the equitable sharing of power and wealth, well-being and self-sustaining conviviality of the Earth and all its life forms. The Coalition demonstrates that the Internet is a powerful tool for organizing actions, learning creative concepts and engaging constructive discussion.


Another very interesting and fascinating group is the World Wide Web Consortium. The mission of the W3C as they are known, is the creation of web standards and guidelines. They also maintain a formal guidline pertaining to groups, whether they be working groups, interest groups, or coordination groups. Of interest is the section on Group Consensus and Votes.

The W3C process requires Chairs to ensure that groups consider all legitimate views and objections, and endeavor to resolve them. Decisions may be made during meetings (face-to-face or distributed) as well as through email. The following terms are used in this document to describe the level of support for a group decision:

1. Unanimity: All participants agree.
2. Consensus: No participants object (but some may abstain).
3. Dissent: At least one participant objects.



Now what if the size of the group or community becomes a problem in reaching a consensus? Or would the size of a group matter? Some say that the larger groups can be aided by breaking up into affinity groups consisting of 5-20 people per group. When the community is large, this is a possible solution in reaching consensus in a more timely matter. W3C proposes, that while interest groups have no limit on participants, in order to allow rapid progress when a working group grows too large, it may be split into an Interest Group (a discussion forum) and a much smaller Working Group (a core group of highly dedicated participants). Some larger groups have offered the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing approach in the formation of groups. Others support the collection of affinity groups (cells), working together in what is called a "cluster". Another plus in dividing into these smaller cells is the security and trust these smaller groups offer when involved in more serious activism through direct action, as Chomsky relates.

"If you assume correctly that whatever group you are in is being penetrated by the FBI, when something serious is happening, you don’t do it in a meeting. You do it with some people you know and trust, an affinity group and then it doesn’t get penetrated. That’s one of the reasons why the FBI has never been able to figure out what’s going on in any of the popular movements." -Chomsky-


For an insight into shared information possibilities, I reccomend reading Pyramids, Labour and The Hub Theory along with the ensuing discussion. Both offer an excellent insight on the organization of "common thought" in the organization of communities and the replacement of leaders by facilitators/coordinators which is much more participatory in nature. Or contemplate on this statement made by one of the contributors at MfD on leaderless groups and their ability to reach a consensus.
The leaderless group is small enough that it can reach consensus. Those who can’t mesh with the rest of the group will move on and join groups where they can reach consensus. Each of the groups will expand, contract, disappear and reappear with different participants. Those groups, or nodes, will seek out other nodes to network with. When an issue arises, which affects the nodes, the ones affected will begin to network and “web” to address the issue. When the issues or “event” to address the issue is exhausted or resolved, the nodes dissipate to resume their networking with like-minded nodes.

Very similar to the affinity groups (cells) mentioned above and their respective clusters.

Reaching consensus offers some difficult hurdles for sure, but in my opinion, the rewards of such an equal participatory enviroment is well worth the effort involved. Whether we are talking about a small group, a local or virtual community, town, city, state, province, or federal governmental system, I see a need to move from the current forms of decision making towards a much more equal participatory system. I see some form of consensus as being necessary for the r-evolution of a more just society and no alternative should be quickly dismissed as being impossible merely because it is antiestablishmentarianistic! :)

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