Today’s Solutions: December 04, 2021

How to involve ordinary citizens in complex political decisions.


Marco Visscher | September/October 2012 Issue
The Teknologirådet, a Danish advisory council that informs the public and politicians about technological issues, had always relied on experts and opinion formers. It met in panels and committees to report to the government on its findings. All that changed over a few beers one Friday afternoon about 25 years ago when the council came up with the idea to bring together complete novices instead. “After the weekend, everyone still agreed it was a good idea,” Lars Klüver recalls.
Klüver was named project manager for the first Consensus Conference. The topic was a tough one: biotechnology in agriculture. “Although the technology may be ­complicated, lay people don’t really have a problem ­understanding what’s going on,” Klüver says. Ordinary citizens were perfectly able to discuss the opportunities and risks and to reach useful conclusions. Many more such meetings have taken place since then on topics like mobility, air pollution and electronic surveillance, in which average citizens have spoken out after extensive research, debate and interviews with experts.
Over the years, these citizen panels, made up of 12 to 18 volunteers, have fueled debate inside and outside the Danish Parliament. They’ve also inspired new legislation, ­including a ban on the use of DNA testing by employers and medical insurers. And the model has found its way to other ­countries, from South Korea to Zimbabwe. This fall, ordinary citizens will be consulted in ­anticipation of the U.N. conference on biodiversity. According to Klüver, this proves that “citizen ­participation can, in fact, be brought to the global level as well.”
The model has also been applied with illiterate farmers in India. Plans by the Indian government to give biotechnology a ­prominent place in agricultural policy would have significant consequences for ­farmers in the state of Andhra Pradesh, yet they were not consulted. So in 2001, several NGOs ­decided to form a “jury” of local ­farmers. For a week they discussed, based on expert interviews, the consequences of the government’s plans. The week resulted in a prajateerpu, or “people’s verdict.”
P.V. Satheesh, director of the Deccan Development Society in Hyderabad, was there. “Great excitement was in the air,” he remembers. “Never in their lives had [the farmers] been consulted on such issues to give a verdict as a jury. The farmers we had assembled didn’t have the social power to ask tough questions. They were very polite and asked questions softly and a bit circumspectly.”
Nonetheless, a lobbyist for a seed breeder bellowed that he had come to give a ­presentation and “not to reply to your stupid questions.” One government official refused to stand in front of the group of farmers and demanded a table and a chair.
The farmers advised the government to put its biotechnology plans on hold. According to them, malnutrition in the region would decline only barely or not at all, while dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides would increase. They called for self-sufficiency and a vision of agriculture that better embraced Indian values. After public outcry and articles in the media, the authorities in Andhra Pradesh silently canned their plans to promote biotechnology. Satheesh believes the prajateerpu played an important role in achieving that.
The Danes relaxing over beers in a Copenhagen café 25 years ago never imagined their radical idea would strike such a chord. “We usually meet skepticism in the science and industry communities, but it fades during the process,” says Klüver. He understands that experts tend to view social and political challenges as technical problems, while citizens raise ethical and cultural issues. “The conference usually provides a milestone for them to which they refer even years later,” he says.
Satheesh believes there’s a lesson to be learned: Talk to the people first, before you make political decisions. “Put all your cards down in front of them,” he says. “Don’t cheat. Don’t hide. Let them make decisions.”
For more about putting integrity, authenticity and openness back into politics, join us for an interactive online course with political pioneer Tom Atlee this Thursday, Oct 18.

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