Democratic and political changes could be fomented from a well-designed constitutional convention, but this would be more likely if such a convention was twinned with an exciting national programme of rolling public events and festivals oriented around the pluralisation of democracy and the democratization of everyday life.
We already live in a world where people are actively experimenting with many new ways of democratizing all different spheres of our everyday life, from workplaces, to technological platforms, the fields of arts and culture, the media, energy systems, food production and distribution, the economy and money, design, innovation and more. There are already many experts and organisations involved, as well as public groups and established campaigners.
These projects face many obstacles and difficulties, but the task is now to engage the wider public in these developments, as well as involve them in discussions about how more established democratic processes need to be reformed. To do this something rather more unconventional than a constitutional convention will be required.
It is for this reason that the Raymond Williams Foundation has teamed up with Gladstone’s Library and the Democratic Society to support the development of a new festival of democracy called DemFest, which will take place 13-14 May 2016, in the beautiful surroundings of Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, near Chester – (programme, speaker, ticketing and contact details all available on the DemFest.org website).
The aim of this new event is to encourage differently situated participants, with a shared interest in democratic change, to convene in a single site for a short period of intensive and convivial interaction, exchange and cooperation. We think the festival may provide an event template that could be of real value in the complicated social context in which we all now live.
DemFest is just one small and rather experimental event that’s taking place against this broader backdrop of emerging possibilities for democratization. This event is all about getting together to reflect on our current democracy and to consider new ways of renovating democracy that could help address some of the larger-scale and increasingly urgent problems that we now collectively face.
Raymond Williams is famous for calling for a ‘long revolution’ that has the aim of bringing about a more educated and participatory democracy. The contemporary starting point for such a revolution needs to be people’s everyday concerns and aspirations for a fairer, more open and egalitarian life and greater engagement with some of the myriad of initiatives and contemporary experiments that are already being worked on to democratise various spheres of our everyday life.
Festivals aren’t always progressive and the festival format doesn’t have a simple history, but at their best festivals can offer spaces where people can feel exhilarated by new ideas and experiences, with this opening out possibilities for imaginative and mutually supportive forms of collective action.
We welcome you to join us at DemFest and we will be pleased to receive comments and suggestions, anytime, on ideas you have for future DemFest events.
DemFest, the new festival of democracy, will take place 13-14 May at Gladstone’s Library, in Hawarden, near Chester. For programme details and information about the line-up of speakers go to: demfest.org
Just published online in The European Journal of Cultural Studies ‘The frontiers of participatory public engagement’ is a new journal article co-authored by Nick Mahony and Hilde C Stephansen emerging from research undertaken under the auspices of the Creating Publics project. Here’s the abstract:
“Currently missing from critical literature on public engagement with academic research is a public-centric analysis of the wider contemporary context of developments in the field of public engagement and participation. Drawing on three differently useful strands of the existing theoretical literature on the public, this article compares a diverse sample of 100 participatory public engagement initiatives in order to first, analyse a selection of the myriad ways that the public is being constituted and supported across this contemporary field and second, identify what socio-cultural researchers might learn from these developments. Emerging from this research is a preliminary map of the field of public engagement and participation. This map highlights relationships and divergences that exist among diverse forms of practice and brings into clearer view a set of tensions between different contemporary approaches to public engagement and participation. Two ‘frontiers’ of participatory public engagement that socio-cultural researchers should attend are also identified. At the first, scholars need to be critical regarding the particular versions of the public that their preferred approach to engagement and participation supports and concerning how their specific identifications with the public relate to those being addressed across the wider field. At the second frontier, researchers need to consider the possibilities for political intervention that public engagement and participation practice could open out, both in the settings they are already working and also in the much broader, rapidly developing and increasingly complicated contemporary field of public engagement and participation that this article explores.”
Dr. Nick Mahony is an independent researcher, currently leading the development of a new festival of democracy called DemFest 2016, with the Raymond Williams Foundation. Alongside working on other public engagement related projects, Nick is also lead tutor on a new PhD methods training module that looks at the problems and possibilities of participation in research. Until last year, Nick was Research Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance at the Open University, where between 2012-15 he led the Creating Publics project and Co-directed the Publics Research Programme.
A new role
A few years after being awarded my PhD, I won a Research Fellowship grant. This was my second academic job and my task was to design a new set of resources to assist researchers looking to approach their engagement activities from the perspective of the public.
There were two aims: the new…
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Clive Barnett and I have a new paper published in Policy and Politics, on their ‘fast track’ page, entitled Marketing practices and the reconfiguration of public action. The paper draws on a project for the NCCPE and ESRC that Clive and I worked on a while back when were both at the OU, on the use of segmentation methods in the public sector, charities, and campaign sectors.
This paper seeks to open up some interpretative space for exploring what is going on when marketing practices get used in non-commercial sectors, without presuming in advance that what is going on is necessarily always something called ‘neoliberalism’.
Here is the abstract of the Policy and Politics piece:
“Market segmentation methodologies are increasingly used in public policy, arts and culture management and third sector campaigning. Rather than presume that this is an index of creeping neoliberalisation, we track the shared and contested understandings of the public benefits of using segmentation methods. Segmentation methods are used to generate stable images of individual and group attitudes and motivations, and these images are used to inform strategies that seek to either change these dispositions or to mobilise them in new directions. Different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibilities for public action on different issues.”
If you can’t access the version published in Policy and Politics, there’s a pre-print version available as a free download here.
Researchers still face many obstacles to engaging the public, including limited resources and the pressure to publish. But could the current lack of a shared framework for considering what the public in public engagement means be another important barrier to further developing a culture of publicly engaged research?
This question has been central to two research studies recently completed at the Open University and is addressed in the new Open University pamphlet ‘Designing public-centric forms of public engagement with research’, now available for free download, under a Creative Commons licence.
The pamphlet introduces a new framework that aims to capture key ways of making sense of the public in public engagement today. It also highlights questions you can ask at key stages of the engagement process to help you make choices about how you will engage. The public-centric approach is intended to support engaged scholars working across all disciplines.
The pamphlet is pragmatic and relates different pre-existing ways of making sense of the public. It encourages researchers to analyse the characteristics or motivations of ‘target groups’; consider the aspirations of fellow citizens and the societal role of the public; reflect on the relationships publics have with our public institutions and how these are cast and might change; and actively think about the forms of voluntary public self-organisation and innovation that engagement might support. The public is an expansive idea and this pamphlet offers a multi-dimensional approach, informed by developments in theory and practice.
Despite the many obstacles, public engagement with research undoubtedly has the potential to help support and foster public life in many ways. But questioning and being more systematic about what we mean by the public in public engagement can also raise big issues. I am therefore genuinely interested in your views on whether an approach like this could be valuable in your own setting and on whether having a shared framework for thinking about the public could be useful too?
So I look forward to your comments on the pamphlet and also to hearing more about how you see the role of the public in the years ahead in the development of academic research.
The pamphlet Designing public-centric forms of public engagement with research is one outcome of the Open University’s RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst, ‘An open research university‘. Nick was a Co-investigator on this project, leading the work package that explored the publics of engaged-research. This work also emerged from the Open University funded Creating Publics project, which was located in the OU’s Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance. Dr. Nick Mahony is now an independent researcher and visiting Research Fellow at the Open University (firstname.lastname@example.org).
When it comes to considering the versions of the public that will (and will not) be supported by a particular engagement initiative, there are choices you will inevitably need to make. To be public-centric these choices need to be negotiated and accounted for. The 3-D approach can support these choices in a variety of ways:
Planning and designing public-centric engagement activities
At the planning and design stage of your engagement activity there are at least three ways you can use the 3-D approach. Firstly, to think about how your initiative will be situated in the settings it will be working in; secondly, to reflect on your existing identifications and project-related commitments to the public; and, thirdly, to support an analysis of how your preferred engagement design compares to alternative designs.
In each case the 3-D approach calls on you to address the following questions:
By addressing these questions you can move through a process that prompts you to actively and systematically consider three key dimensions of what it means to be publicly engaged.
A long line of work already exists that encourages researchers to reflect on the specificities of their research situation, their social or public commitments and the assumptions that underpin their methodological choices. Used in conjunction with this work the questions above invite you to explore the versions of the public already being supported in your research setting. They can also be used to reflect on your own pre-existing identifications and project related commitments to particular versions of the public.
The 3-D approach can be valuable in one further way when you are planning your engagement initiative. It can help you identify how your ideas about how the public should be engaged may relate to those being supported elsewhere by other engagement initiatives.
In each of these three cases the 3-D approach will assist with the process of negotiating and making choices about the versions of the public that your engagement initiative will support.
To design public-centric forms of engagement these choices will need to be negotiated in critical, reflective and creative ways. Being public-centric also means being as open and transparent as possible about these design decisions and the thinking that underpins them.
Tracking, evaluating and accounting for public engagement in public-centric ways
The 3-D approach can also be useful when tracking and evaluating the public impacts of a given initiative and when it comes to generating a written account of an initiative’s public effects.
In terms of tracking and evaluating engagements public effects, you can use the 3-D approach to assess whether the versions of the public an engagement initiative has been set up to support have been elicited in practice. It can also be used to analyse and account for any unanticipated public effects an engagement activity may have had.
To undertake these public-centric forms of assessment, a similar set of questions will need to be addressed to those already introduced above:
The 3-D approach has emerged in response to some of the complications and challenges of the present. It provides a framework you can use to design, evaluate and report on your engagement work in public-centric ways. The approach is contextually responsive, theoretically informed and systematic. The 3-D approach is also pragmatic, as it isn’t obscured by any one pre-existing set of ideas about of what a public is or should be.
In contemporary conditions where meanings and qualities of the public are multiple and in flux the 3-D approach is therefore a resource; a resource you can use to support critical reflection and creative practice and to open out new horizons for public engagement with research.
[This post is an extract from ‘Designing public-centric forms of public engagement with research‘, a new pamphlet by Nick Mahony that will be published by the Open University soon]
I will be running the second of The Open University’s online modules on advanced image elicitation methods between 20 April and 1 May. The module problematises the imperative to ‘participate’ that extends from a lot of contemporary politics into research practice, on which some uses of image elicitation methods depend. It’s open to all academics everywhere and is free. Pre-registration closes on 20 March. You can find out all about it here.
The second of this series of three posts focuses on how to more clearly see contemporary publics. Many of those now involved in the field of public participation and engagement now agree on the need to reinvigorate the contemporary public realm. There is nevertheless rather less agreement about how to understand contemporary publics and what is happening to the public realm at this time – especially perhaps amongst those working across this contemporary field of engagement and participation.
The Creating Publics and Participation Now projects have undertaken research in this area. This research was prompted by an engagement with the rich, varied and highly developed body of pre-existing theoretical literature on the topic of the public. The Participation Now website, also set up as part of this work, provided another vehicle for this research.
Emerging from these activities is a novel approach to contemporary publics*. Designed specifically for those involved in the contemporary field of engagement and participation, this approach relates three pre-existing ways of seeing the public. By doing so, this approach offers a 3-Dimensional way of viewing emerging configurations of contemporary publics.
The most familiar way of seeing the public is still as a real and pre-existing entity that is already ‘out there’ waiting to be represented and engaged. There are now a great number of engagement and participation initiatives that hold out the promise of fairer processes of public engagement and representation.
Global Voices, Democratising Agricultural Research, Productive Margins and Planning for Real are all examples of contemporary participation initiatives that claim they will more fairly involve and represent hitherto marginalized people, perspectives or histories.
Climate Camp is another example of an initiative that invited people to represent themselves, this time by creating or transforming a pre-existing public space. There are also countless petitioning, voting or crowdsourcing experiments such as Galaxy Zoo or Constitution UK that attempt, in different ways, to more clearly represent the public’s ideas or opinions.
Looking at how ‘real’ publics are represented in different contemporary settings of engagement and participation can helpfully bring into view one dimension of what it means to be a public today. Identifying differences between the ‘representative claims’ (see the work of Michael Saward) being articulated by different contemporary groups connects these developments to important debates about the benefits and limitations of different possible forms of public representation, inclusion and involvement.
This way of viewing publics can also support the analysis of how particular publics are being ‘targeted’ across contemporary settings. Such targeting can, for example, be undertaken through the use of public segmentation techniques; or by convening ‘mini-publics’; or through the deployment of other innovative emerging ways of assembling putatively ‘representative’ sub-sets of local, national or transnational populations.
A second way of seeing focuses on the roles that publics are offered, in this case in settings of engagement and participation. Reflecting on the multiplicity of initiatives brought together in the Participation Now collection, it is clear that many differences now exist between the kinds of roles that contemporary publics are being offered across diverse settings.
Connected Citizens and Newcastle City Council’s UDecide participatory budgeting programme are, for example, initiatives that offer people the role of ‘engaged citizens’. The engaged-citizen is a figure that is assumed to be pre-disposed to the ideals of liberal democracy and supporting established institutions.
In contrast, other initiatives, such as UK Uncut, offer the public the role of the ‘activist’. These initiatives are set up to appeal to people who oppose or identify as being marginalized from aspects of the status quo and who wish to challenge one or more prevailing public discourse or dominant social group in some way.
Then there are also those that also offer people a ‘creative’ role, including Complaints Choir, which invites people to participate in alternative forms of public action. Such as the creative process of writing and performing a song based on participants’ complaints; or, in the case of PARK(ing) Day, an annual worldwide event that brings together artists and citizens with the aim of transforming metered parking spots into temporary public parks.
By offering people these and other such roles, initiatives operate on the basis of different sets of assumptions about the capacities, identifications and desires of contemporary publics.
These different roles that publics are being offered also relate to the different types of relationships, forms of conduct and infrastructures that people are being invited to test out and develop across this field.
The issue of what role the public could or should have in society, now or in the future, has long been the topic of intense debate in the literature on the public. With thinkers as diverse as Arendt, Dewey, Habermas and Fraser offering distinctive perspectives on this issue in the 20th Century and these debates being added to more recently by thinkers such as Mouffe and Santos.
There is a third way of seeing what is happening to contemporary publics that can also be useful. This encourages us to look at how publics are being invited to ‘self-organise’ in contemporary settings.
When we look across the contemporary field of engagement and participation it is clear that publics are being supported to self-organise in a wide range of different ways. Initiatives such as Puzzled by Policy, for example, illustrate how highly structured procedures are put in place in certain settings, designed to channel (and thereby potentially limit) possibilities for forms of public self-organisation.
Pre-existing literature on public self-organisation is useful as it calls on us to look at the mediated, indeterminate and potentially innovative qualities of contemporary publics. For those interested in how publics might play a more critical and creative role in settings of engagement and participation, it will be useful to attend to distinctions between the growing number of ways that participative infrastructures now support dynamics of call-and-response; as well as to the range of often unforeseen outcomes that emerge from these public interactions.
Seeing contemporary publics in 3-D
In shifting times, there is a need to see contemporary publics from each of these three perspectives.
Looking at how initiatives work to target and enroll pre-existing groups can help us to see the evolving set of ways that publics are being represented in contemporary settings of engagement and participation.
Looking at the roles publics are being invited to enact will help us to more clearly see the range of relationships now being tested-out.
If we are interested how new and more people-driven ideas, social innovations or ways of being public might potentially be generated in contemporary settings, it is also useful to look at how engagement and participation initiatives support forms of self-organisation and the outcomes that emerge from these processes.
Each of these three distinct ways of seeing the public can therefore be differently useful.
Used together these three perspectives can provide us with a clearer view of contemporary publics – particularly when it comes to identifying divergences and possible intersections between the versions of the public being supported by the increasing multiplicity of different kinds of engagement and participation initiatives.
Those interested in being creatively involved in the development of the field of engagement and participation and those involved in the reinvigoration of the public realm can therefore potentially all benefit from seeing contemporary publics in three-dimensions.
* This post draws on the outcomes of research and development work undertaken under the auspices of the Creating Publics and Participation Now projects. A version of the three-dimensional approach to contemporary publics set out here was first outlined in (2013) article called ‘The work of public engagement‘, by Nick Mahony, that’s available here. A more detailed version of this approach is elaborated in two further journal articles that are forthcoming, each of which is co-authored by Nick Mahony and Hilde C. Stephansen.
This is the first of a series of three posts that reflect on results of the Open University and RCUK-funded Creating Publics and Participation Now projects. Drawing on experiences and research this post will highlight some implications flowing specifically from the Participation Now project for current debates about democratic reform, particularly in the UK.
I’ve been involved in several conversations over the last few months about democratic reform – most recently as part of an INVOLVE organised event (this was set up to explore the possibility of convening a more inclusive and public conversation about English constitutional reform, there’s a blog-post here reflecting on this event by Diane Beddoes from Dialogue by Design and more reflections here). Other parallel initiatives are now being set up too (e.g by Unlock Democracy. I’m currently also looking forward to taking part in a Raymond Williams Foundation sponsored residential event on the theme of ‘Democracy in the 21st Century: Participation Now’ at the end of this month.
What possible significance might the collection of 150 engagement and participation initiatives assembled as part of the Participation Now project have for these and other overlapping contemporary conversations about democratic reform?
Heterogeneity of contemporary field of engagement and participation
The first reason that Participation Now is a relevant and potentially useful resource for those interested in democratic reform is because it helps animate some of the incredible diversity of contemporary engagement and participation initiatives.
These initiatives address a multiplicity of contemporary publics, which are assumed to have a wide range of individual identifications, issues of shared concern and democratic aspirations. These are publics that are also taken to desire a mix of ‘horizontal’ and more ‘vertical’ forms of organizing. These publics are therefore being offered an extensive variety of ways of relating to each other and with different pre-existing public organisations, projects and campaigns.
If the existence of these many different forms of participatory initiative is seen to have potential value, there is also a need to recognise that progress in this contemporary field is currently not happening in a straightforward or linear way. Simultaneously there now exists many ways of thinking about and testing out what is meant by democratic reform.
What is to be done?
The second reason why Participation Now is a relevant and potentially useful resource is because it can help those interested in democratic reform consider what is to be done in the current context.
For democratic reformers, this field (and its highly distributed and heterogeneous character) present a challenge. This is the challenge of how to effectively engage and work with the multiplicity of innovators and associated publics already involved in these processes.
Any technocratic scheme that has the ambition of bringing this diverse assemblage of differently situated people into one streamlined process of democratisation is a fantasy. There is no discernible popular appetite for this and in the current context the fragmentation of popular political identifications and levels of disaffection with mainstream politics are both now too great for such a top-down prescription to work.
So how else could these people and the work already undertaken across this field be both recognised and further developed? Especially when it comes to participating in larger-scale and longer-term processes of democratic reform? As importantly, how could such a process potentially generate the social, political and cultural momentum that would be needed to shift the balance of social forces that exist at this time?
Building a public platform
The third and final reason why Participation Now is a relevant and potentially useful resource for those interested in contemporary democratic reform is because it has been designed as a public platform.
The project took inspiration from the sense of creative, political and public possibility that is now palpable in the field of contemporary participatory innovation. Inspiration was also drawn from those (including, for example, Raymond Williams, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Jenny Pearce and Jeremy Gilbert) who have long called for the ‘democratization of democracy’.
The Participation Now project forged a collaboration with the Open University’s pre-existing OpenLearn platform and a partnership with openDemocracy.net in order to develop some of the infrastructure needed to support public debate about the contemporary field of participation.
This project did not seek to operationalize a pre-existing theory of democracy or template for democratic reform. Instead, it sought to engage with, relate, amplify and develop what is already going on.
The project calls to mind the possibility of a larger-scale process that is focused on developing a public platform for democratic reform. So what might such a public platform process entail:
To support ‘horizontal’ networking much greater support would be needed to more systematically document, map and research the contemporary field of engagement and participation.
Support would also be needed to convene conversations and negotiations between those already involved who have experience and knowledge of this field. Such encounters would need to be inter-generational and inter-contextual (involving innovators and pioneer publics from different periods and domains) and would need also to be accessible online, as well as take place via face-to-face.
The aim of documenting and involving these people would be to share (and help others reflect on) the varied experiences and knowledges already generated across different settings. Such a process could also help people identify areas of shared expertise or concern and open out possibilities for new forms of collaboration and innovation.
More extensive infrastructural investment would be needed to support a range of online interactive and broadcast-type events designed to involve the plural contemporary publics who have not so far had opportunities to take part in this field of activity. Such investment could usefully also support capacity building and help resource more systematic and involving processes of evaluation.
A public process of evaluation would need to address, for example: the ways different contemporary innovations work to extend basic rights and equalities; the extent to which different publics are involved; or the ways initiatives work to divide up the labour of democratic decision-making between diverse actors and groups.
The success of a process of this kind would hinge on whether or not it led to the involvement of a critical mass (or collective) that included large and potent collectivities of: students, researchers, practitioners, institutional actors as well as other contemporary publics.
Developing this kind of public platform would undoubtedly involve considerable social and cultural work. A significant investment of resources would also be needed to take full advantage of digital technologies.
For those interested in forging the new modes of collective democratic life that are at stake here, pre-internet social organising traditions hold important lessons here too. Think the public platforms built by the women’s movement, civil liberties, LGBT rights. Then think perhaps about how the alter-globalisation/trade justice movements, Occupy, the 15M movement in Spain or Wikileaks/Snowdon have attempted to develop public platforms more recently.
It now quite often feels like an incredibly bleak political time. The contemporary constellation of engagement and participation initiatives can offer hope in this context. If a public platform for democratic reform is to be created it must carefully build on and tenaciously attempt to involve many more people in these developments.