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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, October 19, 2009

is more participation better participation?

a few weeks ago, I attended a panel at the IEEE Social Computing conference on "Promoting National Initiatives for Social Networking," which ended up being largely about social software and political participation. panelists included Sandy Pentland of MIT, Jenny Preece of U Maryland, Ben Schneiderman of U Maryland, and Kevin Grandia of Hoggan and Associates. each variously extolled the virtues of political participation and civic engagement, as well as how (information and computational) technologies could be used to support and encourage such participation. Kevin provided a nice bit of counterpoint with several examples demonstrating some of the potential problems associated with these approaches.

there was one question I’d wanted to ask but have the chance: do we really want more participation? that is, is having more people participating in the political processes necessarily better? I don’t intend to be Machiavellian, though I’ll admit to being something of a devil’s advocate here. however, whenever there are fundamental assumptions at work, such as this one that more participation is better, I find examining, questioning, and occasionally problematizing such assumptions beneficial in terms of determining exactly the goals we’re trying to accomplish, as well as considering alternate means of approaching those goals and/or methods of inquiry related to such approaches.

first, let me consider what exactly we mean by participation. in the broadest general sense, democratic participation usually translates to voting. at other times (e.g., in Farrell, Lawrence, and Sides’ definition), it implies activities such as contributing money or time to a political candidate/party/campaign, or attempting to convince others to vote a certain way. in the context of the above mentioned panel, it seemed that participation was framed in terms of civic engagement; involvement with political issues; and participating in deliberative debates about governmental polities, their implications, their results, and alternatives. for example, Sandy Pentland talked about citizen-science-style sensing and census data to determine the impacts of policies intended, e.g., to increase education levels in low-SES neighbors, or to reduce pollution from factories and power plants. this arguments for the benefits seemed two-fold. first, collecting and presenting these data could enable politicians to be held accountable for their policy design and implementation decisions, preventing politicians from making vacuous claims of efficacy in the absence of any concrete evidence. second, making such data readily accessible and comprehensible would involve and engage more people in the political process by lowering the barriers to entry, thereby creating a better democracy.

it’s this second point on which I want to push here. that is, is involving more people more directly in governmental and political processes actually beneficial in terms of creating a better democracy? brief consideration would suggest that, yes, it does; since democracy is about government of, by, and for the people, involving more people in that government will make it more equitable, thereby preventing the abuse of the many by the few. however, one of the central premises of American democracy, as well as that of many other (Western) democratic nations, is representation. that is, rather than being a direct democracy where every member of the state has a direct vote on every policy or governance question, we elect representatives who represent us in such decision processes. in direct democracy, not only does every citizen need significant knowledge of every issue, but so much of citizens’ time is consumed with the political process that they have little time left to live their lives. furthermore, based on the apathy evidenced by low voter turnouts in many elections (at least in this country), getting people engaged with and interested in such issues is a non-trivial problem.

however, I’ve recently become aware of a third option that represents something of a compromise between direct and representative democracy: deliberative democracy (slight caveat: I’ve only recently become aware of the notion of deliberative democracy and, at the time of this post, am still in the process of wrapping my head around it). elected representatives ultimately make the political decisions, but citizens are involved in the decision making, deliberative process. this approach seems to share a certain sensibility with participatory design, but that’s a topic for another time. what I want to consider here is something that seems like a central tenet in deliberative democracy: by involving a large, diverse group of citizens in the political process, there can never be full and complete agreement. that is, there are differences of opinion that, no matter how much deliberation and participation you have, will always be irreconcilable differences. thus, by increasing the amount of participation in political debates, one increases the likelihood of such irreconcilable differences, thereby making it more difficult to reach a compromise or mutually agreeable solution.

I want to ask if, instead of increasing the quantity of participation, we can instead improve the quality of participation? trying to involve every single citizen not only runs up against theoretical problems in terms of irreconcilable deliberation, but it also runs up against practical problems in terms requesting participation from those who are disinterested and/or unmotivated. again, I’m not arguing that a government controlled by the few is better. rather, I’m arguing that those who participate in government (a) should be those who are most interested and motivated to do so and (b) should participate in a deep, meaningful, effective way. while a fully detailed exploration of what might be meant by deep, meaningful, effective participation is probably beyond the current scope, I’ll suggest here three potential ways in which such participation might manifest: consideration of long term impacts, consideration of all parties involved, and consideration underlying assumptions. while I’d like to pursue each of these at length in future posts, it’s much more realistic that to suggest instead that those interested should start a discussion in the comments.

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