Saturday, February 05, 2011

Modern polis or policy dead end? A few cautionary notes about public meetings and science cafes as tools for policy making

Public meetingstechnology panelsconsensus conferences and other similar modes of citizen engagement are increasingly fashionable tools for policy making and engaging the electorate on emerging technologies.  In the area of nanotechnology, a 2000 UK House of Lords report recommended making the direct dialogue with the public a mandatory and integral part of policy processes. And the 2003 U.S. Nanotechnology Research and Development Act mandated “convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events” (21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act  2003, STAT. 1924).

“[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)
And without a doubt, consensus conferences and public meetings can serve as important input mechanisms upstream in the policy making process. They seem to be much more popular, however, among the academics and policymakers who propose them than they are among the intended audience, i.e., the general public. In a national telephone survey conducted by Carnegie’s Circle Foundation (Fieldwork from January 12- 15, 1995, N = 801) only eight percent of respondents reported having expressed their views publicly by speaking at a town hall meeting the previous year. It could be argued, of course, that recent trends in online communication have created new ways for citizens to interact and deliberate with each other. But the numbers are even more bleak for web-based deliberative exchanges, and only three percent of web users reported having used the Internet to “participate in an online town hall meeting” in 2009 (Pew Internet & American Life Project, national phone survey, fieldwork November 30 to December 27, 2009, N = 2,258).

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. 

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