Arnaud's Blog

Opinions on open source, standards, and other things

What consensus means

Over the last year I’ve noticed that quite a few people are using the word “consensus” in a way which differs from my understanding of what consensus is about.

Looking at Wikipedia, I see that it defines consensus as “general agreement”. This is pretty vague obviously, and if it were left to that there wouldn’t be much more to talk about. But Wikipedia quite rightly points out that consensus is also used to refer to the process used to reach this agreement. I think that’s where the problem lies.

From what I can tell, some people are happy to just use consensus as if it were synonymous with agreement. On that basis, any decision, no matter how it is made, can pretty much be said to be the consensus.

For instance, in the case of the BRM for OOXML, it has been stated by several, and ISO/IEC officials in particular, that the decisions were made by “consensus”. Was it so, though? I certainly don’t think so.

I’ll admit that my expectations are heavily rooted in my background with the W3C which inherited from IETF the goal of making all its decisions by consensus. As I explained in my previous entry A Standards Quality Case Study: W3C, the W3C leaves it to the chair to decide whether consensus is reached or not.

Interestingly enough, this is not any different from ISO/IEC’s directives which read in Part 1:

It is the responsibility of the chairman […] to judge whether there is sufficient support bearing in mind the definition of consensus given in ISO/IEC Guide 2:1996.

“consensus: General agreement, characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to
substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests and by a process that
involves seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile
any conflicting arguments.
NOTE Consensus need not imply unanimity.”

The way the “absence of sustained opposition” is typically assessed at W3C is by simply asking whether everybody can live with the proposed decision. As I indicated before asking this question can sometimes lead to a completely different decision. I’ve witnessed it myself. So, this is not just some sort of polite gesture, it is at the very heart of consensus building.

I wish that rule were more broadly adopted. For instance, to my knowledge this was never asked in any way at the BRM for OOXML.

Instead, the BRM proceeded by making its decisions by simple majority vote, leaving no room “to reconcile any conflicting arguments”. In fact, as it’s well known, the vast majority of the issues were “addressed” in bulk via a simple majority vote. So much for ISO/IEC directives. It seems to me that the chair failed to “bear in mind the definition of consensus” or was instructed to forgo that golden rule for the sake of expediency.

As if that was not enough ISO/IEC officials went on to then recommend to its respective boards of directors (SMB & TMB) to dismiss the appeals filed by Brazil, India, South Africa, and Venezuela. Now, I don’t know what an appeal is if it’s not a clear expression of “sustained opposition”.

You would think that given ISO/IEC’s own directives, its officials would have recommended to create a conciliation panel “to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments.” Looks to me like ISO/IEC officials, who have for mission to ensure the directives are followed mind you, have completely lost sight of this fundamental principal. Either that or they should revise their directives to acknowledge that decisions are not actually made by consensus.

As Wikipedia puts it: Consensus decision-making is a group decision making process that not only seeks the agreement of most participants, but also to resolve or mitigate the objections of the minority to achieve the most agreeable decision.”

We’d all be better off if everybody were “to bear that in mind”.


August 7, 2008 Posted by | standards | , , | 23 Comments