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Consensus Forum

Consensus Forums involve large numbers of community, industry and government representatives in a 1-3 day Forum, with the goal of reaching common ground on broad and complex issues. The Consensus Forum provides a way for lay people to deliberate on technologically complex issues, with the support of those who are ‘expert’ in the area. It is a way of exploring the issues using the best available knowledge, the widest possible views, and a focus on understanding different viewpoints. Where consensus (common ground) is achieved, these views become integral to the decision making process. The goal of the Consensus Forum is strategic partnership between the community, industry and government, in order to jointly make decisions and then implement the key recommendations.

When to use
When decision makers need to find common ground among disparate stakeholders on technically complex, often contentious issues, and ownership of an agreed way forward. Decision makers need to be willing to share the decision making process.

How to use
The first step in the process is the establishment of a Community Reference Group to oversee the process, to ensure that it is fair, transparent and accountable.

The second step is the preparation of information packs for participants on the key issues to be discussed. Papers are prepared, presenting all viewpoints. In some instances, proponents of different viewpoints work together to jointly produce papers on key issues. These papers represent the differing viewpoints rather than trying to compromise or reach consensus. In other instances, each paper presents a different viewpoint.

The Community Reference Group ensures all viewpoints are fairly represented and adequately expressed. Papers are sent to participants before the Forum, highlighting the importance of participants thoroughly reading them before the Forum and preparing questions they would like answered.

It is important for all stakeholders in the issue, including non aligned citizens, to be fairly represented at the Forum. This is achieved via three different methods:

  1. Community members responding to invitations sent to a large random sample of the population, usually targeted to geographical areas and other relevant demographic criteria
  2. Community members responding to advertisements in state wide and local newspapers
  3. Invitations sent to the broadest range of stakeholders, including industry groups, community lobby groups, interest groups, state and local government

There are between 80 and 130 participants (with approximately 1/3 from each of the above areas). Much of the work is done in small teams. Pre seating arrangements ensure that each of the stakeholder groups is represented at each team table (between 8 – 10 participants per team). Each team table has a facilitator/coordinator. There is also a Forum facilitator who takes overall facilitation responsibility.

On the principle that senior people need to play a key listening role, team facilitators are parliamentarians, local government councillors, CEOs and other senior bureaucrats. ‘How to’ facilitation notes are provided to the team facilitators prior to the Forum at a session where the techniques are discussed and amended if needed and ‘just-in-time’ training is provided if required. Team facilitators also participate in brief feedback sessions during the Forum, and in a debrief session some time after the Forum to discuss what was learnt and how improvements can be made next time.

At each of the Consensus Forums, the key decision maker (in this instance, the State Minister for Planning and Infrastructure) participates for the duration of the Forum, answering questions, clarifying the government or organisation’s position where needed, and listening. The integral part played by decision makers reinforces the focus on strategic partnering.

The Forum begins with table introductions and clarification of expectations for the Forum. It then proceeds with brief presentations of the distributed papers (no longer than 10 minutes each), with panels representing the different view points responding to questions and issues. The key issues to be resolved are then clarified, options to address the issues are brainstormed, common ground is found, and the most important of these ‘consensus’ options are prioritised.

A Forum Outcomes Report is written and submitted to the key decision maker for approval (in this instance, the State Minister) The Report, signed off by the Minister, is distributed to all participants with opportunities to comment and amend if needed.An Implementation Team, consisting of community, industry, state and local government representatives from the Forum, is chosen by the key decision maker (in this instance, the State Minister).

The Implementation Team is chaired by the relevant state government agency CEO. Sub teams that include additional Forum representatives are established to carry through specific projects. Each project team has a technical group to support it. Each project team is represented by one, or preferably two members, on the Implementation Team.

Forum participants are kept informed of implementation plans and progress against established performance measures. Where useful, the Forum is reconvened some time later to review the implementation outcomes in order to ensure that the Forum’s intent has been actioned.

Note: Consensus as used here is defined as accepting differences and working together on common ground and/or agreeing on a process to make decisions (rather than mediation, conflict resolution, or Alternative Dispute Resolution)

Steps for Organizing a Consensus Forum:

A project manager scopes the issue, expected outcomes, the people who need to be involved, and the consultation administration.

Establish a Community Reference Group
A small number of community stakeholders are selected to oversee the process through to its completion, ensuring fairness, transparency and accountability.

Select Forum participants
Between 80 – 130 Forum participants are selected using a comprehensive set of selection processes: invitations to a random sample of the population; advertisements in the press; and specific invitations to the broad range of known stakeholder groups.

Prepare preparatory information
Stakeholders who represent different viewpoints are requested to prepare papers on the key issues. The Community Reference Group oversees the papers to ensure all viewpoints are fairly represented. Papers are distributed to all participants in time to read thoroughly before the Forum.

Prepare seating arrangements and small table facilitation
Participants are seated in mixed groups at tables of 8 – 10, each with a table facilitator or coordinator. These facilitators are senior agency staff, local or state politicians. Their role is to listen, ensure all viewpoints are heard, and relay what they have heard to the Forum.

Brief / train small table facilitators
All facilitators attend a briefing / training session to ensure they understand what they need to do to carry out their role, and also to provide to input to the Forum proceedings. Detailed ‘how to’ facilitation notes are provided for each task to be carried out.

Conduct the Forum (1 – 2 days)
Reflecting the intent of strategic partnering with all stakeholders, the Minister and CEOs participate throughout the proceedings, focusing on listening. Papers are briefly presented and panels answer questions. Time is spent understanding others’ points of views. The key issues are clarified, options to address these issues are brainstormed, common ground is sought, and the most important of these ‘consensus options are prioritised.

Distribute feed-back
A final report is prepared documenting the Forum outcomes. The Reference Group oversees the report, ensuring it fairly represents the Forum findings. The report is distributed to all participants, together with the next steps in the process.

Convene the Implementation Team and update participants
An Implementation Team, convened by the agency CEO, is selected from Forum participants to represent all stakeholders. With the assistance of agency Technical Teams, the Implementation Team develops projects with timelines and policies to carry out the prioritised outcomes. Regular progress reports / newsletters are distributed to all participants.

This data came from the phenomenal 36-page handout distributed by Janette Hartz-Karp at her workshop (“Breakthrough Initiatives in Governing with the People: The Australian Experience”) at the 2004 NCDD Conference in Denver, Colorado. It provides detailed information about a variety of community engagement techniques, including citizens jury, consensus conference, future search, charrette, consensus forum, multi criteria analysis conference, local area forum, people’s panel, deliberative poll/survey, televote/telesurvey, and e-democracy. Under each method are details about why, when and how they are used, as well as a useful how-to flowchart. Download this resource.

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