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Citizens Deliberate About Public Issues

CHAPTER 13 from The Tao of Democracy by Tom Atlee

[A]s our social, environmental and economic problems become more complex, our political system is reaching the limits of it capacity to meaningfully respond …

     Thomas Jefferson …espoused what has been called the "politics of engagement," a model in which people work together in a spirit of cooperation to find common ground and solve mutual problems. The Jeffersonian model rests on the conviction that people are essentially reasonable, and will work to achieve the common good if they can agree on or be brought to understand what it is …

     Nowhere does our current political structure offer a place where people can come together to balance the needs of the larger community …[T]here is a gap in our system of governance –a gap that has everything to do with our ability to create a sustainable future … What government does not do very well …is to bring people together to solve problems –especially when the problems are complex and the solutions require the participation of many people …

     [I]t is now time to build the structure that will give us a place to come together to solve the problems and seize the opportunities of today that our current government system cannot or will not address.


In the last chapter we saw a group addressing a big national conflict over the vision for their country. Such citizen deliberation has also been used to address specific social problems and policy options.

     Ten years and two weeks after the Maclean’s group completed their process in Canada, a gathering of citizens took place in India. Twenty individuals, some of whom were illiterate, were chosen to represent the diversity of their state. They met in the impoverished village of Algole to investigate development policy. For five days, they explored various scenarios in detail. Unlike the Maclean’s group, these Indian citizens had the opportunity to interview experts on all sides of the issue. After a great deal of conversation, they finally decided on the kind of agriculture and development policy they really wanted.

     Their meeting and their findings were reported in several newspapers in England, the country from which much of the money for development in their state was due to come. I have included a more detailed version of their story below, as yet another example of the thesis that "If you give a group of diverse typical citizens a chance to learn about an issue and talk about it well with each other, they will come up with ways to handle the issue that make a lot of sense to a lot of people."

     Yet the farmers in India are not the only ones to have replicated this experiment. In the decade between the event in Canada and the one in India, thousands of ordinary people have been involved in hundreds of similar councils of various types. After learning about complex issues from each other and from a variety of expert testimony, they have been able to generate surprisingly sophisticated recommendations about how their governments and others should proceed.

      What exactly are these "citizen deliberative councils," and what do they have to do with politics and government as we know it? How do they work? What sorts of issues do they cover? What different ways of doing our politics and governance do they make possible? Let us take a closer look.

Development according to whom?
A citizens ’jury in India

On June 25, 2001, twenty "marginal-livelihood" farmers, small traders, small food processors, and consumers –mostly women and mostly "untouchables" – converged on the village of Algole in India’s impoverished Medak District. They came from all over the state of Andhra Pradesh, whose rural diversity they embodied in their group. Some of them had never left their local villages before. Although many could not read or write, they were determined to learn and to make their voices heard about an issue that would have a profound effect on their lives: the future of agriculture in their state. They were concerned with the direction of economic development and the genetic engineering of food crops. They had come to participate in a Prajateerpu, a citizens’ jury or "People’s Verdict," organized by two UK-based non-governmental organizations – the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Institute of Development Studies – along with The Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity, the leading forum for discussing different agricultural options for the state’s future.

     For some time the British government, the World Bank and some North American consultants had been working with state officials to develop a twenty-year strategy to mechanize, consolidate and genetically engineer Andhra Pradesh’s agriculture to produce cash crops for export, and to reduce the farming population from seventy percent to forty percent, freeing workers up for industry. None of these powerful people had formally asked the impoverished Indian citizens, who were supposed to benefit from these developments, whether they liked this new direction or not. The citizens’ jury was designed to correct that omission. 

     The jurors were given three scenarios to consider: One was that official plan, put forward by Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister and backed by grants and loans from the World Bank and the UK government. The second scenario, supported by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and the International Trade Center (a shared project of the UN and the World Trade Organization to promote trade in developing countries) involved developing environmentally friendly agriculture to produce cheap organic products for domestic and Northern supermarkets. The third vision, heavily influenced by Gandhian and indigenous ideas, involved increasing local self-reliance and sustainability in both agriculture and economics.

     Each vision was presented through videos illustrating key features of life under that vision, followed by a summary of the policies and institutions that steered Andhra Pradesh in that direction. Jurors then heard testimony from, and cross-examined, expert witnesses, including key government officials, scientists, corporate and civil society representatives from all levels – state, national and international

     Sometimes passions ran high. Having heard from one expert that a genetically engineered plant contained a gene from a deep-sea fish, one juror retorted: "I think these scientists and all their equipment should be thrown into the bottom of the sea.

     The fairness of the process, the materials and the selection of expert witnesses were overseen by an outside panel chaired by a former Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court. The World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development had also been invited to act as independent observers, although The World Bank refused to attend.

     The jury members – impoverished in material wealth, but not in skills, experience or perspective – considered the pros and cons of each vision, based on their own knowledge, priorities and aspirations. Free to choose any of the three visions, they were also encouraged to use them as raw material with which to craft their own unique vision. They explored their choices, and the likely consequences of their choices, for days, and then came to their conclusion.


In their recommendations, released on July 1, they said they wanted self-reliant food and farming, and community control over resources. They wanted to maintain healthy soils, diverse crops, trees and livestock, and to build on their indigenous knowledge, practical skills and local institutions. They wanted to maintain the high percentage of people making their livelihood from the land, and did not want their farms consolidated or mechanized in ways that would displace rural people. Most of them could feed their families through their own sustenance farming. They did not want to end up laboring in dangerous brick kilns outside of Hyderabad, like so many who had left their farms. They also rejected genetically modified crops and the export of their local medicinal plants. They provided many suggestions for practical steps that could be taken by various parties to help realize their vision.

    The People had spoken. Their voice was heard loud and clear by the sponsoring organizations. Whether they will be heard by the powers-that-be remains to be seen. Organizers hoped that the jury process and verdict would

encourage more public deliberation and pluralism in the framing and implementation of policies on food and agriculture in Andhra Pradesh, thus contributing to democratic governance. Because of Andhra Pradesh ’s status as one of India’s model states, the outcomes of this deliberative and inclusive process should be of national and international significance. (Pimbert and Wakeford, 2001)

Using downpour to build community

Ten weeks after the Indian jurors returned to their homes in Andhra Pradesh, fifteen Australians in the crowded Sydney suburb of Bronte came together for a citizens’ jury of their own. They had never done anything like it before, they knew nothing about what happened in India or Canada, and they had never met one another. It was all new. They had been convened to deal with the problem of stormwater that was eroding their lush landscape and polluting their spectacular beaches.

     Perhaps most interesting of all, many of the jury members didn’t know much about the stormwater issue before they were selected for the jury. Although they had seen the rubbish, leaves, and grass cuttings on the beach, they knew little about the heavy metals, fertilizers and other pollutants that washed into the popular surf with each storm. However, by the end of the jury process, they had all become quite expert, concerned and sure of what was needed to handle the problem.

     Sponsored by the mayor, Councilor Paul Pearce, and the New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority (NSW EPA), the jury was organized by The Bronte Catchment Project, part of a private consulting firm. The Project sent out an info package to all 877 Bronte households listed in the phone book. 358 responded and participated in a telephone survey. The results were tabulated and saved for the upcoming citizens’ jury.

     Through the poll and various community promotions, The Project then recruited a pool of candidates whom they interviewed further, finally selecting fifteen who represented "a demographic cross-section of people with a range of environmental views, values and involvement in the local community." They specifically did not want "the usual suspects" – the active partisans who always show up at public meetings. Instead, they wanted ordinary citizens who were "normally impeded from participating in civic issues, and/or not readily perceived as effective stakeholders." They wanted people, in short, who needed only a supportive and structured forum to free up their creative participation in community affairs. Looking back over the process, project organizer Roberta Ryan believes the diversity of the participants "gave us incredible vitality." It also supported the legitimacy of their findings in the eyes of a diverse audience of officials and citizens.

     One thing these very different citizen jurors had in common: They all loved their community. One described it vividly as "one of the jewels of the Sydney beach scene. It’s actually quite a small enclosed valley, with a beautiful piece of remnant bushland in the Bronte gully, flowing down to a not very large beach with beautiful headlines and rock platforms." Another said, "It’s a very special shape, a landform shape. It’s very sort of cradling, you know, it’s cradling of its community."

     After reading detailed briefing papers, going to several orientation meetings, and getting to know one another a bit, the citizens’ jury formally met in the city council chambers for three days. They read  more reports, grilled expert witnesses – including a scientist, a deep ecologist, an engineer, and a community educator – and deliberated together assisted by a professional facilitator. When they were finally ready, their recommendations were presented to representatives from their city council, NSW EPA and its Stormwater Trust, and to members of their community in a formal ceremony.

     The team that organized the project worked hard to make sure that the citizens’ jury’s recommendations would be taken seriously by engaging local, state and Commonwealth officials as sponsors and by ensuring the integrity of the process. As organizer Ryan said, the city council knew "that the recommendations coming to them on this project [would] be a set of ideas that have had more rigorous scrutiny than any other form of input that they could have into their decision making."


The jury’s recommendations were remarkably creative, practical, and achievable, including many low-cost suggestions utilizing community information and participation. As a local radio reporter noted, "They cut across education, research, regulation and urban planning, and they were simple, but good ideas."

     These were the sort of recommendations that I like to call "common sense community wisdom." This jury’s integrated, sustainable approach, aimed at a broad range of stakeholders, was remarkably sophisticated, especially considering they knew so little about the problem just weeks before. I would like to share some of what they said, to show you what I mean by common sense community wisdom.

     The jury avoided dependence on high-tech "end of the pipe" solutions. Instead, they talked about a community mulching station for clippings and leaves, a public car-washing space in which run-off could be controlled, bins and ashtrays in strategic places, using porous materials for car parks (parking lots) so water could soak into the ground instead of running off, setting up practice-display houses and businesses to model sustainable water practices, and supplying police with cameras to photograph stormwater law violations. 

     The jury added that their primary high-tech solution – monitoring invisible chemical pollutants – should "have a participative and educative focus, utilising local knowledge and resources," and therefore, it "needs to be conducted in partnership with community groups, such as schools, precincts, surf clubs, Beachwatch, Streamwatch, etc.; and universities linking to students doing internships and research projects." They also wanted the results of the monitoring widely and regularly publicized.

     In other words, they wanted the community involved. The citizen jurors knew that pollution prevention ultimately would require the informed participation of everyone, from businesses to children to tourists, and so they issued recommendations addressed to them all. They even instructed bureaucrats to practice "integrated approaches" that included educational and participatory activities as well as engineering solutions.

     Their advocacy of "education and participation" included "building knowledge, attitudes, skills and behaviours through involving the community with stormwater issues, from whatever starting point they are at, and through whatever means most suits their needs" – from informative signs to street festivals to school curricula to public performances to special briefings for new residents.

     During the information-gathering part of the deliberations, the jury had listened to indigenous perspectives as well as others. As a result, they developed sophisticated environmental, cultural and historic sensibilities that were demonstrated by their use of the term "permanent visitors" to refer to residents like themselves. Tourists were "temporary visitors." The jurors were, in effect, saying "We’re all just visiting here. We need to steward this place while we’re here, for those who will come after."

     Their understanding of the systemic dynamics of the problem was reflected in their admonition that the flow of water had to be not only reduced, but also slowed and absorbed, to prevent erosion. They advocated increasing the ratio of pervious to impervious surfaces in all areas of their community, including reducing the amount of ground covered by construction at any building site, so that water could soak into the ground. To contain and take up the run-off, they advocated increasing the planting of deep-rooted vegetation, as well as the installation of tanks to hold and recycle rainwater for other uses.

     In other words, they had some fairly sophisticated suggestions – not the kind of shallow answers they would have given if some pollster had asked for their off-the-cuff stormwater opinions a few weeks earlier.


The jury, which was originally due to dissolve on completion of its immediate task, felt spunky enough to request that the city council report to them on progress regarding their recommendations, and to attend to jury members’ subsequent comments about that progress.

     Mayor Pearce was worried at first about the possible consequences of sponsoring the citizens’ jury. 

It might have finished up in a shambles. [But] in fact what we have seen is the capacity of your local citizen, your local resident, or your local visitor, to absorb and analyze some very detailed technical information, to think strategically and to think outside of the square, to coin a cliché, and pull in different strands of what are otherwise and all too often separate and discrete disciplines …[Their] recommendations are …very broad, they’re also achievable, and they’re extremely creative. They’re not all big dollar items.

     When asked by radio reporter Natasha Mitchell if he was interested in using citizens’ juries to address other issues, Mayor Pearce replied, "I think this is a very exciting initiative and procedure for achieving greater levels of public involvement. I’d encourage other local governments to do it. I think elected people and those who are in a representative structure, have got nothing to fear from involving the broader community." (Mitchell and de Blas,2001)

Citizens’ juries

These stories from India and Australia are but two examples of what may be the most popular form of citizen deliberative council – the citizens’ jury. In it, a group is selected to fairly reflect the diversity of a particular population. They proceed to learn about and deliberate on an issue that concerns that larger population. For three to five days, they hear and cross-examine a broad spectrum of experts and then craft their recommendations, which are publicly presented to official bodies (councils, committees, agencies, etc.) and also to the public, often through the media. Usually an advisory committee containing authorities who represent the full range of opinion about the issue being discussed oversees the fairness of the whole process.

     The Jefferson Center, a nonprofit organization in the U.S. founded by citizen deliberation pioneer Ned Crosby, has organized more than thirty Citizens Juries® in the U.S. in the last twenty-five years.* The topics covered include urban solid waste, property tax reform, physician-assisted suicide policy, the future of public schools, environmental risks, at-risk children, health care reform, various budget priorities, and mayoral, gubernatorial and presidential candidates. They considered issues of a church and several school districts as well as the concerns of numerous cities, counties, states and the whole United States. They discovered that there is no collective issue, and no level of social organization, for which a Citizens Jury® would not provide useful insight and guidance.

*The Jefferson Center has trademarked the capitalized version of the phrase Citizens Jury®, and has reserved the use of the phrase in the United States for citizen deliberative councils overseen by them. Similar efforts that do not use that phrase, or that are undertaken in other countries, do not require their involvement or approval.

Planning cells

A few years before Ned Crosby developed Citizens Juries in the U.S., Peter Dienel developed "planning cells" (Planungzellen) in Germany.* Although similar to Citizens Juries in many respects, planning cell projects are unique in that a number of more or less identical juries (or "cells") are held simultaneously, usually in different locations, each with about twenty-five members. The conclusions of the diverse cells are collected, compared and then compiled into one "citizen report" by the organizers/facilitators. After participants have the opportunity to review the composite report, it is presented to the sponsor, the media and other interested parties. Most German planning cell projects are commissioned by government bodies, and there is a contract between all of the parties involved that requires the commissioning body to publicize its response to the final recommendations.

     The largest project thus far that has used this approach was a national deliberation about a computer networking issue that involved privacy concerns. The process was sponsored by the federal government, and consisted of twenty-two simultaneous four-day planning cells involving five hundred citizens in eight towns.

*Incidentally, the discovery of planning cells and Citizens Juries is a case of independent, almost simultaneous discovery reminiscent of Newton and Leibnitz’s development of calculus and Darwin and Wallace’s discovery of natural selection. Neither Crosby nor Dienel knew of the other when they made their innovations. They met many years later and were startled by the number of similarities, both in their process designs and in their personal lives.

Danish-style consensus conferences

Denmark is the only place in the world where I have found this sort of citizen deliberation institutionalized as an ongoing part of the operations of government. Once or twice a year, when the Danish Parliament decides to consider new policy to deal with some major technological issue, they convene a form of citizen council, called a consensus conference, to review it.

     The Danish government has a special office, The Danish Board of Technology, similar to the now-abolished U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. When asked by Parliament, this office convenes a panel of fifteen ordinary citizens selected to represent the diversity of the Danish population. It then assists the citizen panel in studying and recommending policy guidelines for the particular technology Parliament is considering. In 1999, for example, a citizen panel investigated genetic engineering of food.

     The members of the consensus conference’s citizen panel begin by reading briefing papers. Then they discuss with the Board of Technology organizers the questions that come up for them. The citizen panel decides which experts, from across the spectrum of opinion on the subject, they want to have testify before them. A public consensus conference is then held in which the lay panel interviews these selected experts – who, as Frances Moore Lappé notes, may be surprised to find themselves on tap to the citizenry, instead of on top of the decision-making process. When the testimony is over, the citizen panelists are professionally facilitated to a consensus statement about what they think should be done about the technology. Their findings are presented to the government and to the press and sometimes citizen study groups are organized around the country to discuss the report.

     Like citizens’ juries, Danish-style consensus conferences are remarkable for the extent to which their process ensures that the results cannot be credibly attacked as biased. This model has been successfully applied in over a dozen other countries. Consensus conference organizers usually follow the following steps (informed largely by Grundahl, 1995):


  1. Pick a salient topic, not too broad, not too narrow, that involves some real conflict and expertise. The topic chosen is one of current concern for the legislature, who may be considering formal legislation on the subject in the next six months or so.

  2. Choose a steering committee of known partisan authorities who represent different and opposing perspectives; who are familiar with the full scope of the topic; and who are willing to support an unbiased effort. This steering committee will oversee the organization of the consensus conference and the fairness of its informational materials.

  3. Advertise in newspapers for volunteer lay participants, requesting a one-page letter describing the volunteer ’s background and reasons for wanting to participate.

  4. From the 100-200 replies, choose about fifteen who roughly represent the demographic breadth of the country’s population and who lack prior knowledge of or partisan interest in the topic.*

  5. Commission a background paper that maps the political terrain surrounding the issue. Have it screened and approved by the steering committee.

    *Note re 3 and 4: Some Danish panels have been picked by inviting participants from an age/gender balanced random selection of 1200 Danes from the central registry of the population. From the respondents, twelve to sixteen competent citizens are selected who together provide demographic diversity (gender, age, education, occupation, and geography) for the panel. (From correspondence between Lars Torres of America Speaks and Lars Kluver of the Danish Board of Technology, relayed to Tom Atlee by Torres 10/8/2002.)


  1. Organize an initial preparatory weekend meeting at which you discuss the background paper with the lay group and work with them to formulate questions for experts. During this time, provide opportunities for the lay panelists to get to know one another and develop their ability to reason together.

  2. Assemble an expert panel that covers the technical and scientific dimensions of the problem, as well as its ethical and societal implications. Include significant stakeholder representatives.

  3. Organize a second preparatory weekend meeting in which the lay panel discusses background readings provided by the steering committee, refines their questions and revises the expert panel list to suit their needs.

  4. Request that the experts prepare succinct oral and written responses to the group’s questions, using language understandable by ordinary people.


  1. Announce an open public forum – a consensus conference – in which the lay and expert panels will meet together, attracting media, legislators and interested citizens in a large public building.

  2. On Day One of the actual consensus conference, have each expert speak for 15-30 minutes, then answer follow-up questions from the lay panel and, as time allows, from the audience.

  3. After the public session, have the lay panel retire to discuss what it has heard.

  4. On Day Two have the lay panel publicly cross-examine the expert panel, who are then politely dismissed, along with the public audience.

  5. For the remainder of Day Two through Day Three, let the lay group deliberate, with facilitation available to use as they wish, and prepare a report that summarizes their points of consensus and disagreement. The lay panel fully controls the report’s content, but may be assisted by secretaries and editors.

  6. On Day Four give the expert panelists a chance to correct outright factual misstatements in the report, but not to otherwise comment on it.


  1. Arrange for the group to present its report at a national press conference. Most reports are 15-30 pages long, clearly reasoned and nuanced in judgment.

  2. Publicize the report and engage the public with it, using local dialogues, leaflets and videos.


Details of specific Danish consensus conferences are difficult to find in English. Luckily, consensus conferences have been used twenty-eight times in fourteen countries outside of Denmark, including two in the UK – one on plant biotechnology in 1994 (before any bio-technology products had reached the open market) and one on radioactive waste management in 1999. Geoffrey Lee, one of the lay panelists in the 1994 conference, described his experience in Joss and Durant’s Public Participation in Science. His account, summarized here, gives us a provocative feel for these events.

     Lee, a bank operations manager, answered an ad in his local paper, sending in a letter of interest. After being accepted, he was soon deluged with prepared information on plant biotechnology. His first preparatory weekend was held in Oxford September 2,1994. The sixteen lay panelists were eight men and eight women, ranging in age from eighteen to sixty-five. They got to know each other over dinner amidst pleasant college surroundings. They studied hard all weekend and heard from a scientist, an industrialist, a regulator and an environmentalist – all offering different views. Although Lee found it all quite overwhelming, he also noticed he was beginning to make sense of the issues involved.

     The lay panelists, who had some major differences at the start, discussed their subject incessantly, even over meals and at the pub. As their knowledge of the subject expanded, they began to wonder if they would ever get a report done in the few days they had together. They were also concerned about how much their facilitator was getting involved in the content of their discussions, rather than just sticking to the process. At any rate, as exhausted as he was, Lee returned home excited about what lay ahead.


During the second preparatory weekend, in Abingdon, the lay panelists began to feel real pressure. Reporters and TV people were there to interview them and watch the proceedings. Some were suspicious that the panelists were biased, and that the whole thing was "an industry public relations exercise." Undaunted, the panelists heard from more experts, some of whom they had had a role in choosing. Lee reported that under questioning, some opposing experts "came very close to blows, much to the amazement of the lay-panel members." The panel seemed to have felt quite empowered, rather than manipulated. They were quite involved in many aspects of planning the final conference – to the extent that they felt they had spent too much time planning the stage layout rather than on selecting their roster of experts and on the best strategy for questioning them.

     Between that weekend and the public consensus conference, many lay panelists tried to do research on the subject in their communities, only to find that hardly any of their fellow citizens were interested in plant biotechnology.

     When the panelists arrived at London’s Regent’s College for the public consensus conference, they were all happy to see one another and eager to get on with it, but were anxious about appearing on stage before a large audience. They checked out the stage layout the night before. Bright and early the next morning, they were already being interviewed by media who were trying to predict the tone of their final report. After official introductions, welcomes and explanations to the sizable audience, the day’s interrogation of experts began. All the lay-panel members asked questions, made comments, and soon started to enjoy the debate.

     The experts – researchers, company representatives, environmentalists, and consumer groups – treated them well. Environmentalists in the audience, however, expressed doubt in their ability to understand the technical complexity of the subject well enough to decide on policy recommendations. Lee felt they missed the point. "We were not there to make technical judgments, or necessarily come to a decision …[but] to reach agreement as to the way that the general public …would wish the research to proceed and, if necessary, be controlled."


By mid-afternoon the second day, they adjourned with massive amounts of information, reconvening in their hotel at 5 p.m. to write their report. This was a closed session, from which they kept even their facilitator.

     Lee wrote: "None of us had any experience of how to conduct this part of the exercise and, for reasons of impartiality, we had been given very little guidance. We were given a deadline of midnight by which time we had to have our report ready for the printers." It was not to be.

     Which is not to say they did not try hard. They elected Lee chair, and then made folders for each of the seven main questions they had asked the experts. Each person wrote down his or her thoughts on each question, which they filed in the folders. Then they separated into small groups, in order to have two or three panelists write a response to each question based on the notes in the folders. Afterward, they planned to circulate the responses to each panelist, "so that every panelist would have an opportunity to contribute to every section of the report." They were still working in their small groups when they adjourned for dinner at 9 p.m.

     The group found that the effort to make sure there were no disagreements was exceedingly time-consuming. When it became obvious they were not going to make their deadline, they began working through each question together as a group. As the second deadline passed in the wee hours of the morning, and still progress was slow, tempers began to fray. "But we all decided we were not going to fail at the final hurdle," Lee wrote, considering it "no mean achievement "that no violence erupted from the lost tempers." The word ‘consensus’ [took] on a whole new meaning for most of the panel …[T]here is nothing like finding yourself faced with a conflict of opinion at about two in the morning for testing the depth of conviction."

     At 5:30 in the morning – twelve sleepless hours after convening to seek consensus – they raced their report off to the printer and, after refreshing themselves and having breakfast, "appeared on the platform looking bright eyed, bushy tailed and totally in control" at ten o’clock. Their report arrived from the printer half an hour later. Various panelists delivered various parts of the report, various experts commented on it, and various audience questions were taken before the conference ended precisely at noon.


In their report, the panel noted both potential benefits and potential risks of the technology (including ones demonstrated many years later, such as the transfer of genes into related crops and the emergence of resistant pests). They critically noted efforts by researchers and producers to "create a market for their products, instead of the market expressing a need or desire for the products" – as well as the inability of laboratory experiments to predict potential biotech disasters, particularly long-term effects. Among other things, the panel called for

  • regulation and control of the technology, monitored by an independent ombudsman and international safety standards;

  • labeling genetically modified organisms in products;

  • controlled research in the public sector to maximize benefits to all;

  • support for plant biotech research specifically designed to benefit less developed countries, and the monitoring of multinational companies so they don’t disrupt local farmers and their crops, acknowledging the value of appropriate technology and sharing "the profits derived from the continued use of plants derived from the gene bank in the country of origin";

  • more stringent monitoring of biotech patents and revision of patent law, since "the goalposts are being moved to the advantage of multinational companies";

  • the use of consensus conferences as part of the parliamentary decision-making process in England, as it was in Denmark.

     The report was widely reported in the media. Lee’s primary criticism of the process itself was that there was insufficient time for the panel to do as good a job as it wished. He recommended at least another preparatory weekend

     I can imagine not only having more time, but having subsequent consensus conferences on the same topic to (a) evaluate how well legislators were handling the issue in light of previous consensus conference recommendations, (b) identify problems in the regulatory process, and (c) make any new recommendations needed. Such an iterative process would allow the whole society to learn, over time, how to best deal with a complex and constantly changing issue such as biotechnology research.

Further Questions

I consider these citizen deliberative councils to be remarkable innovations. We face daunting issues and technological developments. Many of us feel concern that unpredictably powerful technologies and social problems are developing with virtually no effective input from citizens, certainly nothing like the kind of thoughtful, full-spectrum deliberation that we’ve seen in the stories above. Would we not be better off if we created a strong public demand for this kind of real participation in our governance processes?

     Of course, there are a host of other questions to be considered. What would a political system based on citizen deliberation look like? How would it work? How might official citizen deliberations relate to other parts of government? And what explains the capacity of citizen councils to come forth with the kind of common sense wisdom that we have always wanted from our public and private leaders and deliberative bodies, and so seldom get?

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