Consensus Building

Heidi Burgess
Brad Spangler

September 2003

What is Consensus Building?

Consensus building (also known as collaborative problem solving or collaboration) is a conflict-resolution process used mainly to settle complex, multiparty disputes. Since the 1980s, it has become widely used in the environmental and public policy arena in the United States, but is useful whenever multiple parties are involved in a complex dispute or conflict. The process allows various stakeholders (parties with an interest in the problem or issue) to work together to develop a mutually acceptable solution.

Like a town meeting, consensus building is based on the principles of local participation and ownership of decisions. Ideally, the consensus reached will meet all of the relevant interests of stakeholders, who thereby come to a unanimous agreement. While everyone may not get everything they initially wanted, "consensus has been reached when everyone agrees they can live with whatever is proposed after every effort has been made to meet the interests of all stake holding parties."[1]

Defining Success

It is critical that the definition of success is made clear from the beginning of any consensus-building process. Most consensus-building efforts set out to achieve unanimity. However, sometimes there are "holdouts" who believe their interests will be better served by resisting the proposed agreement. In such cases, it is acceptable for a consensus-building effort to settle for overwhelming agreement that gets as close as possible to meeting the interests of every stakeholder. If some people are not in agreement and might be excluded from the final solution, participants have a duty to make sure that every effort has been made to meet the interests of the holdouts. (This is to their advantage as well, as holdouts may become "spoilers," -- people who try to "spoil" or block implementation of any agreement that is reached.)

Why is Consensus Building Important?

Additional insights into consensus building are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Consensus building is important in today's interconnected society because many problems exist that affect diverse groups of people with different interests. As problems mount, the organizations that deal with society's problems come to rely on each other for help -- they are interdependent. The parties affected by decisions are often interdependent as well. Therefore it is extremely difficult and often ineffective for organizations to try to solve controversial problems on their own. Consensus building offers a way for individual citizens and organizations to collaborate on solving complex problems in ways that are acceptable to all.

Consensus-building processes also allow a variety of people to have input into decision-making processes, rather than leaving controversial decisions up to government representatives or experts. When government experts make decisions on their own, one or more of the stakeholder groups is usually unhappy, and in the U.S. system, they commonly sue the government, slowing implementation of any decision substantially. While consensus building takes time, it at least develops solutions that are not held up in court.

In addition, stakeholders always possess a wide range of understandings or perceptions of a problem. The consensus-building process helps them to establish a common understanding and framework for developing a solution that works for everyone.[2] The process also fosters the exploration of joint gains and integrative solutions (see integrative bargaining) and permits stakeholders to deal with interrelated issues in a single forum. This allows stakeholders to make trade-offs between different issues, and allows the development of solutions that meet more peoples' needs more completely than decisions that are made without such widespread participation.

The Nature of Consensus-Building Problems

Consensus building is employed to settle conflicts that involve multiple parties and usually multiple issues. The approach seeks to transform adversarial interactions into a cooperative search for information and solutions that meet all parties' interests and needs.

One of the most common applications of consensus processes is natural resource conflicts and site-specific environmental disputes (over land use, water resources, energy, air quality, and toxics). Other types of disputes that can be resolved through consensus building include product liability cases, intergovernmental disputes, and other public policy controversies involving issues such as transportation and housing.[3]

In addition, there is growing use of consensus-building processes at the international level. As globalization accelerates, so does the level of interdependence between human populations, multinational corporations, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some important issues facing the global community that could potentially be addressed through consensus building are global warming, sustainable development, trade, protection of human rights, and controlling weapons of mass destruction. The Montreal Protocol, an international environmental agreement ratified in 1987 to protect the Earth's stratospheric ozone layer, serves as a prime example of what can be accomplished by using consensus building on an international scale.[4]

Problems that may be effectively addressed with a consensus-building approach tend to share some general characteristics. Some of these characteristics are:

  • The problems are ill defined, or there is disagreement about how they should be defined.
  • Several stakeholders have a vested interest in the problems and are interdependent.
  • These stakeholders are not necessarily identified as a cohesive group or organization.
  • There may be a disparity of power and/or resources for dealing with the problems among the stakeholders. Stakeholders may have different levels of expertise and different access to information about the problems.
  • The problems are often characterized by technical complexity and scientific uncertainty.
  • Differing perspectives on the problems often lead to adversarial relationships among the stakeholders.
  • Incremental or unilateral efforts to deal with the problems typically produce less than satisfactory solutions.
  • Existing processes for addressing the problems have proved insufficient and may even exacerbate them.[5]

Stages of Consensus Building

Models of consensus building vary from three to ten stages, but all address the same set of fundamental issues. We will describe an eight-stage process here, but processes with fewer steps are similar; they just combine certain steps into one.

1) Problem identification: This is the very initial stage where a problem is identified and a decision to consider trying consensus building as a resolution process is made. This decision may be made by one or more of the stake holders, or by a third party who believes that consensus would be a good way to bring disputants together.

2) Participant identification and recruitment: Problems that are typically resolved through consensus building have multiple stakeholders. In addition to the obvious parties, there are often people who are "lurking" behind the scenes, but are not vocal, so they are not as visible. Yet they will be affected by the outcome of a decision, and might block a decision if it harms them. Thus, it is important to get such people involved and get their needs met.

Legitimacy of representatives is a second key "stakeholder" issue. Conveners and the parties themselves must make sure that the people involved in the consensus effort really represent who they say they represent, and can speak for that group with legitimacy. Oftentimes one or more of the groups involved is very informal and disorganized, and splinter groups form, breaking away from the original stakeholder group. This complicates the question of who speaks for whom, who can make agreements on behalf of whom, and who should thus be "at the table."

Even after people are identified, getting them to agree to participate is a major issue. Some people may be reluctant to enter a consensus process because they think it will take too long, involve too much of their time, or will force them to "sell out" or give in for too little. They may think they have a better chance of "winning" in another forum, such as the courts. One way to encourage people to try consensus is to explain that it is a very low-risk process. No one is forced to agree to anything, so if things are not going well, they can always back down and pursue their alternative approach to solving the problem (frequently called their "BATNA" -- "best alternative to a negotiated agreement"). In addition, it can be pointed out that consensus building allows them to stay in control of the process and the decision. Nothing happens unless everyone agrees on it. In a court, it is quite possible that rulings will go against them. Although reluctance is common at the outset of consensus-building efforts, once people get involved, if the process works well, participants usually decide that it is more useful than they expected it to be, and they stay involved. Even when an agreement cannot be reached, the improvement of relationships and trust between groups often makes the process worthwhile.

3) Convening: Actually convening the process involves several steps. They include securing funds, finding a location, and choosing a convener and/or mediator or facilitator.

Securing Funds: Consensus building processes can be expensive, as they involve a lot of people over a long period of time, using multiple facilitators and mediators and often outside technical experts. Thus, significant sources of funds may be needed. Although these funds can be supplied by the participants themselves, often one side is more able to pay than another. If the richer party or parties pays for the facilitator or mediator, there is a question of impartiality. But it may be very difficult for all sides to pay equally. This is why securing outside independent funding (from a foundation or government agency, for instance) is often helpful.

Finding a Location to meet. The location usually should be "neutral," as in, not on any one stakeholder's "home turf." It should also be accessible to all and a large enough location to hold everyone comfortably. It also needs to be available for as long as the group needs to meet, which can be for several months, or even years.

Selecting a convener, facilitator, and/or mediator: Sometimes these are the same person or organization, sometimes they are different. In a major consensus building process over water development in the United States West, a process was convened by the Governor of Colorado, who used his personal power to get all the interest groups to the table. (Who could say "no" to the Governor?) Yet the Governor asked a local mediation firm to provide the facilitation of the process, as that was not his area of expertise. Yet he stayed involved off and on to encourage people to stay at the table and keep working, even when progress seemed discouragingly slow.[6]

4) Process Design: This is usually done by the person or group acting as facilitators or mediators, although they usually involve the parties to some extent, sometimes to a large extent. At the least they will design a process, present it to the parties, and get their approval on it. Often, the parties will suggest modifications to the proposed process and negotiations will ensue. Decisions will be made, and a process, usually including ground rules for participant behavior will be set.

This actually is an excellent way to start a consensus-building process. The parties can "practice" working together and negotiating over "easy" issues before they tackle the emotion-laden issues surrounding the real issues in dispute. Once they have a track record of working together and coming to agreement, they begin to build trust in the mediator, the process, and each other. This then helps them move on to the real issues in a positive frame of mind.

Agenda setting is another key aspect of process design. The initial agenda must be made carefully so no legitimate stakeholders feel their interests are being ignored. It must also include a reasonable timetable. People should not feel rushed to make a decision, but they should also not feel as if the process is so slow that a decision will not be reached in a timely manner.

One of the key questions that must be decided is the order in which issues should be considered. Should the group tackle the easy ones first, and the harder ones later? (This is common.) Or should they try to tackle the hardest ones first, because if they succeed there, the rest is smooth sailing? Or should they form subgroups and tackle many things at once?

5) Problem definition and analysis. This goes much farther than the "problem identification" of step one. Rather it identifies all the issues, and all the ways the stakeholders have of "framing" or defining the problem(s) or conflicting issues. Typically, each stakeholder has different interests and concerns, and defines the problem somewhat differently. For example, in an environmental conflict, one side may see the conflict as being about air and water quality, while another sees it to be about jobs, a third about recreational opportunities. The first might care little about jobs and recreation, while the second and third are less worried about environmental degradation. A more complete picture of the problem will emerge as more stakeholders share their perceptions, and come to understand how all their concerns and interests are interrelated. Recognizing this interdependence is crucial to consensus building. This recognition ensures that each interested party will have at least some power in the negotiation.[7]

After everyone explains their views of the situation, re-defining or "reframing" the conflict is usually the next step. Facilitators or mediators usually try to get the disputants to reframe the issues in terms of interests, which are usually negotiable, rather than positions, values, or needs, which usually are not. By re-framing the problem in terms of interests, a variety of options for dealing with the conflict usually appear, which were not apparent before.

6) Identification and evaluation of alternative solutions. Before the group decides on any single course of action, it is best to explore a variety of options or alternative solutions. This is extremely important in multiparty disputes, because it is unlikely that any single option will satisfy all parties equally. Parties should be encouraged to develop creative options that satisfy their interests and others'. As more options are explored, parties become able to think in terms of trade-offs and to recognize a range of possible solutions.

There are various techniques for exploring alternative solutions. One of the most common is brainstorming, when parties are encouraged to think of as many options as possible, without evaluating any of them at first. Sometime this is done as a large group; other times it can be done in small work groups, with different groups of people tackling different issues or different aspects of the overall problem. This way many parts of the problem can be investigated simultaneously. Then the subgroups report back to one another.

An effort is made to develop new, mutually advantageous approaches, rather than going over the same win-lose approaches that have been on the table before. After the parties generate a list of alternatives, these alternatives are carefully examined to determine the costs and benefits of each (from each party's point of view), and the barriers to implementation.

Many consensus-building processes involve technical issues in which scientific facts are in dispute. In this case it often helps to have one or more subgroups involved in some sort of joint fact-finding exercise, designed to replace "adversary science" in which one expert contradicts another expert, with "consensus science" in which the adversaries' experts work together or with a neutral expert to come to some joint agreement on the technical facts in dispute. Although resolving technical facts seldom resolves the agreement, as value issues are still in debate, it removes one major stumbling block to resolution.

7) Decision making: Eventually, the choice is narrowed down to one approach, which is fine-tuned, often through a single negotiating text, until all the parties at the table agree. Thus consensus building differs from majority rule decision making in that everyone involved must agree with the final decision -- there is no vote.

8) Approval of the agreement: The negotiators then take the agreement back to their constituencies and try to get it approved. This is one of the most difficult steps, as the constituencies have not been involved in the ongoing process, and often have not developed the level of understanding or trust necessary to see why this is the best possible agreement they can get. Negotiators need to be able to explain exactly why the settlement was drafted as it was, and why it is to the constituencies' benefit to agree to it. If any one of the groups represented in the consensus-building process disagrees at this stage, they will likely refuse to sign the agreement, and the agreement may well fall apart. Stakeholders may be able to help each other develop strategies for persuading their respective constituencies of the merit of the agreement. However it is done, it is important that stakeholder constituencies understand the trade-offs that were made. If they do not, it is likely that the agreement will be broken sometime down the road. It is also critical that stakeholders gain the support of those responsible for implementing the agreement, often government agencies.

9) Implementation: This is the final phase of consensus building. Consensus building often results in creative and strong agreements, but implementing those agreements is an entirely separate task. If careful attention is not given to certain issues during the implementation phase, agreements may fall apart. These issues include building support with constituencies and others who are affected by the agreement, monitoring the agreement, and ensuring compliance. The consensus building group should be involved in this aspect of implementation to be sure that the agreement is being carried out as they envisioned. If it is not, or there are serious obstacles, the group can then come back together to solve new problems.

Monitoring often involves some sort of formal structure or organization to be an effective method of solving future problems.[8] However, a committee including representatives of all stakeholder groups may be formed to address and resolve questions in the future. One of the great benefits of consensus processes is that they improve relationships between the adversaries so much that such monitoring and enforcement committees are usually successful. So although unforeseen problems inevitably develop, they usually can be solved.

Determinants of Success and Criteria for Evaluation

There are four primary determinants of a successful consensus process.[9]

  • First, the stakeholders must be interdependent so that none of them can achieve on their own what the group will be able to achieve through collaborating. There must be an incentive for people to work together and cooperate. If someone can satisfy their interests without the group, they probably will.[10]
  • Second, participants must deal with their differences in a constructive way. That means that differences in values, needs, and interests must be recognized, worked with and respected. This requires "good-faith" participation by stakeholders because destructive attempts to undermine a party's differing interests will likely cause the process to break down.
  • Third, there must be joint or group ownership of the decisions made. Participants in the consensus-building process must agree on the final decisions and be willing to implement those decisions themselves.
  • Fourth, consensus building or collaboration must be an emergent process. In other words, the decisions and outcomes of stakeholder collaboration must be carried out in a flexible way. How the group works together must be allowed to evolve over time, so that it does not become a static approach to problem solving. If the collaborative process is successful, new solutions emerge that no single party could have envisioned or implemented on their own.

At a more specific level, there are further criteria by which to evaluate the success and effectiveness of consensus building. These criteria fall into two main categories of assessment -- process and outcomes. The criteria serve as ideal guidelines, and will not all be met perfectly by all consensus-building efforts, successful or not. Process criteria focus on the nature of a consensus process, and the more of these criteria a process meets, the more likely it will succeed. Consensus building should also be evaluated by the type and quality of its outcomes it produces. Both short-term and long-term outcomes should be evaluated. Again, the more criteria are met by the outcomes, the more successful a consensus process is considered.[11]

Process Criteria

  • The process included representatives of all relevant and significantly different interests.
  • It is driven by a purpose that is practical and shared by the group.
  • It is self-organized by the participants.
  • It follows the principles of civil, respectful, face-to-face conversation.
  • It adapts and incorporates high-quality information -- personal experiences, facts, and data.
  • It encourages participants to challenge assumptions, be creative, and explore alternatives.
  • It keeps participants at the table, involved, and learning.
  • It seeks consensus only after discussions fully explore the issues and interests and significant effort was made to find creative responses to differences.

Criteria to Assess Outcomes

  • The process produced a high-quality agreement that met the interests of all stakeholders.
  • It compared favorably with other planning or decision methods in terms of costs and benefits.
  • It produced feasible proposals from political, economic, and social perspectives.
  • It produced creative ideas for action.
  • Stakeholders gained knowledge and understanding.
  • It created new personal and working relationships and social and political capital among participants.
  • It produced information and analyses that stakeholders understand and accept as accurate.
  • Learning and knowledge produced within the consensus process were shared by others beyond the immediate group.
  • It had second-order effects, beyond agreements or attitudes developed in the process, such as changes in behaviors and actions, spin-off partnerships, collaborative activities, new practices, or even new institutions.
  • It resulted in practices and institutions that were both flexible and networked, which permitted a community to respond more creatively to change and conflict.
  • It produced outcomes that were considered fair.
  • The outcomes seemed to serve the common good or public interest.
  • The outcomes contributed to the sustainability of natural and social systems.

Benefits of Consensus Building

Several benefits can result from properly employing consensus-building processes to address multiparty problems. Probably the most important benefit of collaboration is that it increases the quality of solutions developed by the parties. This is because solutions are based on a comprehensive analysis of the problem. Each party has a different perspective and therefore many more angles are considered than if a few experts or a select few people developed the solution on their own. This variety of perspectives may lead to innovative solutions. In addition, the capacity of the group to respond to the problem is increased as stakeholders can apply a range of resources to solving it. Bringing in all interested stakeholders can also minimize the chance of impasse or deadlock.

Consensus building guarantees that all parties' interests will be protected. This is possible because participants make final decisions themselves. Each party has a chance to make sure their interests are represented in the agreement and are a part of signing off on the agreement. As a result, stakeholders have ownership of the outcome of consensus-building processes.

Other benefits of consensus building include the fact that people most familiar with the problem at hand will be able to participate in solving it. This is often better than having a representative, who is removed from the problem, work on solving it. The ability to participate in the problem-solving process will also enhance acceptance of the solution and willingness to implement it. The participatory process may also help strengthen the relationships between stakeholders that used to be adversaries. Consensus building can also save money that may have been spent on court cases, for example. Lastly, the stakeholder group can develop mechanisms for dealing with related problems in the future.[12]

[1] Lawrence Susskind, "An Alternative to Robert's Rules of Order for Groups, Organizations, and Ad Hoc Assemblies that Want to Operate By Consensus," in The Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement, eds. Lawrence Susskind, Sarah McKearnan, and Jennifer Thomas-Larmer (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999), 6.

[2] This section is based on the discussion offered in Chapter One of Barbara Gray, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems, and (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1989).

[3] Gray, 7

[4] Text of and information about the Montreal Protocol can be found at the UN's Environmental Program's Web site: Sept 27, 2003).

[5] The bullet points in this section were drawn from: Barbara Gray, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1989), 10.

[6] This process was the Denver Metropolitan Water Roundtable, which was convened by Governor Richard Lamm in 1980. A short case study of this effort appears in Carpenter and Kennedy, Resolving Public Disputes. (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1988), 48-49.

[7] Ibid, 58.

[8] Ibid, 87-91.

[9] Information in the "Determinants of Success" section is drawn from: Gray, Barbara. 1989. Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1989), 11-16.

[10] See the discussion on BATNA in this knowledge base.

[11] Ideas in the above paragraph and the bullet points following both came from Judith E. Innes, " Evaluating Consensus Building ," In The Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement, eds. Lawrence Susskind, Sarah McKearnan, and Jennifer Thomas-Larmer (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999), 647-654.

[12] This section is drawn from Barbara Gray, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1989), 21-23.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi and Brad Spangler. "Consensus Building." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

Additional Resources