Consensus or Sociocracy?

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

Sharon Villines
Sociocracy: A Deeper Democracy



Consensus vs. Sociocracy

Hi Sharon,
I have been following your comments over the years and usually love your take on things. I always appreciate your clear and detailed writing. Thank you for sharing so much great fodder for discussion. I do, however, take issue with the closing sentences in the blog post Consensus vs Sociocracy.

You say "Sociocracy is the only governance system that requires consensus and is designed to create effective harmonious communities." That seems a bit over the top. Are the words "requires" and "designed" used in the same sentence the operable words here?

Hundreds upon hundreds of communities have been using consensus in very similar governance structures that have created (hundreds and hundreds of) effective and harmonious communities...long before sociocracy became the latest thing. I've been to many communities in a Denmark and here in the U.S. many of whom have barely heard the term sociocracy. And they wouldn't describe themselves as ineffective and lacking harmony. Personally I've found it like pulling teeth to get a list of which few cohousing communities have used sociocracy successfully for more than a couple years. And when I see that list it'd be interesting to know whether the community itself agrees to it's superiority as a governance structure. Last I heard the list numbered less than 10...and I think our community (in an experiment where the jury is out) is referred to as one of them.

My point is, I wish there wasn't such a zealous fervor about something that I'm sure helps businesses be less hierarchical, but is so new in residential consensus communities. It does a disservice to those of us honestly trying to compare systems. Personally I've found at least the implementation of our experiment more hierarchical (imparting a divide and conquer feel) with more confusion and serious discord than what we used for the first 6 years of our development. But that's one opinion of 65.

Trying to remain open-minded, and wishing there were more books and accessible (inexpensive) knowledge about sociocracy out there...

Thanks again for the conversation,

Sanna McKim
Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage

Consensus decision-making isn't new

Sorry to be so late in catching up on comments — I wasn't notified that a comment had been made. Many people dispute "Sociocracy is the only governance system that requires consensus and is designed to create effective harmonious communities" and find it over the top. You ask "Are the words 'requires' and 'designed' used in the same sentence the operable words here?" Consensus is probably the oldest and most common form of decision-making in everyday household and non-institutional life. As you say many communities have been using it forever. But it has two limitations when used without a governance system that goes beyond custom and practice:

1. It isn't used in business or any organization that is large enough to encompass a diverse set of cultural expectations and competing needs, and
2. There are social roles that limit the power of one sector or the other in decision-making. Women are not equal to men. Younger people, or older, excluded from high level decisions, for example.

The larger the community the more unspoken "ignoring" of some concerns occurs.

In saying that sociocracy is the only governance system designed to both support and require consensus decision-making, I'm not proclaiming the special status of sociocracy in all of history. Sociocracy is based on all the governance systems and social theories that came before it. What makes it "new and improved" is the use of scientific method to test the principles and practices used everywhere and to create a system of governance that is based on the same self-organizing process used in natural systems. In other words, it isn't a boast. It's a statement of fact. Sociocracy isn't unique except in its comprehensiveness.

One analogy is to solar power. The energy of the sun has been used forever for heating, and then for cooking. The latest developments in solar panels are still unique when they use the best of previous methods in a new configuration that is "more than the sum of its parts."

consensus or consent

Hi Sharon,
after reading your post I reviewed the website you refer to ( I noticed they talk about desicion making by consent not consensus. From the website: Consent is required for policy decisions. Consent is defined as “no objections.” Giving consent does not require unanimity, agreement, or endorsement. It means one gives consent to move forward as proposed and to supporting the policy. Requiring consent ensures that a policy will be supported by everyone until there is reason to modify it based on experience or changing conditions.

I think this is an important difference and therefore want to bring it to your attention.

Joost Kingma

Consent vs Consensus

Thank you for the comment. The reason for using "consent" rather than "consensus" is to emphasize that supporting the adoption of a new policy doesn't require agreement with the policy, only the agreement that you can and will act in accordance with it. You might not agree that the best way to provide water to the worksite is the delivery of individual plastic bottles that are then recycled. You might know that it is possible and much better environmentally to use glass bottles that are washed each night, refilled, and delivered the next morning. But you can consent to moving forward with the plastic bottle plan because it allows you to do your work just as well, is supported by your coworkers, and leaves open adopting a better solution in the future. The purpose of the policy is to decide as quickly as possible on a reliable and affordable method of supplying workers with water on the job site and this proposal achieves that purpose.

That distinction is important because consensus decision-making is all too often interpreted as unanimity. The sociocracy advocates make a distinction between consent and consensus because they believe it is the best way to emphasize the difference. Understanding the difference is the best way to correct the use of "consensus." In use and in the literature consensus has never meant unanimity with the decision. It emphasizes the difference between consensus and solidarity. Solidarity is required in political resistance and other situations where hesitation or lack of full support can cause danger, even death, to everyone. A battalion going in liberate a village, must have unanimity on its strategic plan or it is much more likely to fail. The soldiers won't be able to rely on each other.

The decision to accept a proposal is to give consent to moving forward with the actions proposed. Once everyone involved in the decision has given consent, the proposers and/or the group has "consent to move forward" or "consensus that moving forward is the workable option." It becomes a word preference more than a defining distinction.