Questioning Consensus -- Delegation
From: Dan Suchman (
Date: Wed, 25 Oct 1995 00:00:34 -0500
Thank you, Mac Thomson, for acknowledging my post of 10/19 titled "Questioning
Consensus", and for your comments on delegation.  I thought that the issue of
delegation, alone, might warrant a few words.

WHAT IS DELEGATION?  I have found it difficult to discuss with other cohousers
the concept of delegation, largely because of confusion and disagreement over
the very meaning of the word.  As used in this discussion (and my
recommendations for cohousing), I intend the word "delegate" to have its
secondary meaning, according to Webster's: "v.  2.  To commit or entrust to
another."  To this definition I would add, "and then let go of the decision."
To some this may seem incompatible with consensus decision making.  To others
this may seem to imply a hierarchy.  And still others may believe that simply
forming a research and advisory committee or task force accomplishes delegation.
I don't believe any of these perceptions to be accurate, as I hope to explain.
I would very much like to develop a common understanding and definition of
"delegation", so that we can examine rationally, and from a common base of
understanding, how we might all benefit from using more of it in cohousing.

RELATIONSHIP TO CONSENSUS.   Consensus and delegation are related concepts, but
they are neither opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive.  The concept of
consensus and its cousin, voting, address how a given group makes a decision,
whether the group consists of 3 people, or 3 million.  Delegation and its
cousin, direct decision-making address the relative size of the decision making
group (the sub-group) and whether everyone within the larger group has a say in
every decision.

BIG GROUPS.   I suspect that it is obvious to most people that it would be
impractical, chaotic and destructive for a group of 3 million people to attempt
to make all decisions by direct consensus, or even direct voting.  How does a
group of 3 million have a meaningful "discussion" of an issue?   Even if it were
possible to have such a large "discussion", how many issues can a group that
size "discuss" in any given amount of time?  I know of no large groups in human
history that have ever attempted this, let alone succeeded at it.  Much more
familiar to most of us is the elected or representative democracy (a form of
delegation), in which people that we have empowered (whether by vote or by
consensus) make for us certain decisions which affect large groups or all of us.

SMALL GROUPS.  At the other extreme,  we have all seen examples of very small
groups that operate quite nicely through a system of delegation.  Think of the
"traditional" nuclear family, in which each spouse is more or less autonomous in
their respective areas of decision making. [This is just an example.  I am NOT
advocating "traditional family" roles].

ALL GROUPS.   Although delegation seems to work quite well in both large and
small groups, clearly direct decision making does not.  The only issue is the
number of people that direct decision making can withstand before it breaks
down.  I suspect that the number varies widely, depending upon such variables as
the degree of commonality of goals and values, the nature and complexity the
decisions, the number of decisions that need to be made, the time that the group
is willing and able to devote to decision-making.  For the American cohousing
communities I've seen, I suspect that 12 people is about the maximum number of
participants in a well-functioning direct decision making process for MOST types
of decisions. Of course direct decision making can be, and is, made to work with
larger numbers, but at a cost in time, money, energy, leadership and other forms
of waste and inefficiency.  Just because a group seems willing to put up with
these problems doesn't mean that the problems are necessary or desireable, or
that the group even is aware of the problems.

DOES NOT IMPLY HIERARCHY.  Hierarchy and delegation (like consensus and
delegation) are related concepts, but they are not the same, nor does one imply
the other.  A delegated decision maker (whether called a "manager", "cluster
coordinator", "focalizer" or some other invented term) is not "above", "more
powerful than" or "the boss of" the people who appointed him or her.  The
delegate serves the group, and is given discretion to seek input from the group
(or not), gather factual information, and then make a decision that the delegate
believes to be in the best interest of the group.  The delegate is accountable
to the group and can be removed by the group, under any of a variety of
circumstance.  A skillful delegate who wishes to continue to serve the group
will stay in touch with the group and will try to act in accordance with the
wishes of MOST of the group, but is not obliged to please everyone.  It is
possible for every member of a group also to be a delegate in one area or
another.  For example, in the "traditional family" mentioned above, each of the
two group members are also delegates.  At the other extreme, I know of a
community of about 80 people that has almost 100 delegates.  That's right, more
delegates than members!  Some members are delegates in more than one area.  In
short, in a healthy system of delegation there is no hierarchy, no pyramid, no
"top", no "bottom", no "boss", just service.  By the way, a delegate can be a
single person or a group of people that, among themselves, make decisions by
consensus, voting or some other method.

FORMING A COMMITTEE NOT IS DELEGATION.  I've several times heard cohousers that
use  committees or task forces claim to be using delegation.  On closer
questioning, they usually reveal to me that the committee reports back to the
entire group, which then discusses, modifies and consenses on the issue, or
which must at least "rubber stamp" the "decision" made by the committee.  This
is NOT delegation, as I mean it.  By delegation, I mean it goes to the committee
and never comes back.  It just gets handled.  All interested persons can attend
the committee meetings, offer information, advice, preferences, comments,
suggestions, assistance.  But in the end, the committee, and only the committee,
makes the decision.  In one common variation on this purest form of delegation,
the group retains the right to over-ride the decision of the committee, by
timely exercise of a super-majority vote or even consensus.  In another common
variation, an individual agrieved by a committee's decision can "appeal" to
another sub-group set up to review such controversial decisions.  While these
provide a comforting "safety valve" for some, they also introduce delay, since
no decision is final until the "appeals period" expires.

noticed some confusion among some cohousers between the concept of having one's
"say" and having one's "way".  The right to be heard and the right to control
are two very different things.  I believe the right to be heard is essential to
the success of a cohousing community.  I believe every person's point of view to
be valid (at least to them) and potentially valuable to the group.  Delegation
does NOT mean that anyone gives up their "say".  In the model of delegation that
I suggest, everyone is kept informed of the decisions being made, when and where
they are being discussed, how to participate in the process.  Anyone interested
in a particular decision is free to speak, present, educate, build coalitions
and otherwise influence the delegated decision makers.  And then let go.    In
the end, the delegate decides.  Although you may not always agree with the
decision, you benefit from the system overall.  It protects you from chaos,
waste, inefficiency and loss of leadership.  Don't forget, you too have the
opportunity to be a delegate in some area in which you have earned the
communities confidence -- and then it will be your turn to serve.

Dan Suchman
Winslow Cohousing
Bainbridge Island, WA

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