I recently attended the daily general assembly meeting of Occupy Albany. These meetings, led by a team of skilled facilitators, occur at 5:30 p.m. There was noisy, rush hour traffic. It was cold, dark and raining.
And yet, despite an environment less than conducive to a productive meeting, what I experienced in the next hour was both inspiring and fun. It got me reflecting on how we might all benefit from the broader use of some of the consensus building and direct democracy techniques employed in the Occupy movement across the country.
The main issue being considered that evening was a proposal to purchase military tents and stoves that would enable some protesters to maintain a presence throughout the winter.
There were two facilitators, a timekeeper, a scribe, a stack person and a historian.
All were invited. All were, in fact, welcomed. Not just anyone involved in the Occupy mvement. Any human being. How miraculously democratic is that?
The facilitators start by asking how many are attending their first meeting. They follow with a two-minute description of how the meetings are run.
Anyone can put a proposal on the agenda before the meeting by presenting a full description with a request for action — essentially a motion.
The facilitators ask first for clarifying questions to make sure everyone understands what is being proposed. Speakers are chosen in order as they raise their hands. The stack person keeps track of the order of questioners on a list, or stack, which she shares with the facilitators.
Anyone can jump to the front of the line by raising his or her index finger for a point of information — additional details that might help the group make an informed decision. For example, "I know where we can get those tents donated."
One can also jump to the front of the line by making a triangle with one’s thumbs and index fingers if that person has a process issue. For example, "we’re talking about issues that are outside of the proposal."
If you have a question about the group’s history, you raise a pinky, and the historian will bring you up to speed privately, so the whole group doesn’t have to wait.
These processes encourage participation while eliminating tangents. Picture the benefits that this kind of participation and consensus would bring to your next staff or board meeting.
After clarifying questions, a more general discussion occurs. Once all have had a chance to speak, the facilitators check how close the group is to consensus. If you generally support the proposal, you wiggle your fingers upward. If you oppose it, you wiggle your fingers downward. If uncertain, you wobble your hands in a so-so gesture.
These wiggling fingers are known as twinkles. Honest.
Consider how useful this method would be if it were utilized at a public hearing or zoning meeting.
If no consensus exists, the proposer is asked if he or she would like to amend the proposal to address some of the concerns raised. Or the proposal can be tabled.
On this night, a decision was made by consensus on a very important issue, in a fairly short period of time. Yes, it probably took longer than if one person had decided. But how much better is the quality of the final decision when everyone has had a chance to participate and to hear all of the different viewpoints?
How much more willing might you be to live with a decision with which you disagree if you had been involved in an open decision-making process?
As a lawyer, mediator and facilitator, I believe we can use these tools to improve participation and decision making in almost any organization. I also believe that we can leverage the process used by the Occupy movement to create a civic infrastructure — a permanent, ongoing, well- run set of processes — for facilitating discussion, deliberation, decision-making and action on a wide range of public issues.
Participating in the process actually improves our opinion of others’ opinions. This is a precious gift, given the current boorish nature of our public discourse. Whether or not we agree with their views, the Occupy movement can inspire us to create a local infrastructure for participatory democracy that generates more light than heat.
By PETER S. GLASSMAN