[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