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Achieving public dialogue
Achieving public dialogue

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3.6 How valuable have consensus conferences proved to be?

From the two case studies just considered, certain factors seem critical for the success of lay input into decision making. First, both the choice of topic of the conference and its presentation is crucial. If the plant biotechnology conference had been billed as ‘genetic modification’ (as opposed to plant biotechnology), it might have had more resonance with the political and popular perceptions and hence had greater impact. Independence of the lay or citizens' panel is another key point. To avoid influence from organised lobby groups, participants need to be carefully selected. Participants with entrenched views on the issue are not suitable candidates for the lay or citizens' panel. Similarly, organisers and organising authorities should be neutral on the issue under discussion to safeguard the credibility of the process (Palmer, 1999).

What these case studies also reveal is that public engagement by this means does not guarantee input into decision making. A complex combination of practical and contextual issues influences the outcome. However, the consensus conference on radioactive waste promises to have a demonstrable impact on policy making, largely owing to the stated willingness of policy makers to take citizens' panel advice on board.

Consensus conferences, and variations on them, continue to be used internationally to involve the public on issues in science and technology. Australia held a consensus conference in 1999 on gene technology in the food chain, but whether this had an impact on subsequent policy could not be unambiguously determined (Mohr, 2002). New Zealand, Switzerland, South Korea, Canada and Japan are amongst a long list of countries that have held consensus conferences on topics relating mainly to policy on biotechnology (for example, cloning in the case of South Korea) and telecommunications technologies. However, Denmark remains the only country in which there is an established, long-running tradition of using public engagement mechanisms of this type on a regular, national basis. Although consensus conferences (and other participatory methods) are not used as a means of delegating legislative authority to the lay panel, their reports continue to inform Parliamentary decisions in Denmark. Indeed, the process is institutionalised rather than ad hoc: the Danish Board of Technology is an overarching body that oversees a variety of public participation mechanisms and has clear links to Parliament without compromising its perceived independence.

Of course, many questions remain about the value of consensus conferences. Can a small lay panel be truly representative of public values? If conferences are funded by bodies that have a vested interest in the outcome, can they remain independent? Do consensus conferences really represent public engagement in policy making if there is no obligation on behalf of decision makers to take their findings into account? The answers to these questions are far from clear cut and perhaps mitigate against a wider uptake of the consensus conference model as a means of public engagement in policy.