As groups meet to make decisions on important issues, members should take time to decide who decides, and how to decide. Using decision-making methods that involve more people in more ways increases public participation.
What's the best decision-making method?
Tip: Decide who decides—and how
Sometimes, who decides in a group is pre-determined by a statute or law. However, there may be opportunities to expand the involvement of who decides.
By engaging the public or increasing the level of participation in decision-making, groups can make more informed decisions that address public concerns. As a group, it is important to have a conversation about who will make the decisions, and how.
To help your group select a decision-making method, you might lead a discussion using questions such as:
- To what extent do the group members feel the need to be understood and influential in the decisions that are made?
- To what extent are members committed to the decision and responsible for its implementation?
- To what extent are members satisfied with their own participation and the group atmosphere?
There are a variety of options when deciding how to decide. Below are four types of options with a summary of the strengths, weaknesses and consequences of each.
1. Decision by authority
This method can be described as "one person decides." This might mean assigning the decision to the most expert person or to a person who decides after listening to the group discuss the problem. Often, the person making the decision is a positional leader.
This method is useful when the group lacks knowledge or skills and has little time to make a decision. It works well when decisions are "routine" or when commitment to implementation is not a concern.
This method probably won't work well with more complex decisions because it doesn't use all available help or support from group members. As a result, the group might not support the final decision and group resentment may develop.
2. Minority control (small group decides)
This method uses the skills and resources of a small number of group members. Usually, the small group is made up of experts on the issue or a delegated subgroup that has the necessary information to make a decision.
This method is useful if the whole group cannot meet, if only a few members have information on or interest in the decision, or for routine types of decisions. This decision-making method may be appropriate when overall commitment to the decision is not necessary.
This method does not use the resources of most of the group and doesn't build group support for the decision. Nor does it yield the benefits of group interaction.
3. Majority control (voting)
Often mandated by rules or bylaws, voting allows all members to vote for or against an issue. Groups using this method typically adopt the idea that wins a majority of votes.
This may seem like the fairest method, and it is seen as a legitimate method in a democracy. It is effective when there is no time to build consensus. This is a good method to use when members of the group are equally informed.
Someone wins and someone loses in voting. This can result in a disgruntled minority in a group or can cause opposing factions to mobilize. Voting also cuts out the option of finding a compromise solution.
4. Consensus (all decide)
Consensus strives for the full empowerment and involvement of all group members when making a decision. Consensus is generally understood to mean that everyone involved has had a chance to participate, understand the decision, and is prepared to support it.
Consensus can produce a high-quality decision that has strong commitment to implementation. The future ability of the group to solve problems is enhanced. Consensus is useful for serious, important, complex decisions that affect a lot of people.
This method takes a great deal of time and energy. Consensus is hard to achieve in a large group and requires a rich exchange of ideas and information.
Bryson, J.M. & Carroll, A.R. (2007). Public participation fieldbook. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.
Reviewed in 2023