Tag Archives: collaboration

Renovating democracy: combining conventions with festivals to assemble the public

[Re-post of piece originally published by openDemocracy by Nick Mahony and Derek Tatton, Adminstrator of the Raymond Williams Foundation]

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

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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 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.

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Launch of editorial partnership between Participation Now and OpenDemocracy

Against the background of the crises, uprisings, occupations and institutional break-downs of recent years and in a context where debates about the need for new and more effective forms of public participation and action are becoming increasingly mainstream, this editorial partnership between the Open University’s new project Participation Now and openDemocracy has been set up to support the ongoing exploration, debate and development of the field of participatory public engagement.

Featuring short blog-style pieces including:

Could volunteering be bad for our health? by ELLEN STEWART

Knowing your citizens, making publics by HELEN PALLETT

Researching austerity: participatory engagement by JANET NEWMAN

Researching Occupy London by PAUL-FRANÇOIS TREMLETT

Keyword: public by SHANNON JACKSON

PPE in Oxford: people’s political economy by JOEL LAZARUS

The Ragged University by ALEX DUNEDIN

The nQuire young citizen inquiry by CHRISTOTHEA HERODOTOU

Project COBRA: community-owned solutions for the marginalised indigenous communities of the Guiana Shield, South America by ANDREA BERARDIJAY MISTRY, and CELINE TSCHIRHART

Participation Now is looking for short, blog-post style contributions (250-750 words) that draw on your own research and/or experiences related to public participation and public engagement. For more details see the Participation Now website and contact participation-now@open.ac.uk

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Public crises, public futures

Co-authored with John Clarke and just published in latest issue of the journal Cultural Studies (Vol. 27, no. 6, 2013) this article begins to map out a novel approach to analysing contemporary contexts of public crisis, relationships between them and possibilities that these scenes hold out for politics. The article illustrates and analyses a small selection of examples of these kinds of contemporary scenes and calls for greater attention to be given to the conditions and consequences of different forms and practices of public and political mediation. In offering a three-fold typology to delineate differences between ‘abject’, ‘audience’ and ‘agentic’ publics the article begins to draw out how political and public futures may be seen as being bound up with how the potentialities, capacities and qualities that publics are imagined to have and resourced to perform. Public action and future publics are therefore analysed here in relation to different versions of contemporary crisis and the political concerns and publics these crises work to articulate, foreground and imaginatively and practically support.

If you’re unable to access this journal, there’s also a preprint PDF version available here.

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Making MOOCs public

There is now vigorous debate about how ‘we’ should understand what massive open online courses (or MOOCs) might do to the HE sector (today, for example, I read Clay Shirky’s epochal and rather technologically deterministic account, but also see here for a critical response and here for ‘a people’s history of MOOCs’). The public launch of Futurelearn (set up as a limited company with the Open University holding the majority stake) is just the latest in a string of similar announcements in recent months. These ongoing developments prompt the question of what it might mean for a MOOC to be public? Especially, that is, in the context of: proliferating crises; rapid technological change; and, at a time when the notion of the public, modes of public practice and public institutions are all also in states of increasing flux.

As we have explored elsewhere, different versions of the contemporary crisis call up and rely on different ideas of who ‘we’ the public are, in order to sustain and animate themselves in practice. With this in mind it’s possible to tentatively imagine three (not necessarily mutually exclusive) versions of what making MOOCs public could potentially entail at this time:

1. ‘We’ are currently experiencing a crisis of public access and public knowledge/skills. So public funding is made available to enable sets of lectures and course materials, produced by ‘elite’ academics, freely available online. This would offer lay-publics hitherto unavailable opportunities to overcome the obstacles of fees and access and begin to address deficits in knowledge and status.

2. ‘We’ are currently experiencing a crisis of public engagement and trust in public institutions, including those of public education. So universities agree to team up to design and build the infrastructure needed to provide new forms of guided, goal-driven, supported and peer-to-peer learning, thereby massively scaling up pre-existing and emerging forms of pedagogical practice in this area.

3. ‘We’ are currently confronting a crisis of democracy and inequality. Universities work and experiment as public mediators to help address contemporary issues of increasing public inequality and other areas of social, economic and environmental concern. HE providers would support spin-offs that would test-out ways of tutoring highly distributed pre-existing and emergent publics; offer alternative forms of public mediation (to those provided by existing forms of media); and (at this time of multiplying crises) provide resources for critical and creative reflection and participative and democratic experimentation.

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The aim of the conference ‘Science and Public in Decision Making Processes‘ – hosted by Charles University in Prague on 25 October 2012 – is to discuss the relation between knowledge, expertise and public decision-making processes. There are plenaries by Andrew Sterling (University of Sussex) and Claudia Neubauer (Fondation Sciences Citoyennes) and others. As well as a set of panels, there will also be a workshop on ‘Conceptualising and making the publics of social science’, which I’ve co-organised with Simon Smith (who is a research fellow at University of Leeds and who I first met at the launch event of the Creating Publics project). This will look into how different ideas of contemporary crises can mediate a set of  distinct ways of thinking about how researchers and publics are being positioned (and might take a position) in the current conjuncture.

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