Consensus in large groups
Trying to find consensus in a large group brings its own challenges. But coming to consensus with hundreds or even thousands of people can be exhilarating and inspiring! Below you’ll find lots of tips for making consensus work in large groups, including an outline of the spokescouncil.
Meeting the conditions for consensus in large groups
Extra care needs to be taken to ensure that the conditions for consensus are met – group members must share a common goal, be willing to build trust and be able to actively participate in a clear and well facilitated process.
- Common Goal: whether it’s a national campaigning network or a mass protest, you need to be clear why and to what extent you are working together.Usually, a smaller founding group of people decide in advance what the overarching aims of the group will be and then invite people to participate on that basis. This way, you’ll all be starting from a similar place. A written statement of the aims and workings of the group serves as a reminder and can be used to bring new members up to speed. Explain to new people what’s already decided and what is still open to discussion. Run introductory sessions, where new people can find out what the group is all about and whether it’s the right group for them.Coalitions and alliances formed between pre-existing groups, for example to fight a specific issue, can find it difficult to reach consensus. Often the groups involved have different aims and some may not be committed to consensus, but are more interested in pushing their politics on everyone else.
- Trust is more difficult to achieve in large groups as it’s harder to get to know one another. Spend time discussing aims, people’s politics and motivations. Build in a way for new people to get to know at least some of the people in the group quickly. Social time is important too. A clear decision making process will help people to trust that they will get heard and be respected in the final decision.
- Time: large group meetings need extra time to enable adequate discussion and to allow people to express and hear all ideas. Cutting off discussion and forcing a decision will leave lots of people feeling disempowered and frustrated.
- Clear process: large meetings need a lot of preparation and planning. A tight structure will be useful, however this can also be overly restrictive. Strike a balance between structure and open flow.
- Make sure that everyone understands how the meeting will work, how decisions are made and how to participate. Run regular consensus workshops and explain the process at the beginning of every meeting. Use flipcharts to write up the consensus flowchart, the agenda, key points of the discussion and key decisions and put them up around the room so that everyone can see them.
- Active participation: large meetings can easily be dominated by the confident few with less assertive or less experienced people finding it difficult to participate. Good facilitation and techniques such as splitting into small groups can help everyone to take a full part in the meeting.
- Facilitation: you will need a facilitation team who all know exactly what job they are doing – someone to facilitate, someone to take hands, someone to write up notes on a flipchart, a timekeeper, a doorkeeper and someone to prepare refreshments.
Consensus processes for large groups
The six steps for reaching consensus are the same as for small groups, but some steps may happen with everyone together and other steps may happen in small groups to enable in-depth discussion and participation. Processes developed for large groups include delegation, large plenaries, splitting into smaller groups and the spokescouncil. Usually a combination of processes is needed for a smooth and successful large group meeting.
You can save lots of time and frustration by delegating decisions. Avoid micro-management, where the whole group decides in fine detail what needs to be done.Make policy or framework decisions in the whole group and delegate the implementation and detail to working groups. Trust people to work in the spirit of the group and the agreements you’ve made, but also build in regular report backs so that the whole group is kept informed about the work sub groups are doing.
Large group plenaries, where the whole group comes together in one place, can be used to share information, to make proposals and for final decision making.
However plenaries are much less useful for discussions that involve everyone as they tend to be dominated by a few confident people. There are also time constraints – giving everyone just 3 minutes to speak in a meeting of 200 people would take 10 hours! Plenaries are also limited by numbers – too large and people won’t be able to hear, see each other or even fit into one room.
To increase participation you can limit the number of times a person can speak and give preference to women, new people etc. To help with clarity, summarise regularly and write up key words for everyone to see. Make sure everyone can hear each other (this might require a microphone – have a look at our guide on Access Issues for more tips).
Working in small groups
The advantages of splitting into small groups for discussion are that they create safer, more dynamic spaces to work in and include more people in a discussion.People will be much more comfortable talking openly in a small group of 6-15 people. Working in small groups also saves time.
Working in small groups usually begins with the whole group starting to discuss the issue, highlighting problems and drawing up a list of possible ideas. Then people split into small groups to discuss the ideas and come up with more. You can either ask each group to explore all the ideas, or each group could take away just one idea to examine in depth. The small groups return to the main forum and report back, highlighting possible obstacles to each idea. If full group discussion cannot resolve the obstacles, small groups can go away to try to find ways to solve the problem.
Some people resist small group work. It requires trust to let other people go away and discuss an issue, and that trust isn’t always present. Some people just like having a larger audience, others struggle to choose between working groups. To reassure people and to make sure that ideas and points don’t get lost, it’s important to have a well-functioning feedback process.
The spokescouncil enables consensus decisions with hundreds and thousands of people, with the maximum number of opinions and ideas being heard in an efficient way. It is used by many groups such as social centres, workers’ co-ops, peace and environmental movements.
In a spokescouncil (see flowchart below) the meeting breaks up into small groups, which start by discussing the issue(s) to come up with concerns and ideas. If a small group can reach agreement on a preferred proposal that can speed up the process, but it’s not always possible.
Each group then sends their spoke (delegate) to the spokescouncil meeting to feed back their groups’ ideas, concerns and proposals. The spokes look for one or more proposals that they think might be acceptable to all groups and take these back to their groups for discussion and amendments.
Each small group checks whether there is agreement, which is reported back to the spokescouncil by the spokes to check whether there is agreement by all, or if not to draw up new proposals. The power to make decisions lies firmly with the small groups, not the spokes.
Small groups are often based around pre-existing groups such as work teams, local groups or affinity groups. Alternatively, a large group of people might split into smaller groups just for the duration of one meeting, in which case groups can be created randomly, or by grouping people around something they have in common such as living in the same area or region.
The spoke: The spoke’s role is to feed back information between the small group and the spokes meeting. The spoke needs to act as a voice for everyone within the small group, communicating the breadth of collective thought rather than their own personal point of view. Being the spoke carries a lot of responsibility to represent information accurately and to not manipulate the process.
Generally spokes do not make decisions for their group. They will always check back for agreement before a decision is finalised. However, an individual small group may empower their spoke to take decisions within agreed parameters.
You might like to rotate the role from meeting to meeting, or agenda item to agenda item. It also helps to have two spokes, one of them presenting the viewpoints and proposals from their small group, the other to take notes of what other groups have to say. This helps to ensure that ideas don’t get lost or misrepresented in the transmission between small groups and the spokescouncil.
The facilitation team: You’ll need a team of at least four facilitators to keep an overview and help small groups and spokes when they get stuck, to synthesise proposals and to keep the meeting focused. You’ll also need people to take minutes. For more read our briefing on Facilitating Meetings.
Variations of a Spokescouncil
Fish bowl: To make the spokescouncil more accountable and reduce the need for repeating information, it can take place in the fish bowl format (see diagram right), with the groups sitting in an outer circle around the spokes. Each group can sit directly behind their spoke, which makes it easier for the spoke to quickly check back with their group. Only the spokes should speak (except during small group discussion time).
Tiered spokescouncils: Even spokescouncil meetings are limited in size – when there are more than 30-40 spokes and small groups another tier might be needed.
In this case each spokescouncil sends a spoke to a second or even third level spokescouncil. With this number of people it becomes even more important to think carefully about which decisions actually need to be made by everyone and which can be left to individual groups. Tens of thousands people have successfully achieved consensus by having tiers of spokes meetings. However, quite often the tiered spokescouncil can just act as a channel for information and consultation rather than being used for actual decision making.
Long-distance spokescouncils: The spokescouncil model also works for long-distance decision making. Rather than all members of all groups converging in one place to make a decision, groups can discuss the issue at home and then send a spoke to a meeting. The spokes come back with a proposal that the groups either accept or amend. To avoid time delay groups can be meeting in their home towns at the same time as all the spokes are meeting. The spokes ring or email proposals to the groups for discussion and feedback. Another option is that spokes talk to each other on the phone or via internet chat or email.