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Consensus Conference

The Consensus Conference is a process by which a panel of lay people, who roughly represent the demographic breadth of the influenced population, works to formulate an informed opinion about a complex issue.

The conference is conducted as a dialogue between experts and lay people and stretches over three days where it is open to the public.

Topics which are suited for treatment at a consensus conference are characterized by:

  • having current social relevance
  • presupposing expert contributions
  • being possible to delimit
  • containing unclear attitudinal issues

The role of the experts is to inform a panel of citizens about the technology and its implications. Thereupon the citizens' panel drafts a final document which contains a clarification and a position on the issue. Consensus Conferences in Denmark have resulted in public debate on technology, and politicians have thus been made aware of the attitudes, hopes and concerns of the public. On several occasions the Consensus Conferences have caused political debate and initiation of new regulation. An example is the ban put on the use of gene testing for the purpose of employment or the contracting of insurance.

The panel of lay people is comprised of open-minded citizens of divergent backgrounds. What they have in common is a desire to probe the work of the experts. They have been found by sending out invitations to for example 1.000 randomly selected citizens above the age of 18. Among those who wish to participate in the conference 14 citizens are selected - with as much of a mix as possible as regards age, gender, education, profession and geographical place of habitation.

The citizens must receive a thorough briefing on the subject, so they are well-prepared to ask qualified questions to the experts. The preparations consist of information material on the topic and two weekend courses. During the weekends the citizens get to know each other. They formulate the questions which the conference will revolve around and participate in choosing the experts.

On the first day of the Consensus Conference the experts make presentations where they address the questions posed in advance by the lay panel. It is an intensive process where the 12-15 experts expound on for example financial, biological, legal, social and ethical aspects of the issue.

On the second day the morning is spent by the panel asking individual experts for elaboration and clarification of their presentation. The audience also gets the chance to ask questions. The rest of the day is a break for experts and audience, while the panel works on the final document. Late in the evening the first draft of the final document is ready for discussion by the panel. Thereupon follows another round where smaller groups hone the answers. The panel strives to find unanimous formulations.

On the third and last day of the conference the lay panel presents the final document to the experts and the audience - among them the press. The experts have the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and correct factual errors. But they have no influence on the attitudes expressed by the panel. The final document of the lay panel together with the written contributions of the experts are set out in a report.

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