A citizen consensus council is a microcosm of a larger population where citizens dialogue to deep agreement about issues of common concern. It is usually a group of 12-24 diverse citizens selected at random from (or to be demographically representative of) their organization, community, country, etc. A citizen consensus council deliberates about issues concerning the population from which it was selected, and is professionally facilitated to a consensus about how to address those issues. Its final statement is released both to appropriate authorities and to the larger population it represents, usually through the media. After that, the council usually disbands, just as a jury does when its work is done.
The defining characteristics of a citizen consensus council are:
1) It is a group of citizens whose diversity reflects that of a larger population.
2) It is facilitated to a consensus.
It is the dynamics between DIVERSITY and CONSENSUS that generate the level of "people's wisdom" that is so powerfully present in this approach. Wisdom depends on the breadth and depth of people's perspectives. Diversity brings the breadth: together, diverse people have a wide range of perspectives. The depth comes from people having to go deeper in order to find the common ground underlying their differences, which is necessary to come to agreement. Also, through dialogue towards consensus, each person's perspective broadens, steadily including more of what the others see. Often dramatic leaps of creativity happen when people start seeing more broadly; connections and possibilities start to sizzle; and suddenly the group is coming up with alternatives that satisfy all their needs and perspectives -- and more. This is true consensus process (from Latin, consentire, to sense or feel together) and it generates true wisdom. Furthermore, since it is so broadly satisfying, and was created by a diverse group embodying the diverse values and life experience of the larger community, the larger population is more likely to respond positively to the group's proposals than to proposals created by experts or politicians.
The nature of a council's "representativeness" - It is important to know that a citizen consensus council is not representative in the usual political sense. Participants are not speaking for anyone but themselves. If they do happen to be leaders of groups, they need to set those roles aside and act as individuals while participating in the council. However, they can and should bring every aspect of themselves to the table, including whatever perspectives they happen to share with the groups they lead or are part of. Their role as participants in a citizen consensus council -- which they can best serve simply by being themselves -- is to collectively embody the diverse perspectives and capacities of the larger population from which they were collectively drawn. As they learn that the interests of the groups they're each associated with will be taken care of by the process of dialogue and consensus, they can ease up on their assertiveness and position-holding, freeing the consensus council to discover deeper, newer ways to engage with the issues they face.
The nature of a council's catalytic role - Another major factor which is easy to overlook when first encountering this approach is that the relationship between a citizen consensus council and its larger population is as important as the operation of the council, itself. At the very least, the council must report to that population when it is done with its work. Beyond that, there can be a popular expectation developed around the council's deliberations which adds to the impact of what the council says. That expectation can come about through PR hoopla and/or from it having a certain institutionalized status within the community (e.g., it is part of the town charter). And, since a primary purpose of such a council is to raise the quality of dialogue in the larger population, a council's impact can be enhanced by efforts to organize or evoke such popular dialogue explicitly around its findings. Finally, the power of the council is dependent on its ability to clearly reflect the diverse views and latent wisdom of the larger population, and so its proceedings should be clearly free of any outside bias or special interest influence.
Many forms of citizen consensus council have come into being. Variables include:
Since this form (citizen consensus council) is new and (to my knowledge) its variations have never been collected up and articulated AS variations of a single type of process, there is great need and opportunity for research into these variables. I suspect that different designs will be appropriate for different purposes. However, there may be general principles we could learn that would apply to all uses and forms (such as those listed at the beginning of this article). Our understanding of random selection versus scientific demographic selection (for example) could be greatly enhanced with some research -- perhaps even discovering patterns of replicability comparable to those involved in scientific experiments. (See A "scientific" democratic process?)
Variations of citizen consensus councils for which I have found instructions, expertise or replicable models include:
a) Danish consensus conferences (aka citizen technology panels) promoted in the US by the Loka Institute based on the Danish model, in which the government brings together 15 people selected to represent the demographics of the whole population, and gives them a technological issue about which to recommend policy. They interview expert witnesses from across the spectrum of opinion, and then are facilitated to a consensus statement of policy recommendations which is presented to the government and the media. See Ordinary citizens evaluate technology for an introductory U.S. experiment with this approach.
b) Canada's experiment: "The People's Verdict" - In 1991 Maclean's magazine scientifically selected a dozen citizens representative of Canada's ideological, geographical, gender and racial diversity, and gave them three days to come up with a consensus vision for Canada, successfully facilitated by a team from Harvard led by Getting to Yes co-author Roger Fisher. Maclean's and Canadian TV gave the process and its results extensive coverage in July 1991.
c) Wisdom Councils use a form of open-ended, extremely creative consensus process created by consultant Jim Rough called Dynamic Facilitation. 12-24 people chosen at random from the relevant population explore and articulate the concerns of that population and directions they want to move in. Unlike the other forms, wisdom council's have no topic, making them ideal for surfacing broad and emergent issues and dramatically creative options. Of all the proposals I've seen, establishing an official national Wisdom Council would provide the highest leverage for upgrading our democracy and intelligently handling the serious issues we face. Ideally, it would be done as part of a broader program with many other elements (see A New Paradigm Democracy Movement?)
d) The National
Commons is a project which convenes diverse people who
are already working on a particular social problem from across
the political spectrum, to help them come to consensus. Unlike
in the other forms of citizen consensus panel, the consensus people
finally reach in a National Commons dialogue can be immediately
implemented, since they and their associates are the people
working on the problem.
I also know of two forms of citizen deliberation that are closely
related to citizen consensus councils, but don't quite fit the
definition. They are modeled on traditional juries, but don't
necessarily use consensus. However, they would likely play significant
roles in evolving to a society based on citizen consensus standards.
e) Citizen juries organized by the Jefferson Center - "In a Citizens Jury® project, a randomly selected and demographically representative panel of citizens meets for four or five days to carefully examine an issue of public significance. The jury of citizens, usually consisting of 18 individuals, serves as a microcosm of the public. Jurors are paid a stipend for their time. They hear from a variety of expert witnesses and are able to deliberate together on the issue. On the final day of their moderated hearings, the members of the Citizens Jury present their recommendations to the public."
f) Civil grand juries. For an example of how the civil grand jury system was used to wake up a community to the demands of Y2K, see the Marin County Grand Jury report at http://grandjury.marin.org/1998gj/y2k/index.html
Citizen consensus councils are neither necessary nor sufficient for a co-intelligent political order. However, I believe they provide us with the most powerful step we could take in that direction. To increase that power even further, we need to create synergies between citizen consensus councils and other forms of co-intelligence and democratic politics. Articles where I explore this include:
A New Paradigm Democracy Movement?
Citizen consensus councils and direct democracy
The story of Pat and Pat -- the view from the year 2019
Creating a Culture of Dialogue
A toolbox of co-intelligent processes for Y2K community work