Ivan’s private site

March 14, 2009

The art of consensus… in standards and in politics?

When you work at, or with W3C (or any other standard setting organizations, for that matter) there is always a discussion on the pros and cons of consensus building. It is hard to achieve, not always pretty, and it is certainly one of the reasons why the process slows down. But most of the participants also recognize the benefits, too. It is nevertheless not always easy to strike the right balance between consensus and speed, that is for sure.

I realized the other day that some of the political and economical discussions these days provide nice analogies. As we all know, the economical turmoils of the past few months force all governments around the globe to do something. But there is no agreement on what this “something” is; all governments are frenetically trying to give it some shape. This is also true in the country where I happen to live, namely the Netherlands. A few weeks ago the government made some dramatic announcements on the possible effects of the crisis, and also declared that major changes have to be done in the economic and social fabric of the country. And since then? Well, enter the typical Dutch approach: consensus building.

One has to know a little bit how the political system works in this country. There are elections, of course, and various parties make all kinds of promises before those. But after those elections comes the next phase: building a coalition (it never happens to have one party gaining an absolute majority). This coalition is based on building consensus. Future coalition parties come together, and they shape what is called a “government contract” (after all, this country built its wealth on trade!). This is a real contract, that all parties sign, and which reflect the consensus among the parties of what they can achieve together and what they cannot. Each party has to give up some of their electoral promises, but the whole country understands that and, as long as it is clearly stated in that contract, it is perfectly all right. From that point on, the government’s job is to, essentially, fulfil that contract. Of course, creating such a contract is a long process (last time around it took 5-6 months to build a government!). However, the result is that, comparatively, the stability of the Dutch governments, and indeed of society as a whole, is quite remarkable when compared to many countries around. In the 20 years that I have been here I have seen only a few minor strikes (nothing compared to France or Italy…), no major social unrest, and all this coupled with a relatively high living standard.

So to come back to the current state of affairs: the economic turmoils mean that, in fact, a new contract has to be signed because the old one has become, essentially, moot by the bank crisis. So the government parties and the major trade unions are now fiercely negotiating to find a new consensus. This has been going on for weeks and nobody knows what the outcome will be. Maybe I will have to work longer for my pension, maybe I will have tax reductions, maybe I will have to pay a higher tuition fee for my son… all these are on the negotiating table. What is interesting is to see the sharp contrast between this process and the way the crisis is handled in some other countries (like those that I follow more closely, ie, France or Hungary where the governments seem to take fairly one-sided steps without too much consultations with the rest of the society). The Dutch way is certainly way slower and, well, maybe more boring (it is more fun seeing strikes paralysing a whole country like France than just wait for these merchants to finish their negotiations:-) but, maybe, more beneficial on long term. We shall see of course, I may be wrong. But consensus building may prove beneficial again on the long run.

B.t.w., this Dutch way (which is also used in Belgium, actually) has even gained a name: this is the “polder model”, and it even has a Wikipedia page!

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