|Questioning "Consensus" Decision-Making||<– Date –> <– Thread –>|
|From: Dan Suchman (71756.2661compuserve.com)|
|Date: Thu, 19 Oct 1995 16:31:41 -0500|
In several of the thoughtful responses I received on the subject of "Base Model" Cohousing, people questioned or criticized my treatment of consensus decision-making as an "option", rather than an essential element of the "base model". At the risk of becoming the "village heretic", I'd like to begin a critique of the several types of decision-making that have been loosely grouped under the description "consensus", and their value in creating and sustaining cohousing communities. MY BIAS: First I must confess my bias against consensus decision making (at least as I have seen it practiced in several cohousing communities and one other intentional community that I have visited). I simply do no buy its implied premises that the "contributions" of all participants are equally valuable, or that all conflicting points of view and feelings must somehow be healed and reconciled before the group can move forward. I do believe that everyone has a right to be heard. However, I do not believe that everyone has the right to impose their minority view-points upon the larger group or to frustrate group process. At the same time, I believe that minorities deserve protection from *certain types* (but not all) forms of tyranny by the majority. As an extreme example, I don't believe the Jeffrey Dammers of the world deserve protection from the mainstream belief that cannibalism is not an acceptable practice. THE POSSIBLE BENEFITS OF CONSENSUS: In fairness to proponents of consensus, I acknowledge that it may provide some benefits that democratic process may not. It is certainly more "inclusive" (if one believes that to be an inherent virtue -- I do not). It also probably forces participants to examine more closely the possible merits of minority points of view. This may occasionally result in a solution or even an entire paradigm shift that benefits the majority. Consensus my also allow minority participants to feel more fully "heard" and "understood", and thereby help them "buy into" the decisions ultimately reached. But at what cost should we pursue these occasional benefits? WHO'S DEFINITION OF CONSENSUS: And just what IS consensus decision-making? As I understand it, the seminal Quaker model [those knowledgeable of Quaker practices, please help me out here]of consensus most often referred to within cohousing does not require unanimity. It also allows individuals to "block" consensus, but only under extraordinary circumstances in which a decision might cause irreparable harm to the community as a whole. My understanding is that, in the Quaker tradition, a "block" is not a legitimate or acceptable means of enforcing a personal preference against the will of the majority. It is also my understanding that the condition of "consensus" is determined by someone within the group who devines the "sense" of the group, without actually taking a count or vote of those in favor or against the proposal. NOT APPLICABLE TO COHOUSING: I believe the Quaker model of consensus to be inappropriate to American cohousing (and most other American communities) for several reasons: LACK OF COMMON VALUES AND VISION: First, unlike the Quakers (or any other religious or quasi-religious group), the residents of most cohousing communities do not have a strong set of common goals and values toward which they are all working in unison -- that it, even a cohousing community of exclusively well-educated, middle-income white folks (or African Americans for that matter) can have irreconcilable differences in ideologies, values and visions for the community. Stated simply, a group is unlikely to reach agreement on "means" if it has not yet agreed on "ends". I believe that this problem can be mitigated in part by the development of a strong and detailed "mission statement" during the formation stage. However, the mission statements that I have seen are usually little more than a page or less of platitudes (e.g., "We will all respect one another"), providing little practical guidance or information to prospective members. Even when the mission statements are more detailed, new members soon replace old ones, bringing with them new values and visions. Having new members go through the perfunctory exercise of reading and signing the old mission statement does little to change this. I acknowledge that democratic decision-making (voting) does not completely alleviate this problem. However, democracy allows the group to act when necessary, even if a few people don't agree. LACK OF COMMON UNDERSTANDING OF AND SKILLS AT CONSENSUS: None of the cohousing communities with which I am familiar have a clear, detailed, written explanation of their consensus decision-making process. In short, there seems to be no way for these communities even to determine when consensus has been reached! I've more often than not seen consensus confused with unanimity. If a mere 12 jurors must struggle for weeks to make a single unanimous decision, what does this portend for a community of 80 people that faces a much larger number of decisions? Very few of us have been trained in, or even grown up around, consensus decision-making. It is not a familiar or mainstream form of process in the U.S. Because it does not "come naturally" to most of us, we are likely to misunderstand it and do it less skillfully than those participating in the Quaker model that we try to emulate. In addition, the compositions of our communities change over time. This will require that each new arrival be trained and brought up to speed. I suggest that these continuing drains on community time and energy is not worth the purported benefits (assuming such benefits truly exist). In addition, having to adopt consensus as the primary decision making mechanism creates yet another barrier between cohousing and the American mainstream that could most benefit from cohousing. Almost every person to whom I describe my community asks incredulously, "you mean everybody has to agree in order for the group to make a decision?!" I try to explain that consensus does not require that in theory, but that it seems to end up that way in practice. Consensus alone is a major deterrent to the mainstream of wanting to live in cohousing. PREVAILING BELIEF THAT CONSENSUS PRECLUDES DELEGATION: In the several communities with which I am familiar, the strongest advocates of consensus are also the most vocal opponents of delegation of decision making to individuals or sub-groups. Even those who pay lip-service to delegation seem to want the right to second-guess or veto the decision purportedly "delegated". I suggest that consensus does not preclude delegation. In fact, the larger the community (and all communities of more than about 12 people), the more essential is delegation to the effective operation of group decision-making. I believe this to be true regardless of whether the prevailing decision-making mechanism is consensual or democratic, hierarchical or egalitarian. Perhaps the reluctance to give up control is a problem endemic to American cohousing pioneers. But give up control we must if we want the group to function as a whole. See especially the example under the next heading. ATTEMPTED APPLICATION OF CONSENSUS TO DESIGN ISSUES. Even the most die-hard proponents of consensus must acknowledge that there are certain types of decisions that do not lend themselves to consensus process. This is especially true of design issues, which are inherently subjective and not amenable to rational discussion. I can think of one particularly striking example of the problem in which an entire cohousing community was attempting to design a fence. Even after extensive research and meetings by a sub-committee, forty or so people sat through two general meetings, of several hours each, debating the merits of various materials and the placement of screws and other connections to used on this $1,500 fence. Someone estimated that, assuming each participant's time to be worth $10 per hour, over $5,000 was spent on the DECISION alone -- ignoring the cost of labor and materials. As best I could discern, the excess time and energy had done little more than allow a small number of opinionated and controlling people to work out on the group some of their family of origin problems. BAD PROCESS MAKES BAD DECISIONS: All of these reasons contribute to a system that is inefficient (slow and expensive), indecisive (does nothing rather than risking conflict), stifles leadership (empowers the weak and non-participatory to undermine at the last minute the hard work and research of others) and tends to produce bland, low-quality "least common denominator" or "least-offensive" solutions. POOR STUDENTS OF HISTORY: In his recent post to cohousing-l about "base model" cohousing, Frank Mancino suggests that "[s]ometimes it is useful to consider things in a historical perspective." I agree completely. While living in and with cohousing over the past few years I continue to be amazed by how disinterested in, and unimpressed by, history are the vast majority of American cohousing pioneers. One need not be "shackled to the past" to learn from it. Consider instead the old saying that "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it." It may be true that consensus decision-making is part of most Danish cohousing communities. But, Chuck and Katie do not expressly advocate it as an essential element of American cohousing, and I've seen little if any evidence that consensus works well within a community of heterogeneous, individualistic Americans. Perhaps the best-known and one of the longest lived examples of a secular American intentional community is Twin Oaks, in Virginia. Twin Oaks, which thrives today, was formed more than 25 years ago on secular principals of cooperation and egalitarian government. It does not now and never has used consensus decision-making. Kat Kinkade, one of its founders, has lived there on and off since its formation and has written two richly detailed books about the community, A WALDEN TWO EXPERIMENT (written when the community was five years old) and more recently IS IT UTOPIA YET? (written after the community 25 years old). I highly recommend the latter to those who aspire to design an egalitarian system or work and government. On consensus, Kat says the following: > "The above defense of the planner system [used at Twin Oaks] asopposed to consensus, > has drawn strong objections from some people within the intentional communities > movement who have read this manuscript. The essence of their rebuttal is that consensus > procedures, properly practiced, do not have to take a long time. They say that the use of > consensus process requires education, but once people understand how to use it, it need > be no more cumbersome than the planner system and will result in better feelings in > addition. In response, I will merely say that if I ever saw this demonstrated in a large > community [Twin Oaks contains approximately 80 people] with numerous pressing, > controversial issues that affect the members' personal lives, I would be convinced. So far > I'm not. Frank Mancino also cites an article in the Summer '95 issue of Wilson Quarterly which "discusses a number of still functioning communities in the US, and Britain, none of which seemed to be based on consensus -decisionmaking." I'd be interested to hear from any readers who can cite (by name) examples of secular, non-ideological American intentional communities of more than 20 adults, that have existed for more than 10 years, and that have always used undelegated consensus as their only (or even primary) decision-making mechanism. SUMMARY / SUGGESTIONS: In summary, I suggest that we reexamine the inclusion of consensus in "base model" cohousing. As currently practiced, it doesn't seem to work very well and it seems to alienate from cohousing many of the people who could most contribute to and benefit from a cohousing life-style. If eliminating consensus from cohousing seems like too much to ask of it proponents (many of whom I admire and wish to work with), consider perhaps diffusing a bit some of the disadvantages, for example by delegating (REALLY delegating -- not just forming an advisory group) most decisions to smaller sub-groups and/or individuals. I personally could live with consensus decision-making if the entire group faced only two consensus decisions each year: appointment of a board of trustees/directors/planners (having plenary authority - and who may delegate to sub-groups), and approval of an annual budget. Under my proposed model, all other decisions would be delegated by the board to autonomous individuals and sub-groups who would poll and/or interview the group at large, but who in the end would make the decision (despite the few inevitable objections and criticisms), within the budget allocation already approved by the group and/or the board. Subgroups could themselves use consensus. I call this model "Representative Consensus" [analogous to "Representative Democracy"], rather than Direct Consensus. I'd be interested to hear your comments and suggestions on such a model. Dan Suchman Winslow Cohousing Bainbridge Island, WA
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