Tools for Consensus

My background

12 years practicing consensus

  • Housing co-ops
  • Workers collectives
  • Boards of directors
  • Groups ranging from 3 to 50 people

Participatory Democracy

Stakeholders have the ability to participate
in decisions that affect them.

the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given… and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known.
Hannah Arendt

Challenges of consensus

  • It's inefficient
    Occupy Wall St held 3-4 hour GA every day
  • Selects for stubborn, idle, eloquent
  • It's limited to small groups (usually less than 100)
  • It takes time to learn
  • “Style” objections

Big audacious question

Can we use technology to increase democratic participation (in all aspects of life)?

Research Context

  • Group Decision Support Systems
  • Structuration theory
  • Participatory Democracy

Qualitative Methods

“Neutral” domains “Political” domains
  • Human ethnology
  • Ecological psychology
  • Holistic ethnography
  • Cognitive anthropology
  • Ethnography of communication
  • Symbolic interaction
  • Democratic evaluation
  • Neo-marxist ethnography
  • Feminist research
  • Participatory research
Marshall and Rossman, 1995

Participatory Action Research

  • is a social process
  • is participatory
  • is practical and collaborative
  • is emancipatory
  • is critical
  • is recursive (reflective, dialectical)

Knowledge domain

Technical Instrumental (causal explanation) Work Empirical-analytic or natural sciences
Practical Practical (understanding) Language Interpretive, descriptive
Emancipatory Emancipatory (reflection) Power Critical sciences
Carr, Kemmis. "Becoming Critical", p 136


Kemis, McTaggart. "Participatory Action Research: Communicative Action and the Public Sphere", p 564


  • People living in cooperative houses
  • Bi-national non-profit board of directors
  • Activist groups


  • Observation
  • Design workshops (e.g. 1, 2, 3)
  • Interviews
  • Paper prototyping
  • Prototype implementation
  • Prototype introduction
  • Reflection
  • Critique
  • ... repeat!


First exploration: Email augmentation


  • Despite being email, it's still confusing.
  • Interface not self-documenting enough; or participants not adequately trained.
  • Insufficient hinting for flow of decision-making process.
  • “Too much email.” (stressful)
  • “Too impersonal.” (Low conveyance of emotion)

Phase 2: Get serious

  • Education. Democracy depends on user acceptance.
  • Different tools for different task types
  • Participatory design process

Tools currently in development and testing

Tool Task Group type Innovation
Dotstorm Generating ideas (NGT) 5 to 50 people, synchronous, global Record history of brainstorm, share brainstorm embedded in blogs/websites, works across geographies
Flame War Education: decisions over email 4-6 people, local (card game) Playing with challenges of email decision making in a game environment
Moon Talk Education: decisions with constrained channel 8-20 people, local (workshop) Playing with challenges of decision making in constrained communication channels
Ten Points Negotiation: find shared principles/values 10-50 people, synchronous, global Remake of MayFirst/People Link's "Meetings" tool with improved accessibility, user interface
Progressive Timekeeper Negotiation: tracking speaking time Any number of people, synchronous, local Tool for tracking speaking time by configurable identity category. Allows groups to reflect on how identity category might impact meeting participation.
Minutes recording tool (Mockup) Process: recording minutes 10-100 people, synchronous and asynchronous, global Record minutes in a more consistent manner, more easily, with better tracking of outcomes, more nuanced channels/signals, and continued discussion online.