Sara Heesterbeek, Rathenau Institute, The Netherlands
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This presentation is about some basic but important principles of public participatory activities like citizens' deliberation, workshops and consensus conferences you will encounter during its design, organisation and dissemination.
Sara Heesterbeek has been working for over six years at the Rathenau Institute, the Dutch parliamentary Technology Assessment institute in The Hague. She was involved in the organisation of three consensus conferences (about organ transplantation, elite sports and (gene)technology and brain sciences) and three technology festivals (about infertility and reproductive technology, human enhancement and brain sciences). Nowadays she works as a freelancer to advise and organise public participatory activities. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Principles in action:
- Empowerment of participants
- The management of expectations
- Equity and fairness of deliberation
- Possible solutions
- Learning points
These are four important principles. Others can be added, but will probably be touched while discussing these four.
- Relevance: scientific discoveries, developments and technology affects our daily life
- skills, opinions, decisions, actions,
- who sets the agenda, frames the problems, etc?
- enable access to relevant information, experts, literature, etc. (who selects them?)
In order to democratise "doing" science and developing technology it is important to make people conscious about science and technology, make them anticipate developments and experience possible futures, so they can have an informed opinion about these developments that might have impact on them and/or other parties. This is problematic for non-existent technologies, or nearly invisible technologies, technology that is still being designed, or uncontested technologies. However, in this phase or state, all these developments can be discussed in different ways.
There are various interpretations of what exactly participation requires, ranging from enabling citizens to voice their opinion on science and technology, to findings actually being incorporated in the process of decision making. To empower participants best, it is important that the process of participation is their "property" as much as possible. To be able to do this, good and neutral information is essential.
- tension between individual and group autonomy
- knowledge gap (any answer goes)
- incompatible frames
- steering towards ďacceptedĒ outcomes
- Working with a group of people isn't unproblematic. Group autonomy can conflict with the autonomy of the individual. This will be especially apparent when you want to achieve consensus.
- The relation between experts, but also with lay people can be problematic. Some experts can't really communicate - in general, or with the participants, or among each other. They can work with incompatible frames, use different or unknown vocabularies, or misuse their expertise (any answer goes) because nobody can verify what they state.
- It's crucial to know beforehand what can possibly be done with the outcome of the process, or which decision can be influenced by the results. You really don't want to end up having beautiful results and nobody waiting for it! This can also be very harmful for the reputation of public participation and the status of future projects.
- Doing participative projects implies knowing what you want to achieve with this project. But the participants are unaware of this underlying goal. In case the process won't work out the way you envisioned, it is very tempting to steer the discussion towards "accepted" outcomes.
- be very clear about the aims and consequences
- assist in scrutinizing expert answers
- make frameworks explicit, try to find common ground
- Open up processes (of decision-making, problem framing, agenda setting)
- steer on process level, but help to reflect on content
Some possible solutions can be (but of course, there are more, and it is very dependent upon the context, the phase of the process etc.):
- Always be very clear about the aims, the deliverables and the possible consequences of the project. The participants can be made aware of this without influencing the result. In case this is necessary for the process, it's very important to be able to rely on an experienced and conscious moderator.
- As a facilitator, try to assist the participants to scrutinize the answers that are given by the experts. Experts have their interest (most of the time, that's no problem and their reason to share their knowledge), but in some situations they can hold back vital information, alternatives etc. Be aware of that and teach your participants to listen carefully and be very critical.
- By opening up processes of decision-making, problem framing etc., more potentially important people can be reached. Try to make connections, allies in press, make every step in the process transparent on a website or a newsletter and make the effort important!
- Instead of steering on the content, it's better to steer on the process level (which can be very influential as well!), and assist the participants to reflect properly on the content.
(2) Management of expectations
- Relevance: democracy is very precious
- hidden agendas (all involved)
- inherent unpredictability of politics
- longer/ more intense process => higher expectations
Goals, ideas, experiences, expectations: they exist in every participants and organizers' head. And they are all different! For most participants, being part of a participative project will be a new experience, but there will certainly be expectations (although, few of them will share them right away by themselves ... ). Be as clear as possible from the beginning about the objectives of the participatory process.
Don't expect politicians to be as interested in the subject as you when you started thinking about the project. The subject can be less urgent or not as contested as before, or the agenda of the politician is filled with more important issues.
- talk to all (other) parties involved beforehand
- ask them what they expect and want
- tell them what you expect and want
- donít make promises you know you canít keep
- make clear that youíre only one player in the game
- adjust time and energy to expected impact (paradox)
- expect the unexpected
Most of the time, you will organise activities on technologies or subjects, more people are already dealing with. They work in university, labs or industry, do have certain interests, expect to be helped by the introduction of a technology etc. In the network of all these already existing stakeholders you will be only one player. And you yourself only facilitate the participatory process for whitch you will need to define and get in touch with as many other actors as possible.
The longer a project takes, the higher the expectations will be. So, don't extend the activity for no reason. This won't correspond to expectations, and will make the results less up to date and of use.
Start the project with all objectives in mind, but be open to expect the unexpected. No predefined script exists for processes with and by people.
(3) Equity and fairness of deliberation
- Relevance: only way for true participation
- people are not equaL
- knowledge, education, communicative skills, etc.
- irreducible asymmetry between people (power)
- limited rationality (e.g. statistics)
- limited time and energy
- incommensurable arguments
- rhetorical arguments
People are not equal: they have different backgrounds. But also in a group process they all play different roles. Sometimes the asymmetry between the participants is explicit, sometimes it isn't; sometimes it is a problem, sometimes it isn't.
The deliberation process is not one of constant rationality. Emotions come into play, and some information is misconceived. Statistics for example can be seen as hard facts and figures. But they can be poorly read or used to proof opposing viewpoints.
During the deliberation many arguments will be formulated by the participants, stakeholders, politicians etc. Some of these will be incommensurable, what will make consensus more complex to achieve. And some arguments will be rhetorical, and turn out to be empty.
- accept Ė and even use Ė differences
- protect participants only when necessary
- make rhetorical arguments explicit
- work in smaller subgroups
- make things as concrete as possible (cases)
- donít take sides or choose your favourites
- work with an independent chair
- donít wear the participants out
You can use differences in opinion and mentality between the participants, to achieve as many viewpoints as possible, by giving them certain roles during the process, to organise small debates to make the differences explicit etc. Especially at the beginning of the process it's important to investigate the diversity of the group.
Cases and/or scenarios are important tools to make difficult issues in science and technology and its possible future impact more concrete.
Make sure that you as the organiser of the participatory process are not in charge of the logistics, the content and the reporting and evaluation at the same time. That's impossible. To keep a good overview and to work towards the overall goals, it's important to have an independent and-experienced chair. Most of the time, you yourself are so well informed about the subject, that it is better to have a reliable chair, who has a certain distance from the issue. In this way, he or she can be surprised by new information of an expert, and understand the need to go deeper in a certain aspect.
Always remember that the participants give their precious free time to participate in this project. You can never spoil them, so make the meetings as pleasant as possible. Don't forget to plan some free time, take care of enough and good food and beverages, choose a nice location etc.
- Relevance: user knowledge, diversity
- who cares what 10 or 20 citizenís think?
- who are the stakeholders? (new technology)
- How are the participants selected?
Outsiders or scrutinizers will always ask you: do you think that this group is representative for our community/country? So expect to explain the way you selected people. And think carefully about the consequences of the criteria (number, age, gender, level of education, geographical diversity, distance to the issue, interest in the issue etc.) beforehand. Especially when the technology is still under construction it's not easy to define which citizens can profit from it. But for instance, if the issue is organ transplantation, don't end up with 25% of the participants being themselves or having relatives on the waiting list...
- Be open about the way you selected the participants (inclusion/exclusion)
- Stress importance of process (paradox)
- Combine qualitative and quantitative methods:
- for verification (ďstarting pointĒ)
- to deepen insight
It seems to be a paradox to stress the importance of the process, but this is very important. The fact that you give a selected group of people neutral information and let them discuss it in an organised matter together and with different stakeholders will take away serious doubts about the value of the outcome. Consensus conferences and all possible kinds of workshops are qualitative methods.
You can know more about the opinion on this subject by means of a quantitative survey. It will give you a good idea about the kind of participants that are involved in the process in comparison to the 'average' citizen. Also, when you ask the participants to fill in the survey before and after the process, you will know what the influence of the information and deliberation has been on their opinion. Focus groups can be very helpful in this respect as well, but can't compare participants and the average. But don't underestimate the time and energy you have to put in a good survey! However, this effort will be rewarded during the participative process, because it really helps you to focus the issue before.
- Participation requires open processes
- Make a conscious decision about relation between:
- time and energy needed & expected impact
- time and energy needed & autonomy
- Independence does not require neutrality:
- make things explicit, but donít make the choices
- Be sure you know why participation matters!
Participation requires open processes towards participants, experts, media etc. But open doesn't mean that there is no preset objective!
Independence does not require neutrality. You can have your own opinion on the issue, and you can make things explicit (after all, organising a public participatory project already reveals that it is a controversial subject), but never make the choices. It is the process of the participants, which you guard and facilitate. Ending up with a final document in which all your opinions can be read, makes the whole project awkward. So be sure you really need a participatory project. Otherwise: choose a different methodology. There always is a method that fits to your needs!
You have to believe in participation to make it work.