Category Archives: Participation Now

Participation Now and 21st Century public engagement (1/3): building a platform for democratic reform

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 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.

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‘Volatile’ and ‘transformative’ participation: new interviews published on Participation Now

At a conference on the theme of ‘Participatory Cultural Citizenship’ in Aarhus, in November 2013, we had the pleasure of interviewing  keynote speakers Leah Lievrouw and  Chris Kelty (who are both based at UCLA). This pair of interviews has now been published on the Now page:

Leah Lievrouw addresses the question of ‘When is citizen participation transformative?’ 

Chris Kelty talks about how he distinguishes between ‘Volatile, stable and extractive participation’

In other news, the design of the search functionality of Participation Now was updated earlier today. We think this update significantly improves the experience of filtering and exploring the collection of 100+ initiatives… give it a try and let us know what you think.

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Participatory public engagement: reshaping what it means to be public?

[text reproduced here first published on new ‘debate, comment and analysis’ section of Participation Now website 30 Oct 2013]

By Nick Mahony and Hilde C. Stephansen, The Creating Publics project, The Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, The Open University, UK.

What is most inspiring but also awkward about the initiatives that we have begun to collect together on the new Participation Now site is their diversity. As researchers who are intrigued by the question of what being active in the public sphere means today, we find this diversity exciting but important to understand if we want to see how these activities might re-shape what it means to be public in the longer term.

We are certainly not the only people engrossed with the potential of participation and public engagement. Three major events (Borders to Cross , The Participatory Condition , and RETHINK Participatory Cultural Citizenship ) this autumn in different countries will add to a longstanding and ongoing set of debates and arguments, some of which have been supported by openDemocracy, both recently (such as the guest week in September 2013 on The Struggle for a Common Life ) and over many years.

One of the best-rehearsed of these debates arises from the sense that democracy is in crisis, and that, as a consequence, deeper and more effective forms of public participation are required. But there are other tributaries to this conversation.

Borne out of experiments with forms of participatory practice, there has been a wide range of rather more local, domain or issue-specific debates about public engagement. Activist groups have a long history of experimenting with participatory modes of organization.

But now many governmental actors are claiming that they too encourage citizen participation in decision-making; art practitioners have demonstrated the appeal of participation as a medium for public intervention. Many of the aforementioned and other actors as well have been testing out the possibilities opened up by new media technologies. Each of them has its own contribution to make.

Participation Now will provide a public platform for researchers, practitioners, students and citizens interested in these developments. Its core contribution is an expanding, freely accessible and easily searchable collection of contemporary participation initiatives. The collection is still in its infancy, but is already starting to reflect the sheer heterogeneity of contemporary ways of practicing public engagement and imagining its possible futures.

Participation Now has been carefully designed to support exploration, debate, critical and creative thinking, networking and innovation. The aim of this new partnership with openDemocracy is to kick-start this process – our hope is that this page will become a hub for conversation and knowledge sharing and exchange.

Exploring the public

As researchers, we have begun to draw on three differently useful ways of approaching and understanding ‘the public’ within the academic literature to help us explore these issues.

One strand of this literature offers a set of tools for calculating what the public is. How do different participatory public engagement initiatives work to organise and represent real, pre-existing publics? Are these real publics local, national or transnational? What makes for a ‘live’ issue? Will it appeal to specific interest groups, demographic segments, or whole populations? How do some initiatives mobilise ‘mini-publics’, representing the (often fluid) concerns and (dynamically shifting) identities of larger and more dispersed populations?

A second strand of this literature considers what the public could or should be. This more normative literature considers issues such as how and where public exchanges should ideally take place; what the role of the public in the polis should be; and the social, economic and cultural conditions that are needed to support an equitable and inclusive ‘public sphere’.

Prompted by this second strand of thinking, we are starting to consider some of the different ways that the assumed desires, capacities and needs of the public today are being supported and channeled by different initiatives; how initiatives go about summoning-up, publicising and shaping specific normative programmes; and how, by doing this, different initiatives offer their own imaginaries of what participatory public engagement could, should (and shouldn’t) be.

A third strand is monitoring the emergent qualities of publics. The focus here is on the capacity that publics can have to generate unpredictable outcomes. Consciously becoming a member of a public may not be confined to realizing certain pre-agreed aims, but might also involve an expectation both of autonomy and for possibilities for collective ‘self-organisation’.

The value of forms of public engagement lies partly in their capacity to generate novel or unanticipated outcomes. This approach takes a particular interest in initiatives that claim to be ‘participant-led’, ‘open’, ‘bottom-up’ or ‘user-driven’. How precisely do these initiatives support forms of indeterminacy and the creation of outcomes not wholly anticipated in advance?

What works: opening up and developing participation

Participation Now offers tools that help investigate these and other lines of enquiry. To the collection of database entries featuring a rapidly growing range of participatory public engagement initiatives, Participation Now has added a search mechanism that offers different ways of identifying particular sets of initiatives, whether by issue, type of organiser, different organisational approaches, or by scale.

In the months ahead, as the site and its functionality develop, we hope it will be used to support many new and eclectic conversations about the public value of different forms of emerging practice.

Our aim is not to collectively develop a ‘technical fix’ or new ‘best practice’ template. Nor do we think a new universally applicable theoretical model, or a political programme for participatory public engagement, is what is required.

Our aim in initiating this project is rather to support the emergence of contextually specific reflections on what works; conversations between actors involved in different domains; and analytical work that looks across different areas of emerging practice to investigate how these developments may (or may not) be re-shaping what it means to be public today. We also want to support critical and creative debate about contemporary forms of participation and public engagement.

In exactly what ways can participation and public engagement address the contemporary crises of democracy, expertise and legitimacy? Who are the actors behind different initiatives and in what ways are they, or are they not, ‘public’ actors? To what extent can such initiatives really be inclusive and transformative (and do they need to be)?

Participation Now is therefore a participatory public engagement initiative in its own right. It has just begun and is open-ended, so we do not yet know how this engagement initiative will turn out or whether it too may somehow contribute to the much longer-term and more collective project of re-shaping what it means to be public. However, we have taken inspiration from the creativity, criticality, hope and excitement that we find in wide-ranging contemporary developments in this area.

We have learnt first hand that participation can be a frustrating, complicated and even exasperating experience, but we have also experienced its pleasures and its possibilities and feel that these too should not be underestimated. We, too, want to try and pre-figure forms of public change.

More practically, we want to know, for example, how certain emerging forms of practice can be adapted, scaled up or made responsive to settings other than the ones in which they were created. What forms of practice are most suited to particular forms of public action? How should emerging developments be subjected to greater public scrutiny?

We grasp the fact that emerging forms of participatory practice will not develop solely as a knock-on effect of scholarly work in this area. As a project, Participation Now, supported by The Open University, wants to contribute to a more collective debate.

This partnership between Participation Now and OpenDemocracy will support different ways of exploring, keeping up with and contributing to these and other such lines of enquiry, pathways of experimentation and debate.

Follow developments on Participation Now: @NowParticipate

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