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Civic Dictionary

Consensus Democracy
A New Approach to 21st Century Governance

By the Kentucky Leadership Institute/Center for Communities of the Future

The Idea

AmericaSpeaks has issued the challenge for governance in the 21st Century: "to regain some control over the policies which affect our lives."

On first glance, simple solutions seem to be available which can reenergize the democratic process: "Get the right people to run; if only the people would let us do the job for which we were elected; vote for term limits; it's time for a third party. "

On the surface these comments appear to be right on target to solve the problem with democracy. Such ideas reflect an assumption that the "machinery just needs the right oil. "

This approach assumes that the present institutional structure of decision making is correct and there just needs to be "tinkering" with the system to make it work. In the opinion of those working to design and implement the concept of Consensus Democracy, the assumption is no longer valid.

The idea of Consensus Democracy is based on the theory that the structure of democracy needs new scaffolding—a new concept of how decisions are made, a new approach to the role of leadership and new methods and techniques to build shared vision.

Consensus Democracy focuses on the need to reengineer the approach to local decision making in the 21st Century. It assumes the present system which emphasizes political parties and simple ideology is unable to be effective in a fast-paced age in which constant change creates a new level of interdependency and complexity. It assumes that the old idea of checks and balances will create tremendous gridlock in a society increasingly diverse. It assumes that the same forces causing business to rethink the need for involvement of employees is creating the need for elected officials to develop new processes for dialogue and decision making which will insure "ownership by the people". It assumes that there is a need to rethink what it means to be a "civil society" and that the concept of the "common good " must be more than an aggregation of individual rights. It assumes that people will be responsible for their own communities given the capacities to be effective in a 21st Century society.

The Framework

The concept and implementation of Consensus Democracy is just beginning to evolve. It is presently the skeleton of a new approach to democratic governance sponsored by The Center for Communities of the Future. Its focus is to involve a network of communities throughout the United States to test out and help adapt the concept as it develops. Feedback of ideas, methods and techniques win be continuous.

The basic idea of Consensus Democracy is that people need a new way to be involved in a broadened approach to local decision making. Surveys have shown that citizens no longer feel ownership of decisions which impact their lives. There is little trust between citizens and their elected officials. Every community is being overwhelmed with change which is transforming an institutions. Left by itself experience is a poor teacher of leadership. Too many people feel that they have to make sure that they get their fair share because of cutthroat competition and lack of ethics. All of this leads to a society whose local communities no longer have a sense that the "common good " is possible.

The framework for a democracy for the 21st Century needs to be based on principles that align with the trends of the society. These principles need to establish a basic understanding of how diversity can be brought to shared vision; how a new concept of the common good can be evolved; how new mental models can be created which give understanding to the times in which we live; how leadership can be developed capable of being able to manage systemic transformation; how the communications technology can be utilized to unify a community through the sharing of instant information; how varied networks of citizens can be developed to build capacities for change in communities.

Any 21st Century approach to democracy will need a flexible framework in which diverse people can dialogue and not debate; in which systemic thinking replaces a linear project mentality; where people feel that their leaders not only want their opinion, but watch as these leaders build new processes for active, direct citizen decision making which includes anyone who wants to be involved; where decisions will be synthesized constantly using the talents of the diverse community.

The Application

There will be no one model of Consensus Democracy. The principles of the concept have the flexibility to be applied in as many ways as appropriate to diverse local community situations.

However, the scaffolding of Consensus Democracy has phases of development which must be interconnected to provide a system for managing community transformation.

Two components are generic to an situations:

  • Developing "capacities for transformation"
  • Establishing three phases for a process of community collaboration to identify and resolve key issues

Capacities for Transformation

A key problem existing in an communities is that not one is prepared to make effective decisions in a complex, interconnected society. It is not surprising that strategic plans are often ineffective. We leaders have not prepared our communities with the "capacities" necessary to be effective. Our society demands that we jump to action before we ask why that action is necessary. In addition, our decisions are often too narrowly defined and do not include strategies which will be able to deal with the impact of constant change. As a result our communities decide on simple projects which are based on obsolete information and which focus on only part of the problem. There is a need to prepare a community to think differently; to have the ability to share information in real time; to develop a cadre of diverse leaders capable of facilitating shared vision among diverse citizens; and to create a network of citizens throughout the community able to help manage change.

The "capacity building" component should include the specific actions:

  • Develop a training program for leaders to help them understand how to help manage transformational change in a 21st Century Society.

  • Set a ten year goal to provide "fiber" (fiber optics) and other methods of an electronic infrastructure.

  • Establish a strategy to emphasize the idea of future trends in the thinking and operations of the community.

  • Design and implement ways to provide interested neighborhood citizens the skills and knowledge necessary to help manage "process projects of transformation."

Phases for Building A Consensus Shared Vision

Once an effort is under way to develop capacities in a local community which will lead to a new "framework for the future" a second component part of the Consensus Democracy system can be evolved.

There is a need to understand that citizens will feel ownership of decisions made in their community only when those interested have had an opportunity to help identify key issues and help develop and vote on strategies to resolve the issue.

The Consensus Democracy concept of community decision making is built around three phases of citizen involvement:

Phase 1: The initial phase is focused to allow all interested citizens to set the agenda (define and set priorities for key issues). This can be done a number of ways although surveying using a network of citizen leaders to distribute the packets probably most effectively balances the need for accurate information with the need for adequate citizen discussion and involvement. In the foreseeable future, electronic means will be used to have a consensus table of priority issues identified.

Phase 2: Once one or more key issues have been identified, a two day "community" congress " is held to bring all interested participants to a central location to determine what the important "factors" are that relate to the issue(s). Groups of twenty diverse citizens are created to focus on dialogue to define "factors of interconnection". Wireless technology is used to allow all participants the opportunity to vote for the top factors. The second day is used to talk about key strategic issues to be used as a format for building two or more alternative action plans. The same format and technology is used to set priorities for the strategic issues. The goal of the two day event is to "frame the key issue" to allow an effective understanding of how all factors and strategic issues relate to the "key issue."

Phase 3: The groups of twenty are continued for one to two months to talk about how action plans can be developed. Additional citizens are added who have shown interest and who have been brought up to speed in a specific make-up training session. They are then integrated into existing groups unless new groups of twenty are needed. Once these "citizen teams " have finalized at least two action plans, the plans are sent to the original citizens in final surveys for their vote. Other methods of citizen voting can be added to include the idea of TV-telephone hookup voting.

Conclusion

The intent of Consensus Democracy is to reformulate how local democracy operates in the 21st Century. As with any new idea, this concept will need to be tested and evolved as appropriate methods and techniques are developed. However, the basic principles of Consensus Democracy recognize the need for a new institutional way to allow all citizens to have access to direct control of the decision making process. New advances in human and electronic technology allow new structures to be established. The continuous improvement of democracy is as important as the continuous improvement of humanity. Only by recognizing the need for new ways of thinking about how we build the common good in a world of constant change can our democracy survive.

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