Today’s post is from Matera in the south of Italy where I currently have a 2 month residency as part of the unMonastery. I’m splitting my time between a new education startup, and an open culture festival planned here for October. and we are looking to work together with as many groups and individuals as possible to create an annual sustainable festival of open culture. If you’d like to get involved a great way to start is to head over to EdgeRyders and contribute to the discussing and planning.
One of the aspects of open culture, and in particular the stewardship of open culture resources, are the tools that can support a diverse group of individuals working together.
These tools fall under a number of categories:
- Soft skills
- Formal tools (eg voting).
Soft skills, include things such as group meeting facilitation and online community engagement. Software can support debate, discussion, and a range of decision making techniques including voting. All of these are important to effective group decision making.
This post however is about the resistance to use of more formal tools, and in particular the problems individuals and groups have with “voting”.
This topic came up recently here in Matera with regard to the role of voting in small groups. I’ve been in many groups in different countries, and have found a common recurrent theme regarding voting. People don’t like it. Almost every group I have come across avoids voting. Some countries are better than others (USA and Germanic speaking countries in my experience are better at both voting and group work), but every group has difficulty voting.
Online this is not such a problem, voting is still not common, but this is often due to a lack of effective tools, and rating ideas or posts with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down is a common practice. This is understandable as an effective way to come to a decision with remote participants where face-to-face meetings are not possible. This leads us to the natural argument for why formal voting is considered detrimental for small groups, and that is because it is not needed.
In fact there are a number of stated reasons why voting is avoided. To be precise the reasons are not often clearly stated, the topic is simply avoided. The reluctance to speak openly about this is a clear sign that the real reasons are in some way publicly awkward to express openly, but if you press the point the main reasons people express in a range of situations and cultures are:
- Voting is confrontational, it can be used to coerce people who are in a minority, and encourages combative or aggressive dialogue.
- Voting takes time, it is formal bureaucratic, and while in an ideal world we would consider it, it is faster for us simply to meet, discuss and decide together.
- Voting is not needed, we come to an understanding by simply debating and talking it through as a group.
- Voting does not result in the best result. You get a better result when people who are passionate speak up and make good arguments.
There are also a number of background reasons that people give (often in confidence), when I’ve discussed this topic with them. There is a perhaps surprisingly common apathy and even antagonism to democracy in general, and the focus of this target is often elected politicians, and the quality of the public debate which seems irrelevant to most peoples concerns. Voting is also associated with companies, and legal structures – which people tend to distrust.
I’d like to deal with each of these points in turn, and give to the best of my ability the important counter arguments, most of which I feel are rarely stated. First that voting is confrontational. Voting can indeed be confrontational, but that is like saying “talk is ineffective”. It may be true, but it is not necessarily true. Indeed done well, voting is a good way of avoiding confrontation. Given a contentious topic, encouraging people to consider the arguments and then vote, can lead to more creative, positive, and far less confrontational dialogue.
This is particularly the case when technology allows the group to consider the debate in their own time, and vote in private, after the meeting. A well facilitated meeting conducted this way allows a far more playful and empathetic discussion to emerge without the immediate pressure of a decision. Without this pressure, there is less incentive for individuals to argue loudly and forcibly in an attempt to bully the less vocal members of the group into submission. Anonymous votes (where needed) can further discourage bullying. This is the fundamental power of a true anonymous ballot, in which the rich and powerful find it much harder to purchase votes or frighten people into voting their way, as there is no way for them to know which way the person the pressure actually votes. In conclusion while voting may not solve all cases of genuine conflict, done well it can be a useful tool to make group conversations less (not more) confrontational.
Second, the perception that voting takes time. Time out of the meeting, and time away from discussing important things. This is plain wrong. Before we had the internet and mobile phones, there is a case for this argument. Calling a vote takes perhaps 5 minutes, and if there are several topics on the agenda, voting on each one of them can take a significant amount of time. Even here historically however, this argument is weak. I cannot list the number of occasions both online and offline in which discussion go on without an end in site. A brief experience of consensus circles, or the experience of Occupy type gatherings, will quickly lead you to the conclusion that voting can be a real time saver. That is not to say that consensus is not an excellent tool that groups should use in many circumstances, but it is a clear and direct rebuttal to the argument that a good reason not to call a formal vote is that you don’t have time for a quick show of hands.
More importantly however in a modern context, having the facility to vote on particular topics can be a clear time-saver in meetings. Any group can set up simple online procedures for voting and follow up discussion using excellent open source tools such as Loomio or OneClickOrgs. This literally takes a couple of minutes. Once this is set up, there is no need to take up time in a meeting to actually vote, you can do that at home later, or indeed use your mobile phone any time that is convenient. This allows reflection, and frees up the meeting for more important things.
The third point is that voting is not needed. Again this is partly true, but this truth covers the more important truth that voting, when needed is a vital asset to almost any group. Many questions do not need formal votes, let’s accept that. Groups are not compelled to vote on every issue, and are free to deal quickly with such issues as they see fit. But every now and then, a contentious issue arises,, or more importantly an issue in which long open face-to-face discussion is difficult because of interpersonal issues, or perhaps the complexity and diversity of individual perspectives. It is rare for a group not to face problems when such topics come up, and when they do having access to a formal and previously agreed process to resolve them is essential. Voting is one of those tools. It is robust, generally accepted as fair, and has served the test of time. There may well be better, and more sophisticated techniques, but a simple vote takes a lot of beating.
Lastly – let’s deal with the argument that voting does not result in the best result. This is the most important counter argument. It has real merit. Choosing a respected individual to curate, direct or otherwise lead an initiative is often a better strategy to deliver quality, fast. If this is the case for the topic being considered then it is important not to mask this decision with a fake-democratic process. Classic examples of fake democratic processes are so called “open calls” in which everyone is invited to propose ideas and apply, but only a chosen few make the decisions. Consultations are another example. People should be rightly offended when repeatedly asked for their opinions only to be summarily ignored when it comes to making the decision.
On this last point there is much more to say. There are real advances in the field of bottom-up decision making, and while we have a long way to go actually building effective tools – projects such as Liquid Democracy, or strategies such as deliberative polling offer much promise.