Voting for Consensus?

On Saturday 27th March, 2004, I had the honour of delivering a speech at the first Annual General Meeting of Akademos. This new organisation aims to return education to what it used to be before commericalism and bureaucracy hijacked it. It is a group of people who are setting up a new, free University. In their first year they ran two successful courses. More are in process now, with others being organised.

   Here is the text of my speech, although of course the emphases, pauses and other 'speaker's tricks' will have to be inserted by you.

   When people express an interest in Moora Moora, we invite them to our monthly workdays, so they can see us at our best. And we invite them to our monthly meetings, so they can see us at our worst.

   Somehow, decision making brings out the worst in human relationships. And it's always the small issues. In his famous book Parkinson's Law, C. Northcote Parkinson told a story about a committee charged with refurbishing a building. They settled the 50,000 pound budget allocation in half an hour, then spent an hour and a half, arguing about the colour scheme in the bathrooms.

   Isn't this spot on?

   But why does decision making lead to conflict?

   It's because, perhaps 50,000 years ago, someone invented the concept of ego. Like all cancers, this has grown without limit, until it has now swallowed practically all of humanity. Australian Aboriginal cultures are recent victims, and have not yet been fully digested. As far as I know, almost every person now alive suffers from the disease of having an ego.

   Have I managed to puzzle you?

   By 'ego' I mean the belief that I exist as an individual. I have the illusion that I'm complete in myself, with a boundary that defines me. If every other human suddenly died, I should be able to live on.

   This is an illusion. If every other human died, I'd not survive them for very long. John Donne's saying has become a cliche: 'No man is an island.'

   Until recent historical times, there have been many cultures where the concept of ego didn't exist. The estimated 700 Aboriginal cultures were like this.

   You should read about the work of an American anthropologist called Porteus. He went to live with various tribes of New South Wales Aborigines in the 1930s. For some of them, he was the first white person they'd ever seen. Until he learned the language, sometimes he needed to communicate through a chain of two interpreters.

   One set of Porteus's fascinating findings concerned the relationship of individual to group.

   These people had no concept of self. They defined themselves entirely through group membership. Oh sure, each person had a name. Each had some possessions that were used by no one else. Each had relationships like parent-child and marriage mate. Some of them had specialties. For example, one of the older men was the hunting chief. An older woman led certain ceremonies.

   For us, such aspects indicate ownership, belongingness, power, status. For them, it did not.

   An analogy might help. My thumb has a special set of jobs the other fingers cannot do. But this doesn't make it an individual, or give it special status. Without my thumb, my hand would be crippled. But without the rest of my hand, the thumb would be a useless piece of bone and meat. The unit is not the thumb, actually, not even the hand, but the person they are a part of.

   For these Aborigines, the unit was not the person, but the hunting group. The loss of a person was a tragedy, in the way having my thumb cut off would be. But the group would survive.

   However, a person removed from the group would not. By being denied group membership, a person was denied existence.

   OK, but what has this to do with decision making?


   The most visible way an absence of ego affects a society is how they make decisions. It's by consensus.

   To understand the difference, let me tell you how we make decisions.

   Democracy is about power. If 60 people are for something and 40 against, and it comes to a fight, you can expect the larger group to win. So, we save a lot of hassle and broken heads by having a convention that the minority backs down.

   This has nothing to do with the wisdom of the decision. Democracy killed Socrates. Democracy re-elected Hitler. It even re-elected Howard!

   Therefore, if I happen to be the minority, I have been defeated. I have lost.

   No one likes losing. So, I'm likely to resort to things like bribery, blackmail, horse-trading, sophistry, or temper tantrums in order to have my way.

   In a Consensus society, decision making focuses on the issues. Who is for an idea, or how many, are irrelevant, not even considered.

   Now I am going to surprise most of you.

   The Australian Army uses consensus decision making in its strategic planning.

   An army is necessarily a hierarchical, authoritarian organisation. You can't have a debate on the battlefield.

   But then, the same is true for hunters in a Consensus society. On a hunt, the hunting chief is in absolute control. People do as they are told. If he makes mistakes, he is responsible to the group… later.

   If there is an emergency, say a raid from another tribe, whoever discovers the attack is in charge. Perhaps this is a young woman. Everyone will do as she says, but one of her decisions may well be to hand control over to a warrior. Until then, she is boss.

   So, a command structure during times of action is compatible with consensus decision making.

   When the Army is engaged in strategic planning, a group of varying ranks, and even perhaps civilian specialists, will form a committee. Every member contributes in the same way. What counts is the concepts, not their authors. If the most junior officer raises a problem that affects the General's preferred course of action, the General will listen, and ask the group to find a way around the problem.

   Maybe another example will help. Four engineers are looking at a bridge design. Three think it's fine. The fourth points out some aspect of wind load that could introduce unwanted vibrations. Do the other three outvote him? They'd be stupid to do so. They need to examine the objection, and see if it's valid. If it is, they need to find a correction.

   This is what consensus decision making is all about.

   Can it be made to work in ordinary situations?

   Bill Webster is a member of Akademos. Ask him.

   For five years, I was a junior member of the Department of Psychology at Monash University. All this time, Bill was a Senior Lecturer, one of the big boys. All the same, during the weekly staff meetings that ran the Department, my input was accepted with equal respect and consideration to his. This was even though he had more specialist knowledge, especially at first, until I became socialised into the Department. But decision making was not a matter of voting, or of getting people to support a proposal, but of analysing and solving problems.

   Suppose a time-limited issue came up. Then someone might say, "Let's make a short term decision for this budgeting period, and form a small working group for the long term issue."

   Specific areas were decided by working out the principles in the staff meeting, possibly after listening to the conclusions of a smaller group. Then some person was assigned responsibility for execution. In that area, this person was boss. In this way, I had absolute rule over a particular first year course. Even the Professor would fit in with me when he lectured to my students.

   But if I'd stuffed up, I'd have been responsible to the staff meeting. And when I had a problem, I brought it along and had the group help me to solve it. So, I was in a similar position to the hunting chief, or the young woman who spotted the raiders.

   Today, I was asked to talk to you because I'm a long term member of the Moora Moora Co-operative. This was originally an intentional community. That is, it was a group of strangers who came together to construct a village.

   Over the years, the village has become an organic, live community, no longer an artificial construction. And this November is our 30th birthday.

   But now I'll shock you.

   Moora Moora has never had consensus decision making. Oh, we tried! But the ego got in the way.

   At the Monash Psychology Department, in the Army, new arrivals are educated in how to make decisions by consensus. Paradoxically, in both places this was possible only because a person with absolute authority had decided to do things this way. They just had to do as they were told.

   At Moora Moora, we are all chiefs, there are no Indians. We all know everything already. So, no-one takes kindly to being told how to do things, thank you.

   When I arrived on the scene, the Co-op had been in existence for nearly two years. They had weekly meetings that were battles. Every time, someone left crying, or swearing or both.

   They thought they were using consensus, but their interpretation was 100% agreement. That is, any one person could veto a decision.

   I hope that you can see from what I've said, this is not consensus decision making. It is negative democracy gone crazy.

   There was one woman who'd sit through perhaps hours of argument, saying nothing. Then, when everyone thought the issue was decided, she'd say, "No. I don't like it." And that was that. She didn't or couldn't say why, but there she stuck. And the group's rules allowed her to block everyone else.

   So, now Moora Moora has a unique, somewhat complex method for making decisions.

   We aim for consensus. Often, it is achieved. If for some reason we can't get there, we have a backup procedure that depends on voting.

   The 'straw vote' is a very useful tool. It was useful at Monash, and we use it routinely at Moora Moora. When we've talked around an issue, the chairman asks four questions:

  • Who supports the proposal as is?
  • Who supports it with minor modifications?
  • With major modifications?
  • Who is unable to support the proposal?

       The proposal is lost if five or more members are opposed it. The meeting has several options: dropping the matter, referring it to a working group, deferring to another occasion, such as next month's meeting or a Community Meeting, or sending it back to its proposers for a revision.

       If the proposal hasn't been defeated, people who want modifications are asked to speak to them. Often their objections can be worked in, improving the original proposal until it is seen to be viable.

       So, this is a hybrid system, using the power concept of voting to help us move towards consensus through problem solving.

       To my mind, the major shortcoming of this system is that discussion starts at the wrong place: with a proposed solution instead of with an analysis of the problem. Other than that, it works well enough.

       Its major advantage over real consensus decision making is that it is far easier to educate incoming people into it.

       But, to me, all power-based decision making is crazy. The aim of decision making is wisdom. The aim of voting is to win.

       The two are not always compatible… except, of course, when we're talking about my proposal.

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