consensus decision making

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By Andreas Speck

Introduction

Within nonviolent movements, and especially during nonviolent (direct) actions, the question of decision making requires special attention. As nonviolence is more than the absence of violence, and closely linked to issues of power, the methods of decision making used within nonviolent movement need to avoid creating new relationships of power-over, and need to be participatory and empowering.

This article focuses especially on decision making during and before a nonviolent action.

Consensus decision making and affinity groups

Organising for nonviolent action is (often) based on affinity groups, autonomous groups of 5-15 persons where people trust each other and can rely on each other (see the article on affinity groups.

Consensus decision making differs greatly from majority decision making. While majority decision making often leads to a power struggle between two different solutions, consensus decision making aims to take everyone's concerns on board, often modifying a proposed solution several times in the process. It is very much based on listening and respect, and participation by everyone.

Seeds for Change, a UK based trainers' collective, defines consensus as follows: Consensus is a decision-making process that works creatively to include all persons making the decision. Instead of simply voting for an item, and having the majority of the group getting their way, the group is committed to finding solutions that everyone can live with. This ensures that everyone's opinions, ideas and reservations are taken into account. But consensus is more than just a compromise. It is a process that can result in surprising and creative solutions - often better than the original suggestions. (Seeds for Change, Consensus Decision Making)

All these aspects are very important in nonviolent action, especially when people put themselves with their bodies "on the line".

Consensus levels

Consensus does not necessary mean that all agree 100% - while this might be the optimum, it is in practice often not the case. It is therefore important that everyone in the group is aware of different levels of support or non-support that can be given to a certain proposal:

Non-support: "I don't see the need for this, but I'll go along with it."

Standing aside: "I personally can't do this, but I won't stop others from doing it." The person standing aside is not responsible for the consequences. This should be recorded in the minutes.

Veto/major objection: A single veto/major objection blocks the proposal from passing. If you have a major objection it means that you cannot live with the proposal if it passes. It is so objectionable to you/those you are representing that you will stop the proposal. A major objection isn't an "I don't really like it " or "I liked the other idea better." It is an "I cannot live with this proposal if it passes, and here is why?.!". The group can either accept the veto or discuss the issue further and draw up new proposals. The veto is a powerful tool and should be used with caution.

Agree to disagree: the group decides that no agreement can be reached on this issue.

Reaching consenses - process

There are lots of consensus models (see flowchart on the right). The following basic procedure is taken from Peace News (June 1988), a magazine for peace activists:

:#The problem, or decision needing to be made, is defined and named. It helps to do this in a way that separates the problems/questions from personalities.

:#Brainstorm possible solutions. Write them all down, even the crazy ones. Keep the energy up for quick, top-of-the head suggestions.

:#Create space for questions or clarification on the situation.

:#Discuss the options written down. Modify some, eliminate others, and develop a short list. Which are the favourites?

:#State the proposal or choice of proposals so that everybody is clear.

:#Discuss the pros and cons of each proposal - make sure everybody has a chance to contribute.

:#If there is a major objection, return to step 6 (this is the time-consuming bit). Sometimes you may need to return to step 4.

:#If there are no major objections, state the decisions and test for agreement.

:#Acknowledge minor objections and incorporate friendly amendments.

:#Discuss.

:#Check for consensus.

Consensus in large groups - spokescouncil

The model of consensus decision making described above works well within one group. However, bigger nonviolent actions require the cooperation of several affinity groups.

The Spokescouncil is one of the most common tools for making consensus decisions in large groups. In a spokescouncil, smaller groups come together to make shared decisions. Each group is represented by their 'spoke' – they communicate to the meeting through him or her, allowing hundreds of people to be represented by fewer voices. What the spoke is empowered to do is up to their affinity group. Spokes may need to consult with their group before discussing or agreeing on certain subjects.

Here is an outline process for a spokescouncil (Note: step 1 and 2 can also take place in advance within the individual small groups).

:#Whole group – Introduce the issue and give all the necessary information

:#Explain both the consensus and the spokescouncil process

:#Form into small groups – these could be a random selection of people at the meeting, existing affinity groups, or groups based on where people live or based on a shared language.

:#The small groups discuss the issue, gather ideas and discuss pros and cons - coming up with one or more proposals.

:#Each small groups selects a spoke – a person from their group that will represent the group's view at the spokescouncil. Small groups decide whether the spoke is a messenger for the group – e.g. relays information between the small group and the spokes council ­ or whether the spoke can make decisions on the group's behalf at the spokescouncil.

:#Spokes from all groups come together in the spokes council. They in turn present the view of their group. The spokes then have a discussion to try and incorporate the various proposals into one workable idea. During this process the spokes may need to call time out to refer with their groups for clarification or to see whether a modified proposal would be acceptable to them. It is important for the spoke to speak on the behalf of the group and not to present their own personal point of view.

:#Once the spokescouncil has come up with one or more possible proposals the spokes meet with their groups and check for agreement and objections. Groups can also suggest further modifications of the proposals.

:#Spokes meet back at the spokes council and check whether the groups agree. If not all groups agree, the discussion continues.

Experiences and problems

The model described above has been used in a wide range of large scale nonviolent actions: from Seattle 1999 over various anti-nuclear energy actions in Germany since 1997 (Castor - with up to 9000 participants) to other anti-globalisation and anti-war protests. Many of these experiences point to a changed political environment since the model was first used in the 1970s. This has consequences for the way groups have to organise for large-scale actions.

Very few affinity groups today work long-term. For example, the German anti-nuclear campaign "X-thousands in the way" works less with existing groups. Though they still exist and form the core of the action, most activists join as individuals or in small groups, and only form affinity groups on arrival. Therefore one or two days of preparation are needed before an action, to turn a chaotic mass into a community ready and able to act. And even this community is little more than an expanded core of participants. Most activists join spontaneously and without preparation, and the action has to be planned in a way that makes this possible (Jochen Stay, Preconditions and social-political factors for mass civil disobedience, The Broken Rifle No 69, March 2006).

Another options is to base larger actions on the autonomy of individual affinity groups, which plan and carry out a variety of small scale actions simultaneously on their own. The "large-scale" is then achieved through the number of parallel actions.

The first option is more appropriate when one of the aims is to integrate a large number of new activists. The action is generally more low-risk, and publicly announced. The latter option is more suited to high-risk actions or when a higher level of police repression can be expected.

Conclusions

There are many different formats and ways of building consensus, and there is a wide range of experience, which shows that it can work. There are however a few conditions that have to be met for consensus building to be possible:

  • Common Goal: All members of the group/meeting need to be united in a common goal, whether it is an action, living communally or greening the neighbourhood. It helps to clearly establish what this overall goal of the group is and to write it down as well. In situations where consensus seems difficult to achieve, it helps to come back to this common goal and to remember what the group is all about.
  • Commitment to consensus building: All members of the group must be committed to reaching consensus on all decisions taken. It can be very damaging if individuals secretly want to return to majority voting, just waiting for the chance to say "I told you it wouldn't work". Consensus requires commitment, patience and willingness to put the group first.
  • Sufficient time: for making decisions as well as to learn to work in this way.
  • Clear process: Make sure that the group is clear about the process they will use for tackling any given issue. Agree beforehand on processes and guidelines. In most cases this will include having one or more facilitators to help the group move through the process.