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Consensus Conference

Consensus Conferences, developed in Denmark in the 1980s, involve a group of citizens with varied backgrounds who meet to discuss issues of a scientific or technical nature. The conference has two stages: the first involves small group meetings with experts to discuss the issues and work towards consensus. The second stage assembles experts, media and the public where the conference’s main observations and conclusions are presented.

From the Loka Institute website:

A consensus conference is a public meeting which allows ordinary citizens to be involved in assessing an issue or proposal (traditionally, this has been used in the assessment of technology). The conference is a dialogue between experts and citizens. It is open to the public and the media.

A consensus conference is a deliberative inquiry about an emerging technology issue that aims to add the voices of everyday citizens to policy discussions that are typically monopolized by experts and their powerful sponsors. The following procedures are generally considered to be essential elements in a consensus conference:

(1) The panelists are everyday folks who do not have a direct stake in the issue being reviewed; however, they  have an indirect stake in the issue as taxpayers who subsidize R&D, and as community members and world citizens who live with the good and bad consequences of technological change.  Because their interest in the issues is general rather than pecuniary, they are more likely to be objective about specific projects and proposals than the researchers, policy advocates, and private companies that typically promote technological change.

(2) The process for studying the issue at hand is informed, deliberative, and participatory (in stark contrast to most policy discussions for public audiences).  This includes more than one meeting of the panelists, as well as testimony to the panelists by people who do have a direct stake and expert knowledge on the issue.

(3) After deliberating together, the panelists write a report on the points of consensus among them.  It is assumed that there will be disagreement among the panelists on many important issues.  The purpose of focusing on points of agreement is not to create or force a consensus, but to instead reveal what points of agreement emerge after everday folks have had an opportunity to learn and deliberate together.  The philosophy of the consensus conference is that the consensus report should be a sound indicator of what technological changes are OK with society, because it reflects points of agreement freely determined by individuals who have deliberated together, and whose primary concern is the general good.  The consensus report can also place a greater burden on techno-boosters to justify policies that lie outside this consensus, thus guiding technological development along paths that enjoy broad support.

(4) The report is made publicly available and announced in a press conference, preferably held in a public legislative building to emphasize that elected officials should take special interest in the considered views of their citizen-peers.

Co-Intelligence.org description:

Situation: The rapid growth of technology presents an unprecedented problem for democracy: How do we exercise our citizenship intelligently? Decision Making in a technological society requires a level of expertise simply unavailable to us common citizens who are supposed to make the decisions. The best solution currently available to us is to align with advocacy groups (the AMA, the Sierra Club) whose perspective seems to fit most closely with our own, and who do research to bolster their views.  But these interest groups only address problems by battling in the political arena, leaving our country with deep divisions, constantly shifting policies, and a thoroughly confused populace. (from The Challenge of Technology in a Democracy www.co-intelligence.org/CIPol_technologydemocracy.html)

One solution: Danish technology panels deal with this problem directly and elegantly. By providing a demographically (not politically) representative group of citizens with top-quality information and facilitation most people couldn’t even dream of – and then feeding the results of that microcosmic dialogue back into the macrocosm of public discourse – democratic society is given appropriate wisdom to reflect and act on.

Several times a year, the Danish government convenes a panel of fifteen ordinary citizens scientifically selected to represent the diversity of the Danish population and helps them study and recommend policy guidelines for a particular technology.  (In 1999, for example, a citizen panel investigated genetic engineering of food.)  Citizen panel members read briefing papers and then discuss with organizers what questions they have and which experts – from across the spectrum of opinion on the subject – they want to testify before them. They interview these selected experts – who, as FrancesMooreLappe notes, may be surprised to find themselves on tap to the citizenry, not on top of the decision-making process. When the citizen panel is satisfied, they are professionally facilitated to a consensus statement about what should be done about the technology they’ve just studied.  Their findings are presented to the government and to the press.

In ‘Telecommunications & the Future of Democracy’ www.scn.org/ip/cpsr/diac/critnetw.htm (Google cached), Richard Sclove summarizes the steps of Consensus Conference as follows:

  1. a controversial policy issue is chosen [always complex, usually technical];
  2. a steering committee comprising a balanced group of knowledgeable stakeholders is assembled;
  3. a diverse panel of everyday citizens (i.e., nonexperts, nonstakeholders) is recruited;
  4. the panel is briefed over the course of two weekends;
  5. the lay panel cross-examines contending expert and stakeholder witnesses in a public forum;
  6. the lay panel announces its findings at a press conference;
  7. the panel’s report is publicized through the media and discussed in follow-up local forums in order to raise general consciousness on the issue, stimulate debate, and thereby help raise the level of public policy deliberations.

The general topic for a Citizens’ Panel is chosen by the organizers, however the specific subsidiary questions that are addressed are chosen by the lay panel in the course of their preparatory weekend meetings.

The Danish model is remarkable for the extent to which its process ensures that the results cannot be credibly attacked as biased.

For a story about the use of this process in the United States of America, see ‘Ordinary Folks Recommend Good Policy’ www.co-intelligence.org/S-ordinaryfolksLOKA.html.

The theory behind Danish technology panels is that, while experts can provide insight into the issues, mechanics, facts, potential blessings and problems associated with a particular technology, they are not the right people to decide what should be done about it.  In a democratic society, people whose lives are affected by an issue are supposed to have an effective voice in deciding how to deal with it.  Since it is ThePeople who primarily have to live with the results of technology, it is primarily The People who should judge how to deal with the inevitable trade-offs.  In these technology panels, what the people bring to the table is their dreams, their values, their humanity, and the experience of their everyday lives, needs and desires – exactly what’s missing from most official dialogue about technical issues. (see also ‘Experts and Citizens’ www.co-intelligence.org/CIPol_techcitizen.html)

The genius of these panels is that they combine two sources of vitally relevant information – the experts’ knowledge and the people’s common sense and popular will – into a final judgement.  Furthermore, the diverse views of the experts and the citizens are not just left to fight it out, but rather are woven together wisely through the process of consensus.  The particular process used is important: the consensus used here is not the familiar political consensus in which one powerholder trades favors with another, or where powerful interest groups forge lowest-common-denominator compromises at the expense of the rest of society. The sort of consensus process used in the Danish technology panels (and in other Citizen Consensus Panels) involves creatively moving through differences and conflicts to deeper and higher levels of common ground, often with wise breakthroughs unforeseen by any of the participants.  The result is a unique blending of certain fundamental principles of democracy – that ‘all voices should be heard’ and ‘E Pluribus Unim’ (out of many, one).

Of course citizen consensus councils alone can’t solve the problems of technological advance.  But they can provide the guidance we need to proceed in ways that our society could actually act on – since it is the diverse voices of our society itself which generates that guidance. These councils are a powerful tool for conscious, wise collective evolution.  If our technological crisis can bootstrap us into that higher form of civilization, it will have been a blessing.

Expanded Text from Citizen Science Toolbox

Developed in Denmark, there it is usually attended by members of the Danish Parliament.

The citizen panel plays the leading role, formulating questions to be taken up at the conference, and participating in the selection of experts to answer them. The panel has two weekends for this preparation.The expert panel is selected in a way that ensures that essential opposing views and professional conflicts can emerge and be discussed at the conference. An advisory/planning committee has the overall responsibility of making sure that all rules of a democratic, fair and transparent process have been followed. Consensus conferences have mostly been used where the topic being investigated concerns management, science or technology. They require a strict adherence to the rules of implementation to be successful. Where members of the community feel their views go unheard, the consensus conference offers an exciting participatory technique for democratic participation.

Objectives:

  • Consensus Conferences aim to give members of the community a chance to have their say on community issues, to increase their knowledge of and abiltity to participate in such a discussion, and to come to one position statement that all participants can ‘own’.

Outcomes:

  • At the end of a Consensus Conference, the outcome should be a position statement that reflects the joint decision(s) of all participants on an issue or proposal.

Uses/strengths:

  • Assists in the facilitation of public debate from a range of perspectives.
  • Empowers lay people to develop an informed understanding and make some contribution to the development of policy on a sensitive topic.
  • Demonstrates a plurality of views on issues.
  • Bridges the gap between experts and lay people.
  • Can develop new knowledge.

Special considerations/weaknesses:

  • High costs for set up and recruitment of participants and staging the event.
  • The conference would run for a 2-4 day period and therefore resources will be costly.
  • The process of panelist selection can be difficult. Stakeholders analysis must be undertaken to predetermine who are the relevant groups.This will ensure that representation from the relevant groups is achieved,
  • Need to draw citizens for panels that are representative and from a wide range of backgrounds rather than members of the community who are usually present in participatory processes
  • Strict adherence to the rules of implementation is required for the conference to be successful.
  • The formalized nature of the tool can restrict impartiality.
  • Rapid production of reports and findings is required.
  • Choice of an effective facilitator is critical to the success of the conference.

Resources required:

  • Publicity
  • Venue rental
  • Catering
  • Staffing
  • Engagement of moderator/facilitator
  • Engagement of experts
  • Facilitators
  • Recorders
  • Gophers
  • Artists
  • Photographer
  • Other
  • Audio and visual recording and amplification
  • Overhead projectors
  • Data projectors
  • Video
  • Slide projector
  • Projection screen
  • Data projectors
  • Props for working in groups (pens, paper, pins, etc.)
  • Furniture
  • Children’s requirements

Suitable for use by:

  • Industry
  • Government
  • Community

Can be used for:

  • Showcase product, plan, policy
  • Engage community
  • Discover community issues
  • Develop community capacity
  • Develop action plan
  • Communicate an issue

Number of people required to help organise:

  • Medium (2-12 people)

Audience size:

  • Large (> 30)

Time required:

  • Medium (6 weeks-6 months)

Skill level/support required:

  • High (Specialist skills)
  • Medium (Computer & other expertise)

Cost:

  • High (> AUD$10,000)
  • Medium (AUD$1,000-AUD$10,000)

Participation level:

  • High (Stakeholders participate in decision)

Innovation level:

  • High (Innovative)

Method:

  • Select an advisory/planning committee to have the overall responsibility of making sure that all rules of a democratic, fair and transparent process have been followed.
  • The committees should then:
  • Organise a public meeting and advertise the venue, time and topic to the public, experts in the field to be discussed, the media and appropriate decision-making bodies.
  • Select participants for the citizen panel, ensuring a representative sample of the geographic area and/or relevant community groups (about 14 people).
  • Hire a professional facilitator to work with the citizen panel during its preparation.
  • Book suitable venues for the citizen panel to meet over two weekends to work with a facilitator to formulate the questions to be taken up at the conference, and to participate in the selection of experts to answer them.
  • With the help of the citizen panel, select the expert panel in a way that ensures that essential opposing views and professional conflicts can emerge and be discussed at the conference. Good experts are not only knowledgeable but also open-minded and good communicators with an over-view of their field.
  • Hold a formal conference (2-4 days) at which:
  • Panelists hear experts’ responses to questions.
  • After hearing these responses, panelists can ask follow up questions.
  • The audience is given opportunity to ask questions.
  • The panel deliberates and prepares a position statement to achieve consensus on the issue.
  • Panelists present outcomes.
  • Planning committee prepares a report of the outcomes and distributes to panelists, media and DecisionMaking bodies.

References:

This and many other resources in the “Participatory Practices” category originated in Coastal CRC’s Citizen Science Toolbox (www.coastal.crc.org/au/toolbox/). With permission, NCDD included the resource on our wiki so practitioners could expand upon the listing, and this particular listing was greatly expanded upon.

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