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The April 4 press conference at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., was packed. Arrayed across the front of the room, the 15 members of the first-ever citizens’ panel convened to focus on U.S. technology policy presented its findings to the gathered assemblage of reporters and fellow citizens.

Although the topic – “Telecommunications and the Future of Democracy” – was daunting, the panelists conducted themselves with the poise and sophistication of dedicated policy wonks. To tackle that subject, they had recently spent 50 intense hours together hashing out the profound opportunities and changes promised by the converging computer, TV, and cable industries. The springboard for this “consensus conference”: an article in Technology Review’s July 1996 issue by Richard E. Sclove, director of the Loka Institute, a group based in Amherst, Mass., dedicated to a stronger public role in setting science policy.

In “Town Meetings on Technology,” Sclove explained that Denmark pioneered the idea of providing a format for ordinary citizens to immerse themselves in a pressing technological topic and recommend courses of action. Although not intended as binding policy tools, the findings of dozens of such panels in Denmark, as well as those convened in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, often influence government and business leaders, thanks to ensuing publicity and debate. Sclove parlayed his article, along with TR cosponsorship, into support for the pilot U.S. project from several sponsors, including the National Science Foundation and the Massachusetts Council on the Humanities.

A telephone campaign netted a balanced group of volunteers who spanned the spectrum from computer neophytes to afficionados but none of whom worked in the field. Once chosen, the panelists familiarized themselves with the fast-moving world of media mergers and the Internet, Web, and digital TV by reading an array of background material, including an article by TR senior editor Herb Brody commissioned for the occasion. The panel members then met for two weekend-long sessions to distill their thinking and home in on a list of questions they would pose to expert “witnesses” during a day-and-a-half-long public forum.

That forum, held in the wake of a freak spring snowstorm that failed to deter the participants, reflected their newfound knowledge and driving motivation: panel members wanted to know how emerging telecommunication technologies could best improve people’s lives, enhance their communities, and help them participate in the political process. Queries to representatives from industry, government, academia, and nonprofit groups ranged from how to ensure the availability of low-cost, easy-to-use computers to whether revenue from the sale of the digital broadcast spectrum should help fund public TV.

After listening to the testimony, panel members retired to further refine their ideas and create a common document to present at the following day’s press conference. In that report, the panel recommended that telecom businesses return a percentage of their profits to communities to help fund public Internet centers and called for stronger legislation to prevent unauthorized use of personal data files. The panel also enthusiastically endorsed the use of computers to enhance education, particularly in poor communities, but only as a tool, not a goal in itself.

As a bulletin from the Loka Institute points out (see the institute’s Web site, www.amherst.edu/~loka, for the bulletin plus the text of the panel’s report), the recommendations are timely because the Federal Communications Commission is now implementing many aspects of the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. Indeed, a cosponsor of the pilot panel, U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), ranking minority member of the House Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee (and a contributor to this issue-see “A Privacy Safety Net” on page 29), says he wants to make sure the group’s recommendations are “duly considered by lawmakers.”

Overall the participants, who included, among others, a retired engineer, an auto mechanic, a nurse, a manager of an inner-city computer clubhouse, an actor, and an unemployed homeless woman, professed their excitement at gaining the opportunity to weigh in on significant technological matters. “I assumed when the Telecommunications Policy Act was passed last year that it was too complicated for me to understand or influence, and that the experts knew best. I would not make that assumption now,” one panelist attested.

The obvious cohesion of the diverse panel members, hard won with the help of a professional facilitator, also attested to a benefit that exceeded their growing confidence in evaluating technological change: pride in their citizenship and a renewed commitment to exercising it. All the panelists urged that similar formats be employed to build knowledge and consensus on solutions to a range of problems. To help make that happen, Sclove recently met with members of the Clinton administration to explore opportunities for replicating the process on a national level.

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