Consensus forums are a popular method of deliberative democracy when complex, broad policy issues require a workable if not peaceable agreement among disparate groups.
Problems and Purpose
Like consensus conferences, consensus forums are a popular method of deliberative democracy when complex, broad policy issues require a workable if not peaceable agreement among disparate groups. Where the two differ is in the number of active participants in the plenary session. While consensus conferences call together a limited number of people (10-15) to formulate questions to a panel of experts and so come to a decision, consensus forums often involve 80-130 individuals who work in small groups to develop points of consensus (NCDD 2008). The forum format is more amenable to situations in which the policy issue is sufficiently broad to demand a range of suggested approaches rather than one plan of attack (Aspiri 2010). For example, consensus conferences tend to be used in the area science and technology to determine which kinds of advancements should or should not be pursued. Consensus forums are often deployed in broader policy areas such as sustainability and the environment where a number of different approaches may be taken to effect the same result. Deliberative democracy scholar and practitioner Janette Hartz-Karp defines consensus as "accepting differences and working together on common ground and/or agreeing on a process to make decisions (rather than mediation, conflict resolution, or Alternative Dispute Resolution)" (Hartz-Karp 2004).
Origins and Development
Consensus forums are not a new form of deliberative decision making and have been in use if not since the first consensus conferences in the 1960s then shortly thereafter. Western Australia deployed the forum methodology to varying degrees of success between 2001 and 2005 when then Minister of the Department of Planning and Infrastructure Alannah MacTiernan worked closely with 21st Century Democracy to increase the number of public consultations on various policy measures.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
There is no one participant selection method used in the service of consensus forums but many different approaches taken depending on the context. For example, the NCDD recommends that a Community Reference Group - made up of but not limited to stakeholders, community leaders, and government representatives - be established to oversee the entire process and ensure that it is transparent and respectful (NCDD 2008). As well, to ensure that a broad range of views and opinions are represented and that there is a balance of stakeholders and non-aligned citizens, the NCDD recommends three selection methods:
- "Community members responding to invitations sent to a large random sample of the population, usually targeted to geographical areas and other relevant demographic criteria
- Community members responding to advertisements in state wide and local newspapers
- Invitations sent to the broadest range of stakeholders, including industry groups, community lobby groups, interest groups, state and local government" (NCDD 2008)
The final group of participants, numbering between 80 and 130, should have a roughly equal share of persons draw through each of the three methods.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
After the Community Reference Group is established it is possible to work on the second step of the process while the participants are being selected. This step consists of drawing together an information package to hand out to the participants days if not weeks before the start of the actual event. The package should present general background material on the issue including both (or all, as the case may be) view points and opinions. It is the job of the Community Reference Group to ensure that the briefing is an accurate, balanced representation of the issue from both its proponents and detractors and that it highlights the key issues in need of resolve.
Along with their individual pre-forum reading, participants may be asked to being formulating questions for the panel.
Once at the forum, participants will be divided into small, pre-determined groups of 8-10 people. It is important that the Community Reference Group establish a seating chart before the event to ensure an equal balance of stakeholders, proponents, opponents, and non-aligned citizens are represented in each working group.
Overseeing the entire process is a head facilitator and each working group is given their own facilitator/coordinator. The NCDD recommends that the small group coordinators be government representatives, bureaucrats or head business men and that they be given instruction on proper moderating techniques. The table facilitator’s main role is to listen and provide clarifying answers whenever possible. The key decision maker – usually but not always a head government official – is also expected to be present during the forum as a reminder of the focus on strategic partnering between all those affected by the issue and policy decisions at hand. It is recommended that the individual make themselves available to all groups when needed, going around the room “answering questions, clarifying the government or organization’s position where needed, and listening” (NCDD 2008).
Once seated, the participants introduce themselves and are reminded of expectations such as respectful or empathetic listening and the reaching of a consensus. The briefing papers are then presented to the table with panelists representing the different points of view answer questions, clarifying their positions and highlighting the key issues at stake. Working as a group, participants brainstorm various measures and actions to be taken in resolving each of the key issues. The method(s) through which common ground is reached and the options are prioritized can vary from forum to forum. For example, ‘station rounds’ may be used to better visualize the number of key issues, the breadth of possible modes of address and the level of preference for each among participants. Other techniques such as De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats or empathetic listening may be used to help participants visualize the issue from different points of view. The forum discussions may take up to three days in order for a consensus to be reached and all prioritized decisions recorded.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Following the forum, the lead decision maker chooses and leads an Implementation Team consisting of a diverse group of forum participants. The Team is charged with compiling all consensus decisions and developing a 'plan of attack'. Depending on the breadth and complexity of the topic addressed at the forum, sub-Teams or 'Project Teams' may be established to deal with different areas of the issue. For example, a forum held on sustainability may require one Team to work on air pollution and another to focus on agricultural degredation. To assist them in their endeavours, each project Team is supplied with one or more industry experts to deal with the more technical aspects associated with the implementation of the forum's recommendations. It is preferable that each project Team consist of at least one member from the head Implementation Team (Hartz-Karp 2004).
The final step relies on event coordinators having establish a stable line of communication with participants following the forum. It is expected that participants be kept up-to-date on the implementation process and, when appropriate, that "the Forum is reconvened some time later to review the implementation outcomes in order to ensure that the Forum’s intent has been actioned" (Hartz-Karp 2004).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
It is important that event planners be open to criticism both before, during and after the forum so that problems can be addressed as they come up and so that we, as practitioners and scholars, may learn more about the efficacy of certain modes of action. During the forum, table facilitators will check-in periodically with the lead moderator to provide feedback on the process. The facilitators will also be debriefed following the event so they can discuss what they learned and what aspects of the process might be improved in future.
Participants are also a welcome source of feedback on the process either through surveys. open-ended questionnaires or in-person interviews.
NCDD Resources Center: "Consensus Forum" (2008). http://ncdd.org/rc/item/2924
Aspiri, Kramer: "Consensus Conference" (2010). https://participedia.xyz/method/163
Hartz-Karp, Janette: "Breakthrough Initiatives in Governing With the People: The Australian Experience," National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation. 2004.