Democratizing Technology

One of the articles in Business On A Small Planet (IC#41)
Originally published in Summer 1995 on page 58
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Citizens’ lives are deeply affected by the consequences of technology decisions. This essay explores how to develop a "technology jury" of lay people to bring a more democratic approach to decisions relating to key areas such as energy, water, sewage, transportation, medical, and communication systems.

Can everyday folks play a constructive role in complex decisions involving science and technology? As a partial answer, this essay reports on what I have learned about the "consensus conference" model of technology assessment pioneered in Denmark and now being adopted more widely in Europe.

In 1992 a panel of ordinary Danish citizens attended two background briefings and then spent several days hearing diverse expert presentations on genetic manipulation in animal breeding. After cross-examining the experts and deliberating among themselves, the lay panel reported to a national press conference their judgment that it would be "entirely unacceptable" to genetically engineer new pets, but ethical to use such methods to develop a treatment for human cancer. Their conclusions influenced subsequent legislation.

To organize this type of consensus conference, the Danish government’s Board of Technology (an institution roughly analogous to the US Office of Technology Assessment) begins by selecting a salient topic – such as biotechnology or newly emerging telecommunications systems – and then advertises in newspapers for volunteer lay participants. The volunteers send a letter describing their backgrounds and reasons for wanting to participate.

The Board then picks a panel of about 15 lay people – who roughly represent the demographic breadth of the Danish population – and who do not have any significant prior knowledge of, or specific interest in, the topic at hand. Group members range from college-educated professionals (excluding professionals in the topic under investigation) to housewives, office and factory workers, and garbage collectors.

Swift and Economic

The entire process of organizing a consensus conference takes about six months. (In contrast, it takes the US Office of Technology Assessment about two years to produce a published report.) There are three basic stages:

1) At a preparatory weekend meeting, the chosen lay group discusses a background paper that maps the political terrain concerning the chosen topic. The lay group then formulates questions that it wants to address during the subsequent consensus conference.

2) Based on the lay panel’s questions, the board assembles an expert panel of scientific and technical experts with widely divergent viewpoints, but also pertinent experts in ethics or social science and knowledgeable representatives of organized stakeholder groups. The experts prepare written statements, in everyday lay language, summarizing their views on the lay panel’s questions.

3) The culminating consensus conference is a three-day event, bringing the panels together in a forum open to the media and to the public at large.

Research suggests that the Danish public and politicians are better informed on issues addressed this way than are the citizens of other countries facing similar questions.

The people I interviewed who have participated in organizing European consensus conferences are tremendously enthusiastic about the quality of judgment exhibited in lay panelists’ concluding reports. Apparently democracy is, after all, within the range of human possibility.

The Danish process is a specific implementation of a general model in which (a) technical experts, (b) experts in the social dimensions and effects of technologies, and (c) representatives of organized interest groups (including public-interest groups) play vital roles, but final judgment is in the hands of representative everyday citizens.

In contrast, in the US the great majority of those making technological judgments are experts or representatives of organized stakeholder groups. Experts in the social effects of technologies and everyday citizens are outweighed or, more often, excluded entirely.

A central limitation of this US model is that the aggregation of technical expert and stakeholder views is apt to greatly slight technologies’ broader social and political consequences. For instance, when – as is often the case – the represented stakeholders include industry, workers, and environmentalists, then economic, workplace and ecological concerns will normally be addressed. That is good. However, nobody is there to watch out for cultural repercussions, structural political ramifications, or the overall public good. On the latter issues, variants of the Danish model appear much more promising.

In thinking about adapting the Danish model to a nation such as the US, one might worry that consensus is much easier to achieve in a small, fairly homogeneous nation such as Denmark. That is true, but in terms of democratic norms I believe that the important feature of the model is its efficiency in cultivating informed citizen judgment, even if the final report represents a reasoned "dissensus." (Besides, consensus is not impossible; US juries routinely reach consensus within the context of highly contested, complex legal disputes.)

It is also true that a single lay panel composed of, say, 15 people would be a feeble statistical sample of the entire US. However, the assembled groups are not being asked to promulgate binding laws or regulations; their deliberations are merely advisory to the public and elected officials. In that context, hearing the considered views of a diverse group of 15 everyday citizens would be a marked improvement over hearing from none (which is the norm in a great deal of contemporary technology policy analysis and decision making).

Moreover, on especially important issues one could experiment with seeking greater representativeness by assembling several small lay panels or a single, larger group. In any case, given prevailing US disparities in wealth and over-busy lives, both fairness and efficiency would seem to mandate paying people to participate.

With variants of the consensus conference model now diffusing in Europe, I suspect that the question is not whether the model will eventually be tried in the US, but when and where. Certainly, that is my hope.

Richard E. Sclove is executive director of the Loka Institute, an association of scholars and activists concerned with science, technology, and democracy. Contact the Loka Institute at PO Box 355, Amherst, MA 01004, e-mail: loka@amherst.edu. This piece is adapted from a new book by Richard Sclove, Democracy and Technology, New York: Guilford Press, Summer 1995, $18.95. To order, call 1-800-365-7006.

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