Wednesday, February 2, 2011

“Informed Choice” versus “Participation:” Competing Democratic Values

As a new member of a community organization, I attended my first general membership meeting. Independent of the meeting, a referendum was underway regarding a somewhat controversial proposal. Although the meeting had a specific agenda that did not include the referendum, a number of people expressed dissatisfaction with the referendum process. The next day, I submitted some comments about the discussion of the referendum process and its implications for a revision. Since this situation brings into focus an issue that many organizations face—the competition between the values of “informed choice” and “participation”— I present my comments here without referring to the specific organization involved.

Some thoughts on last night’s meeting

In their comments about the referendum process, a number of speakers cited the Organization’s democratic values. I think it would be helpful to reflect on the particular democratic values in question, and consider them in developing an improved referendum process.

It seemed to me that one of the implicit democratic values was “informed choice,” the idea that each member should make a choice on the proposal, but that choice should be informed by the facts and views of others. Objections to the referendum process seemed to center on the lack of opportunity to exchange information and different points of view regarding the proposal. In short, the referendum process did not adequately support “informed choice.”

Putting “informed choice” into practice presents an important question: How do you know when you have sufficient information? An individual could say, “I have enough information to make a choice; I don’t need any more; I’m ready to vote.” But another person could say, “Wait! Don’t vote yet! You haven’t heard my point of view! I haven’t had the opportunity to influence your choice, and what I have to say is important and no one else has said it.”

At its democratic best, a decision-making process includes an agreed-on method for collectively determining when sufficient information and perspectives have been exchanged and the group is ready to make an informed choice. For example, Roberts Rules of Order includes the motion, “Previous Question” (or “call the question” or “close debate”), which—if passed—closes discussion and brings the main motion to a vote. It requires first that the presiding officer recognize the person “calling the question,” and then that the motion is seconded and then approved by a two-thirds vote. This represents a collective decision that the group is now capable of making an informed choice. Consensus decision-making processes often follow a more stringent practice that requires discussion to continue until every person who has something to say has the opportunity to do so, the equivalent of “Previous Question” with the requirement of a unanimous vote.

Regarding this particular matter, I was puzzled by the Organization’s decision-making process in two instances during the meeting. First, regarding the budget vote, towards the end of the discussion the presiding officer announced that some people had already left the meeting and submitted their ballots (before the question had been called). This provides an example of a process in which individuals can decide for themselves when they have sufficient information, whether or not others feel that they have had the opportunity to inform them. A similar situation occurred during the vote on the proposed change to the policy manual, when the person presenting the proposal asked members to complete their ballots while the discussion was still underway.

These practices were likely driven by another democratic value, “participation.” That is, affording all members the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Enabling people to vote prior to the end of discussion allows people to vote even if they cannot (or choose not to) stay any longer at the meeting. This value also drives the referendum process. As someone explained at the meeting, the purpose of holding a referendum rather than conducting a regular meeting to decide the issue was to enable more people to participate.

We can view these values—“informed choice” and “participation”—as competing with each other. That is, the more information required, the more time it takes, and the fewer the number of people who are inclined or able to invest that time and participate in making the decision. In reviewing and perhaps revising the referendum policy, the challenge will be to create a process that maximizes and balances the democratic values of “informed choice” and “participation.”


  1. Fascinating. You point out some common and yet greater than they might appear risks. It is exceedingly risky to fall under the illusion of participation if people are permitted to vote before the dialogue is completed. Allowing people to have partial participation and full voice encourages more and more detached and dispassionate "participation".

    The power of dialogue often comes in the ability to influence. To reason, to share, to see things from another view, and to remain open to being influenced.

    At the same time, organizations can get bogged down by too much conversation when the facts in evidence are clear enough for nearly anyone to see.

    One solution is a firm set of ground rules before the group begins, coupled with a firm time constraint. It's amazing how fast people can come to conclusions once a uniform time limit is set -- so that everyone in the group has the same time to listen and respond.

    -- Douglas Brent Smith

  2. Hi Sander, looks like a typical case of the paradoxes of Engaging: disclosure, trust, intimacy and regression. This is the reason we call it having a say and having a vote. The "say" is the analogue part of information (more/less), the "vote" is the digital part (yes/no). The problem is that we need to have a say or to vote but cannot do so at the same time. The tension between these two generates the energy for participating. Engaging or participating, in my view, is about these two.

    There will be no definitive solution to end any paradox: they maintain the endless regression (or progression, depending on your point of view, we're in). The best thing i can suggest is to frame it not as a competition or a competitive game between the two, but as a cooperative game. While playing the game of participating, sharing information people build trust, intimacy and a willingness to make progress. In doing say we share perceptions of each other and the facilitative way is to prevent people of falling into "us" versus "them".


    Disclosure is about sharing information, the paradox being that only information that is hard to disclose is really informing.
    Trust is about relying on others and is only needed in situations where the other cannot be reliably counted upon.
    Intimacy is about connecting with each other in situations that are not very conformance.
    Regressing, according to Bion, is massive in groups and a necessary condition for growth.
    Perception of - or perhaps better, perceiving - differences as parts of the same in stead of opposing parts generates solidarity.

  3. Yes, thanks to both Doug and Jan. Perhaps “Informed Choice” and “Participation” are yin and yang constrained by time.


Any comments?