The expert panel method is a commonly used method in Foresight to elicit expert knowledge. The panels are typically groups of 12-20 individuals who are given 3-18 months to deliberate upon the future of a given topic. The ‘expert panel’ is of the most frequently used methods in Foresight. Most of the activities in institutional Foresight exercises are carried out by expert panels. The expert panel method is based on the idea of eliciting expert knowledge. The panels are typically groups of 12-20 individuals who are given 3-18 months to deliberate upon the future of a given topic area, whether it be a technology (e.g. nanotechnology), an application area (e.g. health), or an economic sector (e.g. pharmaceuticals).
Technology Foresight is, by definition, a participatory, discursive activity that should be based upon the best available evidence and judgment. These conditions make the use of (expert) panels a natural choice in Foresight exercises. Panels not only open up the Foresight process to potentially hundreds of individuals, they are also ideal forums for in-depth discussions and debate. For these reasons, panels are the ‘process centres’ in many Foresight exercises. Some of the benefits of expert panels include:
1. Availability of expert judgement ‘on tap’ at the centre of an exercise, which can be particularly important when dealing with the uncertainties associated with the future
2. In-depth and meaningful interaction and networking between different scientific disciplines and areas of expertise that would otherwise be difficult to organise
3. The ease with which panels can complement other methods used in technology Foresight. Indeed, with some methods, panels are a near necessity for the generation of inputs, the interpretation of outputs, and/or the overall conduct of the method
4. The credibility and authority lent to the technology Foresight exercise by the profile of panel members and the visibility of expert/stakeholder panels
5. The moulding of influential individuals (panel members) into Foresight ambassadors and change agents in support of panel findings
In a Foresight exercise the expert panels have the following functions:
1. Gathering relevant information and knowledge
2. Synthesising the information gathered
3. Diffusing the Foresight process and its results to much wider constituencies, and
4. Influencing Foresight in terms of follow-up action
5. Stimulating new insights and creative views and providing a vision of future possibilities, as well as creating new networks
Thus once they are established they are the main actors carrying out the process throughout the exercise.
Typically, expert panels are set up in most Foresight exercises at all levels, although the role and functions of expert panels in such exercises may vary. In some cases, panels are the main process centres (‘hubs’) of a technology Foresight exercise, gathering and analysing data and community opinions, employing a wide variety of Foresight methods, such as scenarios, and formulating priorities and recommendations for action. In other cases, the Panels can be given very specific tasks within a much wider process, for example, commenting upon weak signals picked up in environmental scanning or formulating Delphi topic statements.
Once the panel’s remit has been formulated, the task of assembling members can begin. The first step is to develop a profile of the panel, i.e. to identify the sorts of expertise and/or stakeholders that should be represented in light of the panel’s remit. There are two interrelated considerations to take into account when profiling panels:
1. Composition: What mix of knowledge is required to address the panel remit?
2. Balance: What mix of views, positions, value judgements and scientific disciplines should be represented on the panel to ensure even-handed analysis and conclusions?
There are a number of approaches for actually identifying potential participants. These can e divided into:
1. Personal contacts: Using names known to those already involved in the project
2. Stakeholders: Identifying major stakeholders in the areas of concern and asking them to put forward names
3. Formal process: Involves more systematic search processes. Types of expertise and stakeholders are identified; a first set of names suggested; these are asked to nominate key people (introducing new names); then a final selection is made of the people who are to be invited to take part
The initial aim is to generate a long list of candidates for panel membership which will then need to be cut down to a short list of primary nominees and alternates. Key stakeholders typically contribute to the composition and procedural design of expert panels, which helps ensure that those stakeholders will find the panel’s results credible. Stakeholders include sponsors of the Foresight exercise as well as those organisations that might be expected to act in the light of the exercise’s findings.
Once the shortlist is agreed, nominated individuals must be sounded out on their willingness to serve on a Foresight panel. Such approaches are typically made by the project manager with a telephone call.
The choice of panel chairperson deserves special note. Two main criteria are typically used for selecting such people in technology Foresight – their profile and standing, and their time commitment. Having someone who is well known and (more importantly) well respected in a given community (or even nationally) will provide an invaluable boost to a panel’s work, lending it authority and legitimacy. People will be more inclined to respond to surveys and to read a panel report if the chair is well respected. Unfortunately, many of the really good people are too busy to chair a technology Foresight panel, which requires probably at least twice as much commitment in time as being simply a panel member.
In a Foresight exercise, expert panels are expected to carry out specific tasks within a given timeframe (e.g. the duration of the exercise) related to their functions. There are two documents that are used to inform the panels about their tasks prior to starting work: (i) the Proposal and (ii) the Terms of Reference.
The proposal document explains what the panel will do, and who (which experts/stakeholders) should be involved. Drawing on the proposal, the terms of reference set out what they should do, how it should be done, and when it should be completed. A short and succinct ‘terms of reference document’ can be divided into four parts:
• Background, which provides some background on the Foresight programme and the purpose of the terms of reference document
• Description of each phases of the programme, setting out: (i) what needs to be achieved, (ii) how the panel should go about its work, and (iii) a series of milestones
• Description of the way in which the panels’ work fits into the overall Programme
• Account of the human, infrastructure-related (including training) and financial resources available to the panels to support their work
This document is distributed to all the panel members in the Programme and was used by the sponsor and project management team to monitor the progress of the panels.
Getting Started: Once the panel chair and other panel members have been appointed, they will need further detailed briefing on the task at hand. This can be done face-to-face at the first panel meeting. But face-to-face briefing may also be supported by the prior distribution to panel members of more detailed project plans, summaries of the methods to be deployed and brief biographies of the other panel members. This means that panel members will have reasonable knowledge of the exercise by the time they arrive at the first panel meeting. Many national technology Foresight exercises have also used training workshops to acquaint panel members with working practices and the methods they will be using.
It is imperative that the panel gets off to a good start, which means special attention should be paid to the first panel meeting. After brief introductions, the panel chair and/or project manager should lead the discussion of the Foresight exercise’s scope and the panel’s remit within it. This might be followed by discussions with the sponsor, although this often does not happen – instead, the project manager may articulate the views and expectations of the sponsor.
Discussion could then be widened to include consideration of the expectations of a wider group of stakeholders, especially of those who might be expected to act in the light of the Foresight exercise’s findings.
At the first meeting it is also important to get panel members to start thinking about the issues they will need to consider in their work, through presentations and panel brainstorming sessions.
Finally, 2-3 hours will need to be set aside to formulate the overall approach to the task. In many technology Foresight exercises, panels are given quite tight terms of reference that clearly specify the methods to be used and the types of outputs to be produced by certain fixed dates. In other instances, panels have a greater degree of freedom over how they go about their work and what they produce, although even here, milestones are likely to be set. The sorts of things that will need to be discussed and decided include:
• Working practices and panel structure – for example, will the panel work as a whole or through sub-groups? Will particular panel members be assigned to lead on specific areas?
• What are the data and research requirements? How will data be collected and analysed? Who will conduct research (e.g. project team, consultants, panel members)? What wider consultation will be carried out? What facilitation will be required for specialist methodologies? Panels may need help from experienced Foresight practitioners to be able to answer these questions effectively.
• What will be the schedule of panel meetings? This includes the total number of meetings and their frequency. These can vary widely between panels, even within the same technology Foresight exercise. The panel (or project team) may also decide to prescribe the topic for each meeting – for example, ‘meeting no.3′ might be scheduled to deal with SWOT analysis or the like.
• What will be the schedule of panel outputs, including the final report? In order to track and monitor progress, an agreed-upon milestone chart will need to be formulated (if not already specified a priori in the terms of reference).
Conducting Foresight work: While Foresight work is underway, it is often a challenge to get panels to think creatively about (a) the future, and (b) the means of getting there. People seem to find this difficult, partly due to the unfamiliarity of thinking in this way. It is therefore imperative to ensure that panels take sufficient account of (a) the long-term (short-termism is a common weakness in panels and workshops) and (b) a wide variety of perspectives on any given topic.
Project managers can encourage out-of-the-box thinking within panels in a variety of ways (handbooks, speakers, internet sites). Popular approaches in expert panels include brainstorming and scenario-writing. A panel composed of members from diverse backgrounds should also help, particularly to encourage consideration of different perspectives. As a general rule, panel members are expected to behave as individuals rather than advocates of the ‘corporate’ views held by their particular organisation.
At the same time, panels should not stray into the realms of wishful thinking – their analyses and recommendations need to be based upon sound data. SWOT analyses, reviews, and trend analyses are therefore commonly used. Some further research and data analysis is usually required, which can be carried out by members of the project team, external consultants, or even panel members.
A further general principle that should be highlighted is the need for (and benefits of) wide consultation. There might be a temptation for panels to settle for internal discussion – things tend to get done more quickly, and greater control over the scope and direction of deliberations is possible. But panels that talk only amongst themselves risk missing important information and perspectives, even when members come from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, consultation lends a panel visibility, which can be important if findings are to be effectively disseminated.
The overall governance of volunteer panels is relatively straightforward when the terms of reference are tightly specified. Panels meet a fixed number of times within a well-defined framework to carry out a particular task. But many panels in technology Foresight exercises are given wider remits whereby they have the freedom and relative autonomy to decide on their own approach and the substance of their reports. In these instances, the role of the chair and her/his relationship with the project manager are crucial. For instance, prior to all panel meetings, the chair should discuss the meeting agenda and any documents or analyses to be presented with the project management team.
Increasingly important considerations for panels and other public committees are accountability and transparency. In this regard, the substance of discussions within closed panel meetings may be publicly reported, although the norm is to keep these confidential. Meetings should be transcribed and minutes prepared – the latter could be made publicly available on a web site if personal opinions are sufficiently anonymised. Panel members should also respect this confidentiality and should not brief the media or other groups without the expressed permission of project managers and/or the panel chair. Indeed, relations with the media should be carefully managed and an information dissemination strategy developed. The panel chair should act as the official spokesperson for the panel and its reports in dealing with the media, sponsors, and audiences.
Project managers should publish brief progress reports at regular intervals – perhaps every 4-6 months, depending upon the duration of an exercise – whilst analyses prepared for or by the panels (e.g. SWOT analyses, literature reviews) could also be made publicly available. In this way, the evidence base (and assumptions) upon which a panel is working can be scrutinised.
Reaching consensus and identifying priorities: One of the chief aims of appointing panels in technology Foresight is to nurture deliberation amongst a group of recognised experts and/or stakeholders around a set of issues with a view to generating enlightenment and policy advice. Policy advices clearly set out what needs to be done and why, and suggest who should take action. In some technology Foresight exercises, panels may not be required to reach consensus or to identify priorities, let alone outline recommendations for policy and investment.
Dissemination of Panel findings: All too often, consideration of a dissemination strategy for a panel’s findings is left to near the end of a Foresight exercise. This is not advisable – dissemination and implementation should be considered from the outset and the panel’s approach designed with this in mind. Dissemination should also be budgeted for, both in terms of time and costs, particularly as it is likely to involve at least some panel members (especially the panel chair) in further activities.
As the sponsor is likely to play a significant role in dissemination activity, the panel chair should consult them on their strategy for diffusing the messages contained in the panel report. In instances where panels have been assembled to carry out a specific task as part of a wider process, there may not be a panel report produced that is suited for wide dissemination. Instead, the sponsor alone may take full responsibility for disseminating the findings of the whole exercise later on.
On their publication, panel reports are typically announced in a press release. The panel chair normally promotes the report and addresses any questions or queries on substance, at least in the first instance. After some time, the sponsor may become the chief spokesperson for the panel’s findings. Report summaries may be produced that are targeted at the media and/or high-level decision makers who may not have the time to read the whole report. Every panel report has its own audience depending on the topic area being covered and the recommendations made (if any).
As regards human resources, a related issue concerns the number of panel members to appoint to each panel. Most Foresight exercises have opted for 12-25 individuals per panel, with the average number being around 15. Typically, a small number of individuals are absent from each panel meeting, and this needs to be taken into account when deciding on the final number.
Considering the financial resources, costs must be taken into account when appointing panels. Financial costs include the following possibilities:
1. Honoraria may be paid to panel members and/or the panel chair. The amount paid represents a token of appreciation rather than a payment for services at normal professional consulting rates.
2. Panels tend not to run themselves but are typically supported with facilitators and/or secretaries. Secretarial support, for instance, minute taking and document preparation, may be provided by staff from the sponsor or the organisation awarded the contract for running the exercise. Facilitation of meetings is largely carried out by the panel chair.
3. Research and technical services will probably be needed to support the work of the panel. Some of this can often be prepared before the panels’ start their series of meetings, but other research and technical assistance demands are likely to emerge as the panels undertake their work.
4. Travel costs and other communications (e.g. telephone, document courier) also need to be factored in.
5. In case rental of facilities are necessary it is normal for the sponsor to make its premises available for meetings. If meetings stretch over a day or more, it may also be necessary to pay for hotel accommodation.
6. If panels are to carry out questionnaire surveys and/or organise workshops, materials will need to be provided. Moreover, reports will have to be published and disseminated.
Time is needed for assembling the panel and any support staff, holding meetings, using methods such as Delphi or scenarios, preparing reports, and disseminating the final results. Realistic estimates must be made of the time and costs required to complete these tasks. This can prove difficult at the outset, and it is common to underestimate, especially with respect to the time needed. Indeed, it is not uncommon for technology Foresight exercises to overrun (usually by only a few months).
The outputs of expert panels are typically the identification of consensus on key issues, the identification of priorities or recommendations for policy and investment.
Where priorities are requested, these should be determined in a transparent and systematic manner if they are to be credible. For a panel to arrive at priorities, it must reach some level of consensus and closure.
It is one thing to identify priority areas but quite another to formulate recommendations for action. Recommendations set out actions that need to be taken in the light of the priorities identified by a panel and tend to be directed at named organisations. This means that they are highly political in nature. For this reason, many technology Foresight exercises chose either not to make any recommendations at all or they at least clearly separate panel analysis and priority-setting activities from the task of setting recommendations.
In such situations, panels do not get involved in formulating recommendations. If recommendations are to be set, special forums of stakeholders are organised to consider the implications of panels’ analyses and priorities.
Pros and cons
The main advantage of working with expert panels is that different types of players who might not normally meet in the course of a panel such as innovators, sponsors, policy makers, academic researchers, users and/or consumers can be brought together. Expert panels provide an environment where diverse viewpoints of stakeholders can be brought together freely.
However, the experience has demonstrated that the operation of expert panels is far from routine and unproblematic. To be able to understand this it is important to mention some of the characteristics of group or individual behaviours that are exhibited by panels during their work. These characteristics that may prevent the panel to work effectively include:
1. A dominating personality or outspoken person takes over the panel process so that the outcome tends to be his or her view
2. Individuals are unwilling to commit themselves on an issue
3. The superior vs. subordinate relationship hampers free expression of opinion by subordinates
4. The unwillingness to abandon a position once it has been taken publicly
5. Committee members are not necessarily familiar with the needs of the Foresight process and may fall into a conventional mode inappropriate to developing a longer term view of the topics under discussion