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Participatory futures: Lessons from COVID-19 for the data society (pt.1)

By 30th October 2020 No Comments

Peter McColl

Futures and Innovation Consultant

This is the first of a three-part blog outlining what participatory approaches are, how they can be applied and the particular significance in the emerging data society.

TL;DR: COVID-19 is a clear signal that the challenges of the 21st century will be ones that demand a collaborative response. And we are beginning to realise that collaborative responses are most effective when they enjoy broad and deep support. In an increasingly fractious world, that may seem difficult, but we already know some of the ways we can create shared understandings in the contemporary age.

Participatory techniques are some of the best developed ways to create the broad and deep support for necessary changes.  From participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies to participatory design processes in urban planning called charettes[1], a wide range of approaches are emerging. They all share a belief that citizens both want more involvement in decisions and that more citizen involvement helps to ensure better decisions.

This development is not a decisive break with the past. But it is a substantial change.

It comes at a time when we are moving towards becoming a data society. By this I mean a society in which data are available about almost all changes in real time. Much of our infrastructure is not built for this world, but for the mass society of the 20th century. Citizens can now communicate their position very accurately to a taxi or lift-sharing company from their mobile phone, they can record all their physical activity in any one day through a watch, their spending habits can be analysed by retailers. All this means tailored and bespoke services in the private sector. Yet the public sector has been slow to catch up.

And this means there is now a very significant opportunity to take tools that are used for selling journeys, fitness plans or groceries and use them for the common good. Writers like Hillary Cottam and Geoff Mulgan have described how we lived in a world where top-down initiatives with universal impact, such as the smallpox vaccination programme of the 1950s and 60s, are dominant. We now live in a world where we are able to harness collective intelligence and individual data to tailor public policy.

The rise of the participatory approach

In 1990 the UK government replaced the local government tax based on property values with a tax based on individuals. This meant that households with more adults in them paid more tax, regardless of how large the house. Five adults sharing a house would pay five times more than a lone person living in a castle. It was intended to curb the spending of Labour councils. It produced a rebellion. The government totally misread how citizens would react.

The Poll Tax controversy in the UK and the growing use of opinion polling in US politics changed the way public policy worked in the early 1990s. Governments recognised that a much more engaged research capacity, drawing on lessons from private-sector market research approaches, could help avoid policy disasters like the Poll Tax and guide and shape the delivery of popular policies.

This development has been successful in avoiding other catastrophic missteps like the Poll Tax. It has kept government closer to its citizens. But it has also led to ‘consultation fatigue’ and the perception that consultation merely rubs the sharp edges off bad policies.

“They asked us what we thought of the proposals and did what they wanted anyway” is an oft-repeated characterisation of consultation. It is unfair but reflects the limits of consultation. Whatever its strengths, consultation cannot effectively set out the constraints on decision-makers so they can be understood by participants. It fails to harness the human ingenuity of the people being consulted.

What are participatory approaches and what can they achieve?

There are two claims made for participatory methods. The first is that they allow better decisions. The second is that they develop consent for the implementation of these decisions. Both are vital at this time.

That is why there has been an increased interest from government and institutions in participatory methods. However, these processes tend to be deployed by politicians on an ad hoc basis. And very often they are only deployed after a problem has become insoluble through other means. The Irish citizens assemblies that informed the referendums on equal marriage and abortion came after years of stalemate through traditional political approaches. The citizens’ assembly on Scotland’s Future comes in an area that is highly politically contested.

The outcomes of these processes and of many of the other participatory processes will no doubt add depth and conciliation to contested issues of the sort that has been so valued in settling issues like equal marriage in Ireland. I think there are also important lessons here for handling COVID-19 and beyond.

One of the clearest patterns in responses to COVID-19 is that the countries where political decisions are taken on the basis of consent and open deliberation are those which have dealt best with the pandemic. By contrast, those countries where politics is heavily partisan have dealt very poorly with the pandemic. This points to the need for a more participatory approach in responding to the sort of large-scale collective action problems represented by a public health crisis. Participatory approaches help to create a public sphere in which trust allows better decision making. The controversy over mask-wearing in the United States is an excellent example of how confrontational politics makes proxies of public health approaches and produces problematic outcomes.

Getting citizens who disagree with a policy or measure to agree to its implementation is vital to the functioning of a successful democracy. This is called ‘loser’s consent’ and participatory processes help to deliver this loser’s consent. In the Irish example, people with very strongly held moral positions on issues like abortion have consented to the outcome of the Citizens’ Assemblies, despite their personal views, because they had confidence in the decision-making process. When we contrast this with the opposition to mask wearing in the United States, we can see how effective participation can be.

The COVID-19 crisis – and the successes of more participatory responses to it – gives us the opportunity to cultivate a new political context that has participation at its heart. Part of creating this new politics requires governments to explain well the tools available to them to deal with emerging collective challenges such as COVID-19. Only with such understanding will these tools receive the high levels of consent required in order to work. There has been much greater involvement in some elements of the pandemic – it is notable that this has helped to increase public understanding of concepts like “the R-number.” This is a lesson I think we can apply to other sorts of public policy challenges.

To do so we need to identify ways, such as those developed during the COVID-19 crisis, to introduce public deliberation into more of the important decisions relating to the future. Participation should not just be for the decisions that are too difficult for the politicians. It should be for the vital decisions about technology, data and how we choose to govern ourselves in a data-rich world.

In the next part I will discuss how COVID-19 offers us opportunities to learn from and apply participatory approaches.

[1] The World Bank defines a charette as “a type of participatory planning process that assembles an interdisciplinary team—typically consisting of planners, citizens, city officials, architects, landscape architects, transportation engineers, parks and recreation officials, and other stakeholders—to create a design and implementation plan for a specific project. It differs from a traditional community consultation process in that it is design based.”