Danish citizen technology panels
Note: The citizen technology panel is one form of citizen
Situation: The rapid growth of technology presents an unprecedented problem
for democracy: How do we exercise our citizenship intelligently? Decision-making
in a technological society requires a level of expertise simply
unavailable to us common citizens who are supposed to make the
decisions. The best solution currently available to us is
to align with advocacy groups (the AMA, the Sierra Club) whose
perspective seems to fit most closely with our own, and who do
research to bolster their views. But these interest groups
only address problems by battling in the political arena, leaving
our country with deep divisions, constantly shifting policies,
and a thoroughly confused populace. (from The
Challenge of Technology in a Democracy)
One solution: Danish technology panels deal with this problem directly and
elegantly. By providing a demographically (not politically)
representative group of citizens with top-quality information
and facilitation most people couldn't even dream of -- and then
feeding the results of that microcosmic dialogue back into the
macrocosm of public discourse -- democratic society is given appropriate
wisdom to reflect and act on.
The form of citizen consensus council
most relevant to technological issues is the Danish citizen
technology panel (which the Danes and others call "consensus
conference"). (See the Danish
Board of Technology Methods -- click on "Consensus Conferences"
-- for the Danes' description of this method.) (The June 2003 version
of this description is more directly available on the Co-Intelligence
Institute website here.)
Several times a year, the Danish government convenes a panel of
fifteen ordinary citizens scientifically selected to represent the
diversity of the Danish population and helps them study and recommend
policy guidelines for a particular technology. (In 1999, for
example, a citizen panel investigated genetic engineering of food.)
Citizen panel members read briefing papers and then discuss with
organizers what questions they have and which experts -- from across
the spectrum of opinion on the subject -- they want to testify before
them. They interview these selected experts -- who, as Frances
Moore Lappe notes, may be surprised to find themselves on tap
to the citizenry, not on top of the decision-making process.
When the citizen panel is satisfied, they are professionally facilitated
to a consensus statement about what should be done about the technology
they've just studied. Their findings are presented to the
government and to the press.
The Danish model is remarkable for the extent to which its process
ensures that the results cannot be credibly attacked as biased.
For a story about the use of this process in the US, see Ordinary Folks Recommend Good Policy.
The theory behind Danish technology panels is that, while experts
can provide insight into the issues, mechanics, facts, potential
blessings and problems associated with a particular technology,
they are not the right people to decide what should be done about
it. In a democratic society, people whose lives are affected
by an issue are supposed to have an effective voice in deciding
how to deal with it. Since it is The People who primarily
have to live with the results of technology, it is primarily The
People who should judge how to deal with the inevitable trade-offs.
In these technology panels, what the people bring to the table is
their dreams, their values, their humanity, and the experience of
their everyday lives, needs and desires -- exactly what's missing
from most official dialogue about technical issues.
The genius of these panels is that they combine two sources of
vitally relevant information -- the experts' knowledge and the people's
common sense and popular will -- into a final judgement. Furthermore,
the diverse views of the experts and the citizens are not just left
to fight it out, but rather are woven together wisely through the
process of consensus. The particular
process used is important: The consensus used here is not the
familiar Beltway political consensus, in which powerholder A trades
favors with powerholder B, or where powerful interest groups forge
lowest-common-denominator compromises at the expense of the rest
of society. The sort of consensus process used in the Danish
technology panels (and in other citizen consensus panels) involves
creatively moving through differences and conflicts to deeper and
higher levels of common ground, often with wise breakthroughs unforeseen
by any of the participants. The result is a unique blending
of certain fundamental principles of American democracy -- that
"all voices should be heard" and "E Pluribus Unim"
(out of many, one).
Of course citizen consensus councils alone can't solve the problems
of technological advance. But they can provide the guidance
we need to proceed in ways that our society COULD actually act on
-- since it is the diverse voices of our society itself which generates
that guidance. These councils are a powerful tool for conscious,
wise collective evolution. If our technological crisis can
bootstrap us into that higher form of civilization, it will have
been a blessing.
For more information on Consensus Conferences see
For links to many consensus conferences that have been held around
the world, see this
link at the Loka Institute.
See also: The Challenge
of Technology in a Democracy
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