Co-Intelligence.Org description (another description, from Citizens Science Toolbox, is below)
Situation: The rapid growth of technology presents an unprecedented problem for democracy: How do we exercise our citizenship intelligently? DecisionMaking 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 http://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 Frances Moore Lappe 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" http://www.scn.org/ip/cpsr/diac/critnetw.htm (Google cached), Richard Sclove summarizes the steps of Consensus Conference as follows:
- a controversial policy issue is chosen [always complex, usually technical];
- a steering committee comprising a balanced group of knowledgeable stakeholders is assembled;
- a diverse panel of everyday citizens (i.e., nonexperts, nonstakeholders) is recruited;
- the panel is briefed over the course of two weekends;
- the lay panel cross-examines contending expert and stakeholder witnesses in a public forum;
- the lay panel announces its findings at a press conference;
- 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" http://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 The People 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" http://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.
- Consensus Conference (good for technological issues) is one form of Citizen Consensus Council
- The Danish Board of Technology - http://www.tekno.dk/index.php3?language=uk
- For their description of this method, go to http://www.tekno.dk/subpage.php3?survey=16&language=uk and click on "Show All Methods" then "Consensus Conferences" (for the June 2003 version of this description: http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-ConsensusConference1.html)
- Town Meetings on Technology by Richard E. Sclove - http://www.loka.org/pubs/techrev.htm
- A study of official Danish technology assessment activities by Sandy Heierbacher. http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-ConsensusConference2.html
- How consensus conferences are organized http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-ConsensusConference3.html - Adapted by Tom Atlee from Johs Grundahl.
- Further information on the technology panels is available from Dick Sclove, author of the seminal Democracy And Technology (Guilford Press, 1995). He can be reached at Richard@Sclove.org. Now an independent consultant, he was founder and former director of The Loka Institute (who sponsored the first consensus conference in the United States, as mentioned above).
Citizens Science Toolbox description
A consensus conference is a public meeting, which allows ordinary citizens to be involved in asessing 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. 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.
The second part of this page originally copied with permission from the Citizens Science Toolbox