Consensus and Facilitation: When You Hear These Words, Beware of Being Suckered
Your local newspaper publishes a notice that a meeting will be held one night week to 'solicit' input from the community regarding a proposed plan for oh say, community development. Now, being civic-minded, you mark the date on your already full calendar and make a mental note to hold that night free so that you might offer your 'input'. The next day you call the number noted in the announcement and ask to obtain a copy of the proposed plan, that you might read it before the meeting.
Oops, you're told it's still at the printers (or whatever) but will be available at the door.
At the door you are greeted by an individual who hands you an agenda and the proposed new plan for community development heretofore unavailable. As you enter the room, you are further amazed by the setup. There are no tables and chairs for a panel at the front of the room; there is but one microphone positioned beside a podium, lecture style. Further, the room is filled with tables...round tables, with six to eight chairs around each table. For an open public forum meeting, you find this rather odd and ask the greeter if this is really where you are supposed to be. Yes, you are assured, this is where the meeting is being held.
Somewhat confused, you take a chair. Others file in; some you know, some you don't. You note that others, like you, find this new layout for a public forum meeting "different. Soon a speaker calls the meeting to order. After a blah-blah short introductory speech the presenter asks for your cooperation in utilizing a new concept in decision-making! Following a presentation regarding the new proposed plan, each table will participate in a discussion with the help of a facilitator. Each table will put on paper their thoughts and feelings about this new community plan....their likes and dislikes. A roundhouse discussion will ensue at each table—from which, ta dah, will emerge a consensus for the group......a narrowing of the listed likes and dislikes down to two or three that the 'group' deems most important. These, you are told, will later be synthesized.
What is going on?
You look around and note a look of bewilderment on several other faces (but nobody wants to appear dumb). No explanation is offered; and you, feeling at quite a disadvantage, but not wanting to look stupid, are hesitant to ask anything. You say nothing and go along. But the feeling of discomfort remains and continues to grow. What is going on? A phrase heard a lot these days is paradigm shift. What is described above (maybe with slight variations) is part of that paradigm shift. Parents, community members, citizens, and taxpayers have no idea what they are walking into when they suddenly, and without warning, find themselves participating in a whole new concept of a "public forum meeting.
While the semantics may vary to some degree from meeting to meeting, the underlying framework of the 'process' to which the people will be exposed does not. Under the new paradigm, decision making is to be "decentralized," moving away from decisions being made solely by elected and/or public officials accountable to elected officials, to decision-making that supposedly includes the people.
The "public forum" meeting and community participation process is the venue for that decentralized decision-making process, which is being sold to the people as a "move to empower the people," a way for them to have a greater voice in their governance and in decisions made that will affect them.
But this is rhetoric, not reality. What people don't know, at the outset, is that the goal...outcome...consensus...of the process is—gosh: predetermined!
The decentralized decision-making process has three steps (there are actually books on how to do this; dont take my word for it). The first step, unbeknownst to the audience, is to get the people to assess "where they are now." This is accomplished by feeding people information relative to the issue at hand—be it education reform, land use planning, garbage decisions, whatever—then soliciting the feedback of the people relative to the information presented. The feedback solicited is put in writing, to be analyzed later.
The second step is moving the people from "where they are now" to "where we want to be"....to acceptance of, ownership of, what is being advocated by the meeting 'planners' relative to the issue at hand. This is really a con-job, but dressed up. The first phase of step two is to get the people to be "adaptable to change, with passive-compliant-unquestioning people the best subjects. Where people have belief systems that are strongly grounded in absolutes, they are not easily manipulated or easily "adaptable to change." The facilitators task is to change the beliefs of a greater number of people in order to realize the predetermined goal of the meeting.
The facilitation process is intended to move people from a belief in absolutes—i.e., that right is right, wrong is wrong—to believing that right and wrong are situational, a matter of perception. Those who refuse to become adaptable are asked "not to sabotage" or "openly oppose" the purported forward momentum of the agenda.
The second phase is to move people into ownership of the outcome, producing consensus, which means "solidarity of belief."
Consensus, however, left to its own devices, cannot be controlled. Therefore, a manipulative form of consensus, utilizing facilitators highly trained in group dynamics, is used to ensure the outcome. While such facilitators are billed as neutral, they are anything but. They are key to the groups reaching the pre-set outcome. And, if facilitated properly, the people emerge believing the decision made—the outcome—was (ta-dah!) their idea. Theyre unaware that they have been facilitated in a certain direction.
Theres another step: accountability. Authorship of the pre-set outcome is given to the people, who, as a collective, thereby become accountable for the decision made, as if the whole thing really was their idea.
We hear ad nauseum, "but we had the input of the people," though in fact the will of the people has been manipulated. What this does, however, and does very effectively, is two-fold: it gives the bureaucracy license to do whatever it wants under the guise of "doing what the people authorized us, via their decision, to do," and second, it makes the people, not the bureaucracy, accountable for decisions made. The people become at once the scapegoat and the victim. But in fact it is the elected officials and those accountable to the elected officials who should be held accountable for decisions made under such circumstances.
What can people do to prevent this? They must educate themselves. They must insist that public meetings be run by Roberts Rules of Order, with no consensus circles. They must pressure legislators to dispense with 'appointed' commissions, councils and agencies that are not accountable to the people and that are, via legislation, not accountable to the Legislature.
Jude Moriarity, of New Hampshire, holds numerous civic awards and has written numerous social commentaries about child abuse, conditions within institutions, homeless issues, the conditions of Veterans back from war and, most recently, environmental issues. I am also sickened at the influence of 'special interests' in the legislative process on the state and national level with lobbyists writing bills, she says. Whatever the concern or issue it is imperative that people become informed as groups, for individuals are easily labeled and scapegoated.
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This story was published on October 2, 2002.