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How consensus conferences are organized




Excerpted from

The Tao of Democracy

by Tom Atlee.


Consensus conference organizers usually follow the following steps. (This description is informed largely by Grundahl, Johs. "The Danish Consensus Conference Model," in Simon Joss and John Durant (eds), Public Participation in Science: The Role of Consensus Conferences in Europe (Science Museum, UK, 1995):



1. Pick a salient topic, not too broad, not too narrow, that involves some real conflict and expertise. The topic chosen is one of current concern for the legislature, who may be considering formal legislation on the subject in the next six months or so.
2. Choose a steering committee of known partisan authorities who represent different and opposing perspectives; who are familiar with the full scope of the topic; and who are willing to support an unbiased effort. This steering committee will oversee the organization of the consensus conference and the fairness of its informational materials.
3. Advertise in newspapers for volunteer lay participants, requesting a one-page letter describing the volunteer's background and reasons for wanting to participate.
4. From the 100-200 replies, choose about fifteen who roughly represent the demographic breadth of the country's population and who lack prior knowledge of or partisan interest in the topic. [see also note]
5. Commission a background paper that maps the political terrain surrounding the issue. Have it screened and approved by the steering committee.



1. Organize an initial preparatory weekend meeting at which you discuss the background paper with the lay group and work with them to formulate questions for experts. During this time, provide opportunities for the lay panelists to get to know one another and develop their ability to reason together.
2. Assemble an expert panel that covers the technical and scientific dimensions of the problem, as well as its ethical and societal implications. Include significant stakeholder representatives.
3. Organize a second preparatory weekend meeting in which the lay panel discusses background readings provided by the steering committee, refines their questions and revises the expert panel list to suit their needs.
4. Request that the experts prepare succinct oral and written responses to the group's questions, using language understandable by ordinary people.



1. Announce an open public forum-a consensus conference-in which the lay and expert panels will meet together, attracting media, legislators and interested citizens in a large public building.
2. On Day One of the actual consensus conference, have each expert speak for 15-30 minutes, then answer follow-up questions from the lay panel and, as time allows, from the audience.
3. After the public session, have the lay panel retire to discuss what it has heard.
4. On Day Two have the lay panel publicly cross-examine the expert panel, who are then politely dismissed, along with the public audience.
5. For the remainder of Day Two through Day Three, let the lay group deliberate, with facilitation available to use as they wish, and prepare a report that summarizes their points of consensus and disagreement. The lay panel fully controls the report's content, but may be assisted by secretaries and editors.
6. On Day Four give the expert panelists a chance to correct outright factual misstatements in the report, but not to otherwise comment on it.



1. Arrange for the group to present its report at a national press conference. Most reports are 15-30 pages long, clearly reasoned and nuanced in judgment.
2. Publicize the report and engage the public with it, using local dialogues, leaflets and videos.


* Note re 3 and 4 in "Laying the Groundwork": Some Danish panels have been picked by inviting participants from an age/gender balanced random selection of 1200 Danes from the central registry of the population. From the respondents, twelve to sixteen competent citizens are selected who together provide demographic diversity (gender, age, education, occupation, and geography) for the panel. (From correspondence between Lars Torres of AmericaSpeaks and Lars Kluver of the Danish Board of Technology, relayed to Tom Atlee by Torres 10/8/2002.)