Reopening Decisions

Under what circumstances is a standing consensus decision revisited? Here are 8 possible rules for this, with a sample community presenting each rule.

1. Any Time
EXAMPLE: Sharingwood, Snohomish, WA (Rob Sandelin)
“At Sharingwood any decision can be reviewed at almost any meeting should anyone ask to do so. It does not happen very often, nor do decisions get changed randomly at will, it takes a compelling reason to get the group to agree to modify a decision and if anything, we don’t review our previous decisions as often as we might.” See Appendix #1 below for more information from Rob Sandelin on developmental stages of groups related to the topic of reopening decisions.

2. When There is a New Proposal
EXAMPLE: Southside Park, Sacramento, CA (Liz Stevenson)
“If someone has the energy to put together a proposal, we listen to it. When you’ve been living in the community for awhile, the formality of having some sort of threshold is unnecessary.”

3. Quorum Requests
EXAMPLE: Southside Park, Sacramento, CA (Liz Stevenson)
“Back when we needed to have a number for revisiting decisions, I think it was 1/3 of the membership. This was before move-in and we don’t do that anymore.”

4. Quorum of Members from Existing Decision Requests
EXAMPLE: Nevada City Cohousing, Nevada City, CA (Terry (Sarito) Whatley)
“We require 1/3 of the people who were present at a decision to agree to its being reopened. The motivation for this is to get the person who wants to change the decision to talk to people so they hear all of the reasons for the decision in the first place.”

5. Sunset or Revisit Clause
EXAMPLE: Nevada City Cohousing, Nevada City, CA (Terry (Sarito) Whatley)
“We’ve made several provisional decisions, where part of the decision is to revisit it after some time or upon request.”

6. Committee Support Required
EXAMPLE: Kaleidoscope Village, Austin, Texas (Becky Weaver)
“Once a decision is made, a person wanting to reopen the decision takes it to the relevant committee. If they can convince the committee that it’s time to reopen a decision, it gets reopened. If the committee isn’t buying it, the decision stands.” See Appendix #2 below for more information on this topic from Becky Weaver at Kaleidoscope Village.

7. When There is New Information
EXAMPLE: Sociocratic Method (Sharon Villines)
“You revisit decisions whenever there is new information or conditions have changed, or if the aim of your group changes.”

8. Regular Review Period Scheduled at Time of Every Decision
EXAMPLE: Sociocratic Method (Sharon Villines)
“You review all policy decisions on a regular basis to see if they are still relevant–this means every two years or less. This way you don’t end up with a lot of obsolete policies that give policies a bad name.”

APPENDIX #1: On Developmental Stages

By Rob Sandelin of Sharingwood Community, Snohomish County, Washington
Posted to Cohousing-L on 27 Oct. 2006:

Over time your decision making evolves because you will be making different kinds of decisions at different times of your communities existence. When you are in cohousing construction mode you will probably be served best by a lower quorum (say 25-40%) since your membership may shift making it difficult to get a large percentage at any given meeting. And you will perhaps need to make decisions on a deadline, and so not having a quorum can screw this up. Also in this building time having a clear path of resistance to random undoing of decisions may save you lots of headaches and problems, so having a redo percentage of 30% might serve you well.

As you live together for awhile, your decision making needs change, and the types of decisions you make are different. Also HOW you end up making decisions has a lot to do with how much of a quorum you need or how much energy goes into redoing things. If you have lots of group trust, small quorums and no redo restrictions work fine.

For example a decision such as, what time should we serve community dinner, is easy to change, and will reflect the needs of the dinner eaters. If one third of your community does not participate in eating dinners, then they have much less stake than those who do, thus a quorum is not a very useful concept, unless it is a quorum of dinner eaters. However, should 3 people out of 50 determine something which does not meet the needs of the remaining 47, then you will definitely be redoing that decision, and so making redoing decisions easy makes sense. At Sharingwood any decision can be reviewed at almost any meeting should anyone ask to do so. It does not happen very often, nor do decision get changed randomly at will, it takes a compelling reason to get the group to agree to modify a decision and if anything, we don’t review our previous decisions as often as we might.

Should one person, or a small group continually show the pattern of wanting to redo all sorts of decisions then you have some different problems. In general, most decisions you make once you live together are about the ways you want to live together, and these things probably want to be very adaptable, you want to try them on for awhile, see how they work, then modify the parts that seem to have new needs. This is known as adaptive management, and it works well with communities in many cases. It is reasonable to expect that decisions can and will change, and thus any decision made that deals with life together sorts of issues will change down the road. Obviously where you create a garden or other infrastructural sorts of things are much harder to change and should have a different approach, but after awhile these things will be few and far between.

There are many ways to make decisions as a group, and in my experience the systems that have lots of communication avenues prior to large group discussion seem to work the best.

APPENDIX #2: On Quorum And More . . .

By Becky Weaver of Kaleidoscope Village, Austin, Texas
Posted to Cohousing-L on 27 Oct. 2006:

As I mentioned before, my community (Kaleidoscope Village in Austin, Texas) has control of land but is pre-move-in, so we are in a similar phase to y’all, although we’ve been in existence a lot longer.

Everything below is predicated on using formal consensus as our decision-making model.

Quorum: after much discussion, we decided that a quorum is whoever shows up at a properly announced or regularly scheduled meeting.

If we genuinely don’t have time to properly announce a meeting, we follow an emergency decision-making process: http://wikihost.org/wikis/cac/wiki/emerdecisionmaking .

While making quorum “whoever shows up” may sound insane, practically speaking, it works for several reasons.

One is that we try very hard not to approve proposals that we know someone not present will object to. If we’re really worried about a person’s reaction to something under discussion, and they’re not there, we try calling them on the phone, tabling the decision until they can be present, making a decision contingent upon consulting them, or otherwise bringing them into the dialogue.

And that works because we have a rule that a person objecting to a proposal must participate in coming up with a better one. If they are unwilling or unable to help improve the proposal, we have to go ahead with the best job those who are involved can do.

Big decisions are usually a long time in coming. They get discussed formally and informally. You can feel a consensus start to emerge before the meeting where a decision “officially” gets made. If you don’t feel consensus starting to emerge, you aren’t ready to make the decision yet. Keep working on it in committee and informally, and use meeting time to either take everybody’s temperature on the issue, brainstorm, or work on something else.

We felt that requiring a physical quorum of people present would not help us be sure we were really reaching consensus anyway. It seems to be only a negative. Requiring a quorum could stop or slow things down, but it does not necessarily improve the quality of a decision. Having quorum rules could theoretically also be used to “game” a decision – wait until someone with an objection isn’t there, check for quorum, then quickly pass a proposal. This strategy would be a big mistake for Avogadro’s number of reasons, and has no place in a consensus process.

Revisiting decisions: we rely heavily on our committee structure for this. Once a decision is made, a person wanting to reopen the decision takes it to the relevant committee. If they can convince the committee that it’s time to reopen a decision, it gets reopened. If the committee isn’t buying it, the decision stands.

In practice, people often want to reopen a decision because it was made before they joined the community, and thus they don’t know about all the factors surrounding it. Sometimes once the committee members explain everything that went into a decision, the person with a concern about it, can live with it after all. Or, they have helpful suggestions about how a decision can be tweaked or rewritten to more closely follow the spirit in which it was intended. Or, they have a good point that we didn’t consider at the time, and we agree it needs to be reopened.

It can be very tiring to have people questioning “water under the bridge;” ask people to limit it to things that are super-important. But giving new members real ownership within the community may not happen any other way.

We do require new members to formally agree to all previously-made decisions. We definitely do not have to go back & revisit a decision every time a new member doesn’t like it. Realistically, though, we can’t afford to blow off somebody’s genuine concern.

As others have noted, we make use of sunset clauses and make plans to revisit decisions after we see how they’re working. Some decisions can’t be reopened for practical reasons; once we approve a contract, we probably can’t go back and renegotiate it 6 months later. But policy-type decisions and procedural rules can and should be revisited as your organization evolves.

If a person wants to reopen a decision and they were present when it was made, either you didn’t actually have consensus in the first place, or things have changed such that it really is time to revisit the decision. If you didn’t actually have consensus in the first place, pay attention to that–get more training, work on your process, learn more facilitation skills. Even if you feel you don’t have time to work on group-process skills right then, if your process is having problems, it is the most urgent issue for your community. Snafus resulting from bad process can take years to clean up.