Democracy at its best? The consensus conference in a cross-national perspective

Abstract
Over recent decades, public participation in technology assessment has spread internationally as an attempt to overcome or prevent societal conflicts over controversial technologies. One outcome of this new surge in public consultation initiatives has been the increased use of participatory consensus conferences in a number of countries. Existing evaluations of consensus conferences tend to focus on the modes of organization, as well as the outcomes, both procedural and substantial, of the conferences they examine. Such evaluations seem to rest on the assumption that this type of procedure has universally agreed goals and meanings, and that therefore consensus conferences can readily be interpreted and applied across national boundaries. This article challenges this approach to consensus conferences. The core of the article is a study of national differences in ideas about what constitutes legitimate goals for participatory arrangements. The study looks at three consensus conferences on GMOs, which took place in France, Norway, and Denmark. Drawing on this study, the article discusses the ways in which interpretations of the concept of participation; the value attributed to lay knowledge vs. technical expertise; as well as ideas about the role of the layperson, are all questions that prompt entirely different answers from country to country. Further, the article analyses these national differences within a theoretical framework of notions of democratic legitimacy.
Keywords Public participation  consensus conference  GMO  cross-national evaluation  participatory technology assessment  TA  deliberative democracy  models of democracy  democratic legitimacy  lay and expert knowledge
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