Diversity is hard: how to enrich governance without losing coherence

Photo: whatleydude @ flickr.com
Not everybody agrees that participatory processes lead to better public decision. They do enable decision makers to access the extraordinary wealth of diversity, information and first-hand experience embedded in the citizenry: this is their advantage, and it is an important one. But they also have two disadvantages.

  • such information is not organized. It is not simply a language problem: different people have different stories, and they just see things differently. If you ask someone what they think about pedestrianizing a street in the city center, for example, you are likely to get completely different answers according not just to that person’s position with respect to that street (does she live there? does she work there? does she own real estate in that street?), but also to her values, lifestyle, personality. A cycling enthusiast, or simply someone in good physical shape, will probably appreciate the advantages of pedestrianization, whereas a couch potato will be worried about restricted mobility. It just depends who you ask! Citizen participation (when the people involved are not very many, i.e. almost always) introduces an element of idiosyncracy in the decision making procedure – and this is a problem for public decision makers, that need to be accountable for whatever they do.
  • the discussion can become hard and unpleasant. Good debate requires debating skills, and not everybody has them. Public decision makers generally do: it is a part of their job description. Citizens, it’s hit and miss. Some tend to ramble, or are aggressive; others refer to values or information not shared by the whole community (“pedestrianizing is useless! Nostradamus is clear, a giant globe of fire will swallow the city next year!”). Some might try to apply rhetoric to delegitimize the process if they don’t get what they want (“why do you involve citizens, if you are not prepared to listen to them?”). Different discussion styles might lead to a polarizing, non-convergent outcomes just as well as different positions.

I am convinced that these problems can be overcome at a very low cost – I defend this thesis in Wikicrazia. There is a condition: that participating citizens are recruited from a community oriented towards open and rational discussion. Preferably from an online community. Here is why:

  • the members of these communities validate each other recursively, like Pagerank does with web pages. A person that makes wise, widely shared contribution to the conversation will quickly acquire reputation and authority. This is most visible in online communities, and takes the shape of accumulated comments, shares, likes, +1s or whatever the reputational currency is in each community. “Fishing” the highest-standing members from these open communities reduces the randomness of run-of-the-mill participatory processes.
  • communities train their members in constructive debate. In well-run communities trolls are isolated. Well-meaning, respectful people talk to each other, and compensate each wise contribution with the reputational currencies mentioned above. This, too, is easier online, where the underlying technology typically does not support seizing the microphone and holding on to it for lengthy speeches, or shouting, or interrupting. The most respected members of such communities tend to be people that is useful, even pleasurable to debate with – even when you do not agree with what they have to say.

Since I believe this is true, I am going to try something daring: invite some members of the Edgeryders community – giving them expert status – to discuss with professional researchers and European policy makers (if you want to take part, read the relevant info ). Will they really enrich the discussion without increasing its entropy?

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