The Alberta Water Council is interesting because of its role and how it makes decisions – by consensus only.
This article is about two things. First it briefly describes the Alberta Water Council. Second, it talks about consensus decision-making – a way groups can work together toward a common goal even when their interests appear at first glance to be different.
Alberta Water Council
First organized in 2004, the Alberta Water Council became a non-profit society three years later. It describes itself as:
A multi-stakeholder partnership that stewards the implementation of Alberta’s Water for Life strategy and provides advice on water management issues to its members, which include the Government of Alberta and provincial authorities, industries, municipalities and [non-governmental organizations].
The Council provides an important forum to discuss water issues in Alberta. It is managed by twenty-four members from:
- eight different industries
- a variety of non-governmental organizations (environmental organizations, conservation organizations and Watershed Planning Councils) and members representing large and small urban centers, rural areas and Métis settlements, and
- four Alberta government departments.
Members meet three times a year to decide what work they will do. They also consider reports presented by various sub-committees formed to carry out those approved projects. Project teams, working groups and committees do the difficult work of the Council. As of 2021, the Council has carried out 19 projects and made 276 recommendations. To fully understand the accomplishments of the Council, review its projects and reports.
The starting point for the work of the Council is Alberta’s Water for Life strategy. This strategy says Albertans must be assured that:
- their drinking water is safe
- the province’s aquatic ecosystems are maintained and protected, and
- water is managed effectively to support sustainable economic development.
The documents related to the Water for Life strategy are all on the Government of Alberta’s website.
Countless decisions made each year impact water quality and quantity, especially decisions about land use planning, urban planning, development, agriculture, tourism, mining, and oil and gas development. People are passionate about water. And opinions can be strong.
Now imagine putting representatives from groups on all sides of the issue in a room together and saying “You can give advice on issues that impact water, but here’s the catch … before you give advice, you have to agree on what the advice should be.” That is one of the principles governing the Alberta Water Council – all decisions must be made by consensus. The Council does not have the power to make laws itself, or to force its members to do things. Nonetheless, the advice it gives to the Alberta government carries a lot of weight. Since decisions are made by consensus, members are committed to carrying out the recommendations should the government adopt them.
Consensus decision-making is different from decision-making by majority rule or voting. When members vote on decisions, there will be winners and losers unless everyone votes the same way. Those on the losing end will likely feel the process and the decision does not meet their interests. They may not support the result and may even actively work to undermine it. With consensus processes, all perspectives are considered. Through discussion, the group collectively comes up with creative ideas that work for everyone. It does not necessarily mean that everyone completely agrees with everything. It does not mean that participants are forced to compromise or ‘split the difference’ on their most important concerns. The Council’s Process Guidelines state:
An implicit benefit of the consensus process is that mutual understanding and respect develop as people search together for solutions that meet the interests of all stakeholders. Participants focus on solving the problem and rely on the collective experience and knowledge of the group. The results are high quality, enduring decisions that are more easily implemented because all stakeholders agreed with them.
Consensus decision-making involves more than just putting all the participants in a room to discuss the problem. Most people who have done it will report it is hard work. There are some necessary pre-conditions to success:
- Participants must be honestly committed to working towards a solution.
- Participants must be committed to fully voicing their concerns and must have the opportunity to do so. The Council has a rule that silence does not mean agreement.
- There must be enough time to do the work. Reaching consensus inevitably takes a lot longer than some participants think it should. It can require a great deal of patience.
- Participants must treat each other with respect.
- There must be rules about process to fall back on when things get difficult or if there is consensus on some things but not on others. The Council’s Process Guidelines are a good example of the types of rules that a group may need. Other organizations will have different rules. Consensus decision-making is not an algorithm, it will work differently for different groups.
Many organizations have extensively used consensus decision-making in Alberta. The Alberta Water Council, the Clean Air Strategic Alliance (CASA), the Alberta Airshed Council and the eleven Watershed Planning Advisory Councils all use consensus processes for non-administrative decision-making. To a large degree, the acceptance of these consensus processes is a legacy to the work of the late Dr. Martha Kostuch, who passed away in 2008. Dr. Kostuch was a national advocate for consensus decision-making. She worked tirelessly to change the way we make decisions affecting the environment and how the various stakeholder groups deal with each other.
If you want to learn more, the Alberta Water Council has an excellent website with information about their membership and processes, and links to all published reports and background documents. If you want to learn more about consensus decision-making, the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute of Alberta offers an intensive training program.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then.
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