Consensus is a means, not an end

Consensus decision making is an egalitarian and inclusive method of reaching agreement based in the active participation and consent of community members to collectively make a decision. Consensus decision making focuses as much on the underlying processes and values as the decision itself. The word consensus has its roots in the Latin word, consentire meaning, “to experience or feel together”.

Consensus is rooted in many decentralised models of direct democracy practiced across the world – from village panchayats in India to the indigenous Haudenosaunee Confederacy (aka Iroquois), from Quaker meetings to anarchist spokescouncils.

Consensus stands in stark contrast to creating and leading a ‘community development project’ on under-represented communities in global south contexts. Consensus on the other hand is prefigurative affirmation of a communities power to organise and co-design, co-implement projects and programs with the principles of direct democracy: horizontal, participatory, inclusive, cooperative and non-coercive.

A common abuse of consensus, however, is a dogmatic attachment to the structures and forms with which it is associated, which can sometimes be as exclusive and alienating as the systems and approaches to community development it seeks to replace. If this is happening, the response should not be, “well, this is how consensus works!” Instead, it is our responsibility to delve into the dynamics that might be creating these negative reactions.

There are five common problems with consensus that can create frustration.

First, that consensus often reproduces majoritarian rule by creating groups of those in agreement verses groups of those in disagreement. This can be particularly problematic if it mirrors local contexts of the disadvantage of under-represented groups based on discrimination and inequality. Contrary to popular belief, consensus does not mean unanimous agreement. This misconception causes us to wrongly view dissent from some stakeholders (including community members from under-represented groups, alternatively, community or organisational stakeholders in positions of power) as a distraction or obstacle, and increasing the the pressure toward homogenising opinions.

Second, a few voices can dominate the discussion, a problem that tends to perpetuate power imbalances around race, class, gender/s, sexuality, dis-ability and education level.

Third, there is often a faulty assumption that silence implies consent, which can end up stifling broader discussion and the consideration of alternative proposals.

Fourth, facilitators have an unfortunate tendency to exercise overt forms of power-over rather than power-with by steering the conversation based on their own biases.

The fifth challenge with consensus is more fundamental and structural. Ironically, the seemingly benign notion that all voices are equal can hide the uncomfortable truth of systemic inequality. Almost inherently, the consensus process can absolve us of actively examining how power and oppression shape community spaces.

In an effort to address these problems, many communities use modified forms of consensus decision making – for example, prioritising and taking leadership from women, people of colour, people with disabilities, people with diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities, Expressions and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) and those most affected by decisions being made; facilitating small break out groups to ensure more engaged participation; encouraging more debate and discussion rather than just asking for people’s opinion once, and actively incorporating anti-oppression principles to prevent harmful opinions from further alienating – and even harming – historically disadvantaged people and communities.

Consensus can be beautiful and transformative, but only when the structures and processes are meeting the needs and desires of those engaging in it. Otherwise, it can just be as shackling as more conventionally authoritative project design, implementation and evaluation processes. remember, consensus is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

In Sum: The two foundational values of consensus decision making are everyone feeling empowered enough for full participation in decision making and respecting and accomodating diverse opinions. These values are more important than the form itself, which community workers should modify as needed to uphold these values.