Except for those who have switched to sociocracy, cohousing communities use full group consensus as their primary method of decision-making. Decisions are typically made in meetings open to the full membership and with the consent of each person present. As cohousing communities have grown larger, from 12 to more than 50 households, and include increasingly more diverse populations, full group consensus has become ineffective for many, if not most. Making decisions with less than 50 people is very different from 100 or more.
In addition, many communities are more complex. They now have programs that do not involve all members—gardens, chickens, home schooling, yoga groups, etc. Consensus requires a shared aim. Delegating decisions that only involve those that share these aims is a reasonable use of everyone’s time and energy. With more than 50 people and a variety of aims, some form of delegated decision-making with central coördination is more effective.
Switching to Sociocracy
Communities switching to sociocracy do not have to give up full group decision-making. When delegating decisions to circles, communities can also delegate decisions to “full circle meetings”, meetings of all the circles. The annual budget approval, for example, or changing the vision, mission, aim statements.
Sociocracy allows communities to keep the collaborative and inclusive qualities of full group decision-making while delegating decisions to sub-groups—committees, teams, circles, etc.— and allowing them to become specialized. Policy decisions and a coordinating structure then guide the sub-groups.
Consent vs. Consensus
While I understand the reasons people like to oppose consensus with consent, I believe that in the end it is self-defeating. It becomes a battle of definitions and distracts from the purpose: how to organize large cohousing communities so they function more effectively as excellent places to live.
When adopting sociocracy, the fundamental difference is not between making decisions with consensus or consent. It is adopting a decision-making structure in which consensus more effective. Its principles and methods shift the debate from stalemate to action.
The sociocratic definition of consent is “no objections.” An objection means the proposed action cannot be taken until that objection is resolved—just as it is in full group consensus. Sociocracy uses “consent” to emphasize that the decision is being made by an individual based on their own ability to “live with” the decision. It isn’t based on a hypothetical or projected standard of the “good of the community.” An objection is made in the context of the aim of the decision, how it affects one’s own participation in the community, and its expression of the communities stated aims (if any).
Consent can be given when there are still concerns and unmet needs. The decision-making threshold values action, moving forward, with what appears to be reasonable decision given the circumstances. Concerns, limitations, fears, assumptions, etc., should be tested by designing measurements that can be evaluated.
Only Sociocracy Strengthens Consensus
In comparison to any other governance method, sociocracy alone supports and reinforces consensus decision-making. It preserves the benefits of consensus and makes it practical in large and diverse groups with complex aims.
Originally written 6 January 2013
Substantially revised 19 April 2014