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THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY The General Assembly (GA) model has been adopted by most of the occupations as a way to discuss and make decisions. The GA is a horizontal, leaderless, consensus-based open meeting. This is where decisions are made that affect the whole group and general discussions are held.
The GA is a gathering of people committed to making decisions based upon a collective agreement or “consensus.” There is no single leader or governing body of the GA—everyone’s voice is equal. Anyone is free to propose an idea or express an opinion as part of the GA.
Each proposal follows the same basic format—an individual shares what is being proposed, why it is being proposed, and, if there is enough agreement, how it can be carried out. The GA will express its opinion for each proposal through a
series of hand gestures. If there is positive consensus for a proposal—meaning no outright opposition—then it is accepted and direct action begins. If there is not consensus, the responsible group or individual is asked to revise the proposal and submit again at the following GA until a majority consensus is achieved.
Smaller working groups, such as Media, Outreach, Food, Direct Action, etc., make it possible for things to get done a little bit smoother. The working groups figure out specifics, such as what needs to be done or how something could be done, and formulates proposals to bring back to the GA for general
consensus. The working groups can also relay important information about things that everyone needs to take into consideration.
Only decisions that affect the entire group need to be brought to the GA.
Not every person needs to be involved in every action for them to be successful; people should participate in things that they feel strongly about. Groups can plan and call for people to participate in smaller actions outside of the GA without the entire group agreeing to it.
Consensus is an inclusive and non-hierarchical process for group decision making. It is a method by which the input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized in order to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, we are not only working to achieve better solutions,
but paving the way for an egalitarian model of community decision making.
Consensus means that the group has come to a decision in which everyone feels their position on the matter was considered carefully and addressed as much as possible. It doesn’t mean that every single person agrees that the decision made is the only way to do things. Hopefully, everyone will think it is the
best decision; this often happens because, when consensus works properly, collective intelligence does come up with better solutions than could individuals.
OUTLINE FOR MAKING DECISIONS
1. Someone brings up a topic of discussion or an idea that requires a group decision. This might take some discussion in order for the group to identify what exactly needs to be solved.
2. Discussion takes place about the problem, so the group can start working towards a proposal. The biggest mistake people make in consensus is to offer proposals too soon, before the group has had time to fully discuss the issue. (At the occupations, the majority of these discussions take place in the smaller working groups.)
3. When it is apparent that the group is beginning to go over the same ground, a proposal is made which attempts to synthesize the feelings and insights expressed by the group. The proposal should be clearly stated in very specific language. (At the occupations, the proposals are often created in the smaller working groups and brought to the General Assembly for consensus).
4. Discussion is held on the proposal, in which it is amended or modified. During this discussion period, it is important to articulate differences clearly. It is the responsibility of those who are having trouble with a proposal to put forth alternative suggestions.
5. When the proposal is understood by everyone, and there are no new changes asked for, someone (usually the facilitator) calls for a show of consensus. The proposal is reread with the included changes. The facilitator asks who agrees with the proposal. If people feel that the proposal reflects the will of the group as a whole, they signal their agreement by putting a thumbs up for everyone to see. The facilitator asks if there are any stand-asides. If someone feels that they have reservations, don’t feel strongly about the decision, or don’t fully agree with the proposal but doesn’t have a serious objection to it passing, they indicate that they stand aside. The facilitator asks if there are any blocks. If someone feels that the proposal seriously and irreconcilably violates the core values of the group, they show a block by making an
X with their arms.
If someone has very strong objections to a specific proposal, that person should meet with the relevant working group for further discussion with the aim of coming to a common understanding.
6. After consensus is reached, the decision should be clearly restated so as to check that everyone is clear on what has been decided. Before moving away from the subject, the group should be clear who is taking on the responsibility for implementing the decision.
TYPES OF DISAGREEMENTS:
While the consensus model can be an effective way for large groups of people to be unified in action, we can’t expect everyone to always agree. Below are some common ways that disagreement is resolved within consensus process:
Non-support Stand Aside: “I don’t see the need for this, but I’ll go along with the group.”
Reservations Stand Aside: “I think this may be a mistake, but I can
live with it.”
Personal Conflict Stand Aside: “I personally can’t do this, but I
won’t stop others from doing it.”
Blocking: “I cannot support this or allow the group to support this.
It goes against the agreed upon values of the group.” Blocking consensus is something that should only be done in extreme situations.
It is not just a difference of opinion or a strategic disagreement—it
is a complete and absolute rejection of the group moving forward.
Blocking should be used cautiously and sparingly.
Consensus does not override each individual’s ability to make their own decisions. Just as we hope that everyone will respect the decisions made by
the GA, the GA should also strive to respect decisions made by individuals
outside of the consensus process. Alongside consensus, we can celebrate our
diversity and individual strengths. The problems we are confronting are wide
and multi-faceted; thus, so our resistance should be too.4
ROLES IN CONSENSUS PROCESS
In large groups, it is helpful to designate roles for people to help the process
move along. It is important to rotate these responsibilities for each meeting
so that skills and power can be shared. Ideally, such responsibilities should
belong to everyone, and not just the designated person.
The facilitator’s job is to help the group efficiently move through the
agreed-upon agenda and to make room for people to have their opinions
heard on the topics being discussed. Facilitators should see that speaking opportunities are evenly distributed, that quiet people get a chance
to speak and people who talk too much are given a chance to listen. The
facilitator should observe when the discussion seems to be nearing the
point when a proposal could be made. The facilitator can then call for a
proposal or offer one to the group, after more discussion if necessary, and
then guide the group through the check for consensus as outlined above.
Facilitators should not use their position as a platform from which to offer
solutions; solutions should arise from the group, and no one should facilitate if they find they have strong opinions on a given issue. A facilitator
can always hand over her or his responsibilities temporarily if s/he feels it
necessary to step down. The group should not rely upon the facilitator to
solve process problems, but should be ready to help with suggestions on
how to proceed.
The role of the stack-taker is to keep stack—a list of people who would
like to speak on the topic. The stack-taker can prioritize people who have not
spoken yet in order to get more voices in the discussion and can cut off the
stack in order to create room for proposals or if the discussion is going too
long or going around in circles.
The timekeeper assists the facilitator by keeping track of how long each
part of the discussion has gone on. Often, each topic on the agenda will be assigned a time limit. The timekeeper lets people know when the time allotted
is running out on that topic, and when the time is up. The group can always
decide to add more time if it seems necessary for reaching consensus.
NOTES ON MAKING A DECISION IN A LIMITED AMOUNT OF TIME:
It is the facilitator’s responsibility to quickly and succinctly articulate the problem to be discussed and to eliminate those points on which agreement has already been reached. It is the responsibility of everyone in the group to keep the discussion to a minimum if quick action is called for. If your point has already been made by someone else, don’t restate it. A calm approach and a clear desire to come to an agreement quickly can help the process. Don’t let anxiety overwhelm your trust in each other or your purpose in the action. Strong objections should be limited to matters of principle.