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




4 thoughts on “Why the Consensus method of decision-making doesn’t work”

  1. I agree with you about consensus. Without rules and clear goals, trying to reach consensus is often a case of going around in circles and seldom coming to any kind of agreement beyond agreeing on the necessity of the “process” itself.

    I was just watching some American political commentary about the “Occupy Movement”in the States. As the commentators pointed out, there is no leadership of the movement, and there are no constructive suggestions, emerging from the movement, as to how they would address the problem of financial inequality in society.

    It kind of reminds me of that Monty Python classic, The Life of Brian, when the Galilean Liberation Front hold a meeting: “What have the Romans ever done for us ?!” “Yeah, what have the Romans ever done for us ?!” ( Pause) “Well,there’s the aquaducts…”

    “What is to be done ?” Yes, what is to be done ?


  2. That seems to be the issue with Occupy all round. It’s not enough to just curse the darkness, after some time you have to propose striking a light. Didn’t realise the problem was that old though, for Python to have satirised it!


  3. Consensus decision-making can work, if you take a leaf from the other side’s book and manufacture the consensus 😉

    In a previous chapter of my life I was one of those dragons, and for a while headed a branch of – well, let’s say a well-known environmental organisation. What I found worked best – in terms of formulating policy, getting things done and running campaigns – was a more traditional ‘general committee plus working groups’ structure. Though nominally a membership-led group, they sometimes needed to be educated about what they wanted 🙂

    Even on the general committee we had a few yoghurt-knitters of the type that can delay anything until the feng shui is right in a consensual process. However, they never had the stamina to volunteer for working groups, so we did end up making progress in the end. I admit I was more Machiavellian than my predecessor, but was also told by one of our adversaries (a politician…) that I had turned the group from a ‘fringe voice to ignore, into one that must be consulted’.

    Not very democratic I know, but I reasoned that as I and a few others did all the work – press releases, report writing, TV interviews, interminable meetings with politicians and civil servants etc etc – we got to make the decisions and the members were free to cheer us on or vote us out at the AGM. They chose to cheer us on and got on quietly with their yoghurt knitting.

    I can’t help wondering just how vulnerable OWS is to such a Trotskyite co-option?


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