Consensus conferences originated in Denmark in the 1980s and are one of the earliest attempts by policymakers to include the lay publics’ opinions in their decision-making through public engagement. The purpose of consensus conferences 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.”. Consensus conferences are generally deemed suitable for topics that are socially-relevant and/or need regulation which require public support.
How consensus conferences work
Participants are selected from a group of citizens who are invited to apply. Individuals who are invited are members of the lay public that have no specific knowledge of the issue at hand. This citizens’ panel is chosen to be demographically representative of the public.
Members of the citizens’ panel participate in 2 preparatory weekends and are given material prepared by a communicator to gain a basic understanding of the issue at hand. The panel then participates in a 4-day conference. Over the duration of the conference, the citizens’ panel participates in a Q&A session with experts, where they get opposing views. Citizens then prepare a final document containing their views, opinions, stances, and recommendations for the issue. On the final day of the conference, the panel then discusses their final document with policy- and decision-makers.
Critiques of consensus conferences
- Attendance is low and citizens are self-selected. Those who attend are significantly different than those who do not.
- Conversational dynamics are important to successful consensus conferences. More outspoken citizens tend to dominate the conversation. This can potentially be avoided with a well-trained facilitator, but this begs the question of how to evaluate facilitators which is a realm where there is little empirical data.
- The citizens’ panel may not reflect lay audiences’ views. At what point in this process do the lay members of the citizens’ panel become experts themselves? Studies have shown that there are gaps between lay audiences’ initial opinions and their views after they have been given more information.
- Consensus conferences can have the opposite effect. These conferences have the potential to make individuals tend to the extreme in their opinions, i.e. citizens essentially rally around their own views in the presence of opposing views.
- Disconnect between public participation methods and policy. Studies have shown that there is a gap between public deliberation and policy decisions.
- Public meetings may have the unintended consequence of widening knowledge gaps. The disparities in higher rates of learning among the information-rich compared to the information-poor may be increased by consensus conferences. This can be attributed to (i) the critique of self-selection, where individuals who are most likely to participate in public meetings tend to be more interested in politics and better educated, and (ii) more outspoken individuals dominating the conversation.
- Potential to mask differences in opinions. The goal of consensus conferences is for members of the lay audience to deliberate and reach a consensus over a particular issue. However, this need to reach a consensus can have the unintended side-effect of masking differences in opinion, particularly if these individuals are less outspoken.
- Scheufele, D. A. (2010). "Modern citizenship or policy dead end? Evaluating the need for public participation in science policy making, and why public meetings may not be the answer". Retrieved 13 November 2011.
- Danish Board of Technology (2006). "The consensus conference". Retrieved 13 November 2011.
- Fishkin, J. S. (1996). "Bringing deliberation to democracy". Public Perspective 7: 1–14.
- Fishkin, J. S.; Luskin, R. S. and R. Jowell (2000). Parliamentary Affairs 53: 657–666.