In a PhD supervision meeting with Professor Stephen Coleman, we reflected on the role of deliberation in e-participation. Drawing a distinction between collaboration and deliberation and noting the differences between talk, political talk, deliberation and political deliberation, we talked about the theory behind deliberation in a way that I did not do in my previous blog post about system design. Nearly all of the papers that I discussed in that post devoted some space to non-technical considerations of deliberation, examining the requirements for off-line, face-to-face deliberation, discussing Habermasian theory of deliberation and previous work based upon it. Beth Noveck, for instance, drew on theoretical requirements for deliberation when producing the list of values that she recommended be incorporated into the design of online deliberative systems. Deliberative theory will of course form part of any more formal writings I produce on the subject.
We discussed some of the different platforms for deliberation, from face-to-face conversation to asynchronous online discussion in forums as well as innovative new forms of engagement such as conversing avatars in virtual worlds. We discussed the difference between procedural deliberation (movement towards any possible outcome, but through specified procedures) and substantive deliberation (free discussion that progresses towards an outcome that lies within an allowable range) and also talked about the counter-opinion to much that I have read so far: that deliberation is not the answer to democratic problem solving and policy making. This agonistic opinion prefers the rational choice – doing what the majority indicate their preference to be (“counting heads”) or encouraging the poorly represented to organise themselves so that their voices are heard. The agonistic pluralistic argument embraces the differences of opinion found in politics and seeks to use them constructively. Such an argument can be influenced by a range of factors such as real-world pragmatism or behavioural theory (for instance, that deliberation may fail to take into account the emotions and strong feelings of human beings, such as our innate reasonableness that may keep us quiet during a debate instead of voicing opinions).
This discussion of deliberation led us on to the topic of consensus – often an important issue in design of deliberative systems as it can be seen in some cases as an optimal end point for deliberation on which policies can be based. In collaborative systems, such as wikis or document-centred discussion, this is an understandable position though its shortcomings are illustrated by the example of a controversial topic on Wikipedia which lacks content on the actual encyclopaedia entry but has an extremely lively and full talk page behind it. The opinion that “if the public are well enough informed and deliberate in a helpful enough manner, they will eventually agree with the ‘correct’ viewpoint” often fails, of course, because the “correct” viewpoint seldom exists. In reality, while some may be embarrassed into backing down through deliberation, a consensus will often not be reached and minority views will remain. However, contrasting arguments may be exposed; specific interests may be identified, preferences may be put forth and immovable values may become apparent. This is clearly a crucial issue in public participation, and therefore e-participation, as to truly integrate participant opinion into policy making – identified by many as a key dimension of successful public participation initiatives – the representative data from a participation system must be captured and acted upon, even though a convenient consensus may not be present.
The above discussion perhaps suggests a need to draw a line between deliberative and problem-based collaborative system design. Engaging the public as a means of finding opinion and exploring social norms is different from engaging the public to solve a particular problem or create a particular policy. The former might be much less constructive and more observational, whereas the latter may only succeed if a rigid structure is used to drive participants towards a constructive outcome. Of course, an e-participation system is likely to be neither of these extremes and there may be room for a deliberative aspect within a problem-based framework. Having read recent work by Mark Klein et al., I was impressed by the careful structure built into their deliberative platform deliberatorium to create a highly social dialogue from participants’ contributions. Stephen mentioned, however, that this rigid structure may exert its own effect on the conversation which made me think about whether the deliberation supported by systems such as deliberatorium and Douglas Shulers E-Liberate is equivalent to deliberation allowed by unstructured conversation platforms.
So I am left with a few points with which to move forward: the question of how designing to encourage deliberation, collaboration or consensus may affect the type and quality of deliberation contributed by participants; the question of whether deliberation is the highest priority in e-participation system design or whether pragmatic demands of usable content and outcomes may require a more agonistic approach; finally, the question of how well the various possible data structures harvested by e-participation systems can be utilised in the challenge of integrating contributions with policy and law-making precedures – though as this is not just a data-centric question it will perhaps require more institutional research, rather than the experimental, technical literature focussed upon so far.