For all of the care that Kauffman took in researching consensus' roots, she does not appear to have exercised equal care in understanding what needs to be in place for consensus to work well.
While I tend to agree that it gets increasingly unwieldy to hear from everyone when the size of the group gets above 75, and that you probably need some form of representative consensus to make it work well with larger numbers, the vast majority of settings in which consensus is employed is with smaller groups The groups that Kauffman describes above made some fundamental errors:
o The people who showed up at Seabrook or Occupy Wall Street were not screened for values alignment; they were given rights without any assessment of their ability to understand or use them well. Further, there was minimal training in understanding the process. Taken all together that's a recipe for a train wreck.
o As far as I'm concerned, savvy consensus groups discuss what kinds of issues should be decided in plenary (meetings of the whole) and then get disciplined about not talking about things that are beyond the scope of the group (world peace) or beneath the scope of the group (what color to paint placards). The latter should be delegated. Lacking an understanding about that, you get the experience described, where the group is susceptible to getting bogged down in minutia.
So I agree that there were problems with how consensus was practiced at Seabrook and Occupy, yet I don't think that justifies trashing consensus. Instead, you could learn how to use the tool better.
Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt. Sometimes, that forced groups to reckon with important issues that the majority might otherwise ignore, which could indeed be powerful and transformative. But it also consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works, even when groups adopted modifications to strict consensus that allowed super-majorities to override blocks.
While I understand anecdotally that provocateurs have been a real phenomenon in some protest actions, in the world I work in—intentional communities and other cooperative groups, where consensus is by far the most popular form of decision making—I've never met a provocateur in my 28 years as a process consultant. To be sure, I've met jerks, bullies, and people who couldn't listen for shit, but never someone hired to monkey wrench. So let's set that possibility aside as extremely remote, and drill down on the "cranks and malcontents."
Here are the consensus basics that Kauffman has slid past in making this point:
o Groups need to define the basis for legitimate blocks, as well as the process by which potential blocks will be tested for legitimacy. The rule I advocate is that the proposal would violate a reasonable interpretation of a core value of the group, would contradict existing policy, or would otherwise be seriously detrimental to the well-being of the group (perhaps because it is too risky on a legal basis, or too questionable on moral grounds). Note: It is essential that groups don't put this work off until they need to apply it.
o For consensus to work there needs to be a basic understanding among members that rights and responsibilities are joined at the hip. Thus, the right for a crank or malcontent to be heard is dependent on both: a) that the concern is linked to a group value (as distinct from a personal preference); and b) that after they have been heard, the group can expect them to turn around and extend that same courtesy to the viewpoints of those with whom they disagree. Those who simply bang their own drum until they get their way are abusing the process and need to be called on it.
The fact that some groups tolerate bad behavior does not mean that the process is flawed.
First, let's pick a culture that works.