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The Danish Consensus Conference Model

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, April 27 2009

What with the Recovery.gov IT online forum likely to get some attention in good government circles this week, now is as good a time as any to bring up an alternative model the Danish people seem to be having some success with. The Danish Consensus Conference model, as I understand it, pairs a group of topic-matter experts with a collection of interested lay people to reach an understanding about the "public" view of the technical topic at hand -- on everything from, say, infertility to public transportation. The citizens' panel is made of people who respond to newspaper and other advertisements and are willing to give up to preparatory weekends and three weekends to the conference itself.

Think of it like voluntary jury duty, with an especially geeky aspect.

Under the consensus conference model, the citizens drive the train. The experts are on hand to give presentations on the topic matter and answer questions that the lay folks have, but it's the "amateurs" who set the direction of the conference and, with the help of a professional facilitator, write the final report capturing their consensus on the sticky question they've been tasked to discuss. That report goes to the government. From what I've read, the lay-people reports do come up in Parliamentary debates, in a similar way to old Office of Technology Assessment reports were talked about on the floors of the U.S. Congress.

If you're interested, Johs Grundahl has a good overview of the Danish experience with the consensus conference model.

Now, lest you think that Americans just really aren't cut out for this sort of collaborative meeting of the minds, about a decade ago the political scientist David Guston profiled a consensus conference held right here in the United States in 1997. The topic? Telecommunications policy and its impact on the American democratic experiment. I mean, who wouldn't want to spend a few days discussing that? Volunteers were found by random phone sampling in the Boston area. And when that turned up too homogeneous a population, they reached out through civic and activist groups.

Alas, the American experiment didn't turn out too well. Representatives from Ed Markey's office, whose district the conference took place in, found the report not "timely" to Congress's needs. Organizers never managed to find a champion within government for the resulting report. But, reading Guston, the shortcomings seem to be the fault of the so-called experts not grokking the legislative process -- not the citizens who seem to have behaved rather well under the circumstances.

(Photo credit: Sachmanns)