Transform Rockford: Consensus or Compromise?

After my previous posts about the Transform Rockford movement, I’ve been asked about the organization’s process to create consensus during their visioning sessions. To recap what I previously explained…at the meeting I attended, we were asked to write down the top 10 things we would like to see in Rockford’s future. Then the attendees were split into groups of 5 people to narrow down their own vision statements into 5 statements for each group. I was going to try to explain the details of the process, but it is confusing unless you actually do it. The process goes, generally speaking, like this: your own original vision statements are melded with the ideas of 4 other people to produce a total of 5 vision statements. Then those are eventually added to the rest of the statements created by the other small groups. This is the “consensus-creating” processa large number of individual ideas merging to create a broad vision.

Sounds great, right?

I was impressed with how this process, almost magically, took our diversity and made a sort of unifying vision. I was not surprised to discover that this process is used by businesses during their strategic planning meetings. It seems so simple and yet incredibly powerful.

But does the concept successfully work for community planning like it does for business planning?

The best way to work through the question would be to look at what happens to an idea through the consensus process. What does this journey of consensus look like for one specific concept? Since I’m the one writing this, I’ll use one of my ideas or vision statements as an example. What I wrote down, and what I proposed to the group, was a basic retelling of libertarian principles. My vision for a future Rockford would “give each individual the liberty to pursue anything they want as long as they don’t harm other people or their property.” Simple and yet profound. I was honestly really curious to see what this would turn into after our consensus discussions. Well, it somehow morphed into a couple different vision statements like, “reduce government” and “city pride.” Yes. I know. You’re probably thinking, “whoa, how did a fundamental and powerful tenet of libertarianism turn into ideas like those?” Well, for one thing, in the ten minutes we had for this consensus, I wasn’t really able to persuade everyone that a majority of problems could be solved by freeing the market and removing government from our lives. I’m not so concerned about having a downtown full of local businesses as I am passionate about the government getting out of the way so that if entrepreneurs want to start businesses, they can do so freely. I just want the market free so entrepreneurs can take their risks and try to satisfy consumers. I could keep talking on this, but my focus here is on seeing what happened to this idea as it went through the consensus process. So, what happened was that no one else really saw my vision for how vital it is to have a free market in order to achieve any of the other visions mentioned. I suppose I could have been really forceful and insisted that we maintain my vision statement exactly how I wanted it, but that’s not really consensus. Others brought up the problem of excessive government spending, and I suppose from this we got the statement, “reduce government.” I decided not to risk suggesting, “abolish government,” but I did briefly consider it. And the idea of entrepreneurship and free markets got turned into “city pride,” which, presumably, means that if people are satisfied with Rockford and proud of their place here, we’ll have local entrepreneurial start-ups, bike paths, and all sorts of wonderful things.

So, what started as a very clear and concise statement of libertarian ideals turned into a vague and all-encompassing statement about city pride. And I suspect this is what happened for many people who attended the meeting. They began with a definite idea and it got morphed with so many other ideas that the original thought was most likely unrecognizable. If I said, “city pride,” would one of your first associated thoughts be, “oh yeah, that is about a free market and the non-aggression principle”? Probably not. This diluting of ideas was extremely frustrating to me. At a few times during the large group discussions, I tried to ask other participants what they meant by their own vision statements, because by that point I felt their original ideas had been so watered down that I couldn’t make an educated guess about what they actually meant.

When the goal is to create consensus so everyone can agree, you’re left with the blatantly obvious truths no one would question anyways. For example, at this particular meeting, by the end of our consensus process, we had defined some themes that everyone recognized as needs in our community. These themes were things like, “healthy families,” “life-long learning,” “equal access to resources,” “growing economy,” and “cultural development.” Right. Like someone is going to say, “I don’t really think our future Rockford should include healthy families,” or “I don’t know if we really need a growing economy.” I speculate that if any one of the individuals attending that meeting had sat down to compile their own “Top 10” list of what needs to improve in our community, they would have created a list much like that list we ended up with. Because at that point, the original, and sometimes very specific, ideas offered by participants got swept away in a sea of banal and universal statements.

Now, it was perhaps somewhat useful to have people “vote” with fake money about which issue they’d like to support, because at least that’s a tangible way to measure interest. Although as I mentioned in a previous post, I think this would look very different if people were giving their own money and not choosing where to donate money they’d just been handed.

While it wasn’t really pushed, there was definitely a sense of expectation that everyone would be polite and be willing to compromise a little for the sake of the group. Like I said, I could have insisted that my libertarian principles be kept from dilution with a bunch of other ideas. But it would not have been encouraged. I probably would have been tolerated, for the sake of civility, but stubborn adherence to one’s idea was certainly not the goal of these visioning sessions. And even if my idea had made it to the final rounds of our meeting, what would have happened then? It’d be thrown in with all the ideas from all the other meetings. We were assured that no one’s idea would be lost; everyone’s input would be recorded. Okay, that’s fine, but so what? So what if my libertarian principles are buried in a sprawling spreadsheet? It honestly doesn’t mean much. So while I am intrigued by this consensus process, itby definitionnecessitates the subjugation of an individual’s ideas to the ostensible goals of the community. And if that’s how Transform Rockford is doing their strategic planning, it doesn’t bode well for the movement’s future. Right now we’re just sacrificing bits and pieces (or sometimes massive chunks) of our closely held principles for the benefit of the group. But what might we be asked to give up someday?

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