According to participant evaluations from the recent Montreal IAP2 conference most attendees thought the event was a tremendous success. They described it as worthwhile, educational, fun, refreshing and well-organized. I am one of those people. I loved the event. It had a vibe that is difficult to describe or explain. Somehow it felt comfortable and safe while being challenging and daring at the same time. Kudos once again to the organizers who made it all possible.
What I most liked about the conference was that it allowed me to rub shoulders with people different from me. It exposed me to new ideas. It forced me to reflect upon my practice and to question some of my assumptions about P2. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and caused some vague foggy ideas about P2 floating around in my mind to come into focus. With this in mind, below I ruminate on two of my key insights or learnings from the conference. Each is worthy of considerable discussion and debate. Who knows – one or both might even make for an interesting if not raucous future webinar or conference session?
Social movements are important manifestations of P2, but do we care enough about them?
Effective public participation does not always rely on convenors, P2 professionals and organized P2 activities. As case studies from Quebec reminded me, sometimes citizens can just decide that its time to participate. They don’t wait for any decision-maker to invite them to any carefully organized table. They don’t need or want to be facilitated or managed by P2 professionals, although movement organizers can usually be found working behind-the-scenes. In such instances, citizens demand to have a seat at the decision-making table often to the chagrin of decision-makers.
Social movements that bubble up from the grassroots may be messy for some, but they are also important. They demonstrate participatory democracy-in-action. They make change happen. They give people hope and remind them of their responsibilities as citizens. Some practitioners may consider such movements to be ‘outside’ of our well-established professional ‘P2 framing’. I think it is, or should be, framed ‘inside’. Indeed, I think this dimension of grassroots civic participation gets short shrift in our P2 practitioner world.
Some questions I would like us to consider and hopefully discuss in this regard are: Is there a role for professional P2 practitioners in social movements? If yes, how and where can/should we get involved? What is the role of the P2 practitioner when decision-makers ‘brush off’ the empowered and advancing publics? Do we lose credibility among those with the resources to pay us – such as government decision-makers – when we work to support social movements that challenge the status quo (and which often do not have resources to pay us)? Doesn’t our own ‘need to earn a living’ put us on the side of the status quo, and if yes are we happy there? How can we make our skills and abilities available to those who need support but cannot afford to pay?
Decision-makers are important to P2, but where are they?
A big part of any P2 practitioner’s job is to find effective ways to connect the views, ideas and insights of the public (citizens and/or stakeholder groups/interests) with decision-makers. As such, practitioners often serve as brokers or mediators between two groups (i.e., those with something to say and those who decide things). In my view we spend most of our P2 practitioner time talking about how to engage the former not the latter. Clearly, most of our P2 focus is on tools, techniques and approaches for engaging the public.
But what about the decision-makers? Aren’t they – particularly the senior ones – absolutely essential for effective P2? Don’t they also need to be sold on and fully supportive of P2 for it to be meaningful and effective? If they are actually the beneficiaries of P2, as we so often state, why aren’t they more enthused about P2? Why are so few of them members of IAP2? Why were so few at the conference? Why are P2 budgets so often the first to get cut in times of corporate or government restraint? Do senior executive and politicians really care about P2, or are they just doing enough to get by?
In my view, we need to urgently engage decision-makers at the highest levels in a dialogue about P2 with emphasis on its value to them, their organization, society and democracy. But when we do this we will also need to be honest with them bout the limits of P2. We will need to acknowledge that P2 is not the solution to every problem. We will need to be prepared to hear that P2 can cause problems for decision-makers especially when wildly divergent public views on a topic ensure that at least some forces will become hostile to the decision-makers once a decision on a matter is finally taken.
When it comes to government decision-makers, we will need to be ready to discuss how the somewhat uneasy ‘mash-up’ of representative and participatory democracy unfolding in Western societies since the 60s has caused and is causing problems for some (many?) elected officials. Simply put, most politicians see their role as ‘representing, advocating and speaking for their constituents’. As such, for some elected officials at least, P2 can be seen as a threat. Some believe that their role is diminished or lessened when outside P2 professionals arrive to gather input from the people (“Hey – that’s my job!”). In their eyes, an uninvited P2 participatory democracy ‘guest’ has ‘barged into’ the traditional and well-established representative democracy system that they actually signed up for.
Suffice to say, there are some skeptical decision-makers out there and we need to talk to them. We need to help them understand how P2 does not demand a weakened role for them, but rather requires that politicians play a more mature and facilitative role. If we do our job well, and help them to develop the skills they will need in their new roles, many will likely be delighted to discover that decision-makers who champion effective P2 also often do extremely well on voting day.
Thanks for your time! Reactions, counterpoints, rants and comedic-responses all gratefully accepted!