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What Do You Do When Consensus Fails?

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

Lone Dissenter

This is the nightmare scenario for any consensus process: After months of hard work by 20 or 30 participants, one or two holdouts, perhaps representing narrow or personal interests, block agreement and frustrate the entire effort.

That is possible if the only route to agreement requires unanimous consent. There has to be a way to prevent the process from becoming the captive of a tiny minority. Otherwise, many conveners would hesitate to use a consensus-seeking process in the first place. The nightmare scenario seems all too plausible.

The answer is to have a backup method that would allow an overwhelming majority to conclude an agreement if full consensus could not be achieved. Defining such a method is thus one of the first steps the members of a collaborative group need to take.

The choice, though, is problematic because any alternative is a form of voting, and that seems to contradict the whole idea of consensus decision-making. The power of consensus, after all, is that it protects every interest represented in the process by requiring the agreement of all.

The danger of a voting alternative is the potential for changing the whole dynamic of the process. Instead of building consensus, the group may simply be counting votes. If that happens, participants would concentrate on satisfying the interests of their potential supporters and ignore the needs of the rest.

That is why the backup plan should serve only as a last resort after every effort has been made to meet the needs of all participants. This is a basic commitment that should be part of the group’s written groundrules both as a condition of membership and as guidance for the group’s deliberation.

Once that basic commitment is made, what would the alternative to a consensus decision look like? To figure that out, the group has to answer several questions.

What constitutes an overwhelming majority?

The decision of a group needs to represent “overwhelming” agreement by a super-majority. The specific percentage has to be large enough to be publicly convincing but not so large as to be unattainable in practice. It’s impossible to offer a fixed rule for all groups since much depends on the number of participants and complexity of the issues.

Who decides when it’s time to vote?

Commonly, either the facilitator/mediator or the group members themselves decide. If the facilitator makes the final call, he or she will do only after consulting the group to see if anyone feels that additional effort would be productive. If the group itself votes to use the backup plan, there is a further complication – which can stretch a group’s patience with procedural details to the breaking point – of determining how thatvoting would be defined. Many groups prefer to take the time for that step, however, because they want to keep all important decisions in their hands.

What if the minority includes an important constituency that can’t be left out?

Things get complicated here. The fact is that some groups are more important than others in securing formal adoption and effective implementation of an agreement. Sometimes, a group will agree that the majority must include certain organizations, such as the conveners of the process. In other cases, this issue may not be addressed at all. In effect, the need to prevent this possibility creates additional incentive to go the extra mile in trying to reach consensus.

What happens to the views and concerns of the minority?

It’s essential that members of the minority group have their views included in the final report or agreement text. They need the same opportunity as the others to explain their needs and the reasons why they could not be met by provisions of the final document. Further, the majority needs to spell out the good faith efforts they made to satisfy those interests. Without this careful presentation, the entire effort may come under attack as one that imposed its decision unfairly.

Other Strategies.

1. Political Consensus as the Goal.

It is possible to avoid the need for a specially defined voting alternative, however, by refocusing the initial definition of the goal of consensus. No one pursues consensus as an end in itself. In public policy, consensus is a means for demonstrating broad support for a proposed plan or agreement. By getting all the key interest groups to agree, the collaborative effort demonstrates to the formal public decision-maker that potential controversy, litigation and serious political dissent have been minimized beforehand. All the affected interests can present a united front and explain how the agreement addresses and resolves the major issues. That vastly increases the likelihood of formal adoption and subsequent implementation.

If the group considers consensus in this light, the goal could be defined as reaching the highest possible level of agreement in order to have a convincing and decisive impact on the formal adoption process. This is much closer to the what everyone understands as political consensus – broad public support that gives clear direction to public officials.

The commitment is made to work as hard as possible to address all the represented interests, but if that is not possible the full range of views on each issue will be presented in the final product of the group. This approach avoids the complexity and potential problems of voting procedures.

2. Consensus through Interest Groups.

There is another alternative that provides a more structured approach to achieve the same purpose. This requires agreement of the collaborative group to organize itself into interest groups (environment, business, community etc) and to rely on them to express agreement. The interest group voice speaks for each of its individual organizations.

Within each interest, the members make their decisions about what is acceptable to meet their needs. These decisions require a specified majority of the members rather than unanimity. It is thus up to each interest to deal with dissent within its own ranks. An agreement is reached by consensus among the interest groups, and there is no backup voting procedure.

Whichever method a collaborative group might adopt, it is essential that the rule be clearly defined at the outset. There is no room for confusion about so basic a matter as how a final decision will be reached.


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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