Consensus conference

$5k to $15k
estimated cost of external help
  • Scan and research
  • Consult
3-5 weeks
estimated run time
3-5 weeks
estimated lead time
Experienced facilitator
recommended experience
A consensus conference is a deliberative process in which a group of citizens and experts works to develop and describe points of consensus on a particular issue. This may take the form of a report describing the issue in terms, and with facts, on which the participants can agree. It can also be used to generate ideas or deliberate on agreed courses of action.

The consensus conference is similar to a citizens’ jury except in that it doesn’t seek deliberation on a final course of action. Because there may be multiple points of consensus, the outcome of a consensus conference is less likely to be perceived as a decision-making process, leaving this work for the government or other authority.

A consensus forum follows a similar format, but may include 80–150 people working simultaneously in smaller groups, with the final report being created by the convener.

In 5 steps...

  1. Determine the conference make-up and recruit participants. The intent is to involve citizens, and that the mix be representative of the affected community’s demographics. When you invite participants, ensure they understand the process and timing.
  2. Gather preliminary reading material for the participants. This should cover both sides of the argument and be fact-based. You might also schedule talks or host discussions that further inform the participants prior to the commencement of the conference.
  3. Determine the format of the output you’re seeking from the participants. Is it centred on particular questions? Will they produce a presentation of key points or a report that consolidates all the agreed-upon material? Who will use the output? This will all help in determining its form.
  4. Convene the participants to work together on exploring their points of consensus and building a shared report/output that documents these.
  5. Communicate the report to the intended parties, whether this is the public or decision-making parties.

When to use it

A consensus conference is useful where there is a lot of conflict over, or misunderstanding about, a topic. The process is about clarification, and this focus on consensus breaks down barriers that might otherwise prevent traction or progress.


  • Ability to explore issues or ideas in detail.
  • Direct citizen input into a decision-making process.
  • Highly focused and detailed discussion.
  • Improved education of citizens on the topic (those participating and attending).
  • Provides a gauge of public opinion.
Long term
  • Higher degrees of participant satisfaction and trust.
  • Higher-quality, better-aligned solutions.
  • Increased levels of support for outcomes.


  • Because of the small number of participants, the group may not truly reflect or represent the views of the broader population. Consider running more than one conference, or upscaling to a consensus forum if more representation is desirable.
  • The focus on consensus means that difficult discussions around points of contention are avoided, which may lead to key facts or features of the decision being overlooked. This means it’s important to balance this input for decision-making with other inputs.
  • The background reading material provided to the group will influence their outputs. If this is not broad enough, or is too complex for participants to understand, the outputs may not be of high quality.



  • Recruit a group that is as representative as possible of the population it will speak on behalf of.
  • You can include experts among the participants, as long as the ratio is greater than two citizens for every expert.
  • Allow enough time. If your issue is particularly difficult or complex, one day may not be enough to get a consensus, or to find all the points of consensus.

During the process

  • Use strong facilitators to keep the conversation focused on consensus rather than on points of disagreement.
  • Make space for venting, so that participants with strong views feel heard. This will enable them to be ready to start to discuss points of consensus.
  • The structure for how the discussions and consensus-building will be done is not determined by this process. You make take the group through any number of processes during the course of the event in order to build this consensus – this is where the help of an experienced facilitator can be beneficial in planning.


  • Communicate all outcomes back to the participants and any broader interested audience. Include information on how the process affected the decision-makers, so that participants feel like they have had an impact.