The New Engineer
This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.
In Australia non-expert opinion on technological issues is held in low regard. However in Denmark the views of laypeople are highly valued and it is believed that a profound understanding of technological issues can only be attained if citizens are involved. Democracy has long been seen in Denmark to be dependent on citizens being well-educated and politically engaged. This is referred to as "people's enlightenment" or folkeplysning.
In this context the Danish Board of Technology, established by the Danish parliament in 1985, has developed the consensus conference to promote democratic participation in technology assessment. The consensus conference involves a panel of laypeople becoming informed about topic, listening to a variety of experts and writing a report that reflects the consensus they have reached about the topic. The idea of the consensus conferences is to find out how the community, if it was well informed, would view particular technological developments or issues.
The Board states in its literature that laypeople "bring to the conferences a basic 'common sense' derived from worries, visions, general view and actual everyday experience as their basis for asking a number of essential questions concerned with the given subject." According to Jan Ejlsted, the Board's Vice-Director, because the lay panel gives advice to parliament, the people involved see themselves as citizens rather than consumers and try to act responsibly rather than in a self-interested way.
The lay panel is not representative of sectors or interests in society, as the round tables in Canada or the ESD working groups in Australia were, but rather are chosen to reflect a broad cross-section of society. Letters are sent to 2000 randomly selected people asking for volunteers and then the panel is chosen from the 150 or so responses they typically get to these letters. The selection is done to balance for things like gender, geographical location, education, occupation and to ensure the participants' openness on the topic.
Lars Klüver, also from the Danish Board of Technology, argues that representativeness is not relevant as the process is not based on votes and is not supposed to be like a poll. Rather the aim is to find out what sort of consensus a "demographically 'mixed' lay panel" can reach on the topic. The idea is to combine the wisdom and experience of citizens with the insight and tools of experts. The results are communicated to decision makers and to the community to encourage public debate.
Experts are selected to answer questions posed by the lay panel and present their own views. Experts are defined as people with relevant knowledge exceeding general knowledge, and the expert panel includes scientific experts as well as "opinion-forming experts" who may be representatives of interest groups. The expert panel is selected on the basis of the lay panel's wishes as well as to ensure that opposing points of views and technical interpretations are presented.
The consensus conferences are reported to be a great success. Some have resulted in new legislation, the reports are widely quoted in parliamentary speeches and in journal articles. They are also heavily covered by the media raising public awareness of issues and impacting on political discussion. What is more they demonstrate that lay people can understand complicated issues if they are interested and spend the time to become informed.
Politicians like them because they come up with new policy options. Ejlsted says this is because laypeople take a more holistic view and bring new perspectives to the debate. Experts like them because they provide a forum for them to present their opinions and expertise at a political level and a way to bridge the gap between experts and ordinary people. Ejlsted claims that many experts involved in these conferences have been surprised at how well ordinary people have been able to grasp technical issues.
The Danish experience with consensus conferences has confirmed the value of citizen opinion in technological debates. It is a lesson other countries are already taking note of and several countries have experimented with similar forums modelled on the Danish conferences.