The Consensus Conference
The consensus conference is a method which involves citizens and gives them the central role in assessing a technological problem or problem area. Participants are lay people without any specific relationship to the subject of the conference. In other words, they do not have any special prior knowledge or qualifications as regards the subject area. Citizens contribute by making their views known in the form of visions, concerns, values, holistic appraisal and everyday experiences. The consensus conference method is based on the premise that technological assessment cannot be limited to the legislative domain. For example, the use of genetic testing and surveillance technologies may challenge public opinion and perception about what technologies must and should be used for. New technologies or the general technological development raise questions that cannot be answered unequivocally, which is why it is no straightforward matter getting to grips with – much less deciding – how we should use or limit new technologies in society.The consensus conference and its citizens’ panel participate in a process in which daily life and the emotional and experience-based views of “ordinary people” play a central role in technological assessment. People with different backgrounds and experiences enter into a process of common dialogue. Together they can assess how a given technology should be used and set out any preferences for its development. They can also question the need for a given technology. Citizens can comment on and express their views regarding aspects of the technology which experts, politicians and interested parties may have overlooked.
The purpose of the method
The idea of the method is to enrich and expand the scope of traditional debate between experts, politicians and interested parties by communicating citizens’ views and attitudes on potentially controversial technologies. Citizens’ views on technological development play an important part in society’s overall technological assessment, as many areas of science and technology have direct bearing on the daily lives of ordinary people. The purpose of the method is to qualify people’s attitudes, inasmuch as they are given all the information they require until they are ready to assess a given technology. The conference creates the framework for a debate in which citizens’ thoughts and recommendations come face to face with the arguments and attitudes of politicians and interested parties. In this way, the technological debate is enriched and developed.
Who participates in the various roles
The consensus conference is organised by a Danish Board of Technology project management team comprising a project manager – with overall responsibility – a project assistant and a project secretary. The project management team is responsible for practical implementation of the conference and acts as a coordinator in relation to all parties involved. An information project manager is also assigned to the project to handle information strategy and press relations.
The planning group
The project management team collaborates with the planning group, which comprises 4-6 key experts in the field. Its members are appointed so there is a broad, balanced representation of interests, expert opinions and knowledge. Together, the group possesses a broad knowledge base and network in relation to the topic with respect to a number of parameters: professional/technical, social/socioscientific and philosophical/ethical. Its members must be professionally distinguished. During the planning phase, the planning group meets with the project management team 3-4 times a year.
In practice, the group functions as the Board’s professional guarantor, ensuring a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of the subject when it is introduced to the citizens’ panel. The group is also charged with ensuring that all experts and key players participate at the conference. In other words, their task is to act as a kind of professional consultant that offers an overview and expert advice to the Danish Board of Technology project management team.
The group’s tasks include:
The key figures of the consensus conference sit on the citizens’ panel. Using the central person registry, approx. 2,000 randomly selected Danish citizens are selected to apply for a seat on the citizens’ panel. On the basis of the received applications, the Danish Board of Technology selects between 14 and 16 panel members.
The panel must be representative in terms of age, gender, employment and geographical location. In the selection process, emphasis is also given to the fact that members are both open-minded in relation to the conference topic as well as interested in debating the issue. The most important factor is that, together, the members represent a broad experience base in relation to the conference topic, so that the thoughts, expectations, concerns and questions that generally exist in the population also exist within the panel.
The task of the panel is first and foremost to put qualified questions to the expert panel and on the basis of their answers formulate the final document. As part of this process, and in addition to the 4-day conference, panel members must commit themselves to participating in 2 preparatory weekend sessions.
At the start of the project, a journalist or some other kind of communicator with knowledge of the subject area prepares an introductory material of no more than 40 pages for the citizens’ panel. The material must give the panel members a varied and comprehensive view of the most important attitudes, conflicts, problems and development trends relating to the subject.
The process consultant is an external person who is specifically hired to manage the citizens’ panel process at the conference. Together with the project manager, he or she is responsible for managing the panel’s preparatory weekend sessions as well as the actual conference. The consultant must therefore be a professional facilitator with communication experience and experience of group process management. The process consultant must also be impartial as well as a lay person in relation to the conference topic.
The task of the process consultant is to guide the citizens’ panel through the consensus process in relation to the final document. The process consultant is the “panel lawyer”. He or she must assist the panel in expressing and communicating attitudes and messages within the panel. The consultant must also help the panel to communicate with the Danish Board of Technology’s project management team and planning group, and facilitate communication between citizens and experts, citizens and politicians and between citizens and interested parties participating at the conference.
In broad terms, the process consists of the Danish Board of Technology providing a citizens’ panel with nuanced, balanced and versatile knowledge through introductory material and 2 preparatory weekend sessions. Based on this acquired knowledge and their ordinary inquisitiveness and curiosity, the panel formulates a number of relevant questions. These must be questions they seek answers to in order to assess a given topic and in order to make their recommendations to politicians regarding future control and development in the area. Different kinds of experts with opposing views are summoned to answer the panel’s questions. In this way, the experts bring their technical insight and overview to bear onto the topic.
Based on the experts’ answers, the citizens’ panel assesses the technical insight and the views it has been presented with. They then consider how they think politicians, decision-makers and interested parties should deal with the topic or the technology which is the focus of the conference. The panel’s stance, assessments and recommendations are formulated by the citizens themselves in a so-called final document. On the final day of the conference, the citizens’ panel presents the final document and discusses it with politicians, decision-makers, interested parties, the press and other conference participants.
The citizens’ panel’s preparatory weekends
The additional purpose of the weekends is to allow the panel to formulate significant themes and questions relating to the conference topic to be answered by the experts. The weekend programme uses a mixture of group work and plenum sessions to identify the themes the panel wishes to have elucidated and explained at the conference.
The conference itself
The conference runs from Friday to Monday and is typically held in the Landstingssal or Fællessal at Christiansborg.
On the first day of the official conference programme, experts answer the questions posed in advance by the lay panel. Up to 25 summoned experts make their oral presentations and address the panel’s questions. The presentations are also in written form and can be used by the citizens’ panel during their work at the conference.
On the Saturday, the panel asks the expert panel to elaborate and clarify their presentations and the audience is also allowed to ask questions. Following the conclusion of the official part of the conference at noon on the Saturday, the citizens’ panel begins discussing the expert presentations. The goal is for the panel to achieve consensus and to subsequently write the final document with their assessments and recommendations.
On the Sunday, the citizens’ panel continues discussing and formulating the content of the final document. Typically, the work of the panel goes on throughout the night and is not concluded until consensus regarding the document has been reached.
The last day of the conference begins with the panel presenting their final document to the conference participants. Experts are thus given the opportunity to correct any possible mistakes in the document, and all participants can comment on the document and put questions to the citizens’ panel. The conference then concludes with a debate involving the panel, experts, politicians, the audience and the press.
A consensus conference results in a final document containing a citizens’ panel’s stance on a given technological issue. Since the panel members must agree about the content of the final document, the document represents the consensus they were able to achieve with regard to the given topic.
A consensus conference does not limit itself to providing citizens with technological knowledge and informing politicians and experts about public attitudes. Politicians and experts usually learn to see a given technology in a new light.
The special role of the Danish Board of Technology
Two of the main general aims of the Danish Board of Technology are to promote technological debate and assess technological potential and consequences. The consensus conference perfectly unites these 2 aims, promoting dialogue between citizens and experts with a view to illuminating advantages and disadvantages of a given technology.
Presentation of results
Following the conference, a report is published containing the citizens’ panel’s questions to the expert panel, the panel’s final document and the experts’ written answers to those questions. The report is sent to all conference participants, MPs and other important decision-makers in the field.
The particular strength of the consensus conference is that it allows the public rather than experts and politicians to set the debate agenda and thus the basis for the assessment. The consensus requirement increases the probability that the assessments and recommendations contained in the final document accurately represent the views of the general public.
Consensus conferences are suitable in connection with:
Since 1987, the Danish Board of Technology has held a number of consensus conferences in Denmark, and over the years has acted as inspirer and consultant for conferences based on the Danish model held in such countries as Holland, England, France, Switzerland and Norway and such non-European countries as Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea and Israel.
A consensus conference normally costs about DKK 600,000, excl. the salaries of the Danish Board of Technology project management team.
Examples of the method within the framework of the Danish Board of Technology
Here are just a few examples of consensus conferences held by the Danish Board of Technology:
How can we assign value to the environment? (2003)
Testing our genes (2002)
Road pricing (2001)
Electronic surveillance (2000)
Noise and Technology (2000)
Genetically modified food (1999)
Telework – near and far (1997)
The Consumption and Environment of the Future (1996)
The Future of Fishing (1996)
Gene Therapy (1995)
Last update: 06-01-2006