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This text is based on Pedrosa, T., Pereira, A. G. (2006). Participatory tools. SustainabilityA-Test. http://www.ivm.vu.nl/en/projects/Archive/SustainabailityA-test/index.asp (29 November 2013).
The consensus conference is a participatory method, which is aimed at involving the public n the policy making process, and informing policymakers and experts about what citizens find important and why. Hereby it can raise public awareness, may lead to better decisions, may increase the legitimacy and accountability of decision−making and it may stimulate learning (as well for the public as for the decision−makers and experts).
Important characteristics of this method are that the public determines the agenda for the conference andchooses which experts to consult. They gain knowledge about the issue at hand during the process, whichenables informed discussions (as opposed to focus groups). The citizens participating in the consensus conference write a report presenting their ideas on the issue. Although the name of this tool suggests a focus on consensus, the citizens are also asked to indicate in the report their points of disagreement.The consensus conference is usable for topics which are socially relevant, which imply technological/scientific knowledge and which have to deal with unclear and divergent opinions and points of view.
The consensus conference aims to give a voice to the public by forming a citizen panel. The panel (a group of 10−30 citizens) formulates the questions to be taken up and participates in the selection of experts to answer these questions. At the end a report is produced containing the consensus view (expectations, concerns and recommendations) of the (informed) citizens regarding the issue at hand. Though the panel’s report cannot be considered to represent THE voice of the public, it represents the ideas and opinions of a diverse group of citizens who are normally not involved in the policy process. Outcomes can be viewed as a collection of ideas and viewpoints of the public, and can as such be used as input for assessments (together with other stakeholders’ ideas and points of view).
Many variants of this method exist. Also, this methodology is conducted under different names than ‘consensus conference’, mainly because of a (cultural) preference for a smaller focus (or no focus at all) on consensus. The methodology of the ‘citizens' jury’ resembles the consensus conference; both are specific types of citizen panels. Since many variants of both methods exist, it is hard to indicate the exact differences between the two methods. Some say that a difference between the two methods is that the meetings of the consensus conference are generally open for public and media, while the meetings of a citizens' jury are not, or that the time scale of a consensus conference is more precise than that of a citizens' jury (Rowe & Frewer, 2000). The procedure of both methods can be changed on the basis of specific design criteria, as a consequence of which differences are gradual or even nonexistent.
The steps of a consensus conference are commonly as follows:
- A steering committee of known partisan authorities is chosen, who represent different and opposing perspectives, who are familiar with the full scope of the topic and who are willing to support an unbiased effort. The steering committee will oversee the organization of the consensus conference and the fairness and correctness of its informational materials.
- Participants are recruited. This can be done by placing advertisements, or by sending letters randomly. Volunteers should send a one−page letter describing the their background and their reasons for wanting to participate.
- From the replies 10 to 30 (mostly about 15; 30 with multilingual panels) are chosen, who roughly represent the demographic breadth of the country’s population and who lack prior knowledge of or partisan interest in the topic.
- A background paper (information brochure) is commissioned that maps the political terrain surrounding the issue; this is screened and approved by the steering committee.
- During a preparatory weekend, the citizen panel discusses the background paper, and formulates questions for experts. The panel should also get the opportunity during this weekend to get to know one another and to develop their ability to reason together.
- the citizen panel chooses the types of experts that are required. A group of experts is assembled; the citizen panel chooses itself which experts from this group are invited to answer their questions (which are based on information provided by the steering committee). The group of experts covers the broad dimensions of the problem (ethical, societal, technical etc.)
- During a second preparatory weekend, the citizen panel discusses the background reading provided by the steering committee, refines their questions and revises the expert panel list to suit their needs. (Choosing the experts can also take place solely during the second weekend.)
- The experts prepare oral and written responses to the panel's questions, using language understandable by ordinary people.
- An open public forum (a consensus conference) is announced, in which the citizen and expert panel will meet together, attracting media, legislators and interested citizens.
- On day one of the actual consensus conference, each expert speaks for about 15−30 minutes in response to the questions posed by the citizen panel, follow−up questions from the citizen panel are answered and, as time allows, from the audience.
- After the public session, the citizen panel discusses what it has heard.
- On day two the citizen panel cross−examines the expert panel.
- After this public session on day two and on day three, the citizen panel deliberates, and prepares a report that summarizes their points of consensus and disagreement. The citizen panel fully control the report’s content, but may be assisted by secretaries and editors.
- On day four the expert panel gets the chance to correct outright factual misstatements in the report, but not otherwise comments on it.
- The citizen panel presents its report at a national press conference; reports are 15−30 pages long, clearly reasoned and nuanced in judgment. (www.co−intelligence.org/P−ConsensusConference3.html). In most cases, the report is publicized to confront the broad public with it, for instance by the use of local dialogues, leaflets and videos. Policy makers can use the report as input for assessments.
Evaluation of consensus conference
This method can contribute to policy processes in several ways. Dependent on the phase of the policy process in which the consensus conference is deployed, the tool can be helpful in recognizing problems, identifying conflicting assumptions, exploring possible solutions, analyzing policy proposals, selecting policy options, evaluating policy options and bringing poorly performing policy options to light; all from a citizens’ point of view.
The consensus conference can contribute to the legitimacy of decision making. It is an “opportunity for those with little power to obtain information and to be heard, and thus an opportunity for more democratic decision−making on the use and regulation of new technology” (Andersen & Jaeger, 1999). The consensus conference can help to reduce the distance between policy makers and the public, and it enables citizens to engage in deliberation about the decisions that need to be taken and it can generate support for measures to be taken.
The consensus conference can also contribute to the accountability of policy processes, as participants get an inside view in the decision−making process and feel co−responsible for the process and its outcomes. The method is a way for a government to become more responsive to the concerns of the public and to create transparency and to give access. Open access of the people to public institutions is needed to give them a share of ownership ('this is my policy maker') and create a sens of trustworthiness ('they have nothing to hide') (Huitema & Van de Kerkhof, 2006).
With respect to the contributions to policy processes a few remarks have to be made. Though, in statistical terms, the citizen panel cannot be considered a representative sample of the public (representative for all ages, socio−economic classes, places of residence, ideas, preferences etc.), the citizen panel can be seen as a group of people that 'resemble' the public, in terms of representing different social perspectives rather than a demographic representation (Brown, 2006). This group of citizens can bring to light certain problems or aspects concerning the topic that were not recognized before. It is the question however, whether this tool is the best option when aiming at making explicit new problems, or unique aspects of problems, ideas, underlying assumptions or points of view. For this goal, tools that focus more on underlying assumptions, such as the Repertory Grid Technique, are probably more suited.
The name of the method implies that a consensus has to be found. Finding a consensus would mean that deviating ideas are lost, which would be disadvantageous in a search for new aspects of problems. However, this is not true for many past instances. And according to Joss (2000) the citizen panel is asked to pay attention in their report to conflicting points of view (disagreement). Because finding a consensus is often not a central issue, some countries prefer to use another name for the consensus conference, e.g. public debate or public forum. Although discussion between the citizen panel and the experts is part of the conference, in practice there appears to be little interaction between the experts and the citizens, in the sense that experts and citizens do not work out differences together. This is a point of attention, since this interaction can lead to more, or richer outcomes (and more satisfied participants).
Another thing to keep in mind is that the way this participatory tool is shaped probably induces citizens to codify their knowledge in “expert−terms”. They base themselves solely on expert−knowledge when writing their report. It is not hard to imagine that the citizen panel feels social pressure to deliver a “scientific sound” document. As a consequence, it is quite well possible that specific "lay" knowledge that does not fit in with this format is omitted. This would mean not all aspects concerning a problem are made explicit.
Organizing a consensus conference
According to Joss (2000) the time and costs that are needed to organize a consensus conference might easily be underestimated; it takes more than one year to organize a 4−days−conference and in man−months it takes even about four years. The financial costs of organizing a typical consensus conference are about 166.000 euros (Joss, 2000).
The data input that is needed in this tool is not high; only a certain amount of expert input is needed to prepare the background paper and to answer the citizen panel’s questions. The tool is fairly transparent, or by any means, it can be transparent. Transparency depends very much on specific design characteristics. For instance, how are the participants recruited, how is the background paper established, are the participants really free in choosing the experts they want etcetera.
The results of the consensus conference are restricted to information about the group of which the (citizen) panel is a sample: the public. Though the citizen panel can be asked to think about long−term problems, the present is the reference; for a thorough analysis of long−term effects another tool is probably better suited, like the use of scenarios. As for the geographic coverage of this tool it is hard to give precise indications. For instance, consensus conferences were held in the past to discuss ozone in the upper atmosphere and genetic modification; these are not local issues. Probably this tool is suited for all problems that concern citizens; on a local, national, regional or global level, but using the tool at a higher level of scale will be more challenging in terms of participant selection, how to deal with cultural differences, language etcetera.
Combination with other methods
There are no specific combinations or links with other tools. This tool does not need input from other tools, nor does it provide specific input for other tools. The citizen panel’s report is a very specific outcome, comparable to the report that is the outcome of a citizens' jury. With regard to the assessment of citizens’ views, IA/SA focus groups might deliver comparable results.
Strengths and weaknesses
- The consensus conference may increase public awareness (dependent a.o. on media attention). It may lead to making better decisions, by enriching the process with relevant points of view. Or as Andersen & Jaeger (1999) state it: “The consensus conference may provide political and public debate and decision−making on new technology with dimensions and reasoning which were not taken into account previously”.
- Learning is probably also a very important impact of a consensus conference. The citizen panel can learn about the subject, and the experts and policymakers can learn about citizens' views.
- Another strength is that this tool actively involves citizens, who are normally not asked and who give a deliberate view on the topic. As a consequence the citizen panel may acquire self−confidence with regard to scientific and policy matters (Andersen & Jaeger, 1999).
- It may increase the accountability of decision−making, as participants get an inside view in the decision−making process and become co−responsible for the process and its outcomes.
- In striving for a shared position on the topic, certain deviating insights/ points of view can get lost. (According to S. Joss (2000) there has to be a constant striving towards a shared position, although he stresses this doesn’t mean that it’s by any means necessary to reach a consensus).
- As for the impacts of the tool, it seems that there is little effect on policy. Evaluations are unfortunately scarce.
- The report of the citizen panel cannot be regarded as THE voice of the public. The selection of the citizen panel is not completely random and the sample is small; therefore the validity is low.
- The coding of "lay" knowledge in experts' terms, leading possibly to the omission of specific valuable lay knowledge.
- There is answer−and−question type of interaction between experts and the citizens. Interaction between experts and citizens, in terms of working out differences together, (often) does not occur; this may result in sub−optimal outcomes.
The various strengths and weaknesses can come to expression in various stages of the policy making process. For an important part, the size and impact of the strengths and weaknesses are determined by the accurateness and the thoroughness of the way the tool is being deployed.
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Brown, M. (2006). Citizen panels and the concept of representation. Journal of Political Philosophy, 14 (2), 203−225.
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