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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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