A Consensus Conference is made up of a panel of citizens who question expert witnesses on a particular topic at a public conference. Their recommendations are then circulated widely.
This video demonstrates a Consensus Conference in action. The subject of this event which took place in Boston is human biomonitoring.
The panel is given time to prepare before the actual conference so they can come to the topic as better informed citizens. Panel members receive a detailed information pack and attend preparatory events (usually two held at weekends).
A feature of this method is that 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.
In common with Citizens' Juries, Consensus Conferences aim to both inform and consult, but Consensus Conferences take place in the public gaze. The press and public are able to attend the main event. At the end of the conference, the panel produces a report outlining conclusions and recommendations that are then circulated to key-decision makers and the media. The process is usually run by an organisation with no stake in the outcome to limit bias.
A panel usually consisting of between 10-20 people, is chosen to reflect a variety of socio-demographic criteria (note however, that due to its size the panel cannot be a statistically representative sample of the population). 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.
- A trained and independent facilitator is needed during the preparatory weekends and during the conference itself.
- A Consensus Conference is expensive, requiring large facilities to accommodate the media and public during the event. Some claim, however, that consensus conferences are cost effective compared to the cost of informing the public through the media.
Approximate time expense
- The Consensus Conference itself usually lasts for three days; the participants also attend preparatory events.
- It is usually necessary to contact experts well in advance of the events to ensure they can attend as witnesses.
- Good public outreach if run well
- Open and transparent process
- More control over subject matter and witnesses than is common in Citizens' Juries and Deliberative Polling
- They can generate a wider and better informed public debate on an issue through the media.
- Consensus Conferences can be used to deal with controversial issues at a national level and with issues that are complex or expert dominated in general.
- Small sample may exclude minorities
- Only useful on controversial topics
Social Research: 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.
Photo Pexels CC0