The OurDocument Tool(aka ConsensusWiki)
egalitarian collaboration on wording for
group documents such as policies and position papers
OurDocument (formerly ConsensusWiki) is a web-based collaboration tool to enable groups of any size to converge on an appropriate expression of the group view on a topic, or to clearly state the main alternatives when no consensus can be reached. The basic strategy is to use low-threshold feedback from typical group members to inspire the more opinionated members to refine their alternatives for sections of the target document (e.g., a policy or position paper) to take other views into account.
The OurDocument process is egalitarian, scalable, and efficient, focusing the time of most members on providing quick feedback about the alternatives. Rewording of alternatives in response to feedback is done asynchronously by the respective authors (or by others who modify someone else’s earlier version or add their own), rewarding clarity and alignment with group opinion rather than author quickness, loudness, or status.
By focusing attention on the concrete wording of a document rather than the discussion about it (although several forms of discussion are supported), the OurDocument process facilitates successful joint action by group members without having to fully resolve differences of philosophy or analysis.
Depending on the rule settings chosen, each OurDocument use can produce various outcomes: a unified final document, a set of clearly-stated alternatives, or a collection of items each commanding any chosen level of group support. The process is fully transparent, and after it is complete the evolution of each document can be retraced, facilitating continuing insight (e.g., by later members) into the bases of a group’s documents and policies.
The author of the OurDocument project is Hunter Ellinger, a software developer who invented a similar off-line policy-development process while serving as an elected official. The design shown here has been polished in League of Technical Voters workshops (Ryan Breed and Taylor Willingham were especially helpful), and is being implemented during 2008.
Development of documents that refine and reflect group opinion poses several challenging tasks that an appropriate web-based support system could greatly facilitate. OurDocument is designed to be such a system, providing an accessible, scalable, and efficient method for groups to develop documents such as policies or position papers. It uses a variety of authoring and voting mechanisms, combined in a design informed by experience with several off-line collaboration processes.
While OurDocument makes extensive use of the consensus-building aspect of wiki-style openness and convergent discussion, it adds structure to this process in several ways. Authorship of each proposed alternative is maintained, with changes in proposals made only by their authors (who can be individuals or groups with their own decision process). Straw-poll and alternative-selection votes are also used to guide the process. The development of consensus about the document content is encouraged and facilitated, but decisions can still be reached if consensus is not achieved. In many situations, clear statement of the alternative positions is useful even when irreconcilable differences exist.
Each OurDocument document is developed under a document rule that defines the powers of each class of participants and the rules for invoking voting processes if needed to winnow the list of alternatives during the development process. This rule is itself a document, of course, which could have been decided by prior use of the OurDocument mechanism (the site provides a default rule for making rules, or one could be chosen by whoever is in charge of the organization by which the document is being developed).
Each OurDocument process is overseen by a person acting as document guide who makes the human-judgment procedural decisions called for in the document rule, and generally facilitates the process. The guide also has authority to correct abuses and restrict access for users who do not follow the rules. Guide decisions are subject to appeal to ratification by participant vote, so a guide must maintain the trust of most participants for the process to advance. However, the guide need not have deep knowledge about the topic – that is supplied by the participants. It may eventually become feasible to replace some guide functions (such as deciding when stage transitions are appropriate) by either automated analysis or by distributed moderation techniques.
Participants: The document rule specifies which entities have standing to participate. These can be individuals or groups. Groups have their own decision mechanisms, which can be separate uses of OurDocument or simply action through designated agents. While usually all participants except the guide have the same privileges (this helps motivate participation), it is possible to designate which participants may author, vote, and comment.
Identity: The rule specifies how participant identity is established. The usual mechanism is login by email with notification of any action taken (the email addresses used are supplied and controlled administratively, not by users). An optional identity-cookie mechanism simplifies login.
Stages: Each OurDocument document will proceed through several stages: [i] rule definition, [ii] generation and initial discussion of alternatives, [iii] winnowing to the primary alternatives, and (if specified by the document rule) [iv] final decisions. These stages will emerge naturally in many cases, especially when a true consensus is within reach, but also the document guide can declare stage transitions, which are ratified by the participants according to the terms of the document rule. Occasionally the guide may revert the process to an earlier stage if new issues emerge.
Timing: The document rule specifies the minimum length of time that each stage takes, and how much notice participants have between when the guide declares a stage transition and when it takes effect. This includes the response times for any voting mechanisms used.
Consensus: While mechanisms (described below) are provided for voting to resolve deadlocks, these are interwoven with classic consensus mechanisms whose purpose is to elicit and resolve objections without regard to how many people express them. Participants can “stand in the way” to force further consideration or “stand out of the way” to agree that a document is a proper expression of group opinion even if disagreed with. The decision rule specifies the balance between consensus and voting approaches, permitting use of OurDocument for strict consensus processes as well as for decision processes that are ultimately based on some level of majority vote.
Voting: The winnowing and final-decision stages require voting mechanisms. These, including designation of quorum size if required, are specified in the document rule and can be whatever is felt to be appropriate for the application. While some alternatives have to be chosen between by simple majority vote to be fair, it will often be productive to require a supermajority (such as two-thirds or greater support) for final decisions. This is the traditional way of ensuring that decisions are broadly supported. In votes to identify the primary alternatives for further discussion, on the other hand, it may be appropriate to set a relatively low threshold (such as 10%). To keep early voters from unduly influencing the outcome, OurDocument voting mechanisms display the amount of total vote (and the time remaining to vote) during the election, but do not display the individual results until the election is complete.
Initial document version: The document rule will provide at least a topic description, and may provide either a section outline or a full initial version (in which case participants must be designated or volunteer as authors of each section so that it can evolve in response to discussion and alternative proposals). Areas known to be controversial may have alternatives stating the main choices listed even in the initial version, to prime the process and to communicate its impartiality. Once the process is under way, however, new alternative proposals or variations by participants have equal standing with the corresponding sections of the initial version.
Sectioning: The guide specifies the basic arrangement of the document, and can rearrange it as needed to maintain a coherent development process. This process also entails dividing the document into sections to which comments can be attached. These sections will be a hierarchy of various sizes, typically up to the entire document and down to at least the paragraph level.
Subcommittees: A document rule may provide that its guide can appoint subcommittees to work out proposed wording for some or all of the sections. But the product of that work (which often is more than one alternative) reenters the development process for the overall document in the same way as an initial version, so further changes are still possible.
Resource materials: Participants can submit materials (or links to them) that they will refer to in their discussion of alternatives. These will be accessible via a resource list that can be viewed grouped by subtopic, source, or category. Often an initial set of resources will be provided with the topic definition. The guide can specify a list of external resource sites for which the authoring mechanism will support easy-to-use symbolic links.
Group action: Individual participants may act for a group for which they are authorized agents, but notification of any persisting action (such as a vote or a comment) is also sent to all other people authorized to act for the group, as well as to people listed as monitors for that group.
Rearrangement: Separately from alternatives to the content of individual sections, participants (or the guide) may propose rearrangements that preserve the substance of the document but alter its format, as is commonly done in wiki-page restructurings.
Authoring: During this phase, authors remain in control of the language of any alternative versions they propose. Usually they will modify their proposals during the process, in light of the balance of the comments made, to enhance their appeal in the final winnowing process. Authors may withdraw their proposals at any time, which often is done in response to other proposals or to the trend of the comments. Authors may mark a proposal as “under revision” between the time they agree with the validity of a critique and the time they have a new version ready for consideration.
Collaborations: Two or more participants may become joint authors of a proposal, in which case the agreement of all members of such a collaboration is required for subsequent changes in the proposal (that is, a collaboration operates by strict consensus). Proposed changes in a jointly-authored alternative are made visible to members of the collaboration as soon as they are submitted, but are not shown to others until approval is received from all the authors. But authors may withdraw from a collaboration at any time and propose their own alternative for the same section.
Listing precedence: The order in which alternatives are listed is different in the initial and winnowing stages. In the initial stage, alternatives are listed in order of length, shortest first (an “omit this section” alternative is thus always the first). This encourages brevity and allays any concerns about favoritism in placement. During the alternative-winnowing process, however, position reflects the straw-poll score, deemphasizing alternatives which have gathered little support.
Commenting: Participants may apply comments to either a topic section or to specific alternatives within that section. Each section is associated with pages that hold its comments, summaries of tagging for that section, and navigation to a history for that section and to comment pages for other parts of the document.
Tags: In addition to free-form comments, a quick-comment mechanism is provided in which participants can place one or more “tags” – words or short phrases selected from a standard list (e.g., “Good idea”, “Too wordy”, “Not clear”, “Not true”). Tags are provided to lower the threshold for comment submission and to enable automatic summarization of responses. This provides scalable guidance to authors about how they might improve the clarity and attractiveness of proposals. The tag list is specified in the document rule, and can be further customized by the guide. Tags can be applied either to proposed alternatives or to comments.
Winnowing: If the document rule calls for more than the natural consensus that arises from the consensus-development cycle, the guide will begin the winnowing stage when the cycle of authors’ adjustments to the alternative proposals has stabilized. Winnowing starts with a straw poll on the alternatives that will determine the order in which they are listed on the winnowing ballot. Then, after a final round of discussion and adjustment by authors, the alternatives are voted on (using the voting method specified by the document rule), and those not meeting the support standard specified in the rule are dropped. If appropriate the guide may, subject to ratification from participants, present some alternatives for decision prior to others that are logically dependent on them, or raise the retention threshold in multiple stages so that supporters of the excluded items can shift their votes.
Unified draft: When the rule calls for a final document to be created (rather than a set of all the alternatives attracting significant support), the winnowing process will continue until it produces a final draft document that reflects the substantive decisions by collecting, from each set of alternatives, the version that has the most support at the end of the winnowing process. The unified draft that results is now a group document and no longer has a controlling author, since its contents may come from several people and in any case those who voted for it now have a stake in its wording.
Amendments: The unified draft may lack polish or still have some inconsistencies due to the differing sources of the alternatives. As a final stage, perfecting amendments to the final draft may be proposed, with votes taken on those amendments that attract the number of co-sponsors called for in the document rule. These amendment votes require a simple majority to change the unified draft.
Final adoption: After consideration of all qualifying amendments, a vote is taken on whether to adopt the amended draft as a final document. If the required support (often more than a simple majority) is not attained, a subsequent vote determines whether to return to an earlier stage for further consideration or to abandon consideration of this topic.
· Decide on policies or bylaws for an organization.
· Reveal and reconcile differences of opinion on a topic within a group.
· Establish that group decisions are broadly supported, with all members able to influence their wording.
· Develop a statement of organizational opinion whose breadth of support can be proven to external parties.
· Build a list of well-posed discussion questions as groundwork for developing a document.
· Create a well-commented, polished set of competing positions each of which are supported by a significant portion of a group.
· Show later members of a group the discussion by which the group’s rules or positions were developed.
· Generate the document-development agenda for an organization.
· Decide on the rules under which a document will be developed.
· Use results from one group as input to consideration by the group with decision authority.
· Have multiple subgroups develop results in parallel, then repeat the process with subgroup representatives as participants and the subgroups’ results as the initial set of alternatives.
· Have each member of a group write a version of the document and provide feedback to others, but with the intention of finding the best expressions of individual views, rather than the best statement of the group’s view.
Last updated 5/27/2008 by Hunter Ellinger