The ‘Problem’ of Participation

Some gathering-of-thoughts for a paper that I am very excited to work on (and finish, because I’ve been excited to work on it for far, far too long!).

In narrowing myself down from a paper topic, to a research question, to a problem, I find myself thinking about the “problem” of participation in planning. Like flossing, participation “feels” like the right thing to do — and yet there’s something about the actual way that participation happens that makes it feel stinted and awkward.

The act of curating what comes out of a public engagement workshop is often left to someone who is not the entire public in the room. It is generally considered too time-intensive to crunch what 5 to 7 people said for an hour into something digestible, unless it is a very rigorously-defined format (such as that seen in TransLink’s Be Part of the Plan game technique). There’s a gap between the “what we did tonight” and “what’s next.” Am I just too impatient, lacking faith that what people say can ever be readily conveyed back to them in a decision that shows their input was considered? I’m not sure I’m ever able to take a statement like “We’re not doing what you want but we’ve decided this is the best thing for us to do, and we really did think about what you said, honest!” seriously in my life ever again. It strikes me as inadequate. It leaves the curating, the definition of the problem and the definition of who can act in a black box.

The game of, “We’re going to ask you what you think and your comments are very important to us!”, customer service grin implied and all, makes me feel pandered to. It reeks of paternalistic, “We Know Best,” whether the ‘we’ is government writ large, politicians, or a set of professionals or stakeholders with specific interests or status. I tend to believe these groups all know something, very important somethings — that there isn’t a conspiratorial plot that these people have to see large swaths of humanity suffer.

And yet I also get the feeling that even the people running them are uncomfortable in public workshops. They’re often wearing the image of their organization. It’s the culmination of a huge amount of effort, to prepare talking points and printed boards and to winnow down their message into something that captures the complexity while staying within the boundaries and constraints of time. It’s admirable, but I know if I were in the position of having to work as a planner, I’d probably loathe public workshops as they are run now. There’s an edge in the air, the possibility of everything unraveling into unproductive nattering, turf wars, NIMBYs, etc. A shoring up for defenses. “Don’t show any weakness!” the flipchart stands scream.

This is particularly interesting time to be thinking about this in Vancouver as well, based on some recent moves by council here. There is a sense that, while obviously well-meaning and certainly entitled and encouraged to express the impact of actions to their lives, many groups are undoing a lot of work by City staff, who are often doing their best to bring the best of their respective fields into the conversation, while remaining sensitive to locals’ needs — to the extent that they are empowered to.

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).

Update: Rob Cottingham has kindly allowed me to include his drawing from the recent OSCON — a great visual representation of what the “vending machine” looks and feels like to most citizens right now.

Drawing by Rob Cottingham.

Excerpt from Rob Cottingham's OSCON toonblog. Used with permission.

That said, having only looked at it from the outside, and only for a very short period of time, I think it’s important to consider whether the benefits that the model conveys to public servants permits things that other models might impede. I suspect it has something to do with the freedom to explore half-baked ideas without communicating expectation. This sort of thing happens off-the-record all the time, after work-hour conversations. The informal often has value, and the informal is vital for its difference from the formal.

What I am perhaps projecting onto my vision of Twitter-or-something-like-it for collaborative rationality is a socially acceptable process for formalizing the benefits that can accrue from that which is systematically framed as informal, which right now gets very little traction within the public engagement process. The challenge is that the field of informal players is uneven — some either are perceived as or actually are confrontational, insular, or doing nothing to elevate the discourse. Some are capable, constructive, making connections where none previously existed. And the relationship of the media to these groups vary, because some stories are easier and more interesting to tell than others.

Participation in a community of inquiry has benefits and obligations. I suspect the obligations — such as the fact that you might not “win” or get exactly what you want from the people that one perceives to have it — will make it uninteresting and unpalatable to the purely self-interested. And we generally give a lot of leeway on these obligations, because we recognize there’s a skills and knowledge deficit.

What I’m hearing from skeptics of open government and collaboration is the fear that the mechanisms that governments make available for dialogue, will be hijacked to undermine the process, by focusing on lowest common minutiae and insisting on micromanagement. I don’t think it’s unfounded. I do think the re-engineering of the machine has started to happen, while many if not most of those who could contribute to making sure it’s done well, write it off or are justifiably unable to put time to thinking about it, and that strikes me as worrisome.

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