Thursday, August 30, 2007

Reading :: Participation and Power

Participation and Power: Civic Discourse in Environmental Policy Decisions
By W. Michele Simmons

It seems to me that we in rhetoric and professional communication should spend more time talking about civic discourse, policy discourse, and public communication. Certainly much of this ground "belongs" to other fields and disciplines, such as government, law, and public affairs. But as Carolyn Rude has argued, those of us in RPC have a lot of expertise in written communication and argumentation in general, and certainly in specific genres such as recommendation reports. So books like W. Michele Simmons' Participation and Power represent a positive trend -- even though I am not enchanted with this specific book.

Let's first talk about what the book is about. Politics and Power describes Simmons' study of how the US Army included the public in a series of meetings about their plans to destroy 1269 tons of VX nerve agent at the Newport Chemical Depot. These meetings were not the Army's idea; rather, they were mandated by Congress. Simmons argues, more or less persuasively, that the Army implemented these meetings in ways that minimized actual public participation in decision-making. She argues that
the complex issues involved in risk assessment, governmental law, and governmental agencies present challenging obstacles to negotiating a policy that all involved parties consider just. By just, I mean that all affected by the decision had the ability to actively participate in the decision-making process. (p.3)

Based on that proposition, Simmons deploys a set of analytical tools to examine how parties were invited into, or discouraged from participating in, decision-making in the VX case. She does this by observing meetings, interviewing activists and Army spokespeople, and reviewing regulations. One very positive result is the figure on p.52, in which she sketches out the federal regulations, state and federal agencies, agency programs, and cross-institutional programs involved in the weapons disposal program. With that many regulations, agencies, and programs involved, one would expect some serious contradictions and double binds, even without throwing in the public, and those contradictions manifested in some very focused attempts by the Army to move the program along -- and some less focused attempts by heterogeneous nongovernmental elements to oppose it on a variety of grounds. Let's call these nongovernmental elements "the public," because Simmons does, although that label hardly does justice to the discontinuous activities, relations, and objectives that we can glimpse through Simmons' report.

Simmons asserts that the Army's approach to public meetings was pro forma and was either (a) designed to reduce public participation or (b) at the least, wasn't designed to properly encourage and leverage it. This case is fairly persuasive (at least in the weaker formulation b). So what could be done about it?

Unfortunately, this is where the discussion loses focus. Simmons promises an "approach" or a "rhetoric" of public participation in decision making, and she argues that this approach/rhetoric/model should be based on participatory design. This conclusion is problematic at several levels.

At the first level, the conclusion flows from Simmons' assertion that "Discourse and decisions are ethical only if all affected are allowed to participate" (p.100), and further, "Approaches that claim citizen participation through a few citizen representatives, that do not allow multiple publics access to decision making, or do not grant equal status to different groups, attempt to unify the public in ways that work to marginalize their contribution to the construction of a policy" (p.100). This conclusion, if taken seriously, would argue for a repudiation of representative democracy. The genius of representative democracy is its ability to black-box citizens in terms of interests; that's why it scales. Simmons' assertion opens up all of those black boxes, those Pandora's boxes. It is for that reason that participatory design has always drawn on user representatives -- originally labor representatives in the UTOPIA project, and later functional representatives (randomly selected users). Predictably, when Simmons gets to a case study of students working with "the local community" (p.142), that community is blackboxed into "community residents, teachers, citizen groups, and municipal workers" and students conduct "participatory observations" with representatives of each group (p.143). (These appear to be functional representatives.)

This brings us to the second level at which the conclusion is problematic. Simmons argues that formulating public policy is a sort of design work, and the student case in Chapter 6 involves actual information design work in service of communicating policy to the public. But the analogy between design and policy formulation is just that -- an analogy -- and it is not up to the task of underpinning a concrete model or methodology for public participation in policy formulation. I was actually surprised when I turned the last page of the book, because beyond very general principles such as involving the public and making sure everyone's voices are heard, I hadn't seen any specific guidance or strongly detailed participation model. This is of a piece with Robert Johnson's User-Centered Technology, on which Simmons draws extensively but which similarly speaks in terms of participatory design's general orientation rather than its innovative and thoughtfully constructed methodology.

And this gets us to the third and most problematic factor of the conclusion. Simmons wants to base a model of public participation on a design methodology, and she draws somewhat on Pelle Ehn's classic work to do that. But if she had only read Ehn's work more carefully and followed his citations a bit, she would have discovered that participatory design's future workshops component is based on Robert Jungk's future workshops, a well articulated model of public participation along the lines that she seeks, one that was extensively tested with dozens of community groups in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. (I review Ehn's and Jungk's books elsewhere on this blog.) So, for me, reading this book was like watching Romeo drink the poison just as Juliet is stirring. So close, so close to discovering the underlying potential of the participatory design approach for civic discourse.

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