Helping an Ad Hoc Group Reach Consensus

We have identified five steps in the consensus building process:

  • convening,
  • clarifying responsibilities,
  • deliberating,
  • deciding, and
  • implementing agreements.


The key problems for ad hoc assemblies (as opposed to permanent entities) are organizational.

Selecting the relevant stakeholders, finding individuals who can represent those interests effectively getting agreement on groundrules and an agenda , and securing funding are particularly difficult when the participants have no shared history and may have few, if any, interests in common.


Step 1 - Convening 

1.1 Initiate a Discussion About Whether to Have a Consensus Building Dialogue

Every consensus building effort needs to be initiated by someone or some group in a position to bring the key stakeholders together.

1.2 Prepare a Written Conflict Assessment

1.2.1 Assign Responsibility for Preparing the Conflict Assessment

Responsibility for preparing a written conflict assessment should be assigned to a neutral party. A contract for this work should be made between the convening entity and a neutral service provider. The convenor should consult informally with other key parties in making the selection of a qualified conflict assessor.

1.2.2 Identify a First Circle of Essential Participants

The convenor and the conflict assessor should identify the obvious categories of stakeholders with an interest in the issue or the dispute, as well as individuals or organizations who can represent those views. These are the individuals who should be interviewed at the outset of a conflict assessment. Each interviewee should receive a promise that nothing he or she says will be attributed to them or their organization, orally or in writing.

1.2.3 Identify a Second Circle of Suggested Participants

The first set of interviewees in a conflict assessment process should be asked to help identify a second round of individuals or organizations who might be able to contribute to or in some way block a consensus building effort. These individuals and organizations should be interviewed in the same manner as the first circle of participants.

1.2.4 Complete Initial Interviews

When individuals are interviewed for the assessment, whether by phone or in person, as part of a conflict assessment, they ought to be given an opportunity to review a written summary of what the assessor compiles as a result of the interview.

1.2.5 Prepare a Draft Conflict Assessment

A draft conflict assessment ought to include a clear categorization of all the relevant stakeholders, a summary of the interests and concerns of each category (without attribution to any individual or organization), an analysis of what the agenda, timetable and budget might be for a consensus building process, given the results of the interviews, and a proposal as to whether or not the assessor thinks it is worth going forward with a consensus building process.

1.2.6 Prepare a Final Conflict Assessment

Everyone interviewed as part of the preparation of a conflict assessment ought to receive a copy of the draft conflict assessment and be given adequate time to offer comments and suggestions. The assessor ought to use this period as an occasion to modify the final conflict assessment in a way that will allow all the key stakeholders to agree to attend at least an organizational meeting, if a recommendation to go forward is accepted by the convening entity. The final conflict assessment ought to include an appendix listing the name of every individual and organization interviewed. In appropriate instances, the final conflict assessment ought to become a public document. If key stakeholding groups refuse to participate, even in just one organizational discussion to discuss the conflict assessment, the process can not go forward.

1.2.7 Convene an Organizational Meeting to Consider the Recommendations of the Conflict Assessment

1.3 If a Decision Is Made to Proceed, Identify Appropriate Representatives

Stakeholder groups and organizations should be invited to identify their own spokespeople. These are the individuals who should be invited to the organizational session.

1.3.1 Identify Missing Actors Likely to Affect the Credibility of the Process

If a decision to proceed is made at the organizational meeting, everyone in attendance ought to review the make-up of the group and try to identify missing actors whose absence would be likely to affect the credibility of a consensus building process. Those in attendance (in response to invitations from the convening entity), should work together to identify ways of identifying appropriate individuals to add to the group.

1.3.2 Use Facilitated Caucusing If Necessary

If the members of a stakeholder category are quite diffuse, or if the representation (i.e. selection of a spokesperson) of one category of stakeholders is challenged by another, a process of facilitated caucuses should be initiated. At such sessions -- either by invitation (from the convenor) or on an open basis -- individuals or groups willing to represent a category of stakeholders can be selected by the relevant stakeholders. They should use super-majority voting (e.g. 65%) or select a representative by unanimous acclaim. It is often helpful to have a neutral facilitator or mediator organize and manage such caucusing sessions. Facilitated caucusing is the best way for a category of stakeholders to answer a charge made by others that their selection of a representative was flawed.

1.3.3 Use Proxies to Represent Hard-to-Represent Groups

If the participants in a consensus building process decide that it is important to find a way to represent a hard-to-represent or diffuse group, they may decide to invite proxy individuals or organizations to represent those interests. Representation by proxy must be agreed upon by all the other groups and inviduals who agreed to participate, as must the selection of specific individuals or organizations who agree to accept such an assignment. Proxy representatives must agree to do their best to "speak for" a hard-to-represent category of stakeholders.

1.3.4 Identify Possible Alternate Representatives

If a consensus building process is likely to extend over several months or years, participants may decide to appoint alternates to stand in for them on occasion. The role and responsibility of alternates should be carefully defined in writing. Alternates who attend on a regular basis, when their regular representative is also present, may be asked to play a less active role or to accept other restrictions on their involvement.

1.4 Locate the necessary funding

There are almost always costs associated with convening, preparing a conflict assessment, and implementing a consensus building process, if that is what the stakeholders decide to do. Sometimes these costs can be subsumed within the existing budgets of the convenor and the participating stakeholders. Other times, funds have to be raised specfically to underwrite the consensus building effort.

Step 2 - Clarifying Responsibilities 

2.1 Clarify the Roles of Facilitators, Mediators, and Recorders

2.1.1 Select and Specify Responsibilities of a Facilitator or a Mediator

If a trained facilitator or mediator is going to be asked to assist the parties in a consensus building effort, it is important to select an appropriate individual acceptable to all the key stakeholders. It is also important to clarify, in writing, the facilitator's or mediator's responsibilities to the group. These services can be provided by an individual or a team.

2.1.2 Select and Specify the Responsibilities of a Recorder

A qualified recorder, if one is to be hired, must work in tandem with a facilitator or a mediator. The recorder also needs a written indication of his or her obligations to the group. Usually, the recorder works with any other neutrals involved to produce draft meeting summaries. In general, written summaries of all group decisions, as well as highlights of the dialogue (i.e., points of agreement and disagreement), should be circulated after each meeting for group approval.

2.1.3 Form An Executive Committee

If there are more than two categories of stakeholders involved in a consensus building effort (i.e., environmentalists, business interests, unions, etc.), it is useful to appoint an Executive Committee (with one person selected by each major category of stakeholders) to make decisions between meetings, approve the allocation of funds to support the effort, and be available to the facilitator or the mediator if logistical decisions must be made between meetings.

2.1.4 Consider the Value of a Chair

Even if a facilitator or a mediator is involved, it is helpful to appoint a chair (either of the Executive Committee or of the full assembly). This position can rotate if the dialogue goes on for an extended period. The primary responsibility of the Chair is to represent the process to the world-at-large. It is also appropriate to assign this function to the mediator or the facilitator and to forgo the appointment of a Chair.

2.2.6 Set Rules Regarding the Participation of Observers

Some consensus building processes will proceed on a confidential basis, depending on the content of the discussions. Many will proceed in a very public way. If sessions are open to the public, the rights and obligations of observers should be spelled out in writing as part of the ground rules endorsed by the participants. It is not inappropriate to allow observers a brief comment period at the end of some or all formal sessions. In some instances, uninvited observers may even be offered a larger role. It is crucial that rules governing the participation of observers be posted prior to any and all meetings and that they be enforced consistently by the facilitator, mediator, or chair. It is also important to take account of legal requirements regarding the used of closed meetings when public officials are involved.

2.3 Set an Agenda and Ground Rules

2.3.1 Get Agreement on the Range of Issues to be Discussed

If the agenda for a consensus building process is drawn too narrowly, some potential participants may have a good reason not to come to the table. If it is drawn too broadly, other participants will become discouraged, and may drop out, because the task facing the group seems overwhelming. While it is possible to add issues along the way (in response to new developments in the dialogue) and with the agreement of the full group, it is important to get concurrence on a sufficiently rich but manageable agenda at the outset. The completion of a conflict assessment, based on confidential interviews, is the best way to pinpoint the most important items to include on a consensus building agenda.

2.3.2 Specify a Timetable

It is important to be realistic about the amount of time it will take for a group that is not used to working together to reach agreement on the items to include on a complex work agenda. At the outset, a great deal of a group's time is usually spent clarifying procedural matters. Under such circumstances it is often necessary to "go slow to go fast." That is, it is not a good idea to rush through early procedural matters to get to the most difficult issues on the agenda. Early exchanges on peripheral issues may offer a good opportunity to begin building relationships and establishing trust. Success along these lines will provide a foundation on which the group can build. It is important for the full group to participate in setting a realistic timetable. In some instances, a group might be forced to set a target date for completion, and then build a work plan that fits that timetable.

2.3.3 Finalize Procedural Ground rules

The final version of the conflict assessment should contain a set of suggested ground rules. These should address procedural concerns raised in the interviews undertaken by the assessor. The suggested ground rules should be reviewed and ratified at the opening organizational meeting. Most ground rules for consensus building cover a range of topics including (a) the rights and responsibilities of participants, (b) behavioral guidelines that participants will be expected to follow, (c) rules governing interaction with the media, (d) decision-making procedures, and (e) strategies for handling disagreement and ensuring implementation of an agreement if one is reached.

2.3.4 Require All Participants to Sign the Ground Rules

At the outset of any consensus building process, every participant should be expected to sign the ground rules agreed to by the group. Copies of these ground rules should be sent directly to every organization or group that has designated a representative to participate in the process. Observers should be asked to sign the ground rules before they are allowed to attend meetings -- even those open to the public.

2.3.5 Clarify the Extent to Which Precedents Are or Are Not Being Set

One of the reasons people engage in consensus building efforts is to formulate tailored solutions to whatever problem, issue or dispute they face. It is important that the participants in these processes feel free to generate plans or solutions that fit their unique circumstances. If everyone agrees that no precedent will be set, it is usually easier to convince reluctant groups or organizations to participate. Moreover, this allows future consensus building processes to proceed unimpeded.

2.4 Assess Computer-based Communication Options

Determine how computer techologies will be used during deliberations. Create e-mail mailing lists, web-based conferencing capabilities, and listservers as needed. Assess participant access to computers and internet connections and respond appropriately to any disparities that exist.

2.5 Establish a Mailing List

Once a consensus building process is underway, some groups or individuals eligible to participate may decide not to attend on a regular basis, or not to participate at all. These individuals, as well as any other members of a stakeholder organization or category, should be added to a mailing list so that they can receive either periodic progress reports or regular meeting summaries.

Step 3 - Deliberating 

3.1 Pursue Deliberations in a Constructive Fashion

3.1.1 Express Concerns in an Unconditionally Constructive Manner

It is important to maintain a problem-solving orientation, even in the face of strong differences and personal antagonism. It is in every participant's best interest to behave in a fashion they would like others to follow. Concerns or disagreement should be expressed in an unconditionally constructive manner. That is, there should be a premium on reason-giving and explanation. Those who disagree with the direction in which the discussion is headed should always explain the basis for their disagreement.

3.1.2 Never Trade Interests for Relationships

No one in a consensus building process should be pressed to give up the pursuit of their best interests in response to the "feelings" or the "best interests" of the group. Thus, no one should be asked to give up their interests to ensure harmony or the success of the process.

3.1.3 Engage in Active Listening

Participants in every consensus building process should be encouraged (indeed, instructed, if necessary) to engage in what is known as active listening -- a procedure for checking to be sure that communications are being heard as intended.

3.1.4 Disagree Without Being Disagreeable

Participants in every consensus building process should be instructed to "disagree without being disagreeable." This dictum should probably be included in the group's written ground rules.

3.1.5 Strive for the Greatest Degree of Transparency Possible

To the greatest extent possible, consensus building processes should be transparent. That is, the group's mandate, its agenda and ground rules, the list of participants and the groups or interests they are representing, the proposals they are considering, the decision rules they have adopted, their finances, and their final report should, at an appropriate time, be open to scrutiny by anyone affected by the group's recommendations.

3.2 Separate Inventing From Committing

3.2.1 Strive to Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The goals of a consensus building process ought to be to create as much value as possible and to ensure that whatever value is created be divided in ways that take account of all relevant considerations. The key to creating value is to invent options for mutual gain. This is best done by separating inventing from committing -- engaging in cooperative behaviors that "make the pie larger" before giving in to competitive pressures "to get the most for one's self."

3.2.2 Emphasize Packaging

The best way to create value is by packaging multiple issues and sub-issues. If parties "trade" items or options that they value differently and bundle them together properly, they ought to be able to help most, if not all, stakeholders exceed the value of their most likely "walk away" option. If that is not possible, than no agreement is likely; indeed, agreement may well be inappropriate.

3.2.3 Test Options by Playing the Game of "What If?"

The most important technique for creating value is the exploration of options and packages using "what if?" questions. Sometimes these are best asked by a neutral party (and sometimes they may need to be asked confidentially) before stakeholders will feel comfortable answering them.

3.3 Create SubCommittees and Seek Expert Advice

3.3.1 Formulate Joint Fact-finding Procedures

If left to their own devices, the participants in a consensus building process will produce their own version of the relevant facts (or technical data) consistent with their definition of the problem and their sense of how the problem or issue should be handled. This often leads to what is called "adversary science." It is better if all the participants can agree on the information that ought to be used to answer unanswered or contested questions. An agreement on joint fact finding should specify (a) what information is sought, (b) how it should be generated (i.e., by whom and using which methods), and (c) how gaps or disagreements among technical sources will be handled. It is perfectly reasonable for there to be agreement on facts while substantial disagreement on how to interpret such facts remains.

3.3.2 Identify Expert Advisors

It is often helpful to supplement ad hoc consensus building discussions with input from expert advisors. Such individuals should be selected with the concurrence of the participants, and in response to the needs of the group. Typically, a neutral party assisting the process should be in touch with expert advisors before, during, and after their involvement to ensure that they understand the objectives of the consensus building effort and that they offer their advice in a form that will be most helpful to the group.

3.3.3 Organize Drafting or Joint Fact-finding SubCommittees

Joint fact-finding should be handled by a subcommittee or a working group appointed by the full set of participants in a consensus building process. Fact finding should be viewed as an opportunity to learn more about the issues under discussion; thus, not only the most technically sophisticated participants should be assigned to these sub-committees or working groups. Subcommittees should have a clear mandate. They should not be decision-making bodies; instead, they should bring information and alternative policy choices back to the full group.

3.3.4 Incorporate the Work of SubCommittees or Expert Advisors

The findings of subcommittees or expert advisors should be viewed as only one input into a consensus building process. Differences in interpretation as well as conflicting interests among the participants often mean that the work of sub-committees or expert advisors will not lead to agreement. It is important, nevertheless, to tap the best available technical sources.

3.4 Use A Single Text Procedure

3.4.1 Draft Preliminary Proposals

Often, the best way to focus a consensus building dialogue is to provide a set of preliminary proposals to focus the conversation. Each set of proposals should deal with an item on the agenda and present the widest possible range of ideas or options. Preliminary proposals can be prepared by the facilitator or the mediator. They can also be prepared by a proposal drafting sub-committee that includes members of each key category of stakeholders. Preliminary proposals are meant to focus conversation, not end it.

3.4.2 Brainstorm

Brainstorming is an important step in a consensus building process. Whether undertaken by a sub-committee or the full group, brainstorming should seek to expand the range of proposals considered with regard to each agenda item. Brainstorming should also be used to generate packages that incorporate trade-offs among agenda items.

3.4.3 Withhold Criticism

The best way to encourage brainstorming is to adopt a formal ground rule that urges participants to withhold criticism when new options are suggested. The withholding of criticism should not be viewed as an indication of support or agreement; it is, however, the best way to encourage creative thinking.

3.4.4 Avoid Attribution and Individual Authorship

Consensus building is best viewed as a group enterprise. When individuals or a single group insists on claiming authorship of a particular proposal (i.e. in an effort to enhance its standing with its own consitutents), they are likely to provoke criticism or counter-proposals. Consensus is much more likely to emerge if participants avoid attributing or claiming authorship of specific ideas or packages.

3.4.5 Consolidate Improvements in the Text

As the dialogue proceeds, participants should focus on "improving" a consolidated text prepared by a drafting subcommittee or a neutral party. Avoid competing texts that seek to maximize the interests of one or just a few parties. When changes to a text are made, do not indicate where they originated. All revisions to the single text need to be acceptable to the group as a whole.

3.4.6 Search for Contingent Options

As the discussion proceeds, participants should search for ways of bridging differences by suggesting contingent agreements. Using an "if...then" format is likely to be helpful. That is, if a group is opposed to the prevailing draft of a recommendation or a consolidated agreement, then it should suggest the changes necessary for it to accept that proposal.

3.5 Modify the Agenda and Ground Rules (if necessary)

3.5.1 Reconsider the Responsibilities, Obligations and Powers of Sponsoring Agencies and Organizations

During the course of a consensus building process it is not inappropriate to re-visit the assignment of responsibilities and obligations of sponsoring agencies and organizations set by the participants at the outset. Changes should only be made if consensus can be reached on suggested revisions.

3.5.2 Reconsider the Obligations and Powers of Late Arrivals

During the course of a consensus building process, as unanticipated issues or concerns arise, it may be desirable to add new participants. With the concurrence of the group, representatives of new stakeholding groups -- attracted or recruited because of the emerging agreement or shifts in the agenda -- can be added. The obligations and powers of late comers (especially with regard to requesting that issues already covered be reconsidered), should be reconsidered by the full group upon the arrival of new participants. Changes in the agenda or the ground rules should only by made with the concurrence of all parties.

3.6 Complete Deliberations

Step 4 - Deciding 

4.1 Try to Maximize Joint Gains

4.1.1 Test the Scope and Depth of any Agreement

The results of every effort to maximize joints gain should be continuously assessed. This is best accomplished by having a neutral party ask whether the participants can think of any "improvements" to the proposed agreement. In addition, it is important to ask whether each representative is prepared to "sell" the proposal to his or her constituents and whether each can "live with" the group's recommendation.

4.1.2 Use Straw Polls

Even groups that agree to operate by consensus (or unanimity for that matter!) may find straw polls helpful for testing the scope of agreement along the way. When such polling devices are employed, it is important, each time they are used, to explain that the results are intended to explore the scope agreement that has or has not been reached, and not to seek commitments.

4.1.3 Seek Unanimity

It is appropriate to seek unanimity within the time frame set by a consensus building group.

4.1.4 Settle for An Overwhelming Level of Support

It is appropriate to settle for an overwhelming level of support for a final recommendation or decision, if unanimity can not be achieved within the agreed upon time frame. While it is not possible to specify an exact percentage of support that would constitute an overwhelming endorsement, it would be very hard to make a claim for consensus having been reached if fewer than 90% of the participants in a group were not in agreement.

4.1.5 Make Every Effort to Satisfy the Concerns of Holdouts

Prior to making its final recommendation or decision, a consensus building group should make one final attempt to satisfy the concerns of any remaining holdout(s). This can be done by asking those who "cannot live with" the final recommendation or decision to suggest a modification to the package or tentative agreement that would make it acceptable to them without making it less attractive to anyone who has already expressed support for it.

4.2 Keep a Record

4.2.1 Maintain a Visual Summary of Key Points of Agreement and Disagreement

It is important for a recorder to keep a written record of a consensus building dialogue. This is best done in a form that is visually accessible to all participants throughout the process. It is not necessary to keep traditional minutes of all discussions as long as key points of agreement and disagreement are captured in writing.

4.2.2 Review Written Versions of All Decisions Before They Are Finalized

A written draft of the final report of a consensus building process should be circulated to all participants before they are asked to indicate support or opposition.

4.2.3 Maintain a Written Summary of Every Discussion For Review by all Participants

A written summary of every formal group discussion should be kept, even after a final report is produced by a consensus building group. Such an archive can be important to the credibility of the group's recommendation and can help to clarify the group's intent should problems of interpretation arise later.

Step 5 - Implementing Agreements

5.1 Seek Ratification by Constituencies

5.1.1 Hold Representatives Responsible for Canvassing Constituent Responses to a Penultimate Draft

The participants in a consensus building process should be asked to canvass the response of their constituents to the draft of the group's final report. Copies of the draft should be circulated with sufficient time for the members of the group or organization to let their representative know how the report might be improved.

5.1.2 Hold Representatives Responsible for Signing and Committing to a Final Agreement in their Own Name

At the conclusion of a consensus building process, the participants should be asked to endorse the final report if there is one. Representatives should be responsible for endorsing the proposal in their own names even if their organization or group is not able to commit collectively. A signature should be interpreted as a commitment to do everything possible to assist with implementation, if an agreement was reached.

5.1.3 Include the Necessary Steps to Ensure that Informal Agreements are Incorporated or Adopted by Whatever Formal Mechanisms are Appropriate

Often the results of a consensus building process are advisory. Sometimes they must be ratified by still another set of elected or appointed officials. Any agreement resulting from a consensus building process should contain within it a clear statement of the steps that will be taken to ensure that the informal agreement will be incorporated or adopted by whatever formal means are appropriate. For example, informally negotiated agreements can be stipulated as additional conditions when a permit granted by a government agency. This must be done according to the rules of the permitting agecy.

5.1.4 Incorporate Appropriate Monitoring Procedures

Negotiated agreements must often be monitored to ensure implementation. Responsibilities and methods for overseeing implementation should be specified in the written report of any consensus building group.

5.1.5 Include Re-opener or Dispute Resolution Procedures

Any agreement reached by a consensus building group should include within it a mechanism by which the participants can be re-assembled if a change in circumstances or a failure on the part of one or more participants to live up to their commitments suggests that another meeting is necessary. Appropriate dispute resolution procedures (and ways of activating them) should be described in the agreement or report.