Bridging the gap: Consensus Conference on Germany’s Energy Supply

Shut 20 “normal” (what’s that?!) citizens away for 3 weekends and get them to agree on a contentious and difficult question. What will happen? It’s easy to disagree, but how can they reach consensus on something as ideological and complex as Germany’s future energy supply concept?

And why should they invest about 60 hours of their lives in caring?

The 3 weekends we’re talking about are the ones between 23 January and 7 February. Imagine: you work all week and meet with a bunch of complete strangers in a conference room on 3 Saturdays and Sundays in a row. Sorry to harp on about this, but the commitment and stamina is extraordinary. I got paid for my bit of facilitation. The 20 citizens had to make do with food, drink and travel expenses. And yet they still came and they stuck it out. And in between the 3 weekends they chatted on the conference’s forum, they read up about the subject and they discussed the issues and questions with their friends, family and colleagues. So in fact, we’re looking at about 80 hours in total. Per person.

They weren’t alone. 3 experts – from universities in the area – accompanied them on their quest for consensus and decisions. They had never done anything so strenuous, but liked the thought of it and threw themselves into it with the right mixture of scepticism and excitement! Initially, the citizens viewed the experts with a distinct scepticism themselves, before the experts proved – through listening carefully and respectfully and offering information/advice rather than endorsing it – themselves trustworthy and valuable for the process. By the end, they were referred to as “our dear experts”.

What about the results? Can a bunch of citizens come up with anything interesting? They were randomly selected and asked if they would be interested in taking part. Their interests ranged from interests generated from professional knowledge (“I work in the energy industry”/”I teach technology at schools”) to interests based on a belief in grass-roots and societal change. And there were many more interests involved which impelled people to take part: engaging with others, getting out of the house, even a sort of missionary call to get people to save energy. And these interests crashed on each other, creating sympathy and antipathy initially. But then moving the group to an amazing joint learning crusade. They were intent on listening and opening their minds to opinions and views they had previously ignored or opposed. The interesting thing was, that they were as intrigued to hear other citizens’ opinions as they were to learn from the experts. Because this is not just a question of science, but one of politics and socio-ecological conscience.

The result is a citizens’ recommendation (“Bürgergutachten”), which can be read in German at www.buerger-debattieren.de and should be circulated to anyone interested in commenting on it and taking the dialogue further. The citizens in Essen are planning to do just that. They’re still using their closed online-platform to communicate and plan further dialogue amongst themselves and with others. A group are meeting tomorrow to attend a meeting in Essen on one of their main areas of recommendation. There’s another meeting in 2 weeks.

Essen is a wonderful place – this year it’s Europe’s capital city of culture. It’s home to a direct and hearty and wonderful people I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with. Unlike the Danes, who apparently work on their consensus paper until the early hours, we were finished by 21.15 on Sunday night. It was really tough going though, but despite raw nerves there was never a moment of over-directness or rudeness or lack of respect and interest in each other. Priceless.

If you’re reading this and class yourself as an expert in any field, please take time to consider what “normal” citizens would recommend you to do and think if you provided them with information they call for and 3 weekends to debate and come to a consensus. It’d surprise you and you’d profit from it.

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