The Politics of Consensus


In many mediation contexts, consensus means one thing: 100% agreement. In commercial, domestic, consumer, neighborhood and other settings, the parties who come to the table are exactly those whose agreement is essential to resolution of a dispute relating to clearly defined issues. They can be representing themselves, or their attorneys may be negotiating for them. If they don’t all agree, the dispute continues in other forums. Most of these mediations involve a small number of parties and take place in one or two sessions.

In public policy collaboration, however, the situation is much more complicated. There can be dozens of stakeholders at the table, a multitude of issues surrounding the core problem and a timeline that can stretch over many months, even years, and require dozens of lengthy meetings. Consensus can also take on different meanings. Political considerations can drive the process and determine the level of active agreement that is possible – often short of 100%. Here’s one example.

I was sitting in a city council chamber after having summarized to the mayor and council members the results of an intensive six-month process. The purpose had been to build consensus among 25 fiercely antagonistic groups about a growth issue that had been fought over for years. I had offered a glowing report about what had been achieved – and it was a big step forward for the city – but I also had to add that full agreement had not been possible. A major constituency had refused to sign. That could prove fatal to implementation of the agreement, but in the next hour I was reminded that consensus can take on surprising forms.

Just two nights earlier, a small group of die-hard opponents, who represented one of the largest groups in the city, had refused to sign the agreement and denounced both it and the process that had led to that final meeting. We had worked intensively for the previous two months – meeting twice a week – in order to resolve numerous disagreements and hammer out the document. Up to the end, I thought it would be possible to bring this group around, but finally I realized that they weren’t going to budge on some key issues for fear of alienating their long-time supporters throughout the community.

Now the council was about to adopt the new policy, and I listened as one supporter of the agreement after another came up to address the elected leaders. All the while, I was dreading to hear what the opponents would say and wondered if their position would perpetuate community divisions.

But when a key leader of this group came to the microphone, she surprised me completely. First, she gave credit to the mayor for having made sure her group had a seat at the table – that had been a breakthrough in itself – and she went on to praise the “positive” parts of the agreement. True, she bore down on what she found unacceptable, but even then her tone was not angry or hostile.

As she spoke, I could see at once that this key group was not going to oppose the agreement in an active way. They were going to stand back after putting their objections on the record in a public session and let it go.

Their political strategy was clear. They wanted the best of both worlds. Refusing to sign maintained their credibility with their supporters, and quietly letting the policy take effect enabled them to profit from what they had won during the negotiations. (In later years they would often emphasize the commitments made in that agreement in order to hold city officials accountable for full implementation. They became its most vocal defenders.)

And so, contrary to my initial impression, a broken-leg consensus hobbled into view. The way these participants went about it, however, only increased hostility toward them.

If the holdouts had been able to confide in at least some members of the group, the strategy they chose could have been arrived at with the understanding of other participants. Instead, they came across as completely intransigent.

Collaborative practitioners have long argued about the issue of whether consensus always has to be achieved by the affirmative expression of consent. To insist that every member needs to sign on the dotted line in order to have any agreement at all means that even one member can effectively block the work of all the rest. Most public policy groups in my experience believe that, given the typically large number of participants, 100% agreement is an unachievable ideal. Public officials and policy advocates alike are likely to argue strongly against a process based on that premise.

These collaborative groups often adopt ground rules that require a good faith commitment to “seek” consensus but also provide a specific alternative mechanism if full agreement is not possible. That alternative may call for a supermajority. The danger is that the presence of such a rule could encourage bad faith behavior aimed only at gathering enough votes to win without making a serious effort to consider the needs of all members of the group. That type of voting process can turn into a test of power among competing groups – the opposite of an interest-based collaborative process.

In my experience, though, such a rule reassures a group that it will not be frustrated because of one or two holdouts. Satisfied that such an impasse will not occur, a group can focus more effectively on efforts to get everyone on board. In many cases, the fall-back decision mechanism never has to be used. That is partly due to the fact that participants in large and diverse collaboratives understand before all else the political influence of broad agreement among traditional adversaries.

The more agreement they can build around a proposed solution the greater their chances of getting approval from legislatures, their own constituencies and the general public. Political realities most often motivate the drive toward consensus.


2 Responses to “ The Politics of Consensus ”

  1. This story has a feeling of missed opportunity about it. It sounds like there was ample room in the process to talk about the substance of the agreement but little room to talk about the process of disagreeing amicably. The dissenting group cleverly found a way to balance their constituency needs with their needs within the collaborative, but there was no venue for negotiating that solution with the others. I wonder why not.

  2. Alice – There were abundant opportunities to find a way for this group to disagree amicably, and all were put to good use. It seemed that we had succeeded, in fact, but at the end this group made a strategic decision to pull back from the collaborative process, even though many of their allies tried hard to stop them from doing that. They did it for two reasons: to follow the political pressures of the hard core of their constituents and to maintain their own position as outsiders working to attack the establishment. Fearlessness and refusal to do anything that might appear to be co-optation provided much of the basis of their popular appeal. One of them, in fact, decided to enter the race for mayor at that same time, and the policy issue we were working on became the main plank in her platform. She was very frank about not being able to give that up.

    And that really goes to the central point I was trying to make. In this field, parties are always considering whether the collaborative process will help them achieve their objectives more effectively than going to court or using the power they have to go it alone. In this case, the public posture relating to the power contest could be preserved, in their view, only by refusing to sign – even though the agreement had given them much that they wanted. That’s why they acted as they did.

    Their decision, however, backfired since so many leaders who had supported them in the past repudiated their strategy.

    I guess I didn’t make this clear enough, in my effort to keep down the length of the post. A good lesson!

    Thanks for stopping by. — John