On the 24th November 2010, a group of students protesting about education cuts entered University College London’s (UCL) Jeremy Bentham Room. Someone asked, “Do we want to occupy?” A resounding “yes” was the answer, and so it began… a two and a half week occupation of one of the country’s most prestigious universities.
But what did it mean to occupy a room? How long would we be there? What would we do next? Luckily, there were a few climate camp veterans among us, who swiftly took action and showed us how to organise.
The first thing we did was have a meeting. At this meeting we decided on our list of demands. Most importantly, however, we implemented the process that would drive the occupation until the end; in fact, we are still using it in our meetings now. That process is consensus-decision making.
What is consensus decision-making?
Typically at large meetings, decisions are made by voting. There will be a few speakers for and against a topic, then questions from the floor, a chairperson to mediate all this, and finally a binding vote. If you are in the losing group, you simply have to accept that you lost and move on.
Consensus decision-making, by contrast, is non-hierarchical and inclusive. Typically, the group will sit in a circle formation, with a facilitator or two at the front (if there is a front!). The idea is that everyone who wants to speak, gets to speak; and because the set-up is in the round, it feels less intimidating than standing up in front of a panel of speakers and a room full of inquiring faces. Everyone is “in it together”.
Decisions are made by the whole group. Anyone can make a proposal. A proposal can only pass if it is agreed to by everyone. If just one person says, “I disagree, I veto this proposal”, then it won’t pass. We hardly ever encountered this at the occupation, because whenever there was a disagreement we talked it through until the proposal was sufficiently amended so that everyone agreed.
The role of facilitator is to make sure everyone who wants to speak gets their turn. The facilitator cannot make substantive comments themselves (although sometimes we did, but made it clear it was in a personal capacity rather than in the role of facilitator). They keep the meeting moving forward, may restrict the time of discussion for topics, try to draw out those who haven’t had their say and try to limit those who never shut up!
The participants use hand signals, rather than clapping, to show how they feel about what is happening in the meeting. Waving your hands in the air (like jazz hands) shows approval. Waving your hands towards the floor is disapproval. And wavering hands, shows wavering support.
There are several tricks a facilitator can use to check the mood in the room. A “temperature check” is where they ask everyone in the room to do the appropriate hand signal for how they are feeling. This way they know that everyone in the room is engaged and whether it’s an appropriate time to “move to consensus” or whether to continue the discussion. When we move to consensus, we see if there is consensus on a proposal in the room. If there isn’t, the debate continues; if there is, the proposal passes.
If we had tried to make every decision about everything, and discuss everything that needed to be discussed at General Meetings, the entire time would have been spent doing that. Instead, we designated working groups for particular topics. The core working groups emerged during the occupation as media, tech, events, outreach, process, escalation, demands, security and kitchen.
Anyone could join any working group, or leave a working group at any time. I think at one stage I was a member of about six working groups! Some people devoted themselves entirely to one working group for the whole occupation– such as a few dedicated members of the media team, the techie team who were the evil geniuses of the occupation, and the events team who assiduously organised a timetable of lectures, comedy and gigs to keep us entertained. Other people floated between groups, depending on the time they could give and their interests.
While working groups worked autonomously, if there was an important decision to be made they had to bring it to a General Meeting to get consensus. For example, camera crews frequently wanted to go on demos with us, so the media team would ask the general meeting if that was ok or not. The demands team worked on negotiations with management, so regularly fed back to the General Meetings projecting draft documents onto the big screen and adding amendments from the group until everyone was happy with it.
Why did it work?
This organisational model worked for several reasons.
Firstly, people joined working groups depending on their skills. It meant that everyone was using their skills effectively and to the utmost. If there were no working groups, a lone techie may have built us a website; but they wouldn’t have been able to collaborate with a team, delegating specific tasks to those who could do it, and knowing who to talk to for info on media, events or demands.
Secondly, the general meetings provided an open forum for working groups to test their ideas but also for people who weren’t involved in those groups to have a say about what they were doing.
Thirdly, by getting consensus on decisions rather than voting, it meant we were all co-authors of the group’s actions. Nobody felt hard-done-by and no individuals could be blamed if something went wrong.
Everyone could have their say. It wasn’t about “experts” giving their opinions, or the usual suspects dominating debates; it gave the opportunity to those who wouldn’t normally speak to feel included and listened to.
Fifth, rather than stating your opinion on something and sticking to it, to open dialogue allowed people to listen, learn, change their mind, be persuaded and to persuade. The consensus decision-making model encourages open-mindedness.
Finally – no leaders! Because anyone could speak, make a proposal, facilitate a meeting, join a working group, suggest an idea, reject an idea, call a meeting, make an agenda or change the agenda, there were no leaders. Everyone was an equal part; at least, what you put in, you got out.
What are the drawbacks?
Ok, so this sounds amazing. Too good to be true even. There must have been some problems? And there were…
Meetings could go on forever! The meeting we had on the first night of the occupation lasted for four hours!!! However, this problem was ameliorated to an extent as the occupation progressed. The process was tightened up and amended to suit our group’s needs, and people learned what to expect from meetings and whether to bring something to the whole group or the relevant working group.
At times people got frustrated with the model. One night we had a one-and-a-half hour process group meeting debating whether or not to implement voting rather than consensus. A few people thought consensus meetings dragged on too long and that we weren’t making enough clear decisions. We had a trial of voting at the meeting the next night, but the group decided to stick with consensus.
Facilitating meetings could be a draining and unrewarding experience at times. If there were lots of people who repeatedly wanted to speak, it became a tricky question of whether to stop recognizing them. There was also the problem of people being sneaky. To make a point, you simply raised your hand. But you could also make a direct factual point to correct someone’s comment (putting both hands in the air, with your index fingers parallel), or a technical point to mention something external to the meeting e.g. there’s a fire we need to leave (making a T shape). These hand signals were abused. Of course, as a facilitator you don’t know someone’s abusing them until they speak; but you still get the blame!
Power relations could be an issue. Those in the process group who had control over the agenda and how meetings working, and facilitated meetings, could be perceived as having more power than others. Also, those in the media team who coordinated external communications also could have been seen in this light. Of course, anyone could join any working group, but these perceptions still emerged and occasionally caused friction.
Because a working group could be set up anytime on anything, sometimes there seemed to be hundreds of them, with nobody knowing who belonged to what group and what the group was doing! This lack of coordination was important in terms of anonymity in the face of UCL management – they couldn’t pin anything on anyone. But it did become frustrating when you needed to talk to someone in outreach, for example, and had no idea who was in that group or where they were.
Finally, while the aim of the consensus model is to be inclusive and non-hierarchical, at times the discussions did come to be dominated by the same faces (and they were usually male). Some of the younger, female, and ethnic minority members of the group could feel a bit intimidated. On one occasion a group of three first-year women asked me to bring up a point at a meeting because they were scared of being shot-down by the vocal older men in the group. The facilitators tried their best to overcome these issues; but unfortunately you’re not going to overcome all of wider society’s nefarious power dynamics in two weeks no matter how inclusive you try to be.
Would I recommend it?
Before the UCL Occupation, I had chaired lots of meetings at school and university Model United Nations and debating societies; but I had never used the consensus decision-making model. After a little initial discomfort at the seeming lack of structure, I soon settled into it and now much prefer it over any model I’ve used before. While consensus cannot overcome the power relations of unequal societies, it is much better at doing this than traditional hierarchical models of meetings. The open discussions were fascinating and challenging. I frequently found myself changing my mind on issues based on what others had said, or discovering new ways of looking at things. The model really encourages you to see things from another’s perspective, to listen respectfully and respond honestly.
It can be a drawn-out process but ultimately I think it’s worth it. Consensus decision-making is truly democratic and avoids the dreaded tyranny of the majority. And despite the issues I raised with the model, the occupation’s success resided on the fact that we could bring all these issues up and discuss them openly; or at least set up a working group to deal with them! Best of all, consensus decision-making makes potentially boring meetings fun!
This is a longer version of a guest post for BeyondClicktivism.