Consensus decision making
Consensus decision making refers to a democratic decision process
that not only seeks the agreement of a majority of participants, but
also to resolve or mitigate the objections of the minority to achieve
the most agreeable decision.
The method tends to deemphasize the role of factions or parties and
promote the expression of individual voices.
The method also increases the likelihood of unforeseen or creative
solutions by juxtaposing dissimilar ideas.
Because it seeks to minimize objection, it is most popular with
voluntary organizations, wherein decisions are more likely to be carried
out when they are most widely approved.
Consensus methods are desirable when enforcement of the decision is
unfeasible, such that every participant will be required to act on the
Minority views must be considered to a greater degree than in
circumstances where a majority can take the action and enforce the
decision without any further consultation with the minority voters.
Since higher levels of consensus usually require more time and effort
to achieve, groups may reserve consensus decision methods for
particularly complex, risky or important decisions.
Rather than simply list known alternatives, debate for a short time,
vote, and then accept or reject by some percentage of majority (say 50%
plus one, or 2/3), a consensus decision making process involves
generating new alternatives, combining elements of multiple
alternatives, and in general spending considerably more time in debate
and in checking that people understand a proposal or an argument.
This empowers minorities, those with objections that are hard to
state quickly, and those who are ineloquent in debate.
Therefore consensus decision making is considered a form of grassroots
Consensus decisions are considered desirable by all egalitarian
groups that seek to reduce the amount of power delegated to leaders,
chairpersons or agenda setters and the amount of harm or loss than can
be imposed on minorities (or individuals) by a majority.
Consensus methods are appropriate when personal (or emotional) risk
to members is high, trust is low, and time is available for a prolonged
discussion. Consensus methods may be used to remedy patterns of decision
making based on habit, subservience or carelessness.
Like any group decision making, consensus decision making can
disempower those not present in the debating forum, as they cannot
expect to have input on the new measures that are proposed (whereas they
could have had considerable time for input into the known alternatives
prior to the debate).
Accordingly, most systems of consensus decision making place a
premium on participation, empowering those whose alternative time uses
are less attractive or remunerative.
Three key issues tend to define a particular type of consensus
decision making: degree of agreement or unanimity required, timing of
presentation including division of time among urgent versus important
followup to action including the monitoring that arises from dissent,
and from claims of majority proponents whose preferred course of action
is being taken over minority objections.
There is also the question of facilitation or process leadership,
which is handled separately at the end of this article.
Consensus is not unanimous: so who must agree?
A healthy consensus decision making process usually encourages and outs
dissent early, maximizing the chance of accommodating the views of all
It also usually assigns a role to the dissenter, e.g. the Vatican
assigns the role of devil's
advocate to a specific priest who argues against beatification of a
saint, to ensure the case 'against' remains well represented. After the
decision, the dissenting minority may have some role to play in
monitoring the decision.
In the Supreme
Court of the United States, both the majority opinion and minority
opinion are equally well documented, as the legal grounds for agreeing
with either may exist in some court in future.
Differing degrees of consensus provide differing group dynamics.
If unanimity is rejected, then various definitions of consensus can
be invoked, most easily defined as follows: Unanimity:
Many groups consider unanimous decisions a sign of agreement,
solidarity, and unity.
However, there is considerable and difficult-to-controvert evidence
that most unanimous decisions are a sign of coercion, fear, undue
persuasive power or eloquence, inability to comprehend alternatives, or
plain impatience with the process of debate.
The ancient Jewish Sanhedrin
courts rejected all unanimous verdicts and let the accused go free, on
the assumption that the accused had not had any adequate defense.
The New Testament records the hastily-convened illegal Sanhedrin of
Pharisees that condemned Jesus as a unanimous verdict - one unacceptable
under Torah law. Such practices were actually criticized by Jesus and
other contemporary rabbis, and many believe they reflected the influence
of more authority-driven Roman law (on which our current jurisprudence
in the Western world is based).
"Unanimity minus one" or U-1, requires all delegates but
one to support the decision.
The individual dissenter cannot block the decision although they may
be able to prolong debate (e.g. via a filibuster).
The dissenter may be the ongoing monitor of the implications of the
decision, and their opinion of the outcome of the decision may be
solicited at some future time.
Betting markets in particular rely on the input of such lone
dissenters, which discipline the market's odds, and profit handsomely
when they correctly foresee the future.
A betting market can reasonably be considered a U-1 consensus system
on the odds themselves: the lone bettor against the odds profits when
his or her prediction of the outcomes proves to be better than that of
Even the simple majority-rule systems tend to invoke U-1 rules when
setting agendas, that is, a single individual cannot propose a measure,
it must be 'seconded' to be heard out.
"Unanimity minus two" or U-2, does not permit two
individual delegates to block a decision, nor one, but it curtails
debate with a lone dissenter more quickly so that dissenting pairs
can present multiple (hopefully different) views of what is wrong with
the decision the majority is contemplating.
By focusing on a pair of dissenters, and allocating less time to lone
wolves or 'consensus thugs', a U-2 system tends to form stronger bonds
among those who find themselves 'alone on an island with' each other.
Pairs of delegates should be empowered to cut deals, make ethical
tradeoffs, and otherwise find the common ground that will enable them to
convince a third, decision-blocking, voter to join them.
If two individual delegates cannot convince a third delegate in some
finite period of time to join them, then their arguments are considered
to be unconvincing or immature or self-interested.
However, the consensus process of U-2 has maximized their chance to
get to know each other and to cooperate, so a truly effective
presentation and marshalling of support may be possible later on.
Venture capitalists tend to value these traits, and so most will
consider hearing a business plan only if it is presented by a pair of
business partners already committed to working with each other.
Since only a tiny minority (under 1%) of business plans heard are
funded, the experience of joint development of an entrepreneurial
opportunity (which itself must challenge majority views of value
prevalent in the market, or it fails) is considered to be very
Venture capitalists often remark after losing money that they do not
regret it, as they learned and gained a great deal from having funded a
particular pair of business partners.
If two people dissent against some common measure, it's more likely
that the discussion between them can be extended to third parties
easily, since it is already verbalized and illustrated. Western European
and derived court systems recognize this by strongly encouraging
criminal defendants or civil plaintiffs to get an attorney's aid, so
that their case can be fully heard out long before the decision.
"Unanimity minus three", or U-3, and other such systems
tend to simply recognize the ability of three or more delegates to
actively block or sabotage a decision; A decision is moot if sufficient
opposition is present to block implementation; However, there is
controversy over whether a small group of dissenters, e.g. militants or terrorists,
is fundamentally morally different than a large minority, e.g. an opposition
party with support of double-digit percentages of the population.
Accordingly U-3 and lesser degrees of consensus are usually lumped in
with statistical measures of agreement: "80%, mean plus one sigma,
Two-Thirds, 50% plus one" levels of agreement are simply
statistical measurements of the number of delegates (or voters that they
represent by proxy) agreeing.
They imply a smaller group that disagrees with the decision, or
abstains, and which may have various rights to appeal or to overturn a
decision later, perhaps even before it is actually implemented.
A majority rule system usually has at least some measures where
executive veto or larger agreement (typically 2/3) is required for
implementation of any measure.
For instance, the President of the United States can veto a bill
presented by (and agreed by a simple majority vote in each house of)
Congress, but the Senate can override his veto by a 2/3 majority vote.
Thus there is considerable effort put into anticipating vetos, levels
of party discipline or factional dealing... as a result the Senate very
often resembles a combination market and consensus decision making
forum, with members trading off votes to establish support for measures
they truly care about, giving up power on measures they don't care as
As this example suggests, timing can count for as much as voting.
The quality of alternatives considered is, all else being equal,
proportional to the amount of time spent gathering and comparing and
The term deliberative
democracy reflects the deliberation that underlies all good
consensus decision making. Jon
Nader, and others have advocated deliberative measures to extend the
time for 'sober second thought'.
A fictional example of deliberative democracy is the Entmoot
R. R. Tolkien's novel The
Two Towers, the second part of The
Lord of the Rings.
who are large ancient living intelligent trees, spend days discussing
the issue of whether to go to war, in their verbose and many-syllabled
It provided an example of a decision wherein individual risk was
high, and coercive force was difficult or lacking, therefore suited to
Timely decisions are important.
In many cases, a wrong decision taken in time can be better than a
good decision taken later.
Agenda forming and presentation of issues at the right time, when
there is sufficient time for their debate, and less urgent issues can
take a back seat in debate, is a key responsibility of a leader of any
decision making process, but particularly true in consensus styles.
Measures to put items on the agenda, or deny them time on the agenda,
and especially deadlines for changes to the agenda (e.g. can the agenda
itself be changed during the meeting?), are particularly critical in
To achieve a balance between urgency and importance, it's common to
reserve some considerable amount of time for matters that are not
urgent, but important at all times, e.g. the decision process itself,
which takes care to maintain. Consensus decision processes tend to
accelerate, as rising trust over the course of the meeting, combined
with fatigue, increase individual tolerance and the cost of dissent.
Placing difficult agenda items first tends to speed a meeting, with
the risk that important, but less complex decisions will not be achieved
Decisions about when to split up into 'working groups', how to handle
agendas, how to deal with changes to agendas or working groups 'from the
floor', etc., are all about the allocation of the group's time to urgent
versus important matters.
No consensus decision process can survive without close attention to
all these procedural matters, and hearing out issues of safety,
fairness, and closure that arise from their application in practice.
Action, monitoring and followup
Action is the point of decision.
Without action, the decision is just talk.
Military leaders from Alexander
the Great to the present have emphasized that orders simply do not
get carried out unless they are personally followed up by the commander.
The same applies to group decisions, perhaps even more so.
Obviously, the opposing minority is not going to do a good job
ensuring that a measure is carried out, although they can ensure that
problems that arise from it are well-documented, and that inconveniences
of its implementation are contained.
However, they can also take steps to ensure that the inconvenience of
implementation is maximized, so as to make the point that the measure
was impractical and ill-advised from the beginning.
A good example is the Canadian federal government gun registry,
mandated by Bill C-68, and opposed by hunting and other lawful firearms
While protesting the bill and predicting a disaster, these opposition
groups encouraged non-compliance with the law, which played some role in
ballooning the costs of the registry, making it infeasible.
Such tactics can backfire, as proponents of the measure can argue
that without the active opposition, the measure would have been
practical and affordable.
A major issue in consensus decisions is whose view of the actual
outcome to trust, and who to permit time to present their view.
Consensus decisions are especially vulnerable to sabotage of all
kinds, so the assignment of action roles, monitoring (from the original
majority and minority opinion to some future time when the results of
both sets of predictions can be debated), and other followup (e.g.
assessing support of the public for a party after it has taken and
publicized a particular measure), is a key responsibility of consensus
Aside from these abstract factors, one must consider the practical
matter of the facilitation process.
A hierarchical point of view is that leadership or management of the
process (as opposed to leadership of a faction or party) is required.
The role of a facilitator in a consensus decision making process can
be much more difficult than that of a simple-majority-party leader if
group members distrust each other or unconsciously use manipulative
For a proponent of any given alternative, reducing objections to
their plan by eliciting information or preferences from proponents of
other alternatives is difficult if people distrust each other;
maniuplative opponents will find it advantageous to misrepresent their
concerns or refuse to negotiate.
For these reasons, consensus processes usually require trust among
participants and skilled, patient facilitators able to synthesise the
state of a proposal.
An argument against consensus decision is that few motivated
facilitators are willing to assign themselves a role guiding processes
rather than pursuing and promoting specific measures empowering
Hock described his role at Visa
International, an organisation focussed on profit-making, it was
something that anyone could do, but almost no one learnt to do well, and
which was largely thankless.
Similar sentiments have been echoed by many "leaders" of
organizations committed to peace,
justice, which tend to have diffuse benefits, and concentrated costs
(the opposite of the factors leading to a tragedy
of the commons, a key issue in political
However, leaderless organisations committed to peace,
justice, where trust builds up and where different participants are
encouraged to learn facilitation skills, find that consensus decision
making is a practical and powerful tool.
Some organizations have abandoned consensus decision making for
simple majority, judging that the difficulty of building a process to
formally weigh all of these factors is not worth it, and that these
factors can be handled better informally (i.e. in offline discussions
before and after debate) than through the process of consensus itself,
at the risque of creating a de facto clique that makes the real
Before considering any consensus decision making process, a group
would be wise to consider the feasibility of building up sufficient
trust among participants and the willingness of participants to learn
facilitation skills, and whether or not these are compatible with the
operational structure of the organisation.
For example, an organisation with a President who hierarchically
controls operations could only be compatible with consensus decision
making if the President sincerely respected the consensus decision
It would also be intrinsically difficult for a competitive
organisation to use consensus decision making, since consensus is a
cooperative process, not a competitive process.
[Taken from http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/consensus-decision-making