Civic Engagement - Consensus Conferencing
Does your organisation want to inform members of the public about a complex or controversial topic? Then a consensus conference could be a good option.
This methodology is based on a technology assessment model originating from the healthcare sector in the USA during the 1960s and it is mainly used to inform and consult members of the public on topics that are expert dominated, for example in issues around emerging science and technology.
Consensus conferences enable panels of citizens to question expert witnesses in a similar way to citizen juries, with the difference being that they are held in public and open to the media.
A consensus conference involves a panel of citizens questioning expert witnesses on a particular topic at a public conference. Participants are selected from a group of citizens invited to apply.
Once the panel is selected (usually 10-20 people based on a variety of demographic criteria), they will attend two preparatory events, where they receive detailed information about the topic under discussion.
The panel decides what questions to ask and which experts to call to the conference. The conference itself is held in public, usually over a few days. The panel then reaches conclusions or recommendations, which are circulated widely.
The initiative lies with the citizens - they define what the key points of the debate will be, including the choice of questions and selection of the witnesses – through this, they reach their own conclusions.
The Danish Board of Technology held its first participatory consensus conference in 1987, focusing on gene technology. Since then, consensus conferences have tended to be used by governmental, academic, or science and technology bodies – although any organisation could arrange one with enough resources.
In 1994, the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) partnered with the Science Museum to commission a consensus conference on the issue of plant biotechnology.
The 16-person panel identified seven questions to discuss with experts at the conference, and produced a set of recommendations that gave qualified support for plant technology, with specific caveats around regulation, international controls and consumer information.
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