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April 18, 2012

A random kind of wisdom

The crisis at our most local level of representative democracy is a subject to which Local People Leading keeps returning.  With Scottish Government insisting local government reform has no place on its agenda (and just why is that?) and the community council movement appearing to be rudderless as its national body disappears without trace, perhaps it’s time for something entirely different to fill the space between our vibrant community sector and the local state. Wisdom councils, perhaps?


To view a short video explaining the concept click here.

The Wisdom Council is an approach for facilitating whole-system change in very large systems — like corporations, cities, unions, professional associations and government agencies. With little cost or time, it promises to establish a system-wide “choice-creating” conversation, where everyone thinks together on the most difficult issues. The process:

Builds trust and community

Creates new options, and develops near-unanimous shared visions 

Sparks a participative management style … and a Circle Organization

Brings people together with one voice

What does a Wisdom Council look like?

Every four months or so, eight to twelve members of the organization, city or large system are randomly selected to meet for a short period, like two days. This group meets with a “dynamic facilitator” to identify key issues, work on them creatively, and develop a unanimous message. This message has symbolic authority as a voice of everyone, which is presented back to the whole system. The entire system is invited to hear the message, visit about it with others in small groups, and report back their level of support. In practice, we’ve found that most everyone supports both the message generated by the Wisdom Council and the process. 

The point of the Wisdom Council process is to generate a creative, system-wide conversation that reaches specific conclusions, the will to implement them, and builds the spirit of community. The goal is to have everyone talking in a thoughtful, creative, heartfelt way about the big issues and to for near consensus views to emerge. 

In the next three months, a new Council is randomly selected. Each subsequent Wisdom Council is free to choose its own issues, but each cycle tends to build upon what was done previously. Each new Wisdom Council may follow up on previous conclusions, monitor actions, or modify the previous message. Over time the whole system evolves positions that most all support. Action happens voluntarily by individuals or through the normal channels, which might include standing committees, management, or elected officials.

The Wisdom Council has no formal authority, yet the integrity of the process gives it great symbolic weight. It’s a way to utilize diverse perspectives to raise the level of collective intelligence and action that all support.

What makes the Wisdom Council unique?

At first glance the Wisdom Council process seems similar to other forms of democratic councils where randomly selected groups work together on issues and make pronouncements. But these deliberative polls, citizen advisory groups, Citizens Juries, Citizen Assemblies, or citizen deliberative panels use a carefully selected group of people or a stratified sampling, rather than a pure random selection. They work on a pre-selected issue rather than the participants choosing the issue themselves. The process of thinking is “deliberation” where people carefully weigh specific options, rather than “choice-creating,” where people seek creative answers that work for all. They result in a negotiated agreement or a vote, seeking action from the authorities, rather than a unanimous perspective that sparks a conversation among the whole population. And, they are one-time events rather than ongoing. 

The Wisdom Council process empowers each person in the system to become involved and take responsibility for the actions of all.

Where are Wisdom Councils being used?

Wisdom Councils have been facilitated in numerous communities and organizations. From cooperatively-run businesses to large government agencies to cities and states, Wisdom Councils are offering new hope for the future of democracy and self-governance at many levels.

Note Assist Social Capital are working in partnership with Manfred Hellrigl from Austria to bring dynamic facilitation training and Wisdom Councils to Scotland at the end of this year.