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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Consensus Workshops

A consensus conference is a type of public meeting that allows stakeholders to be involved in assessing an issue or proposal and working together to find common ground and deliver consensus-based input. The conference is a dialogue between experts and citizens. It is open to the public and the media. This is an opportunity to include all stakeholders, especially marginalized communities.

Formal consensus conferences are generally two to four days and include the following activities:

  • Panelists hear experts’ responses to questions
  • After hearing these responses, panelists ask follow-up questions
  • The audience is given an opportunity to ask questions
  • The panel deliberates and prepares a position statement to achieve consensus on the issue
  • Panelists present outcomes
  • Planning committee prepares a report of the outcomes and distributes to panelists, media, and decision-making bodies

The citizen panel plays the leading role by formulating questions to be taken up at the conference and participating in the selection of experts to answer them. The citizen panel has two weekends for this preparation. The expert panel is selected in a way that ensures that essential opposing views and professional conflicts can emerge and be discussed at the conference. An advisory/planning committee has the overall responsibility for making sure that all rules of a democratic, fair, and transparent process have been followed. Consensus conferences have mostly been used where the topic being investigated concerns management, science, or technology. They require a strict adherence to the rules of implementation to be successful. Where members of the community feel their views go unheard, the consensus conference offers an exciting participatory technique for democratic participation.

Advantages

  • Gives members of the community a chance to have their say on community issues, increase their knowledge of and ability to participate in such a discussion, and come to one position statement that all participants can “own.”
  • At the end of a consensus conference, the outcome should be a position statement that reflects the joint decision(s) of all participants on an issue or proposal
  • Assists in the facilitation of public debate from a range of perspectives
  • Empowers lay people to develop an informed understanding and make some contribution to the development of policy on a sensitive topic
  • Demonstrates a plurality of views on issues
  • Bridges the gap between experts and lay people, including previously excluded members of the community.
  • Can develop new knowledge

Challenges to Consider

  • High costs for set up and recruitment of participants and staging the event
  • The conference would run for a two-to-four day period and therefore can be costly
  • The process of panelist selection can be difficult and a stakeholder assessment must be performed to determine the relevant groups that should participate; this will ensure that representation from the relevant groups is achieved
  • For the citizen panel, need to recruit members who are representative and from a wide range of backgrounds rather than members of the community who are usually present in participatory processes
  • Strict adherence to the implementation rules is required for the conference to be successful
  • The formal nature of the tool can restrict impartiality
  • Rapid production of reports and findings is required
  • Choice of an effective facilitator is critical to the success of the conference

Principles for Successful Planning

  • Select an advisory/planning committee to have the overall responsibility for making sure that all rules of a democratic, fair, and transparent process have been followed
  • Organize a public meeting and advertise the venue, time and topic to the public, experts in the field to be discussed, the media and appropriate decision-making bodies
  • Select participants for the citizen panel, ensuring a representative sample of the geographic area and/or relevant community groups (about 14 people)
  • Hire a professional facilitator to work with the citizen panel during its preparation
  • Book suitable venues for the citizen panel to meet over two weekends to work with a facilitator to formulate the questions to be taken up at the conference and participate in the selection of experts to answer the questions
  • With the help of the citizen panel, select the expert panel in a way that ensures that essential opposing views and professional conflicts can emerge and be discussed at the conference. Good experts are not only knowledgeable but also open-minded and good communicators with an overview of their field

Resources Needed

Staffing

  • Moderator/facilitator
  • Experts
  • Recorders
  • Administrative and logistical support
  • Photographer/videographer

Materials

  • Publicity
  • Venue and appropriate furniture
  • Refreshments
  • Audio and visual recording and amplification
  • Data projectors
  • Video
  • Projection screen
  • Props for working in groups (pens, paper, pins, etc.)
  • Child care
  • Interpretation, if necessary

Planning Time

  • There is significant planning involved and can take several months.

Implementation Time

  • Two-to-four days in general.

Group Size

  • Limited number of panelists but a large audience can also attend and participate.

Cost

  • Relatively high because of the large number of staff required.

Most relevant participation levels:

  • Most appropriate at higher levels of participation, particularly collaboration.

For More Information:

Consensus Conference Manual, LEI, The Hague (PDF) (40 pp, 405K,  About PDF Files)  Exit

Explore the full Public Participation Guide.


Contacts

For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:

Shereen Kandil
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460
E-mail: kandil.shereen@epa.gov