#5PAPERS – Week 2 Day 5

by Nivek K Thompson

1.Reference to the Article 

Martin, I. W. (2015). The Fiscal Sociology of Public Consultation. In C. W. Lee, M. McQuarrie, & E. T. Walker (Eds.), Democratizing Inequalities: Dilemmas of the New Public Participation (pp. 102-124). New York: New York University Press.

2. What attracted me to this Article?

I read the introductory chapter to this book yesterday and found the critical perspective they outlined very challenging and interesting. This chapter looks at deliberative forums being used where a government faces fiscal difficulties – which is something I am familiar with in practice.

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

Martin is looking at the emergence of new forms of citizen engagement in California from a sociological rather than normative perspective.

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

He draws on ‘a general theory of where such innovations come from… [Arguing that] State officials and citizens invent new forms of consultation in order to manage the potentially conflictual processes of bargaining of the allocation of shared burdens and benefits.’ p.103

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

Martin starts with a historical review of citizen engagement and participation starting in the 1960s to the present day.

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

Using a range of data sources as well s research by other scholars he identifies

  • a decline in various forms of formal regularised participation after the hey days of the 1960s when people expected a ‘participation explosion’.
  • with an increase in ‘irregular, informal and occasional forms of participation’ p.103 arising from an increase in the number of one-off participatory events convened by governments, starting in the 1970s
  • these events were supported by a growth in organisations ‘that plan and run public forums’ (Jacobs, Cook and Delli Carpini, 2009:142) since the 1980s.

He suggests moving from a demand side approach to opportunities for participation to a supply side perspective and proposes a ‘fiscal theory of consultation that draws on classic works in the sociology of democratic government.’ p.105 In particular the fiscal theory of democratization which holds that democratization arises to support the need for widespread taxation (Goldscheid, Schumpeter, and Tilly).

Martin identifies three mechanisms behind changes (innovations) in citizen participation:

  1. increasing demands from citizens – linked to increasing requirements from the state for resources resulting in citizens demanding to be consulted on how these resources will be obtained
  2. anticipatory consultation – where the state creates participatory opportunities so that they can maintain an understanding of citizens’ views ahead of necessary changes to laws and taxes
  3. information arbitrage – which refers to the growth of various entities whose role is to broker the exchange of information between citizens and the state (this includes political parties, interest groups and public opinion polling firms)

He suggests that these three mechanisms occur in sequence over time and that they are initiated in the first instance by government and in times of fiscal stress. He adds two further hypotheses i.e. that consultation will expand where a government is applying intensive extraction (increasing an existing tax) and that there will be path dependence. He undertakes an extensive comparison between California and New York, considering of key taxation changes, the associated protests and resulting new consultation mechanisms since the 1800s and concludes that these hypotheses are born out

He notes that whilst these processes may begin in government there is historical evidence of new processes e.g. secret ballots, spreading beyond government over time.

His conclusion is that ‘organizational elites may institute new forms of consultation with particular publics when their organizations depend on those publics’ willingness to provide material resources.’ p.105 In particular he suggests that the explosion of deliberative processes, what he calls the ‘The Great Consultation’ is about pre-empting conflict by ‘allowing public officials to calibrate their fiscal demands more carefully to the political tolerance of the citizenry.’ p.119 Based on his view that states will seek to tax those with resources, he identifies the possibility that improvements in rights to consultation may benefit those with resources more than those without, and so ‘may exacerbate inequalities in political voice.’ p.119

7. What did I learn?

Martin uses the term ‘deliberation’ loosely, not in the technical way I’m used to in regard to deliberative mini-publics.

He’s close historical review of taxation decisions, citizen protest and changing consultation mechanisms is fascinating. I’m not sure whether there could be another explanation for the facts he presents but his logic is convincing.

As well as using historical reports and other data Martin uses an interesting approach of counting the number of mentions of ‘town hall meeting’ and similar terms in the Los Angles Times, controlling for other variables, and applying various statistic tests to the data.

I also found his description of the role of engagement consultants as part of this evolution across the mechanisms of change, in particular the information arbitrage very interesting as it casts these organisations in a different light to the one I’m used to – which is as “evangelists for democracy”.