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Pardon the corny title, but I want to look at some of the problems associated with consensus decision-making, something that has often been seen as an ideal form of government, and I want to suggest a  couple of ways to overcome these problems.

Consensus government sounds appealing, in that it assumes that  decision-making will be based on the will of the entire group, often  with the idea being that decisions have been reached amicably and with full or even unanimous agreement.  In practice, almost every  group relies on this to a certain extent, simply because it is too  awkward to call for a show of hands with regard to every little  decision.  However, in practice, consensus decision-making can be seen as having some serious problems as well.

Although Australian Quakers claim to have a form of government that is vaguely different to consensus government, I think it is generally seen to be one of the earliest forms of consensus decision-making.  Something Quakers stress is the need for full support to any proposal to be carried forward, with even one person being able to halt proceedings by registering strong dissatisfaction.

"So what happens when, say, the meeting thinks that someone should be kicked out, and that person strongly opposes being kicked out?"  I asked quite sincerely in a small meeting of Friends in Newcastle  shortly before I joined the Quakers.

"Look, if you don't like the way we do things, then don't join us,"  barked a woman who had earlier been the national leader of the  Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia.  I was shocked and speechless, so I timidly apologised for having asked the question and said nothing further.

As most people well know, nine years later I found the answer to my question, when I was kicked out of the society.  At one meeting,  there were no less than four people who openly and strongly opposed a decision against me, and yet the minute never even mentioned that they were there.  To be fair, I think that what happened there was probably a good example of how and when Quakers do NOT operate on a purely consensus basis, i.e. where the meeting "clerk" has the final say, and the decision is taken as the will of God, whether everyone agrees or not.

However, what I have seen with regard to consensus government (especially when it is seen as the only form of government) is that dissent of any sort is discouraged, and members are brought into line through some rather devious strategies, of which gossip is the most powerful. 

In the case of Australian Quakers, it may even go so far as to hiring a private investigator to get dirt on those who dissent.The problem, as I see it, is that, in an obsession with generating an image of unanimous approval, those who disagree with anything being put forward by the status quo (The status quo being "weighty Friends" when it comes to Quakers.) are subjected to immense peer group pressure, even though most of it takes the form of quiet whispers and not the outburst that I experienced that first day I asked the wrong question.

Within our own Jesus Christian community, we generally operate on consensus.  We rarely have a formal vote, and even more rarely have a secret ballot.  Nevertheless, I believe that such options should  always be there in the background as a valid approach if anyone should feel that things are heading in the wrong direction.

If there is the possibility of a vote at the end of the  discussion, then it opens the floor for people to present opposing views and to strongly argue the good points of both sides.   Such an approach is rare in a purely consensus situation, where everyone is looking for even the tiniest hint that plans should move in a particular direction, so that they can all (with very few exceptions) move their thinking and comments in that direction.

In other words, I am suggesting that there is little difference between consensus decision-making of that sort and what has been called "group-think".  Because peace within the group becomes so vital, debate is frowned upon.  Wherein, when democracy is at least viewed as the ideal (even if many decisions are made without an actual vote), then it not only becomes acceptable to put forward opposing ideas, but it almost becomes necessary, so that people can be informed of both sides before they cast their vote.

In particular, I think that leaders need to be constantly "counting the votes" in their own heads, just by way of listening to contributions coming from members.  Not every single member needs to necessarily speak up, and if one more than half of the members speak in favour of a decision, then the leader can confidently say that consensus has been reached, without having to hear from the others.   The silent minority may have opposed what was said, but, had a vote been taken, they would have been outnumbered anyway.  The fact that they said nothing generally indicates that they did not feel strongly, and so they would usually not oppose the "consensus" anyway.

If, however, those speaking up seem strongly divided, then debate needs to be continued until one side is won over to the other, or until a vote is taken to determine the will of the majority.

What often happens (and I have been guilty of it myself many times) is that a leader expresses a view, a few people express agreement, and the others say nothing, so the leader assumes that there is general support for the view.  A very experienced leader can almost "read minds" just through noticing body language, slight murmurs of  agreement, etc. in order to mentally "take a vote" with only a few  people having spoken.  In other words, the leader assumes that consensus has been reached even though, to a casual observer very few opinions have been heard.

But beware!  If, as a leader, you are wrong about your assumptions,  it will come back to haunt you, because people will begin to resent your misinterpretation of the will of the majority.  In virtually every form of leadership it is surprisingly easy for leaders to abuse their power, and to get away with it.  But there are limits to how often this can happen, and the most ethical leaders will impose limits on themselves long before the meeting has to speak up in opposition to the abuses.

One of the reasons that followers will let a leader push something through that may not have majority support is that leaders often have to make unpopular decisions.  If, for example, politicians had to have a referendum every time it came to raising taxes, not only would taxes not be raised, but they would almost certainly be lowered.  You can argue all you want about how much they are needed, but usually only a minority will openly choose to impose those taxes upon themselves.

Sadly most system leaders use up their credits by making unpopular decisions which blatantly benefit themselves (e.g. pay increases for  themselves), and such decisions will almost always be made just after  an election, so that the public will have as long as possible to forget them.  However, truly great leaders will have the foresight to make unpopular, yet unselfish, decisions which benefit the entire group in the long run, even though the decision may cost dearly in terms of popularity in the short run.  If the benefits do not show themselves soon enough, the leader could be voted out, but that is the risk that a good leader will often take.

We are getting away from the topic here, but only slightly.  Over-riding the majority for either good reasons or bad ones is not  specifically what we are dealing with here.  Primarily, I am trying to get us to see that it can be dangerous to assume that there is unity if leaders are not listening very closely to the will of the followers.  We don't always have to be total puppets of the followers (and that is where over-riding can be done, but needs to be done with full knowledge of the risks involved), but we do need to be able to convince them of things that we think would be for their good before we can proceed to carry through on those things... especially if the decision is going to cost them personally.

So, in conclusion, I would say that, while consensus government will  happen in practice quite a lot, and while it is a great goal to have full agreement on issues, unless we test it with a vote occasionally, it is one of the easiest forms of government to abuse, because so much is left to the leader in terms of determining what the consensus is.  The way to overcome this is to become sensitive to hints from the followers about what their true feelings are, to actively seek ways to convince people before you assume they support you, and to occasionally have votes on specific issues to be sure that you are fairly representing the will of the group.

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