I write this in in the eye of the federal storm, amid a government shutdown with seemingly no end in sight. The American public, having weathered these gales before, has grown somewhat accustomed to the gridlock on Capitol Hill, and though we the people may not approve, unfortunately there is little to be done in the moment.
There’s no shortage of opinions arguing that our unique form of democracy has been a failed experiment, that the fault does not lie with Republicans or Democrats, but with the Constitution itself. A well-founded argument or not, with congressional job approval plunging to an all-time low of 5% according to a recent poll, there must be some within the federal government who see a need to right the ship.
But what can be done? Traditionally, the most appropriate way for American citizens to express their concerns and values is through the election process, and certainly that does provide us one avenue into policy making. Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, our representatives are not strictly beholden to their constituents. For better or worse, there are many voices—industry groups, corporations, lobbyists, grassroots movements—that exert varying levels of influence on our elected officials. Suddenly the voice of the people seems very small. And of course, it’s a voice that we generally only exercise every two to six years when an election rolls around.
Surely a government, by, for, and of the people can do better.
No matter how you choose to refer to it—participatory technology assessment, citizen panels, or deliberative democracy—the underlying concept is the same: groups of citizens are presented with a policy issue and after an orderly process of co-learning and informed dialogue, provide recommendations on said policy. This process has been used to great effect in some European countries, where recommendations are either presented directly to the legislature or eagerly covered by the media, for the benefit of public officials.
It has been used in the United States as well, mainly by organizations operating between the science community, the government, and the public, on the so-called “boundary.” These organizations make possible a dialogue between experts—scientists, policymakers, academics—and laypeople. The US government would be wise to consider enlisting boundary organizations to bridge the ever-widening gap between expert and citizen. This is particularly true in areas of science and technology, where decisions must be made under conditions of uncertainty and conflicts between goals and values.
More and more, we will find that the answers to our problems—climate change, genetically modified foods, internet privacy—fall into this realm. And unfortunately, as Richard Sclove has pointed out, thanks to our tendency to rely on expert testimony on science and technology policy and our assumption that the lay person is incapable of understanding technical issues, the United States “stand[s] out among many industrialized nations for systematically excluding lay citizen voices.”
This sort of exclusion can result in a detached, apathetic citizenry. But there is reason to believe that participatory technology assessment can go a long way in making citizens feel as though they have a voice in policy making. A participant in Sclove’s Boston Consensus Conference noted that “we need more panels like this, to give us the opportunity to learn and to take what we learn back to our communities.” Regarding the concerns that the average citizen lacks the education to take part in this sort of deliberative conversation, David Guston has written¹ that the National Citizens’ Technology Forum, organized by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, demonstrates participants are not only able to understand and engage in discussions about technology, they are perfectly capable of providing thoughtful, nuanced ideas about policy.
The benefits of participatory technology assessment don’t extend only to the citizens involved, of course. Citizen panels introduce a new type of expertise to the conversation—that of public value. These are the people who live every day with the decisions of policy makers, who see first-hand both the good and bad that can come from these choices made by others. After all, there’s little question that the people most qualified to speak on behalf of the public are members of the public.
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple as convincing the public to get involved in participatory technology assessment when there is no institutional structure or process to support it. We must encourage policy makers that these citizen panels are an effective tool for decision making. One way to ensure this is through an organized effort by the legislative and executive branches of government to include participatory technology assessment in the policy development process. Though Congress accepts testimony from individuals and representatives of interest groups, this is not enough; congressional testimony does not allow for an open exchange of ideas and knowledge, nor does it provide an opportunity for the average American to have her voice heard. One option is for Congress to include new language in bills, requiring agencies and commissions to engage the public in this way. Naturally, this will take some time, and perhaps the best course of action is to begin at the agency level, with those who have demonstrated an interest in public outreach and engagement.
Participatory technology assessment is one solution to the apathy and frustration that has settled over today’s political climate. Now is the time to encourage the American public to exercise its voice, and to open the minds of government officials, academics, and scientists to the possibilities that will come with engaging a disengaged citizenry.
¹Guston, David H. “Building the Capacity for Public Engagement with Science in the United States.” Public Understanding of Science. DOI: 10.1177/0963662J13476403, In Press.
Katie Reeves is a graduate student studying science and technology policy at the University of Michigan. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.