Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Consensus v. Majority Rule

I've written before about the difference between the political board and the professional, or corporate, board. In NYS, and perhaps in most states, school boards are encouraged to work toward consensus, which is a management model, not a democratic one. Interestingly, it is also a Quaker model, and a model historically used by the Haudenosaunee people of upstate NY.

Consensus decision-making is egalitarian and requires universal participation, both of which are good things. The main issue for school boards (and businesses), though, is that it builds commitment to a decision--if everyone agrees to a greater or lesser extent, then everyone is automatically behind the decision and must (in theory, anyway) therefore support it publicly.

The negatives, as I see it, are that consensus building is time-consuming, that it often results in halfhearted decision-making, and that it tends to lead to groupthink, which is not necessarily the same as genuine thought. (One classic example is the so-called "Abilene Paradox.")

I think consensus decision-making does not fit with a political model of board governance. If a board member truly represents a constituency, he or she cannot reasonably alter that to suit the whim of the group. That's a paradox all of us on BOEs face as we try to make decisions for the districts we serve.


Simon said...

I pretty much always prefer consensus to political models - but recognize that it's not always possible.

Consensus systems require trust. All parties involved have to trust each other both in the process that leads to consensus and in the process that carries out the decision.

That trust can break down when something goes badly wrong, but even in the best of cases, trust has a basic problem: it doesn't scale very well. While people don't necessarily reserve their trust exclusively to people they've known happily all of their lives, it's hard to trust people you don't know at all.

More explicitly political systems are designed to avoid that breakdown - majority rule only requires the formation of a majority willing to vote on something, not trust across a community.

As fond as I am of consensus in small-group situations, I get very nervous when I hear elected officials talking about consensus, since it doesn't fit very well with the whole election process that put them there in the first place. It usually means that they're pretending that there's a lot more trust around a given situation than there really is.

KAZ said...

You are exactly correct about the trust issue, which is one that constantly confronts us on the BOE (and no doubt on any board). When a board seems unanimous on every issue, doesn't that naturally tend to foster mistrust in the community? It begins to look like us v. them, which is presently an issue on the Ithaca BOE (a Board that was almost certainly better off when Henry and Art were wreaking havoc on their consensus).

This may be easier at Quaker Meeting, where presumably everyone starts from a similar foundation, than in an elected body where no two people share a common background.

Mary Ann said...

When shared values and common background are missing, it's essential to have a clear mission statement. The Town Board is fortunate to have, at least, the Comprehensive Plan to work from.

Once you have a general goal in common, the way to build trust - and consensus - is to have facts and logic at your command. Too often decision makers approach consensus building by layering compromise upon trade-off until the decision is fairly meaningless.

You can cling to a fairly bold position if it's backed by good information and clear thinking and it takes minority rights into consideration and you can explain it to stakeholders. Time consuming? Yes. But it's possible that decisions reached by consensus last longer, saving time in the long run.

KAZ said...

Yes, I think the BOE is unanimous in agreeing that data-driven decision-making is the way we intend to plan. And being able to explain decisions to stakeholders is a priority--I think we receive more direct scrutiny than the town board does, and we certainly have more employees that are directly affected. Our mission statement is newly revised, so it looks like we're moving in the right direction.

As for consensus decisions lasting longer, well, I'd say that's likely true, especially when each year you have the potential of turning over 1/3 of the board. I can think of a few not-quite-consensus decisions made earlier in the decade that have vanished entirely over the years.