building is a decision-making process that is vital to any community
planning effort or other process requiring public participation. With
the assistance of an unbiased mediator or facilitator, participants
can raise issues, seek to understand each other's views, and then
cooperatively, often through compromise, develop an agreed upon resolution
such as goals for a resource or actions for land use planning.
involves a longer timeframe than most other forms of decision-making.
Difficult decisions on significant issues require patience, time
and participation. It may be necessary to break down big decisions
into "mini-agreements" to help build group trust and lay
the foundation for major decisions that can be supported and implemented.
In certain situations,
consensus building will not be effective or will fail entirely,
such as when the issues involve deep-rooted value differences, very
high stakes, or win-lose confrontations. These characteristics occur
in many environmental disputes that involve allocation or alteration
of scarce resources. In these cases, other decision-making mechanisms
may be necessary, such as formal arbitration or mediation.
reminder: Consensus building does not mean everyone agrees that
a decision is optimal. It means a decision is reached that everyone
can live with; in other words, the decision addresses stakeholders'
most important issues.
Prior to beginning the process, it may be necessary to do some research
to identify stakeholders and/or to convince different interest groups
to participate. Take into account the history these groups may have
with each other; they may need compelling reasons and assurances as
to the validity of the process and what will happen with the outcomes.
Meet with key stakeholders one-on-one to make clear the scope and
goals of the consensus building process, the groups' level of decision-making
authority, and what they can realistically hope to accomplish. Participants
should have a say in the agenda, selecting their representatives,
defining the issues, and developing appropriate ground rules. This
is one way to build trust into the process, which is critical to a
successful outcome. Take this step of meeting separately with key
stakeholders even if the meeting is going to be open to the public
2. Set up
This event can be any size. It can be a large, well-advertised public
workshop, a small meeting of a committee or task force, or a special
convocation of stakeholders. What is most important is that the
group represents diverse interests such as government, business,
non-profits, and citizens. There may be one or several meetings
depending upon the objectives. The meeting place should be in a
"safe" neutral space and held at a convenient time and
date that does not conflict most schedules, which means not during
a workday or on school or religious holidays. Depending upon the
size of the event, invite participants by phoning, mailing invitations,
and/or placing notices in newspapers and newsletters.
Particularly in high stakes situations, a highly skilled facilitator
who is viewed by all interests as fair and competent will greatly
improve the chance for success. The facilitator can maintain group
momentum and keep discussions on track by guiding for compromise
and common ground in conflicting opinions.
4. Let the
Follow the agreed upon agenda and post the meeting objectives for
all to see. These should be referred back to if participants get
off track. The key to reaching a successful consensus is for everyone
to have an opportunity to speak and be heard. Be sure to record
statements verbatim. Capture thoughts on flip charts, whiteboards
or overhead projectors so that everyone can see them and be able
to them as the meeting continues.
After the meeting, mail meeting notes. This may include a summary
of what happened, the actual quotes of participants, any agreed
upon decisions, and any requested information and data that was
referred to or is in preparation for the next meeting. If there
will be additional meetings, give a large, clear reminder of the
date, time, place and objective.