Why the Consensus method of decision-making doesn’t work

There’s a time-honoured method of getting a group to make decisions, it’s intuitive and widespread in clubs and societies. Faced with a decision to use collective resources to achieve X or to pass the opportunity, the chairman calls for a show of hands.

The aim is to discover the view of the majority, and then get on and do it.

Now occasionaly an ermine squeezes his sinuous body into some groupings that lean politically in a different way from his general viewpoints. Most notably the transition movement where I was introduced to the Consensus Decision Making process. It’s a bizarre practice, which appears to be popular in left-of-centre circles. Apparently it originated in the feminist and environmental movements, and as for that I am going to STFU because there be dragons of great passion and strongly held views, and that’s just the environmentalists…

Consensus is the method used by the Occupy Wall Street crowd, that spawned the St Paul’s anti-capitalist protest. Hat tip to the Archdruid Report which led me to this discussion of the fundamental ineffectiveness of Consensus as a way of self-governance or even deciding things.

I was introduced to the technique by a chap who I’ve got the utmost respect for, and it all seemed a good way to prevent minority points of view being railroaded out of the process. Although I’m generally a believer in benign dictatorship and effectiveness being inversely proportional to the number of decision makers, I was prepared to give it a go.

I experienced it as a long winded method of getting a group of people to do nothing at all for a while, all the time pretending to be refining their way to a decision. It was like the worst office meeting, in that dissent was bludgeoned out of the way because dissenters held up progress, which eats into drinking time, and let’s face it, you need a drink after a Consensus meeting. In the end I came to the conclusion that if a grouping used Consensus decision making, I would go and do something more useful, like herding neighbourhood cats or bailing out the North Sea with a teacup.

Once I managed to get such a group to take a decision by urging a show of hands, which happened before people realised that they were meant to be using the consensus method. A load of beer helped dull their awareness of such wrong thinking being snuck into the meeting.

Consensus seems to be a classic case of be careful what you wish for. It stops the railroading of the minority by the majority, by simply letting the minority filibuster the majority view into the ground. As the Archdruid opined, perhaps that’s why groupings that use consensus “have accomplished so little in the decades since that model came into fashion.”

Talking of effectiveness, the St Paul’s crowd puzzle the heck out of me. If you want to picket capitalism, it seems curious to pick on God rather than Mammon. If you want banks in London, the go east, young man, to the urban canyons of Canary Wharf. To be effective, you must take the battle to the enemy…

Canary Wharf Tube Station in London's nouveau-riche financial district