Monday, May 16, 2011

Deliberation That Matters -- From Krems, Austria

I just got back from a trip to the Czech Republic and Austria mixing (luckily) both work and pleasure. One of these mixtures involved a presentation on "Deliberation that Matters" at the Conference on e-Democracy and Open Government at the Danube University. Here is an interview (audio) conducted by Ulla Ebner at the conference.

And here is a follow-up interview that was conducted by Angelika Ohland for Upgrade, the magazine of the university.

How can an average citizen become a motor for innovation and the implementation of solutions by e-participation?

When we talk about "ordinary" or "average" citizens we need to remember that nobody knows everything nor does anybody have absolute control. That means that everybody is a potential contributor. Generally, the first thing that an average person needs is a desire to participate. But lurking behind the seeming lack of desire to participate is the underlying belief that it's futile to do so. On the other hand, sometimes David beats Goliath! Things do change, and sometimes for the better.

Which technical tools does he need? And are they already available?

In my opinion, the technological tools that support deliberation don't exist yet. While it's true that people can use Facebook or other social networking systems (or email or pencil and paper) for deliberation, we need to construct systems that support deliberation and other forms of collaboration. As my colleague, Fiorella De Cindio of the University of Milan says, "You wouldn't conduct meetings in the discotheque." Deliberative systems — in contrast to e-commerce systems — require careful calibration as they are trying to balance a variety of conflicting forces.
At the same time that deliberation software is difficult to develop (and with little promise of financial reward) there seems be somewhat of a vicious cycle: Nobody uses deliberation software so there is no demand, without demand nobody develops deliberation software. We're trying to introduce deliberative systems into a Facebook world with our online system called e-Liberate. The system is based on Roberts Rules of Order, a set of rules for conducting meetings that has evolved over a 30 year period.

How do deliberation networks function? Are there any rules, is there any control? Are there any barriers to participation?

Deliberation networks can be formal or informal and each network uses their own set of formal rules and informal conventions. I wish I had more visibility into the vast numbers of experiments that I assume people and organizations (what I call "open action and research networks") are conducting today — generally without thinking of their actions as experimental. Online environments also have barriers of various sorts but they have been successful at bringing down some of these barriers, particularly those of distance.

How can we organize a deliberation process that matters and avoid ineffective talking without any results?

The first thing we have to do is try. To some degree this is a design process — which is something that academics often eschew. I'd also characterize the work that I'd like to see as being experimental and constructive. I believe that we need to build, somewhat gradually and piecemeal, deliberative systems at the same time that we're building deliberative cultures.

How can collective thinking help to solve problems in the community? Do you know any examples for successful 
e-participation today?

Most (if not all) problems that are solved in communities are the result of collective thinking — we just don't ordinarily acknowledge this or think of it in those terms. And without trying to rewrite the question, I'd like to suggest that deliberation is an ongoing process that is generally a hybrid process that may incorporate digital communication but needn't consist only of that.

Food shortages, despoiled natural resources, economic inequality, wars, dictatorship: Is collective reasoning also able to help to solve global problems?

As I mentioned before, any viable approach "solution" to any of these problems will require collective intelligence (and collective reasoning is part of that). Although other resources will be required including time, money, effort, and technology, civic intelligence is an absolute necessity — and the sooner we acknowledge that explicitly, the better. The Internet, of course, would be indispensable to any effort at building global collaborative partnerships.

What are the characteristic traits of civic intelligence? And on the contrary: How would you describe civic ignorance?

Civic intelligence is the ability of social groups to successfully, equitably and humanely address problems facing them. In other words, civic intelligence addresses civic ends through civic means. Civic intelligence is a feature of a group or collectivity. It acknowledges that solving any major problem will require focused attention and collaboration by groups of people — people who aren't necessarily those with power.
I'm glad you asked about the ignorance side of the civic intelligence orientation: our ignorance is profound and ignoring it won't make it go away. I make a distinction between simple ignorance — not knowing about a situation or problem — and active rejection of evidence, which is something individuals, organizations, and governments all do at least some of the time. There is also the serious danger of professional cultivation of ignorance. One doesn't have to go very far to see this in the states: well-resourced campaigns to keep Americans stupid about tobacco use, handguns and public health, and climate change are prominent, well-documented examples.
Incidentally, I'm not trying to besmirch any particular segment of the population. We're all profoundly ignorant. We all "know" an infinitesimal amount of what there is to know. But some types of ignorance are very dangerous — and not just to the people with these traits. Unfortunately you can't just pass a law prohibiting ignorance. Fighting against ignorance (including our own) is essential — and it will be a long and difficult process.

What do people have to know and to learn for being able to deliberate?

In addition to having the desire to deliberate and some promise, however remote, that their deliberation may have some effect, people will need to have knowledge of the subject matter and deliberative skills. And although neither of these capabilities comes for free it should be possible to improve both over time — an effort that ought to be supported by the institutions in a society: the government, schools, even the media.

How influential are age, education, income, regional and cultural factors?

It is well known that people with smaller incomes, people who are judged to be too young or too old, people without university credentials, and others are generally excluded from deliberation and decision-making. I don't believe that technology by itself will solve these problems which is one reason why I support university-community partnerships.
Conventional wisdom says that the wisdom will come from the young primarily because they are digital natives and can text while they do their homework or drive. While young people are generally more comfortable with new technology that's no reason for being sanguine about the future. We need to remind ourselves of the "real-world" that in a variety of ways is not "virtual."

How can we increase the inclusiveness of e-participation?

As I continue to stress, awareness of the importance of participation is primary. Government involvement will probably be necessary but I'm dubious of big government projects. These projects don't have to be wasteful and unproductive but the potential certainly exists. I'm not sure that we know enough about some of these challenges to actually solve them in all at one time.
Deliberation — especially inclusive participation — is difficult but we can't say that it's impossible and not try. We need to theorize and experiment and repeat! I've developed a declaration for online deliberation that contains my views on what we'd need to do to actually have an impact in relation to deliberation, offline and on. Unfortunately it's out of the comfort zone of many academics whom I'd like to see play leadership roles.

Which role will ordinary people play in the new civic society? And will the political and economic elites be less influential in the future?

These are both crystal ball questions. I'm generally skeptical of people who make strong claims that their view of the future is clear and accurate. For whatever reason, I'm unwilling (or unable?) to make these types of forecasts. Perhaps I see them as deterministic, meaning that they act to preclude action. Why should anybody act if the world of the future has already been determined? I prefer to think in terms of opportunities and possible outcomes. This forces us to think about our actual roles in keeping to or detouring from our current trajectories.

Will e-participation implement more grassroots democracy?

As I mentioned above my crystal ball is relatively hazy. The opportunity is certainly there and we should work hard to make it a reality. But who knows? Radio started out with great promise and it has been generally domesticated into forms that are basically antithetical to the notion of grassroots democracy. The Internet is of course is central; it has many characteristics that we could build on to support democracy. On the other hand, lobbyists never sleep. The battle for the soul of the internet is in progress. Is the internet only a way to sell things and provide entertainment or can it be also a tool for collective collaboration and social imagination that helps move us forward with more civic intelligence into the 21st century? E-Participation — especially when coupled with "traditional" (non-e-) participation — could absolutely change the ways that politics is practiced around the world.

Deliberating networks do not have any democratic legitimation. Can this be changed? How can ideas be transformed into political action?

By this I assume you mean the lack of formalized links between the results of deliberation by civil society and governmental policy. I call these links "social access points" and I argue that deliberation makes no sense without them. It's unlikely that these links — to media, government, education — will be opened up without a fight.

Do you think that citizens are interested in e-participation? Aren't they busy enough taking care of their ordinary life? Aren't they relieved if politicians and experts do the job for them?

In some countries people might be relieved when governments and experts do their job (as many often do). In many cases, however, the highest risk is when governments and experts and other elites are doing the jobs entirely in the service of powerful companies and other institutions with little respect or consideration of the "public good." Citizens ignore civic work at their own peril. I don't see, however, that the business of running their lives as the most significant barrier to participation. People in the US seem to find the time to sit in front of television sets for uncountable hours, some of which could probably be devoted to civic action. But the main cause of their inaction is probably the feeling, at least partially supported, that their work would be ignored, that government and other big institutions have little interest in their deliberations, especially since in many cases the deliberations would have an effect on how they ran their affairs. I believe that the more people actually saw themselves taken seriously, the stronger their inclination to participate might be.

Lobbyists spend huge amounts of money to anticipate a debate about the danger of atomic power or the destructive influence of our consuming habits on the climate. Do ordinary people have a chance to see through these aggressive forms of anti-deliberation?

The civic ignorance industry is well-financed and completely devoted to separating the message from its sponsor. Although some people don't apparently care whether they're being manipulated, the fact that certain people and institutions with a financial stake in something are spending big money promoting a point of view, that they themselves distance themselves from, raises big warning flags with me and it should with others as well. Certainly if people were more aware of attempts to manipulate them, the manipulators would have to work harder for their money. They could even shift to more intelligent ways to make their points. If the views of people coalesced into a broader more insistent voice for civic intelligence I'd be a lot more optimistic about the prospects for the earth and its habitants.

And at last: Will we be smart enough, soon enough?
This, to me, is the most important question to ask ourselves. We have certainly reached a point in our history where it is not unreasonable to pose the question. That alone makes it worth asking. The point of asking it, however, is not to identify a yes or no response. The only suitable answer — to me at least — is that since we really don't know the answer, the only answer is to work hard — and intelligently — to help ensure that the answer is yes. If we don't change directions we'll get where we going. This statement, although trivially true, reminds us that the forces that have brought us where we are today must be reformed, rerouted, rethought or things will continue in their non-reflective and individualistic quest for short term gain for the few at the expense of long term gain for the many.

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