|“[O]ne in five Britons are satisfied with |
the opportunities they have to engage in
local decision making, and in practice,
probably fewer than 1 percent actually
do” (Cornwall 2008, 7)
So are nano cafes and consensus conferences simply an attempt to recreate the modern equivalent of 17th or 18th century coffeehouses, as described by Habermas and others? And the answer is clearly 'no.' In fact, some of these historical models of enlightened discourse, including Tischgesellschaften in Germany, were highly exclusive deliberative communities that systematically excluded large cross-sections of society based on income, gender, religious beliefs, and social class.
Unfortunately, however, modern public meetings and consensus conferences for emerging technologies continue to be plagued by some of the same participatory inequities as their historical antecedents. And -- as a result -- they have the potential to create or widen gaps between different groups of citizens rather than contributing to the broader societal or policy discourse. In the long run, it is therefore absolutely critical for governmental agencies and policy makers to distinguish the controlled and hypothetical democracy of public meetings from the larger real-world dynamics of the political discourse that precedes them, and to make sure that the political discourses surrounding emerging technologies are framed in ways that allows for an informed and balanced political discussion that does not a-priori favor particular viewpoints or social groups.
During my sabbatical at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy I had an opportunity to look into some of these issues in greater detail (with the help of Kennedy School student Philipp Schrögel, among others). The product is a white paper on public meetings as a tool for engagement amd policymaking that was just published in the Shorenstein Research Paper Series. Here are a few excerpts:
|Shorenstein Research Paper #R-34|
In recent years we have witnessed a “growing political commitment at the highest levels to giving citizens more of a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to engaging citizens in making government more responsive and accountable” (Cornwall, 2008, p. 11). The renewed excitement about public meetings, technology panels, consensus conferences and other modes of citizen engagement is particularly pronounced for the emerging NBIC field.
The renewed attention to public meetings and other modes of engagement, however, is also a function of their perceived potential to replace traditional knowledge-deficit approaches to communicating about science with a truly two-way dialogue between science (policy) and lay publics (Cicerone, 2006). This enthusiasm is also shared by some corporate stakeholders. In a letter to then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging the passage of the 2008 National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendment Act, for example, IEEE President Russell J. Lefevre emphasized the potential of public meetings and other outreach tools to “reach tens of thousands of people with information about nanoscience” (Lefevre, 2008, p. 1).
Unfortunately, many of these more normative demands have been formulated in almost prefect separation from empirical work on the real-world applications of these ideas in the policy making process. This has also made it exponentially more difficult to systematically assess the potential of public meetings and technology forums as a policy making tool. And partly as a function of the disconnects between different academic literatures and their policy applications, the enthusiasm in policy circles and academe about the potential of public meetings to reinvigorate U.S. democracy is as pervasive as it is at odds with most empirical research in this area. ... [In fact,] attendance in public meetings tends to be low and characterized by significant self-selection biases due to lack of interest among many members of the lay public, and disproportionately higher motivations among small, opinionated issue publics to participate and express their viewpoints.
This paper examines some of this research in greater detail. In a first step, it briefly outlines the policy history of consensus conferences and other forms of public meetings. In a second step, it outlines claims made by proponents about the potential of consensus conferences and related efforts to create a two-way dialogue among lay publics, experts, and policy makers, to discover and debate relevant ethical, legal and social (ELSI) concerns early on, and ultimately to engage in better long-term planning about emerging scientific fields and their societal applications. In third step, the paper provides a comprehensive empirical review of how consensus conferences and related efforts have lived up to the normative hopes of their proponents, or – in most cases – have fallen short or even produced results that are counterproductive to the notion of an inclusive public debate. The paper closes with an argument against small-group deliberative experiments with very limited reach and in favor of creating a long-term infrastructure for a balanced public debate in mediated and interpersonal channels.
Excerpts from: Scheufele, D. A. (2011). Modern Citizenship or Policy Dead End? Evaluating the need for public participation in science policy making, and why public meetings may not be the answer. Paper #R-43, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Research Paper Series. Harvard University. Cambridge, MA.