[hackerspaces] How is that consensus thing working out?

miloh froggytoad at gmail.com
Mon Sep 12 20:29:58 CEST 2011

On Mon, Aug 29, 2011 at 4:38 AM, Hans Fraiponts <fraiponts at gmail.com> wrote:

> Hey,
> Just interested, does the consensus pattern[1] work in your space?
> 1) do you use the consensus pattern? For some or all decisions?

We use consensus at Noisebridge in San Francisco with great debate and
argument over its effectiveness.  Despite that, it's been used to make all
the decisions I consider big ones, and many small decisions that affect the
group for the past 2.75 years I've been present. Decisions that affect
everyone get escalated to consensus then get debated until consensus.
Smaller affinity groups at Noisebridge use whatever system suits them -- I
know some of them vote to enact decisions.

The decision making process at Noisebridge may be a unique consensus type. A
smaller irregular subset of members (about 5-15 people) meet and consent to
things over the course of a 2 week process* that are not commented on by the
larger membership (around 50 people, +/- ~10).  Issues arise like moving
Noisebridge, consenting on controversial new members**, or banning people
from the space, that have resulted in very large meeting attendance.  This
has only happened a couple times.

*Consensus items at Noisebridge are introduced at Tuesday meetings and
discussed for at least a week in this form before being consented to during
the following meetings, giving people who aren't aware of new items time to
participate.  This inevitably leaves people out who did not hear or read
about a consensus item in the shortest possible 14 day consensus making

**Prospective Noisebridge members are asked to attend meetings for a month
before they are consented on by the current membership, this ideally forms a
~30 trial period where people not only get familiar with the prospective
members, but the prospective members get familiarized with the consensus
model at Noisebridge.  This is not well rehearsed in reality.

2) what happens when someone blocks consensus? Is this member expected
> to reach consensus (by compromise) by next meeting,? Does this ever
> happen?

When someone says they would block an existing proposal at Noisebridge,
there are 3 actions that we've taken that come to mind:
1) Attempt to find out what compromise is necessary from the person who
blocks and change the proposal to suit both groups
2) Attempt to persuade the person blocking of the value or importance of the
existing proposal as it stands
3) Retract or drop the consensus proposal

Other notes related to blocks:

Sometimes route (3) above results in action without consensus, as with
proposals I've made to fund infrastructure improvement projects at

At Noisebridge we don't have a requirement for blockers to propose
alternatives or compromises, although that does happens during the consensus
process when the vested parties really desire some form of action.

When we meet on Tuesdays, the moderator describes consensus in their own
words or reads the noisebridge meeting note definition of consensus.
Sometimes someone is asked to describe consensus in their own words, which
is a good practice. I keep trying to describe consensus in different ways
without using the word block. I learned about consensus many years ago at
food not bombs meetings where blocking was viewed last resort and a failure
of consensus. We joke about blocks a lot at Noisebridge and throw blocks
around like candy.  Perhaps people are comfortable with blocks as a way to
take control of what they view as an errant decision making process.  I
don't know of any way folks can do that by vote, except perhaps rallying
groups to decline to vote when quorum rules require it.

We talk about trying to craft proposals that can pass consensus and don't
need to be blocked. In action this hasn't happened smoothly. Consensus
proposals up for discussion can show up on the day of a meeting, and
attention to detail in the language of hastily prepared consensus proposals
is sometimes lax (I'm referring to myself here).

I think a group that fails to find consensus is making an action, and
perhaps should declare that they are consenting not to act rather than to
describe a proposal as blocked.  Consenting not to act is probably easier to
achieve and shows that folks can at least all agree about something, lol.

> 3) do you have the impression most members agree with the consensus
> pattern?

I can count only a few Noisebridge members that don't agree with the current
consensus pattern, these members are very vocal.  There must be more folks
that don't agree but aren't as vocal about their disagreement.

> 4) Did you develop an alternative for the consensus model?
We use a mix of consensus inspired from political grassroots and cooperative
groups (often cited are Food Not Bombs and UCB co-op consensus models) with
likely some less cited influence from consensus used by technocratic groups
linked below.

Food Not Bombs
here's a book on consensus:
here's a one-line google review of the book:   "Interesting theory but it
will never work today. He has graphs and charts and everything"

IETF rough consensus:
wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rough_consensus
RFC2418 http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2418
The Tao of the IETF http://www.ietf.org/tao.html  section 5.2
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