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Ordinary Folks Recommend Good Policy


Note: Citizen technology panels (consensus conferences)
are one form of citizen consensus council.

See also Experts and Citizens


This story illustrates the application in the U.S. of Danish citizen technology panels.

During the winter of 1997 fifteen Boston citizens -- from a homeless shelter resident to a high-tech business manager, from a retired farmer to a recent inner-city high school graduate -- undertook an intensive study of telecommunications issues. Over two weekends in February and March, they discussed background readings and got introductory briefings. Then on April 2nd and 3rd they heard ten hours of testimony from experts -- computer specialists, government officials, business executives, educators, and interest group representatives. After interrogating the experts and deliberating late into the night (with excellent facilitation), they came up with a consensus statement recommending judicious but far-reaching policy changes which they presented at a press conference at Tufts University, covered by WCVB-TV/CNN and the "Boston Globe", among others. U.S. Representative Edward J. Markey, ranking Democrat (and former chair) of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, said, "This is a process that I hope will be repeated in other parts of the country and on other issues."

Dick Sclove, formerly of the Loka Institute (, a lead organizer of the meeting, noted that this was the first time in modern United States history that someone had successfully organized informed input from ordinary citizens -- none of whom were experts on the policy issues they were learning about nor representatives of organizations with a direct stake -- in a systematic effort to provide public guidance to shape policy on technology or any other complex issue. This was the first U.S. emulation of a European process (known abroad as a "consensus conference") for citizen-based technology assessment.

Noting that these ordinary citizens ended up knowing more about telecommunications than the average Congressperson who votes on the issue, Sclove says that their behavior contrasts with the assertion that government and business officials are the only ones competent and caring enough to be involved in technological decision-making. This lay panel assimilated a broad array of testimony, which they integrated with their own very diverse life experiences to reach a well-reasoned collective judgement grounded in the real needs of everyday people. This proves that democratizing U.S. science and technology decision-making is not only advisable, but possible and practical.


Professor David Guston of Rutgers University has recently completed an independent impact evaluation of this event. Download a free copy of his study (No. 5 in the Bloustein School
Working Paper Series 9/3/98) from

Here are further notes from the Loka Institute:

Parliament's Board of Technology, which invented the consensus
conference process for citizen-based policy deliberation over a
decade ago, has recently begun translating many of its Web pages
into English. For documents describing the consensus conference
methodology, go to: <>. The
laypanel reports from a number of Danish consensus conferences
are available at: <>.

undergraduate students at McMaster University in Canada helped
organize a mini-consensus conference on the topic of mandatory
student use of laptop computers. The "laypanel" was composed of
McMaster faculty, staff and students; the "expert" panel was
composed of 6 undergraduate McMaster students in Science,
Technology & Public Policy. A report of their work, which was
inspired partly by the Loka Institute's pilot Citizens' Panel, is
available on the Web at: <
>. Prof. Bob Hudspith reports that the budget
for this mini-consensus conference was $1,825:

Budget: Honorarium for panelists $775.
Honorarium for moderator 200.
Posters, room set-up, misc 500.
Hospitality services (the
panel met over dinner) 350.

(For comparison, full-scale -- i.e., nationwide -- European
consensus conferences have typically cost U.S.$100,000 -


If you want exact information on the technology panels themselves, there is no better source in English than Dick Sclove, author of the seminal DEMOCRACY AND TECHNOLOGY (Guilford Press, 1995).  He can be reached at

Now an independent consultant, he was founder and former director of The Loka Institute, P.O. Box 355, Amherst, MA 01004 / Tel (413) 559-5860 / Fax (413) 559-5811 / / / .