Transforming Justice steering committee to use consensus-based governance model in future work

August 26, 2021

A visual representation of the consensus-based governance model process.
As a group consisting of nearly 45 members, the process by which the Transforming Justice Steering Committee, which launched in May 2021, makes decisions and advances its work will be critical to the momentum and success of the initiative’s efforts. At the committee’s Thursday, Aug. 19 meeting, the group agreed to use a consensus-based governance model proposed by Territory, the consulting firm tapped by the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC) to facilitate the initiative.

Transforming Justice is an ambitious and necessary process to re-envision the criminal legal system that is informed by both the community and criminal legal system stakeholders. The project is spearheaded by LPSCC.

The Transforming Justice core visioning team, which is composed of experts in behavioral health, housing and public safety, has met weekly for the last seven months to explore strategies that grow health and housing responses and shrink the legal system footprint. 

Members of the steering committee have been tasked with converting those strategies into an implementable vision of a just public safety system. Shrinking unnecessary incarceration, leading with race, and growing approaches grounded in housing, health, behavioral health and culturally specific supports are key pillars of the project. The steering committee is composed of local elected officials and administrators within the criminal legal, housing and health systems; victims of crime and victim services providers; advocates; and individuals with lived expertise in justice and behavioral health systems. 

Intentionally approving and using a distinct and appropriate model of decision making is necessary to establish a “transparent, thoughtful way to increase buy-in and real direction across the board when we have a lot of different, important voices in the room,” shared Abbey Stamp, LPSCC’s executive director. 

“There is so much common ground about where we want our systems to go together. We all want people to feel heard, we want people to feel healed if they’ve been harmed, we want people to get the services and treatment and housing they deserve no matter how terrible a thing they may have done. We want folks to be held accountable, including the system.”

Stamp took a moment to ground the steering committee in their work. The committee, she said, would need to find a way to create a fully realized, implementable vision of a public safety system that:

  • Leads with race and and prioritizes interventions, policies, and budgeting for Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
  • Focuses on shrinking the current criminal legal system footprint, and grows health, housing, and treatment responses.
  • Increases restorative approaches that focus on healing, harm reduction, and restoration.

“How do we reckon with the incredible harm that has been caused and perpetrated on BIPOC communities, and build something that is wholly different and transformational?” Stamp said. “We’ve all got ideas... so this is our hope of a different way to try to do it.”

Territory facilitators proposed that this different way is consensus-based decision making, a model of governance they believed is most appropriate to create systemic change.

“All that transformation that we’re trying to work toward requires a transformative governance process to get us there. We can’t use the same top-down decision making that we have in the past,” said Territory facilitator Suzanne Pflaum as she introduced the consensus process. 

“So that’s why we’re proposing a consensus governance model [that] we feel is the strongest option for making a really lasting impact.”

Consensus, Pflaum shared, centers the collective good by lifting up all voices so that they have equal weight in the decision-making process. Striving for unanimous consent guarantees that no one is left behind, while the process to reach the across-the-board agreement ensures that all concerns and objections are addressed.

The consensus-based governance model for the steering committee consists of six main steps, facilitators explained. The first begins days before a committee meeting, when members are sent submissions, or decisions to be made, along with information relating to the decision. Steering committee members are expected to confer with their colleagues and their communities, and to submit questions or concerns.

On the day of the meeting, steering committee members will review the submission together while facilitators will address clarifying questions. Facilitators will then take a poll to gauge where the group stands on the submission. 

Committee members may choose to:

  • “Support,” which means that they support moving forward with the submission as it was presented.
  • “Allow,” which means that they are willing to advance the submission even though they have hesitations. 
  • “Pause,” signaling that they have concerns that need to be addressed before allowing it to move forward.
  • “Block,” which reflects a fundamental disagreement with the submission as it is.

The first two options allow the submission to move forward, while the latter two trigger a procedure by which consensus is built through amendments or alternate solutions. The facilitators review the results of the poll, gather the reasons for Block and Pause votes, then organize those concerns. Concerns are then split into topics for breakout groups, which members are free to choose. Once these groups start, the group is expected to collaboratively develop resolutions or amendments to the concerns that they believe can move the submission forward. A spokesperson from each breakout group then reports their solution to the wider group. 

A small group composed of only spokespeople will then synthesize those solutions while the rest of the steering committee observes. Once the “spokescouncil” determines when they are ready to check back in with the committee, facilitators will administer another poll, at which point the group either comes to a consensus and is ready to move forward with implementation, or goes back into new breakout groups again to work on new solutions.

After explaining the new process, the facilitators put the model to the test, polling steering committee members on whether they agreed to move forward with this governance model, as  described. Of 25 voters, 24 voted “Support,” with one “Allow” vote. Because there were no “Pause” or “Block” votes, the facilitators asked the group member who voted “Allow” to share their hesitations.

He expressed that while he was agreeable to the consensus model, he was wary of the time commitment to reach full consensus. He also conceded that this was something that the group had never done before so consensus may not take too long to reach if everyone was aligned with their North Star of shared values.

The need to balance listening and giving equal weight to everyone’s voice with the need to honor people’s time and advance the work is a tension that facilitators hold frequently, Pflaum shared.

In the rare instances when full consensus appears to be out of reach, the facilitators will work to identify the roots of the block — whether it’s a single individual or a lack of shared understanding and clarity — and use their expertise and experience to identify tools besides breakouts to drive the group toward consensus. 

Before the meeting adjourned, Stamp shared that the steering committee would begin using this governance model immediately in their next meeting when they are presented with a submission regarding the working group’s “Discovery Plan” for stakeholder engagement. The ultimate goal of the Discovery Plan, she said, is to obtain insight and wisdom from stakeholders across the community to help the Transforming Justice initiative chart a path to an equitable, responsive and transformed public safety system. 

“We define ‘stakeholder’ as anyone who can impact systems or is impacted by systems. That’s a lot of people we want to engage and a lot of voices we want to amplify,” she said. “We’ll be proposing to you a plan for which individuals to include in focus groups, which to send a survey to, and which to do a one-on-one interview with.”