Consensus decision making
Consensus decision-making is a group decision making process that seeks the consent, not necessarily the agreement, of participants and the resolution of objections.
Originating in the feminist and environmental movements, ‘Consensus’ is now the primary mode of organisation for many ‘activist’ groups and campaigns.
While groups can interepret "consensus" quite differently, with different thresholds of agreement and consultation, some basic principles always remain the same:
- Minority positions and dissenters are respected; their concerns are documented not silenced, even when a decision proceeds over their objections or without their participation - many groups attempt to impose a decision by intimidating dissenters against speaking up, this is not consensus decision-making, rather it is groupthink or intimidation. The final goal is harmonious/guided/caring decision making, not apparent unanimity. Unanimous decisions often result from lack of options, fear of isolation, or abbreviated debates and are rarely the best solution. Consensus is not unanimity is the title of several essays on this subject, all well worth reading.
- Stating an objection, concern, disagreement, lack of consent or dissent is not equivalent to stating that one is willing to interfere with the majority's decision or action - it may mean taking a different role (critique, support, mitigating harms) or no role, but not sabotaging, outing or breaching confidences that cause mistrust within the group. Those are the actions of the provocateur.
- Publicly speaking for the group (use of "we" and so on) must be minimized and confined only to the issues the group has consulted itself on
- When the preferred consensus process proves impossible to execute in the moment (e.g. under the pressure of a police attack on the street), it should fall back to a lower threshold (say all but two of a small group, or 3/4 of a large group) and abbreviated consensus process, not completely fail and fall back on following a single leader or simple majority with no options; groups should prepare for the pressures they anticipate and have discussed in advance the viable options under those forseen circumstances, to minimize their disharmony under pressure
- If a dissent/minority position proves correct, and was respected and documented when it was raised, that minority should use its credential to steer rather than split the group - help it identify biases in its own decision-making process (such as listening to the loudest voice) - only if the dissent/minority is completely disrespected or intimidated or ignored should it consider forming a new and separate group/faction.
A consensus facilitator should be able to answer several key questions before any process begins:
- What is the threshold of agreement for this kind of decision?
- For ejecting a disruptive person from a group, for instance, the threshold must be at most "unanimity minus one", as the disruptive person cannot remain with no support, but any conversation (between two persons) must be permitted to exhaust all possible alternative solutions
- For more ordinary reversible decisions in a small group "unanimity minus two" is more appropriate, as the "two" can continue forming dissent or minority positions outside the context of the group as a whole, and can characterize their reasons for disagreement in writing
- For high-pressure decisions a supermajority (4/5, 3/4, 2/3) and quick show of hands on only a few options may have to suffice
- How will dissent or minority positions be documented, and by whom?
- A secretary could commit to ensuring that even ineloquent members are supported in documenting their position, arguments and evidence
- A wiki could be specified to hold all the various positions, arguments and supporting evidence on a given issue in a particular format
- A simple audio recording could be made available to al participants, including those who weren't present, but had an interest
- How will affected persons who are not present be represented? Will proxies be permitted?
- A person with a specific concern to raise for another who could not be present might be allowed, or to count as a dissent on a decision, but not to block it unless the person who raised it felt it applied to the decision as modified and agreed, rather than as it was proposed
- Written proxies authorizing others to act for them generally at that meeting may be permitted, with some limitations on how many or how often they are to be used (for instance each member of a group may be able to proxy on one issue per meeting, and carry one other's proxy)
- No proxies might be permitted, but the facilitator may be inclined to defer to another meeting any issues where the interests or values of those who cannot attend may be involved, and may make it relatively difficult to make a binding decision on any such matter without them
- How is the agenda handled? What appears on it, what doesn't?
- A facilitator could accept resolutions or issues "from the floor" in a meeting, but this risks alienating those who did not attend because the published agenda contained no critical issues, but the final agenda did - so discussion may be allowed but decisions not allowed on these new "floor" issues/resolutions.
- A facilitator could require 48 or 72 hours notice of any issue to be debated, and even require a pre-debate (say in a wiki or blog or IRC/chat form) to frame the issue for the group, as in-person time is precious
- In an online meeting, a facilitator could ascertain whether someone not present could be invited in, or ask for a more general vote of all persons available but not attending (via text messages or etc.) whether a given issue could be raised, or must wait until the next meeting
- How much time for each item? In what subgroups?
- This can be done by allocation voting within the group, or by rough estimates of how long a facilitator thinks it will take to cover it. It may be necessary to schedule in fun breaks or other interludes to keep people interested, involved and not drifting off with disinterest.
- Small group break-offs (dividing the meeting into several sub-groups for a set period of time) help get specialized tasks done, or to iron out minor logistical wrinkles. It also helps up long, tedious meetings, and allows the whole team to get 3 or 4 things done simultaneously.
- Is this group making the final decision, or merely framing a preferred option for a larger group to eventually consider?
- In-person groups can often discover the fundamental differences between options and the emotional objections to them much more quickly, so if they can focus on this role, they can save a great deal of time for a larger group that does not have the opportunity to meet in person as often. In this role, a live group should neither originate any options (preferably gathering those online over a longer time) nor make any (reserving that for the larger assembly). See process and formal decisions below for an explanation of how this has been done in practice.
- In-person groups can appropriately make final decisions if they are empowered or entrusted (as officers or delegates) to do exactly that, within the confines of their mandate. Any dispute about the mandate whatsoever must be usually resolved by the general or larger assembly.
Obviously the facilitator must be familiar with all their technological options for contacting the group, documenting decisions, and so on. A non-technical person may require assistance for this, or the group may accept that a lack of consultation may arise from their decisions, or that individual members of a group or factions within it are responsible for marshalling any support for their positions that they hold.
 Process and formal decisions
For groups that must adhere to particular published rules, such as nonprofits or political parties or co-operatives, and which make decisions that a much larger group may be affected by, there is an obligation to follow a stricter process with multiple rounds of consultation and opportunity to improve or add options. Obviously this takes longer, so the weight of process available alwys depends on the time scale:
For instance, the method used by Green Parties in Canada has the following steps, suitable for an annual or bi-annual decision process
- Policy resolutions are gathered online for months, with maximum opportunity given to refactor them into combined or reconciled proposals
- The refactored proposals are put, in a ballot, to the entire membership, to rank as desirable to adopt, or important to debate, with two separate numbers. Those proposals receiving >60% support as "desirable to adopt" are adopted and become part of the Party's formal platform. Those receiving <40% support are dropped and not debated again. The organization's attention is focused thus on the proposals that receive between 40%+1 and 60%-1 support.
- At a live convention, the resolutions are debated in the rank order of importance set by the larger membership's votes. Those deemed least important will be debated only if time allows after the most important have been. Modifications and reframing of the resolutions are allowed from the floor to accomodate minor concerns, but not major modifications which would amount to new proposals/resolutions no one has voted on. If any proposal achieves 60%+1 support on the floor, it will be put to the membership in a separate ballot after the convention is over. A proposal must continue to achieve >40% support to be deemed worth debating, and that can be questioned by anyone in the convention. This is called the Bonser Method. Procedural decisions often require higher thresholds of support like 3/4 or (in small groups) U-2.
- Officers of the party are allowed to state their personal views but must state clearly in public where these differ from party positions.
- Publications and formal statements of the party are vetted to ensure that nothing inconsistent with the party's positions can be attributed to a party official source. Unofficial communications (like blogs) are clearly marked and may never appear with any party markings on them.
 Quarterly or Monthly
Quarterly or monthly consultations can be treated like annual ones for a very committed and technologically equipped group, or more like weekly ones for those with less reliable reach and involvement. Consensus decision making does not however allow longer term decisions, that could have been made with more consultation and notice, to ever be made without at least the degree of consultation of a weekly meeting. It is never acceptable to practice "consensus" among a small clique or subgroup, even a very transparent one, when the decision could have been put to a larger group of affected people efficiently. This is one way of stating Occupy's objection to secretive cliques & powers. It is the primary thing which distinguishes us from them. Movements that become clique- or staff-run and unnecessarily secretive are enemies, even if they start as friends. The entire history of the environmental and social movements shows the dangers of non-transparent cliques.
Weekly meetings are practical for any committed community group, such as the managers of a local farm market or organizers of a municipal referendum campaign. Most such meetings focus on the transmission of information, unfortunately, as it is hard to be sure on a weekly to monthly basis that everyone has all news. To minimize this, groups that find weekly meetings necessary probably need wikis and mailing lists (for ordinary news) and text messaging lists (for vital news only), so that information presentation at the meeting can be minimized (into a five slide presentation at most, with notice sufficient to allow dissenters to prepare their own such presentation(s) in response).
Decisions made on a weekly basis need not be delegated to a small trusted subgroup. Modern technology makes it easy to consult everyone in a weekly time frame. It is certainly possible to require 72 hours notice of a decision being made and take 72 hours for it to go into effect - that adds up to almost one week - e.g. if agenda items are in Monday 5PM, the meetings Thursday 5PM, and all decisions go into effect Sunday 5PM for the next week, then anyone who suddenly realizes they are affected still has 24 hours (Sunday 5PM-Monday5PM) to propose new options.
Even the most basic online tools make it practical to apply formal processes to weekly meetings, e.g. the openpolitics.ca wiki meeting rules  with agenda examples. Thse draw on the General Rules Of Online Procedure or GROOP  which have variants for many different media, all of which require organizers or facilitators to decide:
- notice - when are agendas frozen?
- quorum - who or how many must attend to make the meeting valid?
- proxy - how are those not able to attend, or who did not know about the meeting, represented?
- consensus - threshold for each type of decision
- followup - how to ensure the decisions occur
Decisions made on a day to day basis must normally be delegated to a small trusted subgroup. They can however still be transparent, fully documented and subject to ratification by a larger assembly. Online tools make it increasingly practical to apply formal processes to daily meetings, but more appropriate perhaps are methods from technical project management (like the Agile/Scrum/XP methods) relying on extremely rapid testing and diagnostic discipline.
Methods suitable for daily consensus for a small group meeting in person, with common and limited conerns exclusive to themselves with no need for wider consultation, do exist, e.g. the Otesha project  rules are for bicycle travellers giving presentations on sustainable/transparent/resilient technology and choices. They meet " nightly to review the route for the next day; plan & debrief presentations; do any work required for presentations, workshops and other random events; and deal with any issues that needed to be discussed as a group."
 See also
- Occupy Encyclopedia
- Occupy movement
- Occupy Wall Street
- Political philosophy
- General Assembly
- Virtual Assembly
- Participatory democracy
- Direct democracy
- Nonviolent Action
- C.T. Lawrence Butler
- Consensus decision-making on Wikipedia
- Consensus Process on Occupy.net
- A Critique: Consensus Decisionmaking and its Discontents
- Combating the Delphi Technique and Occupy Infiltration
- Articles on consenus by C.T. Lawrence Butler
- Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe
- David Graeber on Wikipedia.