Consensus case study: Helpline

Matthew and I prepared a case study of Helpline for a workshop. We never got to use it, so we thought we’d describe it in case anyone else would like to have a go.

‘Helpline’ was the pseudonym given to a project in Boston, USA, called Project Place when it was studied in the 1970s by an American academic called Jane Mansbridge. She described it in her wonderful book, “Beyond Adversary Democracy”. Helpline at that stage described itself as:

“this city’s 24-hour crisis intervention center, providing counselling and referral information for people with emotional, legal, medical, drug, or life-support problems, plus access to ambulance services, emergency shelters, short and long-term counselling, special programs for teenagers.”

Helpline had a strong belief in equality. Everyone was paid the same and decisions were made by consensus.

Mansbridge described Helpline in great detail. We drew from her description two documents, which together make up the case study. First, we prepared nine character cards. Some drew very directly from Mansbridge’s interviews with Helpline staff. We adapted others a little more freely.  Our aim was that participants using the case study could explore consensus from the perspective of a character who was unlike them.

For instance, there was Deborah, who says about herself,

“I’m the newest member here. I’m more hesitant to say something, or to try to control a business meeting, or try to lead the way in making decisions. I rely on people who have been here longer. I feel sometimes like I should be taking on more responsibility, but I’ve never been someone who speaks out actively in groups. I disagree if I have to, but I don’t like to. I felt quite intimidated for a while….”

Second, we described a decision Helpline had to take. Some members of Helpline wanted to take a $15,000 contract to work with some young Air Force recruits who had asked for help improving the hotline and drug counselling service they had set up at their base. They thought it straightforward: the hotline already existed, it was needed, the volunteers who staffed it were untrained, the work would not be any sort of prop to the military, and the money was much-needed. So they were surprised and offended when others objected, and insisted that the issue be taken to Helpline’s regular open meeting.

We planned to invite everyone to consider Helpline’s consensus process from the perspective of their character. What are their wants and needs? What behaviours are they likely to adopt or support? We then were going to ask them to pair off with someone who is in a different position from them, and discuss how their behaviour and their interaction will that affect the collective ability to do consensus .

Rather good, we thought. Anyone want to have a go? Let us know how it works, and any adaptations and improvements you make