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Using Modified Consensus in OWS
by Tim Hartnett, PhD
http://www.GroupFacilitation.net

A New Arena for Consensus
Consensus decision making is getting a lot of use recently, especially in the Occupy Wall Street movement. A whole new generation of organizers are leading public meeting and reviving a sense of direct democrasy to counter the apathy so many of us have fallen into. There is a lot of excitement and fresh commitment to actively countering the creeping corporate control over our governement and our economy. Whatever your view of the goals or effectiveness of this movement, the decision making processes are fascinating to observe.

The challenge is enormous. How do you take large groups of diverse people, charged with high emotions, and strangers to each other, and facilitate them to discuss, and then decide how to organize themselves? The Occupy Movement has consistently chosen to tackle this challenge with the highest vision possible. The process used must be consistent with the goals we seek. The means must be exemplify the ends.

This principle is not just important in some ideological way. The OWS protests are being carefuly watched by the whole nation. Much of the public does not understand and may not trust the intentions of the protesters. By using a process that reflects the values of direct democracy, the movement communicates what it stands for. Using a process with values that resonate with people, one that includes everyone and invites real participation is a vital way to attract potential supporters.

Learning a New Way
The past forty years of experience using consensus in activist groups is a great resource to help us avoid the mistakes that have been made. When using consensus, it is especially important to avoid the pitfalls of ideological rigidity that have sometimes dogged well-intentioned groups. Fortunately, if we pay attention to what experience has shown, we can find a way to effectively implement our highest ideals in whatever group we participate.

One of the greatest lessons of experience in consensus decision making is that different groups benefit from custom choosing the final decision rule they use. Some use a consensus process that requires full consent to pass a proposal. Others use various degrees of super-majority (90%, 80%, 70%, etc.). This felxibility allows groups to realistically allow everyone to participate, without giving individuals or small factions the power to stifle the group's forward momentum.

Occupy Oakland used this wisdom very effectively in a recent large assembly. The group was deciding whether to call a general strike. Over 1600 people participated in a "modified consensus" process. The organizers established a 90% decision rule (not including abtentions). After an open discussion that considered the many different perspectives the vote was taken. The results were 1484 in favor, 46 votes against, and 77 abstaining. The motion carried with a 96% support. Widespred agreement was reached and the group moved forward with excitement and strong momentum. This would not have been possible if the organizers had allowed "blocking".

How to Use Modified Consensus
Facilitating groups is a complicated art. So all that can be offered in a short article are some key pointers. The first is to realize that modifying consensus is often the best way to accomplish the goals of a consensus process. There is no gain in allowing a group to be controlled by stubborn individuals or small factions. If everyone's voice is heard and incorporated into the group's decision as well as possible, then the primary function of using consensus has been accomplished.

Secondly, one must consider each group uniquely. When groups are large, diverse, not well connected, or pressed for time, using modified consensus is especially useful. There is no universal "right" decision rule. Every group needs to find a criteria that it can successfully attain consistently enough to allow it to be effective.

For more information on how to actually facilitate a consensus process or a modified consensus process, please consult my book, Consensus-Oriented Decison-Making (New Society Publishers, 2011).