How NOT to create consensus. And how to learn from the experience and try again.

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In the 2015 election campaign, the Liberal party of Canada led by Justin Trudeau, campaigned on a promise of electoral reform. He promised that 2015 would be the last election that used the first-past-the-post system.

After the Liberals won the 2015 election and took office, Prime Minister Trudeau said, “I believe that fundamentally we can do better. We can have an electoral system that does a better job of reflecting the concerns, the voices of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and gives us a better level of governance.”

The government launched a public consultation process that included:

  • a special Parliamentary committee that conducted hearings and travelled the country (I couldn’t determine how many hearings were held or who participated).
  • the Minister embarked on a national tour.
  • MP’s hosted dozens of public forums / town hall meetings (I couldn’t determine how many public forums were held or who participated).
  • postcards were mailed to 14 million households to promote an online survey.
  • The online survey asked a series of questions and asked participants to rate their views about various issues related to governance, leadership and the electoral process by comparing choices against each other. After completing the survey, pariticpants were informed what their individual governance style is. Mine turns out to be “innovative”, although I’m not sure what relevance that has on this complex conversation.

It wasn’t clear what specific question the government was asking Canadians, or what commitment they were making to change the electoral system, beyond the promise that “change is needed”. Little information was available to the public about this complex topic, although Macleans magazine did a great job of outlining the key options, explaining each one, and even preparing infographics that outline the key elements of each option.

When the consultation was over the government identified three obstacles to moving forward. They included:

  • The lack of “consensus” on the issue.
  • That moving to a system of proportional representation could have made it easier for “extremist” parties to win seats in the House of Commons (with information from CBC Canada).
  • That a referendum would be divisive for the country.

The government said this, “A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged. Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada’s interest.” The Prime Minister added that, “There is no clear path forward. It would be irresponsible for us to do something that harms Canada’s stability. I’m not going to do something that is wrong for Canadians just to tick off a box on an electoral platform.”

On February 11, 2017 protesters staged demonstrations across Canada to express their concern about the Liberal’s decision to abandon electoral reform. At the time of writing 130,000 Canadians had signed a petition calling on the government to reverse their decision and to implement electoral reform. Fair Vote Canada also created an online petition with resources and materials to provide information about electoral reform.

Here is the thing: you get what you ask for. If you want consensus you need to ask the questions that get you to common ground. You need a process designed to create alignment and a path forward from a diversity of views and values.

There is a different way, that gets a different result. It requires a different approach. Imagine a world where conversations, like one about electoral reform, are held regularly and people talk together with courage, compassion and curiosity to find a way forward.

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What is consensus?

Consensus is one of the most overused words in public engagement, and frequently misunderstood. Consensus results in group solidarity of sentiment and belief for a path forward.

It takes a specially designed process to create consensus — it doesn’t just naturally emerge. It requires a process where people share their values and understand each other better, where multiple ideas, suggestions, and possibilities are weighed. A consensus process allows people to weigh the pros and cons of different ways forward, to offer solutions that address their own needs AND the needs of others. It co-creates a path forward that didn’t exist before people worked together to find the solutions for the challenges they face. Consensus results in people supporting the way forward, and supporting the solutions created by the group, even if they don’t love it, or if it isn’t their ideal solution.

Alignment versus agreement

So many public engagement processes focus on finding agreement; for example, here is solution A, can we get people convinced or persuaded to like it? When we design processes around agreement, we move directly to solutions and we create camps — people who agree, and people who disagree. And then polarization emerges and we start to characterize each other as “good” or “bad” or as “right” or “wrong”.

Instead, we can design our conversations around alignment and start with processes that allow participants to deeply understand values and WHY we each hope for the future we desire. Once we understand and see each other and our respective needs, experiences and hopes then we can start designing ideas and solutions for a way forward that addresses those respective values. In that way we create sustainable and durable solutions for the long-term; solutions that have the support and buy-in of participants.

Commitment and shared power

A conversation designed to achieve consensus requires a commitment to the time, energy and effort it takes to allow consensus to emerge. It also requires a levelling of power — if all the power is held by the host or proponent to veto or decide on the preferred outcome, then the stakes for creation and participation don’t exist for participants. A commitment to support the solution(s) that emerges from the consensus based conversation is needed by all parties. It can feel like a risk to make this commitment, but the results of well designed consensus processes speak for themselves in terms of long-term, durable agreements.

Information that serves the conversation

It seems obvious to say that balanced and objective information is needed in order for people to understand each other and the issues, and to be able to create new solutions.

Inclusion and Representation

The more diverse and different views brought into the conversation, the better. You can’t create durable solutions with a small group of like minded people. Or even a small group of diverse people. Why? Because the like minded people go quickly to agreement, and then get stuck there if alternate views and values are expressed by those outside the group. The small group of diverse people do the heavy lifting to find a solution that works, but the larger community or society that aren’t part of the hard work to build the solution generally tend to oppose or react negatively to what they weren’t part of creating.

The answer is in larger groups that are diverse in terms of interest and demographic AND inclusion of those with passion and interest in the issue.

Powerful Questions

Earlier I noted that you get what you ask for. That means the questions you ask need to result in answers that support the goal of the process. Are you seeking agreement? alignment? Are you looking to find a long-term durable solution for a complex issue based on the diverse values and needs of Canadians? Are you wanting comments and opinions on a preferred course of action? Your questions matter, and they connect directly to your results.

If you are seeking consensus on an issue like electoral reform, you start with asking fundamental Canadian values that need to serve as guiding principles for whatever gets created. When you’ve got those answers — things like fairness, transparency, representation etc. you move to the next conversation. Then you could ask what ideas or suggestions are out there for creating an electoral system that serves those values? Once all the ideas are on the table, move into weighing the benefits and challenges of different options. What are the consequences, costs and impacts of each option? Where are the options aligned with values, and where do adjustments need to be made? What do people suggest? As a third phase of conversation, move to prioritizing solutions. And a way forward emerges that is durable and sustainable for the long term.

The right methods

There are techniques designed for these kinds of participatory, values based conversations on complex issues. And there are techniques that don’t serve these kinds of conversation, that don’t create the space for conversations that result in consensus. Techniques that DON’T serve these conversations include public hearings, town halls and online surveys. You will note these were the techniques used in the public consultation for electoral reform.

Techniques like open space, world cafe, deliberative forums, workshops and more allow opportunities for consensus to emerge.

If you approach a complex issue in this different way your chances of success are high. You could be talking about consensus, common ground and a way forward at the end of the project. I’d love to see a conversation on electoral reform re-start in this way. Wouldn’t you?

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