Reproduced with permission. In Public Participation in science: the role of consensus conferences in Europe. Ed; Joss, S. & Durant, J. London: Science Museum, 1995.

The Danish consensus conference model

Johs Grundahl

Consensus conferences - an introduction

For a number of years the Danish Board of Technology (Teknologiradet, formerly Teknologi-Naenet) has contributed to technology assessment using a wide range of different methods, including the consensus conference model. A consensus conference is defined as a method of technology assessment organised as a meeting between an expert panel and a panel consisting of concerned citizens- the lay panel. The lay-panel members assess controversial and technological developments. During the conference they produce a statement in the form of a document which expresses their expectations, concerns and recommendations. The final document is written by ordinary people, and thus does not represent any special interests. It is directed at parliamentarians, other policy makers and decision makers, and the general public. The final document and the experts' contributions are compiled and published in the series of Danish Board of Technology reports. The report is disseminated to the audience, parliamentarians and anyone else who is interested in the topic.

The objective of a consensus conference is to bridge the gap between the general public, experts and politicians, who only rarely have an opportunity to meet. In Denmark the consensus conferences organised by the Danish Board of Technology have stimulated public debate on new technology. The final documents from these conferences have contributed to informing politicians and decision makers on citizens' views of, and attitudes towards, new technology. These conferences aim at an ideal process in which a given topic is elucidated on the basis of the finest available knowledge and discussed by the lay panel in open and unbiased dialogue. The consensus conference ensures that members of the general public, represented on the lay panel and in the audience, and the summoned experts become engaged in a dialogue with one another.

A consensus conference is arranged according to a set of rules. These rules are all well known to both the lay and the expert panels involved in the conference. The background to this is a wish to create an enlightened dialogue between expert and lay panel-on the lay panel's premises. The members of the lay panel draw up the conclusions, not the experts. In the initial stage of the conference process, the lay-panel members are provided with basic information about the topic. They formulate a number of key questions, primarily based on the discussions and the knowledge gained at two preparatory weekends, and through the panel's own preparations by reading basic information on the topic and tracking public debate.

The consensus conference itself usually takes three days and is open to the public. However, for the lay panel the conference involves participating in two preparatory weekends and spending time reading various materials about the topic. The summoned experts are invited to inform the lay panel about the technology and its consequences by answering the key questions, in the form of presentations, on the first day of the conference. Different types of interdisciplinary expertise as well as conflicting expert opinions are juxtaposed. An essential rule is that there is a sharp distinction between experts and lay people, and that the lay panel is composed of citizens that genuinely can be characterised as 'lay'. In other words, they should not have any special knowledge of the topic. Politicians may be in the audience and can participate in the general discussion during the conference.

In this paper, the concept and governing rules of the Danish consensus conference model will be described based on the comprehensive experiences of more than 10 consensus conferences organised by the Danish Board of Technology. The procedures for preparing and holding consensus conferences will be presented, and the disseminating of the conference findings, the different roles of participants in the conference process and the allocation of tasks described. Finally the individual parts of the project and recurrent problems will be discussed.

For further discussion of the Danish consensus conference model please refer to Lars Kluver's paper, this volume.

Important characteristics of consensus conferences

Some characteristics of suitable topics for a consensus conference:

Consensus conferences are further characterised as follows.

The final document is thus an expression of the extent to which the panel can reach agreement. Minority statements occur only rarely.

Roles of participants in the consensus conference process

It is essential to the functioning of the process reflected in a consensus conference that the different participants know their roles and tasks in this process.

Project management

The project management consists of a project manager and one secretary. The project manager, who is an employee of the Secretariat of the Danish Board of Technology, usually works on a number of other projects during the preparatory phase of the consensus conference, as does the secretary. As the conference approaches, the manager will ask for assistance from other employees of the Danish Board of Technology as necessary. The project manager is charged with the day-to-day management of the conference organisation. The manager has a multitude of tasks. The most essential are:

In addition, the project manager co-ordinates meetings and takes minutes; deals with letters and telephone enquiries; distributes material; books accommodation; checks technical equipment for the conference (microphones, etc.); advertises the conference; and delegates practical tasks. A constant service needs to be supplied to the lay panel, the steering committee and the facilitator.

Finally, it is essential to the process that the project manager demonstrates an attitude of openness and receptiveness and in no way influences the attitudes or focus of the lay-panel members. Likewise it is essential to ensure that the secretaries assisting the lay panel in the process of writing the final document do not promote their own views, write their own formulations or influence the course of debate.

The steering committee

The steering committee usually consists of 3-5 people with expert knowledge of the conference topic. The members of the steering committee are selected and assessed by the Board and the project manager. The committee is self-supplementary. The members are selected on the basis of their personal authority, as they are deemed to hold wide or profound knowledge on the subject and have extensive networks in the field. In general, the attitudes of the group members must complement each other, and the range of expertise of steering committee members must provide comprehensive coverage of the subject. In addition, individual Board members or representative(s) from any cooperating organisation (such as the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, the Danish Council of Ethics or the Danish Transport Council) may be asked to join by either the Board or the steering committee. Finally, the project manager is a member of the steering committee. The composition of the steering committee is often detailed in the project description and approved by the Board. The committee may nominate additional members if it finds that composition does not cover all approaches to and aspects of the subject .

The tasks of the steering committee the Danish Board of Technology are to guarantee a fair realisation of the project description so that the widest possible range of relevant aspects are illustrated at the conference

In addition, the steering committee may choose to draw up compulsory key questions which they want the lay panel to answer.

The lay panel

The lay panel is made up of interested citizens. Participants are advertised for in 5-6 regional newspapers that provide comprehensive geographical coverage of Denmark, or in a number of national newspapers. Persons interested in participating are invited to apply to the Secretariat by submitting a short (no more than one page) description of themselves, the knowledge they have on the topic and the reason why they wish to participate. On the basis of the submitted applications, a panel of 10-14 lay people is selected. Basically, the panel members are unpaid volunteers but compensation for loss of income is offered by the Board.

The panel is selected so that it is composed of people with varied backgrounds on the basis of a number of socio-demographic criteria: age, gender, education, occupation and area of residence.

It is essential that no member of the lay panel is an expert in the topic or represents special interests in the field. However, when individual lay people are particularly concerned about the topic being debated, they are deemed to have a special interest that is acceptable. This was the case, for instance, in the conference on infertility (October 1993) where many of the lay-panel applicants (65 people, i.e. 49 per cent) suffered from involuntary infertility. The steering committee included two of these lay people in the panel, because they were considered to be affected by the topic as lay people - not as representatives of special interest groups per se.

Finally, physical and mental disabilities may be impediments to participation in the project (the conference and preparatory phases are very hard work and extremely concentrated).

The selection procedure does not ensure that the panel comprises a statistically representative sample of the population, but the panel is selected from interested people in such a way that several attitudes are represented. Although applicants for the lay panel are not explicitly asked to reveal their attitudes, these are usually apparent from their applications.

The expression 'interested citizens', in addition to referring to the interest they have displayed by responding to the advertisement, also means that the selected people will be open and inquisitive in their efforts to reach consensus. This means that the process of achieving this common objective will take priority over convincing the other participants of one's own attitudes-it is not a question of ,'winning' or 'losing'.

The lay-panel members are also subject to the requirement that they must be able to be present for the two preparatory weekends and for the period of the conference itself.

The tasks of the lay panel are to: