Engaging with the Public: A series of best practice tip sheets
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. In this tip sheet, we answer the question:
What is the best method of decision-making for a group or a particular issue?
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:
- Decision by authority
Description: 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.
Strengths: 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.
Weaknesses: 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.
- Minority control (small group decides)
Description: 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.
Strengths: 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.
Weaknesses: 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.
- Majority control (voting)
Description: 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.
Strengths: 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.
Weaknesses: 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.
- Consensus (all decide)
Description: 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.
Strengths: 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.
Weaknesses: 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.
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.
Bryson, J.M. & Carroll, A.R. (2007). Public participation fieldbook. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.
Tip sheet prepared by Tobias Spanier, Assistant Extension Professor and Educator, Leadership and Civic Engagement