Consensus Decision-Making: A New Way of Making Public Policy Choices

Q: How is a consensus agreement different from one developed in traditional ways?

A: In the traditional political process, one side wins and one side loses. Some issues come back time and again, or an issue may be so contentious that it is never resolved.

A consensus agreement is more likely to be stronger, more comprehensive and more practical since people with diverse viewpoints participate in its development. The parties voluntarily accept the responsibility to work together to discover solutions that will satisfy their diverse interests. Because of this, consensus processes strengthen understanding among parties. This makes working together easier and avoids future problems.

Q: Who are typical participants in a consensus process?

A: That depends on the issue, but a consensus process is designed to ensure that all significant interests are represented. In public policy development, it is important to include citizens and leaders that represent different views.

Q: Whose responsibility is the implementation, once an agreement is reached?

A: Implementation follows the usual path of any public policy agreement; however, agencies or organizations may discover new approaches to implementation as a result of the creative energy that typifies these processes.

Q: Do political leaders lose power or legal responsibilities in a consensus process?

A: No. Any policy resulting from the process is subject to existing political processes and legal authority. The agreement may be reviewed, modified, rejected or accepted by leaders. Consensus processes provide support for leaders, not replacement.

Q: How do citizens become involved with the process?

A: Citizen involvement is a key ingredient in the development of any public policy. Rather than the familiar public hearing model with its usually adversarial atmosphere, the community meetings feature leaders as listeners, conversations among neighbors, student perspectives and direct feedback through meeting summaries.

Q: Will the resources invested in a consensus process pay off?

A: Time is frequently a factor in all phases of the political process. In a consensus process, participants must weigh the time investment against many factors: Will a consensus process solve a nagging problem that is unlikely to be solved in any other way? How contentious is the issue — have the parties been able to talk at all about their mutual interests? Will solving the issue result in net financial savings? What is it worth if better relationships and better solutions are the result? On balance, what is the solution worth?

Q: What are the key steps for starting a consensus process?

A: First, determine the issue's readiness, identify the stakeholders and outline the goals. Determine the time frame and staff resources, including a facilitator. Hold planning sessions with the stakeholders, if necessary, to ensure a firm foundation before the conversations about the issues begin.

Q: What is the GPCC staff role in a consensus process?

A: Neutral staff services that provide research, process design, facilitation, meeting documentation and drafting often make an efficient and effective process more likely.

Education and Training Community Mediation Center Great Plains Consensus Council Congregational Health