Sharon Villines, Sociocracy.info
Question: We are 3 months into starting a co-housing community in western MA. We will soon be discussing how we will make group decisions. I don't think we have to reinvent the wheel on this one. Consensus and sociocracy seem to be common strategies. Which do you recommend?
Sociocracy and consensus are not opposite things. Sociocracy is based on consensus decision-making.
Consensus is a decision-making method.
Sociocracy is a governance method.
Sociocracy establishes a structure for using consensus to make policy decisions (the planning and leading) and operations (the doing).
Policy decisions are made by consensus. Operations decisions are made by the leader of the work group or as the group decides. The working group could also decide to use consensus for day to day decisions.
The sociocratic governance method allows you to delegate decisions to those who are most affected by them and still ensure that they are within the policies of the whole community.
For example, the CH cleaning circle can decide by consensus to change its cleaning days to Sundays instead of Saturdays. That's a decision they can make without consultation with anyone as long as they observe the policy that any community brunches on Sunday take preference. (And announce it to the membership so everyone knows what to expect.)
In sociocracy these groups are called circles but they can be called anything. All the circles are tied together by a coordinating circle that is composed of members of all the other circles. The coordinating circle members:
(1) makes policies that affect more than one circle and
(2) that circles have been unable to reach consensus on,
(3) AND does long range planning.
The coordinating circle includes representatives and leaders of all circles in doing long-range planning—3-5 years—and provides a larger perspective on difficult or complex decisions. Long range planning is often missing in Cohousing. And decisions needing a wider range of knowledge go to the larger membership when it isn't always necessary.
Communities can still reserve some decisions, like the annual budget, capital improvements, widely contentious issues, etc., for full circle meetings — all circles meeting together. Or hold meetings of the full membership to give feedback to circles or discuss social issue without making decisions.
Policy decisions are those that affect future actions and decisions — the budget, job descriptions, scope of work, standards, etc.
Operations decisions affect the present, the day-to-day activities and are made usually by the leader or as delegated to members of the circle. The circle decides how the leader will lead. In a gardening circle, for example, the leader may delegate tasks to people or decide which needs to be done first. Or they may decide to all work together on each task. (Our workday participants did this last year with great satisfaction at seeing each job finished much more quickly and completely with no ends left for another day.)
Based on cybernetics, the sociocratic governance structure establishes a clear communications and control structure so decentralized decision-making can work effectively without fragmentation. In small communities where almost constant communication happens in the course a week, this may not seem important. In larger communities it becomes very important. With 60-80 adults, you can't talk to everyone all the time and the work is more complex (more buildings, more financial accounting, more children, more repairs, more illnesses, etc.)
It is very important to establish a governance system from the start—beginning as a full group coordinating circle. Then other circles are formed as the group is ready to delegate decisions. People will usually belong to more than one circle. Circles self-organize and make decisions within their domain (area of responsibility). It is important to make a distinction between circles, which make decisions, and work groups, which are assigned tasks and bring proposals, information, etc., back to a circle for decision-making.
This is a long way around to say that sociocracy is a governance method that both requires consensus decision-making and is designed to produce harmonious, effective communities. There is no other governance method designed to do this.
There is more information and explanations of "policy" and "operations" at http://www.sociocracy.info.
Sociocracy: A Deeper Democracy