A consensus conference brings together lay people and subject matter experts to identify common ground in topics where there is technological or scientific complexity, and where key aspects of the issue are uncertain, contested or controversial. Generally the ratio of lay citizens (or “Citizen Panellists”) to experts is 2:1.
In operation, the panel receives a set of introductory material compiled (in past instances) by a journalist in the field, and reviewed before distribution by subject matter experts and commentators to ensure a breadth of material is presented. This is not a model to veto content, but simply to expand it.
The lay panel then questions the experts to its satisfaction, and works continuously to assemble a report which includes only the elements upon which they can agree.
After deliberating together over the draft report, the panellists write a final report on the points of consensus among them. It is assumed that there will be disagreement among the panellists 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 citizens with no vested interest have had an opportunity to learn and deliberate together.
This model is notable for the considerable power retained by the government of the day: they set the agenda by deciding which issues to take to the conference, and to what extent they will act on the conference’s findings. As such, this should be considered as a policy process reform and not a structural reform. It could become a structural reform were a government to legislate that all policy matters in given portfolio areas (eg: food technology, energy) would be referred to conference and their output would be binding. While consensus conferences have been extensively used at a policy level, this latter step has not been trialled.
To ensure an appropriate degree of preparedness, the citizens group will be allocated paid reading time prior to meeting, and have the ability to contact any expert who made a submission to the reading materials. All pre-correspondence would be openly published in the interests of transparency.
A Consensus Conference on Gene Technology was held in Australia in 1999, providing a point of reference for citizens to decide whether the process is capable of delivering well reasoned results. (It is listed as a case study.)
a. As a more incremental change it may be more palatable to an incumbent government as a first step in more deliberative models of government.
b. It adds the voices of everyday citizens to policy discourses that are typically monopolized by experts, their powerful sponsors and the filtering process of the mass media. It lets a sample of people get an ‘unfiltered’ view and aims to create an additional trusted voice for the broader citizenry.
c. The panelists are everyday citizens who do not have a direct stake in the issue being reviewed: they have the same indirect stake in the issue as taxpayers, as community members and citizens who will have to live with the good and bad consequences of 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 major technological or process change. Panel members should not have any significant previous involvement with the conference topic – they are there to take part as citizens, not as professionals or specialists.
d. The process for studying the issue at hand is informed, deliberative, and participatory (in stark contrast to most policy discussions for public audiences, let alone the techniques used in polling). The panellists meet multiple times and ultimately control their own reporting timeline rather than being constrained to fit a political/media imperative. If they need more time, they get more time.
“Average people can’t understand complex issues.” There are now over 50 examples (published at www.loka.org) where randomly selected citizens have engaged on highly intricate topics. A key to the operation of the process is the provision of background material. The reader is also asked to consider that current democratic models to select representatives likely yield individuals with no greater capacity for interpreting and deciding upon issues of technical complexity.
It assumes that the broader population understands the philosophy of the consensus conference. This means that we as citizens should expect the consensus report to be a sound indicator of only those changes which are OK with the vast majority, because the report reflects solely points of agreement freely determined by individuals who have deliberated together, and whose primary concern is the general good. (The consensus report tends to place a greater burden on advocates to justify policies that lie outside this consensus, thus guiding innovation and reform along paths that enjoy broad support.)
Also assumed is that the broader population understand how this is different from an opinion poll or a plebiscite, the difference being the emphasis on a sample group learning a considerable amount on the topic before making a recommendation.
Background and Origins
The Citizens’ Panel originated in Denmark under the name of the ‘Consensus Conference’. The Consensus Conference is based on a model of technology assessment originating in the health care sector in the USA during the 1960s and further developed by the Danish Board of Technology. Australia convened its first Consensus Conference (based on the Danish model) in 1999 on the topic of genetically-modified organisms in the food chain.
Questions for Further Study
The model has traditionally been delivered with 10-20 participants. Will it still be as effective when scaled up to a statistically representative number (~100)?
What You Can Do
This is particularly well suited for issues campaigns where groups cannot identify a policy outcome posited by either the Government or Opposition parties with which they are content, and where groups consider that a sample of the population, when presented with all the evidence, will come to a better policy recommendation than political parties. Groups should note that for this to be an effective process, there is no exclusion or “framing” of material, and that they need to understand that citizens must be free to read and hear from all points of view.
This is the least “structural” of the reforms presented here, and is in many ways a stepping stone to institutionalised reform embedding the citizenry and the deliberative process in government.
- Jon Fixdal (1997), Consensus conferences as ‘extended peer groups’ Science and Public Policy, 24(6),
- The Loka Institute