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A quick guide to 'decision making by consensus'

Introduction

Most have heard of the term 'consensus' and most probably know that it is used for decision making within the Indymedia Network. However, there seems to still be uncertainty about what it really is or how it works.

This document attempts to explain -in simple words- how decision making at the Indymedia Media Center works, or should work, and how consensus is applied.

If you would like to contribute to this text, please make ammendments at the bottom and sign it. And possibly e-mail me about it. Thank you.

What is 'decision making by consensus' ?

Consensus is a form of governing that is applied by most IMCs within the global network to manage decision making. While most work at IMCs gets done on a basis of spontaneous volunteering and common practice, sometimes there is a need for important decisions to be made which affect the entire group of activists as a whole. Those may include political decisions, changes in the groups most basic principles, longer or shorter term goals, questions of funding or collective actions against invididual members, such as banning a person from the group, and so forth.

Decision making by consensus is not a democracy. The term 'democracy', meaning 'rulership by the people' suggests power structures in which one rules over another. Easily, the term 'rulership by the people' can be interpreted as 'rulership by majority'.

In a reasonable and truly modern society, however, one has to realize that there is no majority without a minority, and that a majority has no right to exclude or discriminate against a minority.

Everyone's opinion counts. Everyone belongs to some kind of minority. And every minority has particular concerns or needs that want to be respected, no matter what the majority opinion. It shall be the network's aim to promote this understanding and eliminate oldfashioned concepts of minority exclusion, top-to-bottom structures of decision making and bottom-to-top allocation of responsibility.

Consensus, although rather new at political implementation, is not actually a new theoretical model for social management, but a fundamental behaviour in human social dynamics. Think of 'decision making by consensus' as an intuition of mutual trust and respect between members of a social group.

You have probably been utilizing consensus for decision making in a group a lot in your life.

Here's a common example:

Suggest a group of people that is planning on having a picnic in the park. One of them objects to it by proposing to go to the movies instead. Naturally, if everyone is keen to having a picnic in the park, the entire group is probably not going to sacrifice their day for the special wishes of a single individual. This one person is going to have to subject itself to the group's consensus and come along in order to remain integrated with the group. However, if the person actually objected to the group's plans for the day along the lines of "I don't think it's a good idea to have a picnic in the park, because it looks like it might start to rain", then we are dealing with a different situation. The group is now confronted with a new, diverse opinion, and every member of the group will be forced to think it over. If the majority of group members still thinks it's a better idea to have the picnic, we are in the same situation as before. But if the reasoning behind the objection seems fairly reasonable and trustworthy (that is, the possibility of rain appears rather likely), it might propagate itself through the group to a point where it chooses to go to the movies instead of having the picnic. In this case, a new consensus has been reached, due to the sufficiently reasonable and trustworthy objection of a minority individual.

You have probably experienced a lot of situations like that. It illustrates the power of individual opinion within the context of a group, even though it is voiced by a minority against a majority's opinion.

Any society or group of people with a minimal intellectual capacity lays the groundwork for consensus to work for decision making. Given the above group's members are intelligent enough to prefer staying dry over having a picnic in the rain, they will know what decision to make according to the information they have available to them.

If the majority had still insisted in the unlikeliness of rain and picnic, respectively, it would have been up to the single individual to choose between staying with the group or going to the movies alone. If the group had split into both, people preferring the picnic and others preferring the movies, they would have had the options of either splitting up into two seperate groups, or of applying direct democracy to decide which decision to make. In this case, they would have conducted a vote on it and have the majority of them determine what to do.

Usually in day-to-day life, democratic votes are only being utilized as a final resort, and not until 'decision making by consensus' has ultimately proven to bring about no quick result. That is, if a quick result is really needed.

A consensus decision's most basic procedure

As a simple rule of thumb it could be said that 'consensus' in itself has no universal rules. Instead, it is a largely intuitive process of finding an agreement between parties already sharing mutual principles of cooperation.

The dictionary meaning of the term 'consensus' sums up to the following:

a) general agreement b) the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned

As blurry as though this might sound, the concept of 'consensus' is as simple as can be. It basically means that, a decision or a practice of whatever kind is only of 'official' nature, if, or as long as, it is generally supported, ie. general consensus.

If respecting a past decision up to the point of preserving its official status until a new consensual decision is made, even though the past decision might have become obsolete, is considered common practice, then that's part of the group's consensus, too.

'Decision making by consensus' usually takes time. It requires that the opinion of most of those concerned is heard and that people are given enough time to consider. Rushed decisions might violate consensus if they were being made without the participation of everyone involved.

Consensus-based decision making of collective quality should follow a basic pattern similar to this:

1. A proposal is made.

There is two main types of proposals:

a) those that are the result of previous discussion and have thoroughly gone through a process of collecting ideas and criticism.

They should be brief, as everyone involved knows what they are about, summarize the logical outcome of its preceding debate and should have a clear, easy to understand phrasing of what the finalized proposal is.

b) those that are entirely new to the collective group and the product of a single person's or group's efforts.

Be as precise as possible about your proposal and take into consideration those who might not have an idea of what it is all about. Don't make it complicated. A proposal which is too difficult to understand, or too long and exhausting to be read by everyone might be rejected just because of that.

A good proposal's characteristic is not that of squarely being 'successful' in the ordinary, competitive sense, but of being objective and contributive to the project. The less personal advocacy you put into, and the less hype you create around a proposal, the more seriously it will be taken, and thus, the more successful it might be in proving itself useful to the project.

2. Objections to the proposal, suggested alterations or counter-proposals are made.

Make sure your objections are of contructive nature. Explain briefly and clearly your concerns about the original proposal and why you would rather do it differently. If possible, give credit to what you think is already good about the original proposal.

When suggesting counter-proposals, make sure wether they are really neccessary or wether it would be sufficient to just add an alteration to the previous proposal(s). When you do suggest one, make as clear as possible why you think doing so is necessary and what the core differences in it are to the original. Try to make the impression of a complementary product, and not that of a destructively competitive one.

As a group, give people enough time to think everything over. Consensus-based decisions need time. Not everyone is following the discussions on the mailing lists every day. If many objections, alterations or counter-proposals are being contributed, think about extending the deadline and let everyone know.

3. Offering a revised proposal which more suits the group's collective opinion.

When the collective group is having significant concerns about specific parts of your proposal, especially when those would hinder the proposal in being accepted, you might want to pull your proposal and offer a revised version instead.

This can be done multiple times, however, it should be done only if it is really neccessary, ie. if a proposal has been modified substantially and it might not be clear to anyone that the proposal has been changed. Let everyone know that the previous proposal has been pulled in favour of the new one, so people don't get confused, and so the group doesn't end up with several similar proposals floating around at the same time.

If a proposal gets replaced with a modified one, the deadline for a decision must usually be extended according to the group's common practice procedures - usually by the full amount of time.

4. Proposal gets accepted.

If most of those concerned have been given enough time to evaluate, or if a previously agreed to decision deadline has been reached, and the proposal is facing general acceptance and/or no major objections, it is considered approved. Abstaining with your opinion is understood as 'not disagreeing' with the proposal.

The proposal is then turned into reality by the group's common procedures or by a process set forth in the proposal.

5. Proposal gets turned down.

If a proposal fails to get general acceptance by the time of its deadline, or if it fails to gain sufficient support in the first place, it is considered 'blocked'.

Restrictions on how and when another proposal can be made on the same subject, after the previous had been turned down, may apply according to the group's or project's guidelines.

However, it is generally safe to say that whenever a proposal had freshly been turned down, repeating it without a substantial effort in revisioning will not be successful.

Please see your group's or project's guidelines for processing its decision making.

Examples: links to specific decision making process guidelines. flurrp.

What is an 'objection'?

An objection is whenever a person or group of people express their opinion to oppose an idea. They can be made by raising concerns over an idea, by suggesting alterations to it or by bringing in counter-proposals.

What is a 'block' ?

If the large majority of people or the large majority of opinions decides against a proposal or an idea or chooses to abandon it for lack of support, we have what one calls a 'block'.

A block is actually not an action in itself, but a proposal's state once it has been decided against on the basis of consensus. It is then said "The proposal has been blocked."

Therefore, no single person or group can actually 'block' someone's proposal - and would probably have a hard time doing so against the general consensus. All they can do is object to a proposal, raise concerns, bring in counter-proposals and then wait for the general public to evaluate them against the original proposal and make up its mind.

If a proposal is lacking support or if debate is going into a dead end, especially when a minority group is pushing a proposal forward against majority sentiment, or if a rushed decision would mean a sacrifice to the group's integrity, a block can be proposed on the basis that pushing the proposal carelessly against the flow of the group is a violation against the principles of the group itself. In most cases this leads to an often healthy delay in the decision making process, giving everyone the opportunity to further evaluate, or sometimes to a wholly new attempt that has the collective group start over with a different approach.

But no matter who a block is being asked for by, it remains subject to collective consensus and it never is the same as a veto! Making that distinction is crucial. They are not the same and should not be confused.

What if someone is disrupting or hijacking the group by persistently opposing anything it does?

First of all, as described above, a single person or a single group of people within a bigger number of groups should not have the right to veto or 'block' a consensus per se. A block actually really is the consensus itself by which a proposal is being rejected.

Of course, an individual person can ask for a block, or even demand it, on the basis of protecting the principles of the group or the group itself from being harmed by a possibly bad decision. However, wether a block is pursued remains subject to consensus by the majority of those involved.

Consensus only works if a community has a mutual understanding of its basic values and goals, such as the ones outlined in our network's 'Principles of Unity' of preserving integrity, peaceful collaboration, non-racism, etc.

If a person or group of people were disrupting the community or preventing it from functioning properly, or if they were failing to contribute in a meaningful way, they would simply be violating consensus.

One who violates consensus in a disrupting manner is not neccessarily part of it and the community may reserve itself the right to dispose of the disturbing factor. By no means should this disturbing factor for whatever reasons have the right to veto against the community, since nobody else does -or should- have that right.

Quite naturally, one who violates consensus himself should never expect his alleged 'blocking' to have significant weight on the collective.

What other forms of decision making are there?

Representative democracy: 'democracy' as we know it.

Representatives are elected, who are then making the decisions for you. Its initial idea was to insure only those with sufficient expertise would be in charge of important matters while giving the general public a means of asserting control over its decision makers.

These safeguards, however, are easily circumvented and representatives tend to overrate their qualifications by manipulating or hiding crucial information or by barring the general public from access to means of self-education.

A practical example of representative democracy at Indymedia would be the concept of 'liaisons' or spokesmen - individuals acting as a voice for their entire working group or IMC and participating in meetings or global working lists on their behalf.

The process by which any such liaisons are determined and the system by which they function should be be thought out very carefully by their respective collectives. Short-term rotation of optionally randomly selected liaisons/spokesmen, complete openness of their actions, the requirement of no less than two or three individuals acting as a liaison/spokesman or limiting their responsibilities to consultatory work, rather than decision making, can help prevent abuse.

Direct democracy: everyone has the right to a direct vote on decisions.

With the general public's increase in education and bigger access to resources and tools, direct democracy is becoming ever more sustainable. However, its decisions are still subject to majority rule and generally ignore minority opinion. Even a 2/3 majority on a decision would effectively exclude 1/3 of the general public and fail to pay sufficient attention to its concerns.

An apparent downside to directly democratic decision making on mailing lists or other forms of online-communication is that to effectively determine wether a decision is really in support of the majority of all those affected would require knowledge of how many individuals there really were, taking into account the possibility of multiple membership entries by the same individual, multiple individuals using a joint account for participation and the likelihood of deserted accounts.

It would also not place opinions against one another for evaluation subject only to reason, but multiply any opinion by the number of its supporters, thereby encouraging the crude practice of strength in numbers, which generally distorts an opinion's true value.

Technocracy: management of society by technical experts.

While this may seem a bit more efficient than representative or direct democracy, it is at the same time less democratic. It generally disregards the fact that technologically less savvy individuals should very well have a say in how things are run, especially - and fundamentally - if the decisions are affecting them as well.

On the other hand, 'Open Publication' content management systems, such as IMCs use them for publishing material to a wider audience, attempt to enable ordinary people to easily post news items or similar information and thus eliminate the neccessity of technical expertise in order to be able to express one's opinion.

It should also be understood that before giving technology, or privileges for access to it, away to a minority of tech-savvy individuals, attempts should be made to educate the general public in your technology and enable them to be empowered. Thereby, minimizing again the risk of abuse.

Autocracy: top-down decision making.

Although by many regarded as a no-no, autocracy (or dictatorship) can sometimes actually be appropriate. Especially in times of crisis, where quick decisions -best made by a designated expert- are crucial, and where consensus-based or democratic decision making would simply be too slow or insecure. One such example would be the Apollo missions to the moon, or more importantly Apollo 13's return mission to Earth, which were directed by a single mission commander.

However, the Independent Media Center will hardly qualify for this approach, as its members aren't organized in a pyramidical system of commanding authorities and people following their orders. In times of journalistic crisis, where quick decisions are needed, activists would rather organize in spontaneous chaos of horizontally collaborating action groups and make decisions based on improvised intuition. The clear advantage of this kind of crisis management is that by comparison to top-to-bottom structures that convey responsibilty to a single entity, a singular bad decision won't weigh in as much, or even spoil the entire mission.

So in our terms, anything like autocracy or dictatorship should still be avoided.

-- MicMatic - 21 Oct 2002

Other points of view on consensus - ConflictResolution

Please also see the various documents on consensus linked in to ConflictResolution - although many things in the above description are consistent with other viewpoints, the concept of a block (or veto) described above is a minority point of view on consensus. This doesn't mean it's wrong, of course... -- BouD - 26 Apr 2003

Addendum not by the original author

I want to highlight the point that other documents here in twiki and in numberous published sources describe a different view of what a block is and who can initiate it. The view expressed in this document is different from how blocks are described in most facilitation manuals, handbooks on consensus, and historical accounts of consensus. The difference is very significant, both in terms of logistics and the underlying ethical reasoning behind it. This last addendum is a note by -- JohnWindmueller - 05 Jan 2003


-- StrafWetBoek - 30 Jul 2004 Added galician language entry

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Topic revision: 25 Oct 2004, StrafWetBoek
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