Continuing our series of posts about decision-making, we’re starting to explore here the relationship between consensus decision-making and voting, and when to use different methods. Let us know about your experiences of decision-making in practice, citizen’s assemblies and other topics touched on in this blog.
If you’re a bit stuck, are facing a particularly difficult decision, or would just like an external facilitator to support your decision-making and group-work, get in touch. Read more about our facilitation services, and other help we can give you.
For some groups, solidarity is vital. Take two very different groups: pirates and Quakers. According to an article on pirate organisation by Peter T Leeson, called “An-arrgh-chy” (ho ho, or, rather, yo ho ho), pirate crews developed “articles of agreement [which] required unanimous consent. Consequently pirates democratically formed them in advance of launching pirating expeditions.” The Quakers say that they seek “dear unity”. They explain this desire as follows: “We deprecate division in our Meetings and desire unanimity. It is in the unity of common Fellowship, we believe, that we shall most surely learn the will of God.”
In the words of Bruno Lasker’s 1949 book ‘Democracy through Discussion’: “Democracy was not conceived of [in the town meeting of old], and is not so conceived in other pre-industrial village communities the world over, as a struggle in which one interest group would win and the other lose. All had to be satisfied to some extent with the decision finally arrived at, or the security of the whole community might be undermined.”
All these groups use some form of consensus decision-making.
There are two mistakes that groups can make. The first is not paying attention to solidarity when you should. This was revealed, all unawares, by a member of the University of Kent’s Conscious Consumers group:
“Well, one disagreement was about doing ‘this Coke machine is ethically out of order’ signs everyday on the Coke [vending] machines [in the Student Union], and one person… seemed to have a problem with it, and so we had a vote, and she was outvoted, and that was how it was resolved…. And I never saw her here again after that, funnily enough.”
The second is using consensus when there isn’t sufficient group solidarity in place. Countries such as Argentina, Greece, Spain and Venezuela, where democracy has been in evident crisis, have given birth to assemblies where citizens, having lost faith in representative democracy, try and work out their own solutions. They tend to use consensus, but with a shifting cast of hundreds, they can’t possibly guarantee that people will value group solidarity. One assembly in Spain discussed a proposal that education should be ‘public, free, of good quality and secular’. One single person was able to block the suggestion that education should be secular.