Georgina Aboud: Power always drives out puzzling

Civic Action26 Aug 2009Georgina Aboud

It’s only 11.15am as I walk into the ‘Mainstreaming Citizen Participation’ workshop, but I still eyed up the bottle of wine in the corner and rather hoped it might be lubrication for greater group participation. Alas, it was just a prop for what has been the most inspired structure of any workshop of this conference: a couple of presentations, a candlelight conversation (hence the wine) to discuss the content of the talks, an open forum, and then a wall for participants to write down their ideas.

The first presentation outlined a positive case for citizen participation, and the second described the issues associated with this. The advocate, Lars Kluver, put forward a ‘buyout’ talk, which suggested public participation is already increasing; policy makers now use participation in a multitude of situations and have a range of approaches suitable for different inputs. He described different ways of getting people involved from a consensus conference. This provides the public with the opportunity to assess a given technological development to a citizen summit, which can contain up to 10,000 people.

It all sounded very reasonable until Rob Hoppe comprehensively outlined some of the issues associated with the mainstreaming. Amongst a host of concerns Hoppe suggested input problems: who is to deliberate for whom on what, why when and how? The ‘why’ is simply to create fresh thinking and the ‘when’ is when it is politically opportune, however it gets very sticky when we get to the ‘who’ ‘what’ and ‘why’ as these are interrelated. He suggested that often there will be prior arrangements on methodological aspects between civil servants and commissioners and civil servant loyalty will be tested to see if it lies with the commissioner or the participants’ issues and causes. He also describes through put and output problems which includes policymakers cherry picking the participatory outcomes which suit them. He concluded by suggesting that power always drives out puzzling.

This idea reminded me of the talk yesterday, where it was said that business doesn’t debate, like other stakeholders, it acts. The candlelight conversation suggested that a key in moving forward was experimentation. For example, the European Union will often consider material innovation but never societal innovation, unlike America’s new administration, which is carefully experimenting with new, open government approaches. Perhaps central to this conference – and the idea of a knowledge democracy – is that we need to alter institutions and reshape ill-fitting concepts, while experimenting with new ideas to see what works. It seems like it’s a balance between action and reflection, and trying to find ways of unusual bedfellows working together and, not advocating alcohol in any way, I certainly think a chat over a glass of wine is as good a place as any to start.