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Why democracy doesn't mean you get your way - Part 2

If you do an online search of the word "democracy", you'll come across references to things like 'majority decision-making' or 'control by a majority'. Majority decision-making, and voting, are often assumed to be key features of a democracy.

However: neither voting, nor control by a majority, are necessary for democratic decision-making.

This may come as a shock, but there are ways for groups of people to make decisions that do not involve voting. Voting leaves very little room for nuance, for the exploration of alternatives, or for compromise between disparate perspectives.

Majority decision-making, for its part, can lead to a tyranny of the majority, the oppression of minority perspectives, the polarization of opinions, and, by definition, a portion of participants whose preferences are ignored.

So what's the alternative?

If you're part of a group that is empowered to make a decision on some issue (a board, community group, committee, etc), you have several possible avenues to move towards a decision. Here are just a few.
  • Consensus Decision-Making. A great alternative to 'majority rules'. Unfortunately, this approach also suffers from misunderstanding. "Consensus" does not mean everyone unequivocally supports a particular position. This approach refers to an iterative process whereby a proposal is refined based on input from the entire group. Throughout the process, participants indicate the degree to which they are: A) in full support of the proposal, B) against the proposal, but willing to go along with the preference of the group, and C) completely opposed to allowing the group to proceed with the proposal. Note the distinction between B and C. Someone might not be in favour of a proposed decision, but they may be willing to defer to the preference of the group (option B). In other words, they "consent" to allowing the proposal to proceed. If, however, they are completely opposed to moving forward, then they do not consent (C), and the review process must continue. (for a more comprehensive scale, have a look here)
  • Research and Review. If an issue is too complex to grapple with, defer the issue to a smaller group to do some background research in order to put forward a range of specific options or recommendations. It can be very challenging for a large group to explore all the implications and the possibilities of a complex issue. Defer the task to a smaller subset (no more than 3 people, ideally 2) to do some thorough research and report back on what they would recommend as possible courses of action. Once the recommended alternatives come forward for a decision, discuss whether there is unanimous support for one of the options. If there is not, send it back so that alternative options can be researched and put forward again.
  • Delegate the decision to an 'expert'. If the proposed area where a decision, and the specific activities to accompany a decision, might benefit from expert guidance (and I mean 'expert' in the holistic sense - could be someone from a particular community, with a particular background, lived experience, or technical training or expertise) you may want to consider setting some broad parameters, and then empowering someone to proceed at their own discretion. For example, rather than approve or decide the specifics of a new program, spend time as a group articulating the key values that should drive the program, the budget, and the key considerations you would like taken into account. With these parameters in place (budget, values, key considerations) empower someone with the time and expertise to make a final decision, and implement their recommended proposal. 
This last approach relates back to Part 1 from last week where I outlined how consultation is not the same as delegated decision-making. Wouldn't it be powerful if, rather than engage in public consultation on significant changes to a community, key values and guiding principles were articulated at the level of elected officials, and then communities were empowered to make a final decision within those parameters? Or vice versa? Rather than engage in consultation, with final decision-making being entirely vested with conventional authorities - split up the decision-making into two parts: 1) key parameters, 2) final decision. 

Regardless which mechanism you employ, all of the options above require groups to spend time deliberating an issue before making a decision, and to then do so without resorting to a simple vote. At a minimum, build in time for deliberation. I would recommend going so far as to have entire meetings where you do not make a decision in order to allow deliberation and reflection to take place. This practice aligns well with all of the possible approaches above, and are far more effective in many circumstances than going with the majority.

In other words, democracy doesn't mean you get your way, even if a majority agrees with you ;)

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