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Musings and reading on collaborative rationality in urban planning and civic projects

Some half-baked thoughts on collaboration in planning.

I’m currently in the midst of reading Planning With Complexity by Judith Innes and David Booher. I was never really able to give quite enough attention to their 2004 paper, Networked Power in Planning, which outlines the DIAD (Diversity, Interdependence, Authentic Dialogue) model that is central to this book, so I was very happy to get my hands on this volume, which says a lot of things that jibe with the experiences that have spurred and underpinned my entire approach to planning. In some ways, it feels kind of ironic yet appropriate that this is my first engagement with planning theory.

It’s also encouraging me to recall that I use some terms in my speaking and thinking that I really ought to flesh out and write down somewhere, so here they are:

My favorite descriptions of planners currently are “stewards of process” and “gatekeepers of information for decision-making.” The former is probably wildly idealistic and the latter is perhaps a bit more pragmatic and realistic. “Stewards of process” came about when I was thinking about what role planners might take in an altered arena of planning activity which involve open data. Planners and a number of professionals specialize in analyses contributing information and wisdom that (we hope) guides the decisions about what happens in our cities. If the people contributing analyses are individuals or loose agglomerations who make them at hackathons or ChangeCamps, how do planners deal with this? We want to keep believing that our certifications and other bells and whistles making us feel like experts will continue to matter — and I think they will continue to, but the tone of the conversation will necessarily be different than it is now, which is fraught with the power differential of, “I do this for pay for 8 hours a day,” versus, “I take this bus and see what happens when it’s late.” It shouldn’t have to be a versus.

Innes and Booher describe interpretive knowing as the foundation for collaborative dialogue:

Many aspects of collaborative processes mesh well with interpretive way so fknowing. They focus on particular situations rather than look for general principles; participants offer knowledge for their experience as well as from research; they challenge statements of fact and causality; and they build shared meaning around issues. Indeed collaborative dialogue is, more than anything else, a process of negotiating meanings — of problems, of evidence, of strategies, of justice or fairness, and of the nature of desirable outcomes. If meanings and values were already shared, bureaucracy could handle the issue in a routine way and experts could use established positivist principles and methodologies to solve problems. In collaborative dialogues participants listen to each other’s information and to that of experts and engage in joint learning.

This is where “gatekeepers of information for decision-making” comes in, which is my way of describing what I’m seeing now, without any official process for collaboration. Some information (i.e. the opinions of experts) matters, and some doesn’t. The problem is, is that that information that seemingly doesn’t matter in some parts of the process, becomes instrumental when the matter at hand is different — say, when you are trying to get community buy-in or when you are thinking about what makes the difference in people accepting a change in their surroundings or altering their daily habits in some way.

Why does this interest me? Frankly, because I’m hearing a lot of people who are talking and thinking about collaboration say similar things for different reasons. Gordon Ross highlighted Beth Noveck’s chapter in the O’Reilly Open Government book (which can be purchased here; or the chapter is also available for download in a free PDF), where she writes about a collaborative democracy instead of a deliberative democracy — what they are and how they differ:

Deliberative democracy has been the dominant view of participation in contemporary political theory. At its center is the Habermasian notion that the reasoned exchange of discourse by diverse individuals representative of the public at large produces a more robust political culture  and a healthier democracy. […] The weakness of the deliberative approach is not that it reaches too far (as direct democracy may) but that it does not reach far enough. By making talk the centerpiece of its normative aspirations, deliberative democracy’s proponents assume that people are generally powerless and incapable of doing more than talking with neighbors to develop opinions or criticizing government to keep it honest. […] The desire for civilized discussion and dispute resolution lead to a requirement of demographically balanced representation in the conversation. This may ensure inclusion of all affected interests but does not, as Alexander Meiklejohn said, necessarily result in an airing of all ideas worth hearing. Deliberative democracy relegates the role of citizens to discussion only indirectly related to decision making and action. The reality of deliberation is that it is toothless. Perhaps it is, as Shaw once said: The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

This speaks to me because I feel this split, between who‘s talking and what comes out of the conversation, describes another situation that I’m having difficulty reconciling: namely, that between a public consultation process — which seeks to be inclusive and hear from a diversity of people on how something might affect them (and are very important things to do, please don’t get me wrong) — and the collaborative and participatory spirit infused in things like CityCamps, ChangeCamps, and TransitCamps. I’m drawing on my recent experience with a TransLink public consultation as part of a study on a rapid transit corridor, which I’m guessing does not stray far from the character and manner of most public engagement exercises. The BarCamps and their derivatives ask people a whole different set of questions and propositions, such as:

  • what has your experience been?
  • what can you contribute to improving a situation?
  • who do you know that can help you/us in making our ideas reality?

Noveck again:

Deliberation measures the quality of democracy on the basis of the procedural uniformity and equality of inputs. Collaboration shifts the focus to the effectiveness of decision making and outputs. […] The distinctions between deliberation and collaboration become even more pronounced in the online environment, whose characteristics are increasingly making collaboration easier. New technologies make it possible to join ever more groups and teams.

Part of the proposition for collaboration is asking citizens to take responsibility for their role and contributions to the process in shaping the quality and value of the outcome. Public consultations preserve the power structure of Sponsoring Agency Doing Something; and the framing of the event as, You As Rider/Citizen Having Your Chance To Say Something About It (And If You Miss This, The People On This Project Will See You Next Time With Their Next Deliverable). Whether I went or not, it feels quite distant as to whether anything I said trickled down into any kind of a tangible impact. Isn’t there still a sense of feedback going into a black box process from which certain choices or options emerge Victorious and Mandated?

There’s two things that I predict some might find problematic about the idea of collaborative democracy, which I’ll describe as 1) the quality of participation affecting standing in conversation, and 2) the vending machine mindset.

Quality of Participation Affectts Standing in Conversation

One fear is that collaborative democracy seems to privilege some forms of input and participation over others. In open source software and many other communities, it may be called a Do-Ocracy (to contrast with a meritocracy) which can be problematic because some forms of doing may be given disproportionate weight and value over others which may serve to narrow the diversity of contributors — either in a skill sense or a demographic sense. On this, Noveck writes:

[…] Collaboration is a form of democratic participation that is egalitarian—but egalitarian in a different way than the traditional understanding of the term. Typically, mass participation like voting is thought of as being quite democratic because everyone can participate in the same way.
[…] People do not have to participate in the same exercise. One person may want to work on Peer-to-Patent, another may want to get involved in health care debates. One person may want to work on energy policy, another may want to organize a corps of energy “scouts” to go door-to-door and help neighbors evaluate their energy usage. The ability to self-select to participate in the arena of one’s choosing is what makes collaborative democracy egalitarian. A person may be an expert on wetlands because she possesses professional credentialing. Another person may be an expert on wetlands because she lives near one. Perhaps it is a level of know-how or the enthusiasm to commit more time that generates status in other domains. For every project, there is a different kind of expertise, which could be sought. Experts will flock to those opportunities that exploit their intelligence. In this choice lies the equality of opportunity.

Sounds good, but I’m not sure this does it for me on this question of meaningful collaboration from a diverse skill set. Open source software development communities are working on this question of diversity and inclusivity all the time, as this recent podcast on the topic of diversity from the company Lullabot in the Drupal project demonstrates. Not every project will be a Dreamwidth and, I have a sneaking suspicion, not everyone might want to contribute to a project that is as open and inclusive.

So what do Innes and Booher have to say? For their part (which is centred on public policy, which I’m safely assuming is a fairly different beast from “working code”), they propose community of inquiries as the basis of a dialogue process and the heart of collaborative rationality, tidily described thusly:

A process is collaboratively rational to the extent that all the affected interests jointly engage in face to face dialogue, bringing their various perspectives to the table to deliberate on the problems they face together. for the process to be collaboratively rational, all participants must also be fully informed and able to express their views and be listened to, whether they are powerful or not. Techniques must be used to mutually assure the legitimacy, comprehensibility, sinerity, and accuracy of what they say. Nothing can be off the table. They have to seek consensus.

No forking going on here, and in some ways that’s the way it should be — it’s one thing if you run Ubuntu and I run Red Hat, but there’s only so much earth, air, water and energy to go around, and the environment makes us interconnected and interdependent in ways that may not be applicable in the software sense. Innes and Booher do get around to describing how collaboration interacts with democratic governance, in Chapter 8.

Vending Machine Mindset

My use of the phrase “vending machine” mindset comes from Tim O’Reilly’s chapter in Open Government, where he attributes the Donald Kettl with the “vending machine” model of government:

We pay our taxes, we expect services. And when we don’t get what we expect, our “participation” is limited to protest—essentially, shaking the vending machine. Collective action has been watered down to collective complaint.

Why is this an issue for collaborative democracy? For one thing, on straight-up time and effort budgeting. If we are expected to attend Camps, read documents, organize, blog or write, tweet…what time is left for not being an active, engaged, connected citizen? Some of us have dishes to wash, jobs to attend to, tasks to volunteer for, and, that other Kinda Important Civic contribution, children to raise. This is up for debate, but from where I’m sitting, the do-ocracy favors those who have time to participate, and time is definitely unevenly distributed and skews to favor experts, students with gobs of time, and those who are already being paid for it, and those who are committed enough to prioritize it (which means they have the ability to do so). But the other fun thing I seem coming out of it, is that we have to make our participation do dual duty in actually meeting some of those other needs. One example is celebratory activism — let’s figure out how to have fun while we’re doing our civic things. Another might be community service learning.

I don’t want these two points to be interpreted as me believing these things to be dealbreakers for collaboration — because I don’t think they are. I think it just means we have to be aware and mitigate for it. I also think there’s a whole bunch of this discussion that is relevant to questions about our current education system, which IMHO doesn’t engage meaningfully enough with the whole range of students on what their contribution to knowledge can be. If we’re already doing that when people are kids, how can we possibly ask them to want to participate in civic life? See Sir Ken Robinson’s talk at TED for more on that.

More on this when I, erm, actually finish reading Innes and Booher’s book.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By The ‘Problem’ of Participation on July 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    […] To bring in another strand of thinking on this, these workshops occasionally feel like holdovers from what Tim O’Reilly has referred to as the “vending machine” model of government (which I referred to when I last thought about collaboration in planning). […]

  2. […] Booher’s framework of collaborative rationality into my talk. I’ve written about it here on my blog before and it picks up on a number of themes I want to incorporate into my own planning practice, such as […]

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