Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Consensus,Participatory Democracy, and the Occupation Movement (Sort of) How To

This is the Pnyx in Athens as it is today. This is where the practice of participatory democracy was first developed in Ancient Greece, and where many of our democratic concepts were first worked out.

The agenda is formal and extremely important. The roles, techniques, and skills necessary for smooth operation must be accessible to and developed in all members. Evaluation of the process must happen on a consistent and frequent basis, as a tool for self-education and self-management. Above all, Formal Consensus must be taught. It is unreasonable to expect people to be familiar with this process already. In general, nonviolent conflict resolution does not exist in modern North American society. These skills must be developed in what is primarily a competitive environment.
The Consensus Handbook, C.T. Butler and Amy Rothstein, 1991

The Truly Revolutionary aspect of the Occupy Movement is its conscious restoration of participatory democracy or direct democracy. We are very unused to it, so foreign does it seem to most of us, that we almost recoil at first contact with it. Some of the Occupations operate by consensus rules that generally avoid votes and voting. The rule is that a proposal is adopted if there is no serious objection.

Operating on the principles of Consensus is really very new and very unfamiliar to most Americans because few have any experience or training in the technique. We live in a competitive, hierarchical, and more and more authoritarian society. Consensus decision making must be taught, learned, and practiced for it to work at all. Even then, the process is difficult and froughtful, especially when combined with participatory democracy as we see in the New York City General Assembly, and as we're seeing develop throughout the Occupy Movement.

There is no easy way to do it, but there can be some useful ways to look at the process so that you can more easily "get it."

One of the activists with OccupySeattle (h/t Shon) has shared some of his insights and a set of principles he has developed as he learns -- and now teaches -- the process.

[This is a draft, as of October 13, 2011. There will no doubt be refinements and updates]

  • All decisions that effect the whole are made by general assembly. That way, groups can’t take over, or misrepresent.

  • Groups are for doing work and bringing proposals. If you have an idea, start a group! Don’t ask the assembly, just find some friends and do it!

  • Yelling really loud doesn’t put you on stack. Raise your hand. If you have a proposal or announcement, come to the front and get on the agenda. Never repeat what someone else already said.

  • Assembly time is precious. You can’t speak every time. Think three times before you speak. Does this really help the assembly make a better decision?

  • Nothing is more precious than the thoughts of the quiet. Nothing is more precious than the words of the silenced. Speak up! Please! Especially when it’s really hard!

  • Use the people’s microphone. It makes us choose our words. It makes us listen.

  • Facilitators make space and move the process. Facilitators never present content or represent another’s idea. The assembly is responsible for keeping facilitators in check.

  • The assembly is responsible for signing [demonstrate hand signs as you speak] to the facilitators. If the assembly doesn’t sign, the facilitator doesn’t have anything to facilitate!

  • No one else can speak for you. That’s why we need you here!

  • Great! Now how do you do it?

    There are probably as many different ways to do it as there are Occupations throughout the world. Since each Occupation is autonomous, each will adapt and adopt a process that works for them. One of the principles of the movement, however, is that we are trying to reclaim the public square for public discussion, debate, consideration and decision making by the People on their own behalf.

    In other words, the movement is claiming the physical space and creating the mind space for People to take control from those who have been ruling in our names but not on our behalf so poorly for so long.

    A way to transition into an effective participatory democracy and consensus decision making process:

    Before the [next] General Assembly ask for volunteers to prepare for the introduction of a direct and participatory democratic process; say that volunteers are needed to learn the basic format of a full-participation General Assembly like those in many other cities, and to learn the roles of facilitators and moderators as they apply to that model of procedure.

    Go over the basic General Assembly purposes, procedures and rules with the volunteers, and explain the roles of facilitators and moderators. Urge that everyone share this information with everyone else so that in the shortest possible time anyone can serve as GA moderator or facilitator. (Written material to share can be helpful; the New York City GA 3 fold brochure is a brief outline of the process and is easy to print and distribute. Those who want more in depth information can be referred to websites such as the Quick Guide and others. See Resources.)

    Remember: General Assembly can be fun! It should also be rewarding for every participant.

    Schedule the next General Assembly and stick to the scheduled start time. Schedule the General Assembly to start at a time when the most people will be available at the Occupation to participate (ie: not in the early morning, nor before a "reasonable" time in the evening. There is more flexibility on weekends for many people, and a mid-afternoon weekend GA can be a good time especially if there are many other weekend events planned.) Allow at least an hour on the schedule for the General Assembly but be aware that the Assembly may take longer or it may be shorter.

    Prepare an agenda based on agenda formats and rules found helpful in other GAs.

    Ask for two volunteers to moderate/facilitate the next General Assembly and one to be the recorder.

    At the next General Assembly:

  • Introduce volunteer facilitators and moderators and describe their roles. Ask if there is any concern in the Assembly about these particular people serving in these roles at this Assembly.

    If concerns are raised about moderators/facilitators, hear them as well as any alternatives that may be proposed. If the concerns are serious, ask the volunteer to step aside; if the Assembly agrees, use an alternative volunteer. This step may take a while, or it may go very smoothly, but it is important for enabling participants to fully engage in the rest of the process.

    If there are no serious concerns, continue:

  • Read the statement of principles and the procedural rules and methods.

  • Ask for any questions.

  • Discuss if necessary.

  • Ask if there are any unresolved concerns about proceeding under these principles and procedures.

  • Hear any objection.

  • Discuss modifications if necessary to achieve consensus.

  • Ask if there are any further unresolved concerns. If none, announce consensus and proceed with General Assembly.

  • If consensus is not achieved, but all concerns have been discussed, call for a vote, supermajority (at group's discretion) approval required.

  • If required supermajority is achieved, proceed with General Assembly.

  • If neither consensus nor supermajority vote are achieved, state that the General Assembly cannot continue, and thus crucial decisions on behalf of the Occupation cannot be made. Propose to adjourn. (This step will require its own set of questions and discussion, and more often than not, it will lead to consensus to continue. If not, adjourn the Assembly. If so, proceed with the General Assembly.)

  • First Order of Assembly Business:

  • Read Agenda; ask for additions or changes; call for consensus.

  • Proceed to Agenda items, one by one.

  • Those items need to include:
  • Working group informational reports, questions and proposals (one by one)
  • General Information
  • General Announcements
  • Proposals (as presented by Assembly participants.)

    Agenda order can vary according to the needs of the Assembly.

  • Each proposal becomes an item for question, discussion and consensus (or vote if necessary) on its own account. If no consensus is reached, or a supermajority vote is not achieved, the proposal is returned to the proposer for further work. It may be resubmitted at the next General Assembly or it may be dropped.

  • Proposals should only be those items which affect the whole Assembly and Occupation. Working group activities are otherwise autonomous. It's important to clarify what activities are likely to affect the whole Occupation.

  • Questions and discussion of each proposal is handled in a regular order.

  • The proposal is stated by the spokesperson for the working group or by an individual (NEVER by the moderator or facilitator);

  • Call for questions about the proposal

  • Ask for any concerns about the proposal

  • The proposer restates the proposal based on questions, information, or concerns raised by the Assembly

  • Ask if there are any unresolved concerns

  • If none, then the proposal is adopted by consensus, and at this time, ONLY, the moderator or facilitator may restate the proposal for the record.

  • If there are unresolved concerns at this point, two courses are possible:

    The proposer can ask for a vote, (supermajority required to adopt the proposal);
    if a supermajority not achieved the proposal is deemed to be blocked and it is returned to the proposer for further work and possible resubmission at a subsequent General Assembly.

    Alternatively, the proposer may withdraw the proposal from further consideration at this Assembly and resubmit it or a modification at a subsequent Assembly.

  • Once all Working Group Reports, proposals, informational issues, and announcements are completed:

  • Ask if there are any other matters for General Assembly consideration;

  • If there are additional items, ask that they be brought forth; ask that additional items be only those that affect the whole Occupation; save other matters for an "Open Forum."

  • After hearing additional items, and acting on those that require an Assembly decision (using the same procedure as previously described for proposals), ask again if there are additional questions or items. If additional items are raised, ask if they can be postponed to the next General Assembly or can be brought up in an Open Forum or Working Group for discussion.

  • If there are no other action items for the General Assembly, announce the time and place of the next General Assembly;

  • Adjourn the General Assembly.

    Clarity is essential in making proposals, modifying them, and in restating proposals which have been adopted. Proposals which have been adopted are by definition matters which will affect the whole Occupation; therefore, it is crucial that everyone at the Assembly know exactly what is being proposed, discussed, and adopted so as to minimize confusion and dissension. This necessary step is often neglected with predictable -- negative -- results.

    Each adopted proposal then becomes part of the General Assembly Record which must be made available as quickly as possible to the whole Assembly as well as essentially to anyone who asks. Questions and discussions need not be made part of the Record, but they may be included at the discretion of the Recorder. Announcements and Information should be made part of the Record along with the sources of the Information and Announcements. If possible, a video record of each General Assembly should be made and archived for public access. At a minimum a written record of all proposals and decisions of the General Assembly, along with Announcements and Information, must be maintained and be made available as quickly and as widely as possible.

    No decisions that affect the whole Occupation should occur outside the General Assembly process, and under no circumstances should Working Group or General Assembly facilitator/moderator activity take place in secret or behind closed doors, no matter the temptation to do so. Transparency and openness in all matters that can potentially affect the whole Occupation are crucial for the success of the Occupations and for the success of the General Assembly process. The minute participants perceive that there are secret or closed door meetings going on, or that cliques are forming and acting to establish authority or control over the Occupation and Assembly, the Occupation is on the road to dissension and failure.

    Each Occupation should resolve that: No decision that will affect the whole Occupation is valid if made in secret or behind closed doors.

  • As this is being posted on October 15, 2011:

    A statement from #OccupyWallSt on the occasion of Global Solidarity Day, October 15, 2011:

    This is not a a protest, it is a movement. Come out in the streets with us ... and you will understand the difference. You will literally feel the energy. We will not stop until we see fundamental change and justice. We are closer than you think.

    Everywhere. Around the World. Are we ready for a brand new day?

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