A Consensus Building Approach (CBA) is only as good as its participants. In a majority rules process there are few players and most of them take a passive role.

Take our parliamentary process as an example: the Speaker of the House is the in-house rules expert determining whether parliamentarians are working with the rules. The members of Parliament are expected to play an active role in any debate – but many probably do not because they are controlled by their parties’ policies, kept in line by the whips, and generally only one or a few of them will be the spokesperson for a particular issue. The voters – those members of society responsible for electing the MPs – are almost entirely passive in this process. Many don’t vote, never mind take part in select committees, provide submissions on the issues debated before the House or lobby government for change.

CBA is about engagement – getting more people to take an active role in identifying and then debating the issues, problem-solving and the creation of outcomes. As a broader, more inclusive process, CBA increases the probability of good ideas being implemented.

We have touched on some of the roles within CBA but this article takes a closer look at who the likely members will be (see Breaking Robert’s Rules by Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank, Oxford University Press, 2006).

The Convenor: This role was discussed in Part 2 . The convenor is the person who first considers whether CBA is possible for a particular problem or dispute. They may do so off their own bat or may be appointed by a representative body who has a mandate to enforce change – such as a local council or other public body. The convenor may also do the initial assessment of the issue and identify the initial participants.

Stakeholders: The initial stakeholders (interest groups) will be identified by the convenor or assessor. In turn, these interest groups are likely to identify others who should be included in the process – the list of stakeholders will therefore grow following a series of confidential one-on-one interviews where each of the groups will have the opportunity to suggest others who should be involved.

The consensus building group: This is the core group of representatives that will sit down and do the work. If the number of stakeholders is sufficiently small, then this group may consist of all the stakeholders. However, with public policy type engagements and engagements where there is significant public interest, the number of stakeholders will usually be too large to sensibly have everyone sitting at the table.

This group should include a representative or representatives from all of the key stakeholder groups. They will not only build the consensus solution to the issue, but will also be responsible for reporting back, and engaging with, their interest group to keep them fully informed and get feedback. They will also “sell” the consensus agreement to the group at the appropriate time. This group will be responsible for setting any ground rules, identifying where experts may need to be engaged, reporting to, and back from, their interest group and, of course, be involved in developing options for consensus outcomes. This group is responsible for not only the outcomes but the process for getting to those outcomes.

Committee: If the consensus building group is too large and unwieldy, then the process may benefit from a sub-committee that can help steer the process. To honour the consensus building nature of the group, such a committee must be selected by the full group and should be made up of representatives from those interest groups that are critical to resolution.

A chairperson: Contrary to what people may think of with CBA – effectively a talkfest spinning in ever decreasing circles – the process requires a chairperson. This might be the convenor. If there is a committee, the chair should be a member of it. Ideally the chair should hold widespread respect amongst the various interest groups and should not be seen as partisan. The chairperson is not there to come up with the answers and/or manage the process (unlike for example, a majority rules meeting process). Instead, the chairperson is there to be the advocate for CBA – for the process itself. The chair has to be the biggest supporter of the process and be the glue that holds everyone together.

The facilitator: This person is the manager of the process and the discussion. The role of the facilitator or mediator is to keep the group focused and to ensure that the process stays on track. The facilitator may come from within one of the interest groups or be a suitably qualified independent professional. For smaller or less controversial processes, the convenor could also carry on as chair or facilitator. That is probably seen more often when CBA is used in the private sector than the public sector. The public sector tends to keep the different roles separate.

A record-keeper: CBA works best if there is a written summary of each of the meetings of the group. This keeps everybody focused on the discussion and allows the participants to see progress. The record taker has two key roles: (1) during each meeting, to record the key concepts in simple language so they are there as a checklist for the group to keep them focused on the discussion for that meeting, and (2) to provide written summaries of each meeting that record major points of agreement. The group should periodically review the summaries to ensure consistency and agreement moving forward.

Sub-committees: If the group is large or the problems complex, then forming sub-committees may be a useful option. These committees can take on a number of roles from housekeeping (budget committee) through to fact-finding and reporting back to the group at large on particular aspects of the problem.

Expert advisors: These are experts who take on a bipartisan role of advising the group as a whole (or a sub-committee if one is formed for a particular issue). The idea is to provide shared expert information on particular aspects of the problem so that the entire group can move forward as one. This gets the group past competing expert information and avoids interest groups holding onto expert evidence that they have provided that happens to support their particular viewpoint.

Published in New Zealand Law Society’s ‘LawTalk 923’  8 February 2019.