Consensus voting: Is this a better form of democracy?

Perry Walker of the New Economics Foundation describes a new way for charities to canvass opinion from members and elect trustees

Ballot boxes (picture by Keith Bacongco/Creative Commons)
Ballot boxes (picture by Keith Bacongco/Creative Commons)

The debacle of expenses for MPs has raised fundamental questions about how we conduct our politics. How can we make government more accountable to Parliament and Parliament more accountable to voters? Should we reform the voting system to restore trust in our democracy?

Trust is an important commodity in the voluntary sector, too - hard won and easily lost. Charities often come under close scrutiny and face tough questions about governance and accountability. How should we spend our money? How can we find common ground on divisive policy issues? Who should we elect as officers or trustees?

I believe the process of decision-making in both the voluntary sector and political life could be significantly improved by the introduction of consensus voting.

It's an idea recently piloted in the UK by the New Economics Foundation and the de Borda Institute. Our two-year pilot project, paid for with £40,000 from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, suggests consensus voting has much to offer voluntary organisations. In particular, it offers benefits in policy-making, resource allocation and the election of trustees.

Consensus voting aims to identify the best consensus opinion through a balanced voting system. When used for decision-making, consensus voting presents a range of voting options developed in consultation with stakeholders.

Decision-makers are then invited to rank the options - the higher the preference for an option, the more points it gets. Finally, the number of points given to each option is counted.

For example, if there are six options on the ballot paper and a voter indicates a ranking for all six, then the first preference gets six points, the second five points and so on. The winning option is the one with the most points overall.

Our pilot project tested the voting method in seven organisations. One of the tests was at last year's annual general meeting of Supporters Direct, the membership organisation for football supporters trusts.

We presented the meeting with a hypothetical scenario: "The chairman of Newtown Rovers has come out in the local paper to say that the club has just received an unexpected energy bill for £25,000 and the club will be closed down unless the money can be found. He has challenged the supporters trust to come forward with the money in 10 days."

In a workshop session lasting only one hour, seven options were generated and voted on. One came out on top: "Give the club £10,000 in return for a shareholding, one or more seats on the board and the opportunity to see the club's books to ensure there are no further surprises."

The result was applauded by James Mathie, membership and research officer at Supporters Direct. "What I really liked about consensus voting is that it allows people to keep moving forward together, even if an individual's preference isn't chosen because the outcome appeals to the greatest mass," he says.

Another test involved working with service-users of London's Holy Cross Community Trust to determine how £500 should be spent. The service-users came up with 10 options and each voted for their favourites in order of preference. Their top three choices were a projector and screen at £120, £200 of computer equipment and topsoil and fork for the garden at £100. The fourth most popular option cost more than the £80 that was left over, so the money was saved rather than spent.

Many of the trust's service-users have mental health issues or problems with drugs and alcohol. With our advice and support, however, they were able to grasp the concept of consensus voting and appreciate it as a participative approach to resource allocation.

A further test involved trialling consensus voting to elect charity officers or trustees. We worked with consultancy business Sheppard Moscow to help elect two new leaders for the coming year at its 2008 AGM. The new voting process allowed the company to get a genuine consensus among its stakeholders.

"Even those who had not chosen the elected pair as their first choice were more than satisfied that the result had produced the right pair to be the leaders," said John McCann, a partner at Sheppard Moscow. Such an approach can obviously be applied to charity trustee elections as well.

To help organisations use consensus voting, the de Borda Institute has developed a free software package called Decision Maker, which will be launched later this year on www.deborda.org.

We hope lots of voluntary organisations will give consensus voting a try and find it as straightforward and powerful as those organisations involved in our pilot did.

Reality Check: What do charities think?

- "I like it in theory"

Jackie Ballard is chief executive of the RNID. She joined the charity in October 2007 from the RSPCA, where she was director-general for five years. Both are membership charities.

As a former Liberal Democrat MP, Ballard also knows a thing or two about elections and voting. She believes anything that encourages members to become more involved in charities should be encouraged, but struggles to see how consensus voting could be usefully applied to the RNID.

"Every vote counts under this system, so I like it in theory," she says. "But the only place I can see us using it would be for the election of our trustees and the main problem we face there is getting people to stand as trustees in the first place. We might be able to use it to encourage a greater response to our member satisfaction survey, but we don't want to do that because it would simply create an expensive administration task."

Ballard says the greatest challenge faced by membership charities is to recruit more members. "There's a point at which membership is no longer a cost to the organisation, but becomes a revenue generator," she says. "Every member organisation wants to get to that point."

But she doesn't think a new voting system would make much difference to the recruitment of new members. "Having a fairer voting system like this in place might encourage some people to join, but I believe that most people who join membership organisations do so to meet like-minded people or to gain some tangible member benefits," she says. "A fairer voting system wouldn't be a bad thing, but it would have limited effect."

- "No resources to manage it"

Raina Sheridan, deputy chief executive of the Fostering Network, is also sceptical about the potential impact of consensus voting. "The Fostering Network recognises that consensus voting could broaden the democratic process, but it is hard to imagine how an organisation such as ours, with more than 50,000 members, could manage it."

Her concerns are primarily practical, she explains: "We frequently and successfully engage with our members using a variety of different media, and we are always looking at ways to improve and expand the involvement of our members in our work. However, we do not have the resources to manage a process such as consensus voting."

Sheridan fears the hassle of the process could put its foster carer and fostering service members off, rather than engage them.

She believes that for consensus voting to work, any organisation adopting it would have to implement a thorough induction programme. "This would be absolutely essential," she says. "We would have to do this to ensure all our members understood the process and that we were engaging with all of them, not just those who felt most strongly about particular issues."

"My fear," she says, "would be that we could end up with a small, very vocal and powerful group that had the time and energy to engage, but which was not necessarily representative of the full foster care workforce."

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