Consensus Decision-Making at the UCL Occupation

By Maeve McKeown

UCL Occupation Meeting Using Consensus

On the 24th November 2010, a group of students protesting about the proposed changes to higher education entered University College London’s (UCL) Jeremy Bentham Room. Someone asked, “Do we want to occupy?” And so it began… a two and a half week occupation of one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

At our first meeting we decided on our list of demands and the process that would drive the occupation. That process is consensus-decision making.

Typically at large meetings, decisions are made by voting. 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. Everyone who wants to speak, gets to speak.

Decisions are made by the whole group. Anyone can make a proposal. A proposal can only pass if it is agreed to by everyone. This was rarely a problem: 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 participants use hand signals to show how they feel about what is happening in the meeting.

We designated working groups for particular topics – media, tech, events, outreach, process, escalation, demands, security and kitchen. Anyone could join any working group, or leave a working group at any time. 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.

This organisational model worked for several reasons.

People joined working groups depending on their skills. It meant that everyone was using their skills effectively and to the utmost.

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.

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.

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.

The process does have its drawbacks. Meetings could go on forever! At times people got frustrated with the model, and facilitating meetings could be draining and unrewarding. Facilitators also faced the problem of people being sneaky and trying to abuse the process.

Power relations could be an issue. Those in the process group who had control over the agenda, how meetings working, and facilitated meetings, could be perceived as having more power than others. This was also a problem for the media working group who controlled external communications.

Because a working group could be set up any time on anything, sometimes there seemed to be hundreds of them. 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 was frustrating when you needed to talk to someone in a working group and you didn’t know who was in the group/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).

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!

Guest post by Maeve McKeown. A longer version of this post will appear shortly at Student Theory.

Beyond Clicktivism plans to invite people to help build new tools for on-line discussion that operate in a way closer to the consensus model. Please watch this space for future developments if you would like to get involved.