#5PAPERS – Week 2 Day 4

by Nivek K Thompson

1.Reference to the Article 

Walker, E. T., McQuarrie, M., & Lee, C. W. (2015). Rising Participation and Declining Democracy. In C. W. Lee, M. McQuarrie, & E. T. Walker (Eds.), Democratizing Inequalities: Dilemmas of the New Public Participation (pp. 3-26). New York: New York University Press.

  1. What attracted me to this Article?

This is from a book with the tag line: dilemmas in new public participation, published last year, so I’m hoping it provides some current thinking and research on public participation and the title suggest it isn’t simply the usual ‘more participation is good’ polemic.

  1. What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

These authors are looking at different examples of local participatory activity and asking the question: ‘what makes some deliberative participation good and some bad?’ p.7

  1. Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)

This chapter looks critically at what the authors call “new public participation” which they define as

“(a) the facilitation of lay participation by elite actors in order to manage or channel the former’s voice in support of narrow interests, (b) the creation of collaborative relationships between lay actors and organizational decision-makers to reground the authority of the organization, or

(c) efforts to arrive at better-informed organizational decisions by relying on the collective wisdom of assembled publics rather than experts.” p.7

The believe that even when participation is done with good intentions they are shaped by socioeconomic equality and do nothing to challenge inequalities, in many cases doing the opposite.

  1. What did they do? (Methodology & Method)

This chapter is the introduction to a volume which includes essays which focus on how participation can reproduce inequality, support the production of authority and legitimacy and have unintended consequences. It aims to set the scene for the rest of the book and concludes with a short overview of the book focused around different aspects of the use and impact of participation.

The set out the aims of the book being to look beyond the ‘successful cases of stakeholder empowerment’ p.9

  1. What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)

That increased participation does not unambiguously equate with increased democratization. They note that despite increasing opportunities participation (both in quantity and type) that socioeconomic inequality has also grown, suggesting that any expectation that greater participation will lead to better outcomes for all is unfounded.

They undertake a brief history of participation noting that at many points in the history of democratic societies participation was not considered of high value (this links with yesterday’s article about the tension between elites and citizens). Emphasis on the giving a voice to citizens rather than experts or elites grew in the post-WW2 period, not simply opposing decision-making by experts and elites but also supporting community building and connections between people.

They note that whilst the 1960s were a time where more participation was demanded by the 1970s participation was ‘widely adopted by government and private-sector organizations… Indeed, in many settings participation was actively pushed as a management tool, not as a method of democratization.’ p.13

The authors identify three primary tensions arising from the current practice of participation across government and non-government (including business) organizations:

  1. Democratization vs tyranny: asking the questions ‘Is our society more open and democratic? Or is elite rule reorganized to accommodate greater openness and participation without disrupting hierarchies and power relations?’ p.14
  2. Solidarity vs conflict: does ‘solidarity and consensus in an unequal society come at a cost? … Are all questions usefully amenable to compromise and deliberation or are there issues that are better decided on the basis of agonistic contests between organized interest groups? p.15
  3. Better governance or worse? What is the appropriate balance between citizen views and expert knowledge.

They identify the aim of this volume as being to make a more nuanced analysis of how participation and equality inter-relate, rather than assume either a uniformly positive or negative connection.

  1. What did I learn?

Whilst this was an introductory chapter and did not include any empirical analysis I was excited by, what to me is, a new more critical consideration of participation. I was familiar with the type of participation processes they gave as examples, which made their unique ‘take’ on what these processes were about, even more interesting. I’ll definitely be reading other chapters in this book.

I’ll be interested to see how later chapters address the tension I’ve noted in much of the participatory and deliberative democracy literature between the value of participation and deliberation per se and the anticipated improvement in outcomes as a result of broader participation. Depending on which of these ‘values’ you focus on their view that participation is not leading to better outcomes may be irrelevant.

Some of the discussion reminds me of another paper I read a while ago which suggests that much of the deliberative democracy literature assumes a certain type of ‘rational’ discussion that may not be appropriate to all people in all situations and is effectively about ‘controlling people’. I know deliberative theorists have sought to respond to this type of critique by broaden the types of communication that can be legitimately considered deliberation, including contestation.

This work highlights the broader conception of democracy as put forward by Morlino and others i.e. a good democracy includes social and economic equality and therefore if participatory processes are designed explicitly to minimise challenges to inequality then they certainly can’t be considered democratic.

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