Published on July 23, 2014

Professionalisation and Participation

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

I’m just leaving the International Political Science Association World Congress. I’ve been at an academic-practitioner symposium being held as part of the Congress. The title of the symposium was “Developing Expertise in the Design of Participatory Tools: Professionalization and Diversification of the Public Participation Field.”

To be honest, it wasn’t the title that drew me to this, but I always find the chance of reflecting more widely with academics is productive. And the panel at the centre of the symposium had some fantastic people and was a great space to step back and think a little about what we’re doing at Involve.

The debates have ranged very widely and I’m not going to try to summarise or synthesis, but rather pull out a number of things I’m taking away.

  • The organisers did a fantastic job with the panels, many were a majority female and none had more men than women. It should not be the case that this is noteworthy.
  • I drew a lot from the symposium, my instinct that this would be worth attending was true. However, I think we could all have taken more away from it if it had been more participatory. The attempt to start a conversation between practitioners and academics was a good one, but we didn’t have enough time to learn from the wide experience from the participants in the room. Roundtables and movement between tables and plenary would have sacrificed everyone hearing everything, but led to deeper conversations and learning.
  • There are some fantastic and generous people working in our field. It is always great to meet the people working on the Alberta Climate Change project. And I finally got to meet Carolyn Luckensmayer and hear about her AmericaSpeaks experiences.
  • Related to this, I want to find out more about my fellow panellists organisations, (Peter Macleod) MASS LBP and (Michel Venne) Institut du Nouveau Monde. Like Involve and AmericaSpeaks they are working at the intersection between citizens, stakeholders, policy makers and policies. And are very reflective and self-critical organisations.
  • I love the idea behind the almost deliberately impenetrable name of MASS LBP; it is trying to reflect the body politic of citizens which exists in the spaces between elections. It expresses, much more beautifully than I ever have, the idea that elections cannot be the one and only time citizens are given power. Our politicians are making decisions the whole time on issues they have no real mandate for.
  • Peter also used a Tom Paine quote to explain this further, “There is a mass of sense lying in a dormant state which good government should quietly harness.” This is a wonderful sentiment and a pithy explanation of the value of public engagement.
  • One strand of our conversation was about who the client of a citizen engagement process is. Is it those who commissioned it, often those with most power, or citizens? Constance, one of the participants really nailed it when she said that for her “the process is the client, the dynamic between citizens, the issue and those in power.” This really struck home for me, particularly in relation to NHS Citizen.
  • Carolyn Lukensmayer highlighted quite how important the work of AmericaSpeaks was in developing the field of deliberative public engagement, as much as in bringing citizen voice into the issues as part of the processes themselves. This relates back to the reason that Involve was set-up and something that we have moved away from, at least explicitly. Her focus on this is making me reflect on the extent to which this needs to be part of what we do. It raises important questions about our capacity and strategy.
  • The focus of our discussion was the relationship between practitioners and academics. It was a fruitful discussion and I’ve taken a lot from it. But we were brought up short by a question from a participant, who asked us what it is that citizens need from academics and practitioners. She highlighted her experience on a citizen ethics and governance committee for her city. Involve is deliberately focusing on government and policy makers, but this is critical, and relates back to the previous bullet. We mustn’t forget citizens if we are to properly to build a better culture of inclusive decision-making.

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