When people think about Montana, "consensus" isn't the first idea that pops into their heads. "Conflict" would be more like it. The history of Big Sky Country is filled with epic confrontations between farmers and ranchers, miners and copper companies, environmentalists and property owners. Montana is where the Unabomber declared war on modern civilization, and where the extremist Freemen holed up in their compound and defied federal authority. If you live in the East, Montana is a place you tend to hear about only when people there are mad at each other about something.

Given that rather widespread perception of intractable Rocky Mountain orneriness, it's interesting that Montana is currently the nation's leading laboratory for experiments in making crucial public decisions by a formal process of consensus.

The governor and lieutenant governor are true believers in it. The former governor (and current national Republican Party chairman) headed a task force on it. The state's lone representative in the U.S. House has introduced a bill to put it in place at the national level.

It's easier to find enthusiasts for the consensus method than it is to pin down exactly how it works. Essentially, however, it works this way: A panel is chosen that includes a representative from every significant interest group with a stake in the issue. They meet face to face, agree to take each other seriously, to stay at it as long as necessary, and to focus on finding a mutually acceptable result rather than merely looking for avenues of self-expression.

To be truthful, it sounds like little more than common sense. And yet it has been employed in Montana to resolve the most complex disagreements involving land use policy, hazardous waste disposal and treatment of the mentally ill. "The consensus process strips away all the extraneous issues and allows people to speak to each other," says Lieutenant Governor Karl Ohs. "Most of the time, people learn that the other side is not as 'wrong' as they initially thought."

Would it work on a national level? We may get to find out. Legislation introduced in the U.S. House by Montana Republican Dennis Rehberg, and in the Senate by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, would create a national Consensus Council, along the lines of the ones that currently exist in those two states. Congress would pass along issues that have proven immune to conventional legislative solution. The council would assemble the stakeholders, convene the meeting and try to guide it toward common ground.

You're excused for thinking that this kind of lock-'em-in-a-room consensus-building would be hard to sell on a national stage in dealing with issues as incendiary and multi-sided as Social Security, tax reduction or missile defense. I'm inclined to agree. But the record at the state level is actually quite encouraging.

The consensus movement wasn't born in Montana--the nation's first consensus council was the one established in North Dakota in 1991. It still exists, and has recorded some tangible progress--in restructuring the state court system and in brokering agreement over medical procedures for the terminally ill.

But the real proving ground has been Montana, where Marc Racicot ran for governor in 1992 on a consensus-building platform, and created a Consensus Council by executive order as soon as he took office. "There's not much difference of opinion," Racicot likes to say, "among thoughtful people." This may depend on one's definition of "thoughtful." Even in Montana, there are many who consider it wishful thinking. On the other hand, it clearly drove Racicot's approach to problem-solving during two successful terms in office.

The crucial test of the process came in 1995 on the issue of hazardous waste. Mining companies were balking at a state law that held them responsible for cleaning up a contaminated site even when a previous owner was responsible for the damage. Environmentalists feared that if the law were repealed, nobody would do the cleanup.

The legislature handed this problem off to the state Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ called in the Consensus Council, which created an ad hoc committee built around five component interests: industry, environmentalists, the state, the federal government and local government. This committee met regularly for a year. At the end of the year, they emerged with a formula that apportioned cleanup costs according to 12 specific factors, and provided that a judge would weigh the factors in each individual case. All the parties signed off on the deal, and the legislature approved it overwhelmingly when it met in the next regular session.

If you think it can't be that simple, you're right. On other issues in the same state, the consensus process has flopped. After the success on hazardous waste, it was tried on the issue of facility siting. Utility companies in Montana felt that state laws made it too difficult for them to build new generating capacity. Environmentalists resisted efforts to make the laws more lenient. The Consensus Council carefully put together another stakeholder panel, with coal companies, electric companies, environmentalists and consumer advocates, and it met more than 25 times over a period of two years. But nothing close to an agreement ever emerged, and the pro-environment forces ultimately felt the industry just rolled over them in the legislature as soon as it realized it had the votes to do so.

So there have been wins and losses. After five years, the Consensus Council reported that it had fostered agreement on 11 issues, failed on six, and was still working on three others. Since then, the group has taken on nearly 20 more.

Last year, when a debate occurred over asbestos cleanup in the town of Libby, newly elected Governor Judy Martz resisted pleas to create a federal Superfund site. She said she preferred to try the consensus process. "I'd like to get some help from the Consensus Council," the governor said. "They've done some terrific work."

And the legislature, after a long period of suspecting the consensus process to be largely a gimmick, has begun looking to it as a primary policy option in the initial stages of a policy dispute. Matthew Mc- Kinney, the director of the Council, says that's the way to measure its progress. "The challenge now," he argues, "is how we move from being a last resort to being a first resort."

At this point you may be wondering what the difference is between invoking a consensus process and appointing a blue-ribbon commission to solve the problem. A few decades ago in this country, we relied on commissions to solve a good many of our most perplexing problems, at all levels of government. When the schools didn't seem to be working properly, or the military needed reform, or there was too much waste in the bureaucracy, we appointed the best minds available, waited for their report, and then generally followed their advice. It didn't make problems disappear overnight, but most of the time it did some good.

As you may have noticed, the commission approach hasn't worked so well lately. The president appoints a distinguished panel to look into Social Security, or violence, or race relations, or obscenity in the media, and they come out a few months later as bitterly divided as they went in.

I think that's largely because the structure of the whole process has changed. When President Truman or President Eisenhower appointed a commission to deal with a national problem, it was assumed that the commissioners themselves were above the battle, and had no agenda other than the national interest. This wasn't true, of course--anybody who qualifies as an expert on an issue is bound to have some sort of agenda--but by and large, the country was willing to give these people the benefit of the doubt. It was a different time. Most Americans believed middle-aged men sitting around a table knew what was best for everyone. We don't believe that anymore.

And so if we're going to use consensus to solve problems in the 21st century, it can't be a consensus of non-partisan wise men. It has to be a consensus of active and open partisans who bring all their opinions and goals to the table and make an honest effort to balance them out. That's true at the national level, and it's true in the states.

But something else is required as well. The participants genuinely have to believe that they can gain more by reaching agreement than by defending their own turf. That's what's been missing in most of the blue-ribbon commissions in federal government during the past decade or so. The insurance executives and advocates for the elderly and other specialists empanelled to deal with entitlement issues, for example, have come to the table as interest group standard-bearers, and rarely have risen above that vantage point.

What's really interesting about the consensus movement in the states has been the ability of the stakeholders to see the larger truth: In the long run, a negotiated solution benefits all sides more than unending confrontation, even confrontation that offers occasional victories. In the end, the hard part isn't finding the stakeholders, or getting them into a room, it's helping them see that if they walk away without accomplishing anything, everyone loses.

Perhaps it's surprising that Montana, a place with such a long history of confrontation and intransigence, would be ahead of the rest of the country in appreciating this. Then again, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising at all.