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Why We Do Not Try to Forge a Consensus Among Our Panelists?

Much of what goes on by way of facilitated group discussions in this country and around the world is aimed at forging a consensus of opinion amongst the members of the group. The group may explore a number of possibilities in the course of their discussions, but the facilitator’s aim is to bring the group to ‘closure’⎯where ‘closure’ means consensus. This is now regarded as a fine art, and many books have been written about how to do it. Our facilitated discussions are very different in this regard. Far from trying to bring our groups to consensus, and far from insisting that they agree upon the possibilities that appear in our reports, we will, whenever possible and practical, include a possibility in a report so long as at least one of the members of the group believes that it is useful for public discussion.

Why do we do this? And why do we not aim at forging a consensus amongst our panelists?  Part of the reason is that we are not advocating or recommending the possibilities in our reports to policy makers.

Most public policy organizations advocate the policies that they present in their reports. Their discussions and reports thus aim at overcoming opposition. And they try to forge a consensus among their participants because they regard the fact that a certain group has reached agreement about a possibility as an argument in its favor.  IF, by contrast, does not have a view about⎯and hence does not advocate⎯any of the conceptual possibilities that we present in our reports. So there is no such thing as an ‘IF position’ in any of our areas of concern.

Our discussions and reports are not designed to sway opinion, settle disagreements, ‘educate’ the public, or solve public policy problems. They aim, instead, at improving our democracy’s process for making public policy choices by promoting the activity of thinking carefully, critically, and broadly about the different possibilities for addressing an area of concern. We want to call attention to the different policy possibilities in an area of concern so that we can thoughtfully consider these possibilities before we act.

And we can do this without trying to forge a consensus of opinion among our panelists.

But quite aside from this, we believe that the citizens in a democracy must ultimately choose for themselves which policies to support and which to oppose. We believe that discussing the various possibilities with their neighbors may help them to do this by exposing them to considerations that they might not otherwise entertain. But we also believe that a facilitator’s efforts to forge a consensus of opinion within a group may encourage a kind of ‘group-think’ that, while perhaps useful for political action, is counter-productive when it comes to encouraging our citizens to make up their own minds about a policy possibility.

This, in a nutshell, is why we do not try to bring our panelists to consensus.