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Reframing Public PolicyDiscursive Politics and Deliberative Practices$

Frank Fischer

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780199242641

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/019924264X.001.0001

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Citizens and Experts: Democratizing Policy Deliberation

Citizens and Experts: Democratizing Policy Deliberation

(p.205) 10 Citizens and Experts: Democratizing Policy Deliberation
Reframing Public Policy

Frank Fischer (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Taking up the tension between democracy and science, the discussion in this chapter seeks to reformulate the relationship through the social constructionist perspective, emphasizing science as a socio-political activity; rather than taking scientific practices to be the ideal for politics, the question asked is to what degree scientific practices might be democratized. Towards this end (and after first examining the challenge posed by democracy), the discussion outlines the contributions of citizen participation to both policy-making and collaborative inquiry; by transforming citizens’ ways of knowing and acting, participatory deliberation can build new political cultures capable of preserving and extending decision-making capabilities. Against this background the more challenging question of the citizen’s ability to engage collaboratively in the scientific inquiry process is considered. The discussion then turns to numerous participatory experiments that more specifically illustrate the possibilities and practices of citizen inquiry, in particular outlining the consensus conference developed by the Danish Board of Technology (which has emerged as the most elaborate form of citizens’ panel) and the methodology of participatory policy analysis. Citizen participation is not advanced as a cure-all for economic and social problems, nor is deliberation or argumentation meant to direct attention away from questions of interest and power, but it does hold out the possibility of bringing forth new knowledge and ideas capable of creating and legitimizing new interests, reshaping understanding of existing interests, and, in the process, influencing the political pathways along which power and interest travel.

Keywords:   citizen participation, consensus conference, Danish consensus conference, democracy, democratization, participatory deliberation, participatory policy analysis, policy deliberation, policy-making, science, social constructionism

Both democracy and science are defining values of Western society. Although many philosophers have tried to understand the two as mutually supportive, the tension between democracy and science has long been a critical theme in modern politics. Whereas democracy stands for open discussion on the part of all citizens, science has always been the domain of knowledge elites. Whereas democracy seeks to encourage a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives, science strives to limit the number of participants in pursuit of the one correct answer or assessment. Reconciling these differences has never proved easy. Instead of arguing that democracy can be grounded in the scientific pursuit of truth, perhaps the most prominent argument, the social constructionist perspective seeks to understand science in socio‐political perspective. In this chapter we ask: to what degree can scientific practices be democratized? No easy or obvious question, Funtowicz has described it as the ‘front battle line’ of the debates over participation in the studies of science and society.1 Towards this end, we begin with the question of democracy itself.

The Democratic Challenge

Citizen participation is the cornerstone of the democratic political process. The case for democracy derives its basic normative rationale from the principle that government decisions should reflect the consent of the governed. Citizens in a democracy have the right—even obligation—to participate meaningfully in public decision‐making and to be informed about the bases of government policies.

Beyond its essential contribution to democracy per se, citizen participation in the policy process can contribute to the legitimization of policy development and implementation. Participation, in this respect, can be understood as helping to build and preserve present and future decision‐making capacities, or what we described earlier as communicative power (Diesing 1962: 169–234). Discursive participation offers, in particular, the possibility of getting around the debilitating effects of interest group competition that often plague liberal pluralism (Hiskes 1998). Taking aim at (p.206) competitive interest group bargaining—at the root of many policy failures—the collaborative consensus‐building inherent to participatory discourse makes possible the identification and development of new shared ideas for coordinating the actions of otherwise competing agents. By transforming ways of organizing and knowing, such participatory deliberation has the possibility of building new political cultures that increase the possibilities of communicative action (Healey 1997: 30).

Broad public participation, in this respect, makes an instrumental as well as a normative contribution to democratic policymaking. By decreasing conflict and increasing acceptance of or trust in decisions by government agencies, it can provide citizens with an opportunity to learn about policy problems. Such learning can improve the chances they will support the resulting decisions. But even when it does not increase such support, it offers the possibility of clearing up misunderstandings about the nature of a controversy and the views of various participants. This can also contribute generally to building trust in the process, with benefits for dealing with similar issues in the future.

Fiorino (1990) refers to a substantive rationale associated with citizen participation. As he explains, the relevant wisdom is not limited to scientific specialists and public officials. Rather, participation by diverse groups and individuals will provide important information and insights about policy problems. Non‐specialists may contribute substantially to problem characterization by identifying various aspects of problems needing analysis, by raising important questions of fact that experts have not addressed, and by offering knowledge about specific conditions that can contribute more realistic assumptions for analyses. Lay participation can also play a significant role in the examination and consideration of social, ethical, and political values that cannot be addressed solely by analytical techniques.

Of particular interest from a postempiricist perspective are the ways participation can contribute to formal inquiry itself. Participatory inquiry, in its various forms, has the possibility of bringing to the fore both new knowledge—in particular local knowledge—and normative interpretations that are unavailable to more abstract empirical methods typically removed from the subjects of inquiry (Fischer 2000). Indeed, its ability to deliver first‐hand knowledge of the circumstances of a local context addresses a major limitation of conventional methods, a central concern of postempirical analysis.

In addition to bringing to bear empirical local knowledge, attention to the multiple viewpoints of the citizenry plays an important interpretive role in the construction of social knowledge. Given the perspectival nature of dialectical knowledge, citizen or participant interaction in the interpretive processes of knowledge construction is an essential aspect of postempiricist research. Beyond the search for a one‐dimensional vantage point on the part of the positivist technocrat, participation is necessary to overcome the erroneous and excessively limited conception of reason based on a dichotomous schism of the world into facts and values.

Deliberative Policymaking as Civic Discovery

While a good part of the call for democratic renewal has come mainly from active civic reform movements, one of the interesting calls for deliberative participation has (p.207) been advanced in public administration theory. Providing a bridge between democratic theory and concrete policy practices, the writings of Reich (1988; 1990) and Moore (1995) are especially useful in attaching the concerns of deliberation to more practical concerns of public administration and policymaking. They have sought to spell out a new theory of public management in the policy process grounded in the practices of public deliberation.

Reich and Moore take up a very old issue that has become especially chronic in the era of big government, namely, what to do about the fact that public agencies have become primary policymaking arenas. How are unelected public servants to justify their part in the policy process? For Reich (1988;1990) and Moore (1983; 1995) the prescription for this problem of policy discretion is more rather than less political engagement, at least understood in terms of public education and deliberation. In Moore's words, it is ‘inevitable and desirable that public managers should assume responsibility for defining the purposes they seek to achieve, and therefore to participate in the political dialogue about their purposes and methods’ (1983: 2). Reich seeks an approach that can ‘inspire confidence among citizens that the decisions of public managers are genuinely in the public interest’. The solution, he argues, is to abjure a ‘manipulative relationship . . . with the public and its intermediaries’ and to build instead ‘a deliberative relationship’ (Reich 1990: 7–8). Public managers must assume a more active role in fostering public deliberation. In this view, the goal of deliberation is to build legitimacy for policy decisions ultimately taken by public officials. ‘Rather than making “decisions” and “implementing” them’, as he puts it, the ‘role is to manage an ongoing process of public deliberation and education’, or what he calls ‘civic discovery’.

Civic discovery as deliberation, according to Reich, refers to a ‘process of social learning about public problems and possibilities’ (Reich 1990: 8). The goal of deliberation is the ‘creation of a setting in which people can learn from one another’. As an ongoing and iterative process requiring two‐way communications, such deliberation focuses on ‘how problems are defined and understood, what the range of possible solutions might be, and who should have the responsibility for solving them’ (Reich 1990: 7).

To be sure, public executives in this model bring certain ideals and values to the process, even specific ideas about what they think should be done. But, most importantly, they look to the public and its intermediaries (for example, citizen groups, the press, and other government officials) as sources of guidance in setting direction. In addition to being straightforward about their own values and perspectives, they form their agenda only after listening carefully to the deliberations of others. In the process, these public servants do more than simply seek to discover what people want for themselves and then attempt to find the most effective means for satisfying these wants. Their task is also ‘to provide the public with alternative visions of what is desirable and possible, to stimulate discussion about them, to provoke reexamination of premises and values, and thus to broaden the range of potential responses and deepen society's understanding of itself’ (Reich 1990: 9).

(p.208) Deliberation is time‐consuming and uses scarce resources with ‘no guarantee that the resulting social learning will yield a clear consensus at the end’, concedes Reich (1990: 9). But over time, he argues, it can be far more effective in helping to define and sustain mandates than either the traditional emphasis on efficiency or the administrative advocacy orientation has proved to be.

Civic discovery provides a useful starting point for public sector reform. The approach, however, rests on a limited conception of democratic participation. As formulated, top‐level public executives can still remain part of a relatively elitist policy community largely removed from the citizenry. While the approach would make available better information and arguments for ongoing processes of policy formulation, it remains unclear how it would bring citizens themselves closer to these processes. The model leaves us more or less dependent on the virtues of the new public manager to educate and guide us to a democratic consensus (Roberts 1995). Though commendable, there is little about education in a political world that is apolitical. Moral virtue alone has seldom proven to be a reliable form of protection in such a world. The alternative, as we argue in Chapter 11, would be found in a more participatory relationship between the public facilitator and the citizenry.

Others, though, approach the question from the other side of the issue; how realistic, they ask, is such a call for increased citizen participation? In practice, democratic participation and citizen engagement receive far more lip‐service than they do serious consideration. Citizen participation remains, to be sure, an imperfect practice and it is important not to exaggerate the role of the citizens' capabilities in meaningfully participating in complex policymaking processes. Indeed, if we accept Barber's (1984) idea of a ‘strong democracy’ as government in which citizens participate at least some of the time in the decisions that affect their lives, we have a long way to go before we can speak of genuine democracy. Today the majority of the citizens in Western democratic polities feel themselves too far removed from the policymaking processes. Moreover, those who do participate tend to engage only in the act of voting, an activity in which the citizens of Western democracies increasingly neglect. In the United States only half of the citizens take the time to vote in national elections, with far fewer participating in state and local elections.

This has led many critical observers to explore more precisely why the levels of participation have fallen to such low levels. Although this is not a question to be answered here, one of the reasons certainly has to do with the complexity of modern society. It is simply not easy for people to participate in the complex decision processes that characterize the pressing issues of the day. Some writers go so far as to argue that it is impossible and rally support around other, weaker, forms of political representation.

Over the past three decades, however, there have been numerous participatory experiments that have shed a good deal of light on the possibilities of citizen inquiry. A more careful look at this work shows the situation not to be as bleak as many of the critics of greater involvement would have us believe.

(p.209) Citizen Inquiry: What Have We Learned?

One of the reasons that people do not participate is that most Western political institutions do not really give them a meaningful chance (King, Felty, and Susel 1998). Support for this is in part found in a number of unique experiences which show that people can in fact participate if the process is suitably structured and organized.

A classic example is found in the work of the Berger Commission in the 1970s in Canada. In this case, a judge appointed to assess the environmental impact of an oil pipeline intended to run through the traditional lands of native northern Americans innovated a series of deliberative fora that brought together members of the local indigenous communities, industry representatives, and government and political officials.2 Heralded in many quarters as a major contribution to participatory policy inquiry and decision‐making, the reports of the Commission were instrumental in halting a project widely viewed as portending social and environmental disaster for these distant native American communities of North‐Western Canada (Berger 1977; Dryzek 1990).

Since the Berger Commission, many experiences from both social movements and institutionalized deliberative projects have shown citizens to be much more able to deal with complicated social and technical questions than the conventional wisdom generally assumes and that a range of strategies can be employed to assist them in doing that. No case better illustrates such capabilities of ordinary citizens than that of the gay movement's struggle against the spread of AIDS. As gay AIDS activists have shown, citizens can not only learn a great deal about science, they can take charge of their own experimentation when deemed necessary. Epstein (1996) documents the degree to which the boundaries between scientific ‘insiders’and lay ‘outsiders’have criss‐crossed in the struggle to find a cure for AIDS, or what he calls ‘credibility struggles’. In addition to revealing how scientific ‘certainty is constructed or deconstructed’, his investigations show non‐scientists to have gained enough of a voice in the scientific world to have shaped to a remarkable extent National Health Institute – sponsored research.

Numerous other examples come from efforts to cite and operate nuclear power plants (Rabe 1994; Paehlke and Torgerson 1992). One study, for example, demonstrates the degree to which citizens were able to participate in sophisticated policy decisions concerning complex technical issues (Hill 1992). Once issues and questions are no longer posed in technical languages alien to the average citizens, comprehending and judging the basic elements of a policy argument about a complex technology is inherently no more complex than what the average citizen manages to accomplish in the successful running of a small business or a family. Similarly, an experimental project addressed to citizens' abilities to deal rationally with questions of risk found that most can learn and use enough science to judge questions of technological risk for themselves (Wildavsky 1997).

Basic to such cases is the emergence of cooperative relationships between citizens and experts. Rather than a matter of citizens merely going it alone, nearly all such cases reveal the involvement of a citizen expert of some sort. For example, citizen struggles against the siting of toxic wastes typically involves the presence a professional expert (p.210) who assists the community in answering its own questions on its own terms (Levine 1982). Such experts emerge to help communities grasp the significance of evolving developments, think through strategies, and even directly confront a community's opponents (Edelstein 1988). Participatory consultation, in the process, serves to both broaden citizens' access to the information produced by scientists and to systematize their own ‘local knowledge’. The most progressive example of such participatory consultation in the United States has taken the form of ‘popular’ or ‘lay’ epidemiology in political struggles about the impact of toxic chemicals on the health of local citizens.

Other scholars have experimented with deliberative strategies for bringing citizens and their preferences to bear more directly on policy decisions, such as Q‐Methodology (Dryzek 1990; Durning 1999), deliberative polling and televoting (Lindeman 1997), national issue conventions (Fishkin 1996), scenario workshops (Andersen and Jaeger 1999), citizen juries (Crosby 1995), Buergergutachten (Dienel 1992), and consensus conferences (Joss and Durant 1995). Of particular importance have been a range of deliberative projects and experiments in Northern Europe. All of these approaches bring citizens together to assess complex policy issues. When experts are present, they only supply information and answer questions as the citizens find necessary. Although little‐known among either academics or the general public, these experiences offer important insights into how to bring citizens closer to public decisions processes. Most importantly, they have shown that citizens are capable of much more involvement in technical questions than is conventionally presumed.

In the next section, we present two examples of citizen participation in policy inquiry, one concerned with institutional innovation, the other with the methodology of participatory policy analysis. We turn first to the Danish participatory model of the ‘consensus conference’, which offers perhaps the most sophisticated example of institutional innovation.

Institutional Innovation: The Consensus Conference

The consensus conference, developed by the Danish Board of Technology, has emerged as the most elaborate form of citizens' panel. Inspired in the 1980s by the now defunct US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the Board of Technology sought a new and innovative way to get around the divisive conflicts associated with environmentally risky technologies such as nuclear power. The idea was to find a way to make good on OTA's original mission of integrating expertise with a wide range of social, economic, and political perspectives (Joss and Durant 1995). Towards this end, the Board developed a model for a ‘citizen's tribunal’ designed to stimulate broad social debate on issues relevant to parliamentary level of policy‐making. In an effort to bring lay voices into technological and environmental inquiries, the Board sought to move beyond the use of narrow expert advisory reports to parliament by taking issues directly to the public. In compliance with the long‐standing Danish political tradition of ‘people's enlightenment’, which stresses the relationship between democracy and a well‐educated citizenry, the Board (p.211) developed a framework that bridges the gap between scientific experts, politicians, and the citizenry (Kluver 1995; Mayer 1997).

The formal goals of the consensus conference are twofold: to provide members of parliament and other decision‐makers with the information resulting from the conference; and to stimulate public discussion through media coverage of both the conference and the follow‐up debates. First implemented in 1987, conferences have dealt with issues such as energy policy, air pollution, sustainable agriculture, food irradiation, risky chemicals in the environment, the future of private transport, gene therapy, and the cloning of animals.

A consensus conference is organized and administered by a steering committee appointed by the Board of Technology. Typically, it involves bringing together from 10 to 25 citizens charged with the task of assessing a socially sensitive topic of science and technology. The lay participants are usually selected from written replies to advertisements announced in national newspapers and radio broadcasts. Interested citizens, excluding experts on the particular theme, apply by sending a short written statement explaining why they would like to participate in the inquiry process. The statements are evaluated by the steering committee to determine if a candidate is sufficiently dedicated to fully participate in the conference process. Citizens are asked to participate as unpaid volunteers, but the Board offers compensation for any loss of income that might result from the involvement. From around 200 to 300 written responses, an average of 15 citizens are recruited. Although the groups do not constitute a random sample of the population, they are selected on the basis of socio‐demographic criteria such as education, gender, age, occupation, and area of residence. As such, a panel is generally a reasonable cross‐section of ordinary citizens with no special interest or knowledge in the topic under investigation.3

From the choosing of a topic to the final public discussions after the formal conference proceedings, the process typically runs several months. Central to the inquiry process is a facilitator who works to assist the lay panel in the completion of its tasks. Professionally trained in communication skills and cooperative techniques, the facilitator is a non‐expert on the topic of the conference. Working closely with the panel, he or she guides the process through an organized set of rules and procedures. In addition to organizing the preparatory informational and deliberative processes, he or she chairs the actual conference itself. Somewhat like a judge in a jury trial, the facilitator maintains the focus of the experts on the lay panel's questions during the conference and assists panellists in finding the most direct answers to their questions.

After the lay participants are selected, they are assembled for informal meetings on the topic. At the first meeting, the steering committee outlines the topic for the participants in general terms and informs them that they may define their approach to the topic in whatever way they see fit. Not only can they frame their own questions, they can seek the kinds of information they find necessary to answer them. (p.212) At the same time, panellists are supplied with extensive reading materials by the steering committee and given a substantial interval of time to study the materials at home.

After reading the materials, the panellists are asked to develop a list of questions pertinent to the inquiry. The steering committee uses the participants' lists of questions to assemble additional information for the panellists and to identify an interdisciplinary group of technological and environmental experts to make presentations to the citizen panel. During a subsequent informational meeting, the citizens review new materials and further refine their list of questions, dropping some as well as adding new ones. Evaluations of this phase show that, by the time of the actual conference, the participants are remarkably knowledgeable about the issues to hand. In some cases, a hearing is also organized for parties interested in the selected subject. Such groups—for example, individuals or companies with extensive knowledge, influence and/or dependence on the field, research institutions, research committees, traditional interests groups, and grass‐roots organizations—are provided with an opportunity to contribute information to the deliberative process. These hearings may either be in writing or organized as meetings. The information culled is used to further both the organizational work of the steering committee and the thought and discussion of the lay panel.

The official conference begins at this point, typically lasting three or four days. On the first day the experts make presentations running from 20 to 30 minutes. After each presentation, the members of the lay group put questions to the experts and cross‐examine them. In some cases, representatives from relevant interest groups are present and can also be questioned. Within the given time limits, citizens in the audience are also invited to make statements or ask questions. On the second day, the citizen panel more actively cross‐examines the experts. Again, at specific points, the public and interested parties are themselves encouraged to ask questions. In some cases, representatives from relevant interest groups are also questioned.

At the end of this process, usually on the third day of the meeting, the citizen panel retires to deliberate on the exchanges. With the assistance of a secretary supplied by the steering committee, the group prepares a consensus report (from 15 to 30 pages in average length) that considers all of the issues that bear on the topic. Typically, the report reflects the range of interests and concerns of parties involved in the conference. Beyond scientific and technical considerations, it speaks to the spectrum of economic, legal, ethical, and social aspects associated with the topic.

Upon completion of the report, the citizen panel publicly presents its conclusions. Normally this takes place in a highly visible public setting in the presence of the media, a variety of experts, and the general public. Subsequently, copies of the report are sent to members of parliament, scientists, special interest groups, and members of the public. Consensus conference reports often complement expert assessments as part of larger technology assessment project.

Described as an exercise in ‘counter‐technocracy’, the consensus conference has received favourable reviews from citizens, experts, the media, and politicians. Many Danish politicians have responded particularly favourably to the approach. Because they are themselves laypersons, they can easily identify with the inquiry process and (p.213) its outcomes. They also find the conclusions to more clearly reflect the concerns of the population than do the more traditional expert assessments. An indication of this favourable evaluation is found in the positive impacts that consensus conferences have had on parliamentary decisions in a range of topics pertinent Danish environmental protection (Kluver 1995: 44). For example, panel recommendations have influenced the parliament to decide against the funding of animal gene technology research and development programmes, to restrict food irradiation, and accept a panel proposal for a tax on private vehicles, among others.

No less significant is the impact the consensus conference experience has had on the citizen participants themselves. Joss (1995: 3) reports that lay panellists report both an increased knowledge of the subject under discussion and a new confidence in their ability to deal with technical issues generally. Equally important, they tend to describe the conference experience as having supplied ‘a stimulating and creative input to their personal life’. Joss quotes one participant as having said that the experience provided her with ‘an increased interest in all sorts of subjects’ that she previously thought were ‘over my head’, as well as the discovery that she ‘could actually understand (and comment on) scientific issues’.

Since the outset of the Danish experience, consensus conferences have been sponsored by governments in Britain, Austria, Holland, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland (Joss 1998).4 As a highly innovative contribution to the facilitation of democratic practices, the consensus conference provides a model for giving citizens a role in the environmental policy process. Not only has it been widely credited with invigorating contemporary democratic practices, it has built understanding and trust among citizens and experts as well.

Methodological Innovation: Participatory Policy Analysis

In recent years a number of writers have called for introducing the practice of participatory policy analysis (Torgerson 1986; Fischer 1992; Laird 1993; Durning 1993; deLeon 1997). Torgerson (1986: 241) puts it this way: ‘Just as positivism underlies the dominant technical orientation in policy analysis, so the postpositivism orientation now points to a participatory project.’ Examining the case for such a project, deLeon (1997) finds that growing evidence that citizens are generally willing and able to engage in such activities and that participatory policy analysis holds out the possibility of renewing social capital and, in the process, revitalizing our commitment to democratic governance. Beyond technical rationality and hierarchical organization practices, he sees postpositivist policy analysis grounded in both democratic and epistemological commitments (deLeon 1997: 111–22). The practices (p.214) of citizens juries and consensus conferences are, in his view, an important step toward the development of participatory policy analysis.

Laird (1993: 241–61) sees ‘participatory analysis as ‘a way of structuring the politics of policy‐making’ that opens up the discourse to questions fundamental to any democratic discourse: ‘who we are, what we want, and how we might get it.’ Rather than ‘letting competing interests simply slug it out over the final details of a narrow problem, the concept of participatory analysis allows, indeed requires, a much broader scope to the activity, including problem definition and framing.’ Towards this end, Laird offers a set of normative democratic criteria for assessing when and to what extent various modes of participatory analysis can contribute to improving both citizen learning and democratic policymaking.

Durning (1993:300) has identified four approaches to participatory policy analysis and finds that they all share a number of epistemological assumptions. In his words, ‘all reject positivism, view phenomenology or a variation of it as a better way to interpret the nature of knowledge, and accept an interpretive or hermeneutic paradigm of inquiry.’ In the view put forward here, a genuine postempiricist approach to participatory policy analysis should draw on the theory and practice of participatory research (Fischer 1995).

In significant part a product of the work of intellectuals, activists, and progressive professionals identified with Third World communities and the ‘new social movements’ of the more advanced industrial countries, participatory research is an important part of the contemporary struggle for participatory democracy. Grounded in efforts to empower ordinary citizens to make their own action‐oriented decisions, participatory researchers have experimented with new ways to democratize the expert's relationship with the citizen or client (Tandon 1988; Fischer 2000).

Most fundamentally, participatory inquiry is part of the effort to translate the critique of positivist expertise into a practical methodological orientation. In particular, it addresses the argument that professional experts have—wittingly or unwittingly—aligned themselves with elite interests. In the name of democracy and social justice, alternative movements within the professions themselves have sought to develop new expert practices. Toward this end, participatory inquiry has emerged as an effort to bring citizens and their local knowledges directly into the policy process.

The classic tensions between expertise and participation are central to these experimental alternatives. Largely designed to counter the techno‐bureaucratic and elitist tendencies that define contemporary political and organizational processes, such experimentation has in significant part been geared to social movements' emphasis on empowerment and self‐help strategies. Emphasizing the development of a non‐hierarchical culture, the theorists of these movements have asked the fundamental question: is it possible to restructure the largely undemocratic expert‐client relationship? In particular, they have targeted the hierarchical relationship the professions maintain with their clients (Touraine 1981).

Participatory research is an effort to integrate ‘scientific investigation with education and political action’ (Cancian and Armstead 1992: 1427). Experts and researchers work cooperatively with community members to understand and solve (p.215) local problems, to empower their residents, and to democratize the research process. It is seen to be a valuable alternative for social researchers who challenge ‘the traditional values of being detached and value‐free and who seek an approach that is less hierarchical and that serves the interests of those with little power’. As such, it is a valuable alternative for social researchers who challenge ‘the traditional values of being detached and value‐free and who seek an approach that is less hierarchical and that serves the interests of those with little power’.

A mode of inquiry designed as an enlightenment strategy for raising the consciousness of ordinary citizens with common interests and concerns, participatory research emphasizes the political dimensions of knowledge production and the role of knowledge as an instrument of power and control, as well as the politics of the citizen‐expert relationship. Drawing its methodological foundations from a variety of sources common to the postempiricist orientation, it takes human beings to be co‐creators of ‘their own reality through participation: through their experience, their imagination and intuition, and their thinking and action’ (Reason 1994: 324). At the heart of participatory inquiry's critique of conventional social scientific methods is ‘the idea that its methods are neither adequate nor appropriate for the study of persons, for persons are to some significant degree self‐determining’ (Reason 1994: 325). As such, it seeks to overcome the conventional approach that excludes its human subjects from the thinking that goes into developing, designing, administering, and drawing inferences from the findings. Participatory research, as an inherently democratic practice, is fundamentally grounded in the idea that people can help choose how they live their lives.

Based on experiential knowing, the cooperative inquiry experience seeks to understand individuals and their problems within their own socio‐cultural context and the particular the ‘logic of the situation’ to which it gives rise (Heron 1981: 158). But participatory research seeks to do more. Beyond analysing the socio‐cultural logic of action, it seeks to link the experiential situation to the larger social structure. It is an effort to interpret the situation in terms of the more fundamental structures of social domination that shape it. In the language of the logic of policy analysis presented in Chapter 9, it seeks to move the process from the situational validation to societal vindication and ideological choice. As such, participatory research casts its findings in the framework of a larger social critique, an epistemological step that links it to critical theory and an ‘emancipatory interest’.

From a methodological perspective, the thing that differentiates participatory research from conventional social science is the attitudes and behaviour of the investigators (Chambers 1997: 212). On paper the basic methodological steps of a participatory research project don't look that different from those of a standard empirical research methodology. Eldon (1981: 257–8), for example, specifies four critical decisions confronting the participatory researcher: (1) problem definition: what is the research problem? (2) Choice of methods: which methodologies will best provide the required data? (3) Data analysis: how are the data to be interpreted? (4) Use of findings: how can the outcomes be used? Who learns what from the research findings? ‘Research is participatory’, Eldon explains (1981: 258), ‘when (p.216) the participants directly affected by it influence each of these four decisions and help to carry them out.’

These considerations make unique role demands on the professional, ranging from theoretician and expert to colleague and co‐producer of knowledge (Callon 1996). In each case, the basic determinant of the expert's role choices must be his or her usefulness in ‘facilitating’ collaborative learning processes. The basic question is this: how can the expert's role facilitate the development of a learning process which, once set in motion, can proceed on its own?

The facilitation of participant learning is designed to enlarge the citizens'/clients' abilities to pose the problems and questions that are of particular interest and concern to them. Facilitation thus requires a focus on the social, emotional, and intellectual distance that separates the professional from the client's experiential life‐world (Hirschhorn 1979). Indeed, distance has become the source of strident disagreements over the definition of the client's social situation, as well over who should have the responsibility for determining the issue. Such struggles invariably raise the question of social control, typically leading to acrimonious polemics about the professional's role in the delivery of services. The solution is found in the redesign of the professional‐client relationship. The expert must learn how to be a ‘facilitator’ of client learning (Fischer 2000).

As a facilitator, the expert's task is to assist citizens and clients in their own efforts to examine their own interests and to plan appropriate courses of action. ‘Professionals’, in short, ‘must become experts in how clients learn, clarify, and decide.’ Emphasis is thus ‘on establishing the institutional conditions within which clients can draw on their own individual and collective agencies to solve their problems.’ The ‘professional acts as a programmer, mobilizer of resources, and consultant to a self‐exploration and learning process on the part of group members’ (Hirschhorn 1979: 188).

Essential to the facilitation of empowerment, then, is the creation of institutional and intellectual conditions that help people pose questions in their own ordinary (or everyday) languages and to decide the issues important to themselves. Theorists interested in developing these concepts have most typically turned to models of social learning and discourse. The central focus of such models is how to innovate ‘inquiring systems’ that assist learners in the ‘problematization’ and exploration of their own concerns and interests.

Much of participatory research has been influenced by Freire's (1970; 1973) work on ‘problematization’ or ‘problem‐posing’. Problematizing is the direct antithesis of technocratic problem‐solving. In the technocratic approach the expert establishes some distance from reality, analyses it into component parts, devises means for resolving difficulties in the most efficient way, and then dictates the strategy or policy. Such problem‐solving distorts the totality of human experience by reducing it to those dimensions that are amenable to treatment as mere difficulties to be solved. To ‘problematize’, on the other hand, is to help people codify into symbols an integrated picture or story of reality that, in the course of its development, can generate a critical consciousness capable of empowering them to alter their relations to both the physical and social worlds.

(p.217) In methodological terms, this can be understood as connecting first‐order discourse, in particular the logic of the situation, with second‐order discourse about the workings of the larger social system and basic ideological orientations, those of both the social system and its critics. The expert, as facilitator, attempts to help citizens and clients establish these basic connections and to determine what they might mean for them. In this sense, the taken‐for‐granted world of everyday life becomes reconnected to the social and political processes which have constructed it. For the citizen, in the process, biography becomes history and sociology.

Examples of Participatory Policy Analysis

Participatory research has in significant part emerged with issues such as indigenous farming, alternative technologies, and environmental risks. In North America and Western Europe the major examples concern struggles around environmental and technological risks. A typical case might be a group of town citizens resisting the citing of a power plant in their area. With the assistance of a local activist or local expert, meetings would be organized and a team of community members chosen to participate in the collaborative inquiry. After deliberations about the general nature of the problem confronting the town, as well as its goals and interests, a strategy would be established to create and discover the community's understanding, expression, and use of the data and information relevant to the situation, including that which they collect themselves. In the process, the community group would help other residents to learn more about their community and the pertinent governmental decision and planning processes, to gain the requisite participatory skills needed for pursuing an action strategy, and to compile and distribute such pertinent information in a report. The report becomes the basis for the deliberation on and selection of an alternative approach to the power plant and its relation to the town. Through discussions, formal and informal, with residents, community workshops, and public officials, the participatory team advances its alternative in the public sphere (Park et al. 1993; Fischer 2000).

In recent years participatory research has begun to play a role in policy analysis more formally understood. Participatory policy analysis has emerged in several government agencies in the United States. An important example is offered by Dan Durning (1993). Durning has carefully observed and reported on a ‘stakeholder’ approach to participatory policy analysis in the Georgia Division of Rehabilitation Service (DRS). In this case the Service assembled a team of the agency's employees to analyse its policy for selection of service recipients and to present advice to the agency's executive committee. His analysis shows that the team's analysis was not only well‐received by top management, but also that the quality of the work was judged positively.

Compared with the professional approach to policy analysis, Durning judged the Georgia agency‐stakeholder inquiry to illustrate important strengths of participatory policy analysis: ‘Team members were a good source of opinions, data and information’, especially as they ‘thoroughly understood the context of the analysis’; ‘Team members had the resources to construct a ‘mental model’ to predict the (p.218) consequences of the propose alternatives'; the analytical process created significant positive spin‐offs; and ‘the analysis had credibility’ within the agency (Durning 1993: 311–14). The effort, of course, was not without costs. It tended to be slow, used less sophisticated methods than technical policy analysis, and the costs of the analysis were not insignificant, especially as it removed employees from their regular jobs. But there was no doubt in the minds of the agency that the benefits outweighed the costs.

In Durning's (1993: 317) view, ‘organization‐stakeholder policy analysis is well suited for addressing . . . messy or ill‐structured policy issues’, defined as ‘decision problems . . . for which decision makers, preferences or utilities, alternative, or outcomes, or states of nature are unknown or equivocal.’ Moreover, such issues are often part ‘of a complicated context in which ends may not be well defined, the definition of problems may not be settled, the meaning of data may be disputed, and the legitimacy of proposed policy instruments may be the subject of internal debates’. For such analysis, the standard technical methodologies of policy analysis are insufficient, requiring the use of ‘second‐order’ methods of analysis. Stakeholder policy analysis, which facilitates an understanding of the decision context, qualifies as a method of this second type.

Another important example is the World Bank's Participation Program. Having learned the relevance of local involvement and participation from many of its Third World investment failures, the World Bank in the 1990s took an interest in the advantages offered by direct local contact with the communities it sought to assist (World Bank 1994; 1995). Not only were senior Bank staff members directed to get to know their regions better through a week of total immersion in one of its villages or slums, the Bank developed a technique called ‘participatory poverty assessment’, designed ‘to enable the poor people to express their realities themselves’ (Chambers 1997: xvi). Adapted from other participatory research techniques, the Bank has now been involved in participatory poverty assessments in over 30 countries around the world, in particular in Africa (Norton and Stephens 1995).

Participatory poverty assessment represents an attempt to strengthen the Bank's analysis of the connections between its assistance strategies and the borrower countries' own programmes to reduce poverty. Specially designed to inform its policy dialogues with these governments, the Bank has sought ways to scale up participatory approaches from the project level to the country level. Towards this end, it has encouraged its operational managers to supplement their conventional poverty research with participatory poverty assessments. Such assessments have not been conducted as a discrete research process, but rather have been designed to produce results ‘that can help to complement, inform and validate conclusions drawn from other kinds of more traditional Bank analysis’ (Norton and Stephens 1995: 5).5 Although the Bank's practices have been criticized as co‐optive, which is not entirely (p.219) untrue, the very fact that the Bank has felt compelled to acknowledge the role of participation is in itself something to take note of (Cooke and Kothari 2001).

Such participatory assessments scarcely originate with the World Bank; indeed, the Bank has got many—if not most—of its ideas from non‐governmental organizations (NGOs) and other development institutions. NGOs have designed and conducted a growing number of participatory policy analysis projects, ranging, for example, from irrigation policy studies in India, wetland management policy investigation in Pakistan, food grains studied in Nepal, forestry issues in Scotland, educational policy matters in Gambia, and the relationship between poverty and violence in Jamaica to land tenure concerns in Madagascar, to name just a few.6 These efforts have been judged to offer timely and useful policy experiences, especially when policy decision‐makers are highly committed, the inquiry is of a high quality, and the results are tested against other sources. Offering a voice to the poor, such policy debates become grounded in local realities and citizen interpretations rather than would‐be ‘objective realities’ designed by analysts sitting behind desks. The inquiry process offers an alternative mode of evaluation that not only provides local information, but has proved capable of uncovering insightful, often counter‐intuitive surprises.


Taking up the tension between democracy and science, the discussion has sought to reformulate the relationship through the social constructionist perspective emphasizing science as a socio‐political activity. Rather than taking scientific practices to be the ideal for politics, we asked to what degree scientific practices might be democratized. Towards this end, the discussion outlined the contributions of citizen participation to both policymaking and collaborative inquiry, from legitimization to local knowledge. By transforming citizens' ways of knowing and acting, participatory deliberation can build new political cultures capable of preserving and extending decision‐making capabilities.

Against this background we turned to the more challenging question of the citizen's ability to collaboratively engage in the scientific inquiry process. We considered first the barriers that block such participation in the complex decision‐processes of contemporary governance and then surveyed examples that show citizens to be more capable of engaging the pressing issues of the day than generally recognized. Examining participatory inquiry as a postempiricist methodology designed to facilitate citizen deliberation, the chapter looked at the ways citizens' local knowledge and normative interpretations can be brought to bear on the problem‐solving processes, information generally unavailable to empirical methods more removed from the subjects of inquiry.

The discussion then turned to numerous participatory experiments that more specifically illustrate the possibilities and practices of citizen inquiry. In particular, (p.220) it outlined the consensus conference and the methodology of participatory policy analysis. Basic to such cases, as we saw, is the emergence of cooperative relationships between citizens and experts. Such experts emerge to help communities grasp the significance of evolving developments, to think through strategies, to broaden citizens' access to information produced by scientists, to help systematize their own local knowledge. The basic question is: how can the expert facilitate the development of a learning process that, once set in motion, can proceed on its own?

Finally, it should clearly stated that citizen participation is not advanced here as a magic cure‐all for economic and social problems. Nor is deliberation or argumentation meant to direct attention away from questions of interest and power. But it does hold out the possibility of bringing forth new knowledge and ideas capable of creating and legitimizing new interests, reshaping our understanding of existing interests, and, in the process, influencing the political pathways along which power and interest travel. Given the importance of such practices for postempiricist policy analysis, we turn in the next and final chapter to a more explicit examination of the conduct and practices of citizen‐oriented deliberative policy analysis.


Parts of this chapter have appeared in my Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Expertise (Fischer 2000).

(1) Silvio Funtowicz offered his remarks on ‘Democratizing Expertise’ at Workshop on Science and Democracy at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 21–3 June 2002.

(2) Rather than hiring experts to look into the pipeline questions, Berger and his associates went themselves to some 60 rural fishing villages and camps through the settlement area.

(3) In the Danish model, citizens reply to advertisements placed in newspapers, asking them to send a letter explaining why they would like to participate.

(4) In the US, a preliminary pilot project dealing with the topic of telecommunications was also conducted in Boston in 1997 by the Loka Institute and a subsequent effort was carried out at North Carolina State University under the direction of Patrick Hamlett in the summer of 2001.

(5) Typically, these discussions among the Bank's analysts have focused on ‘how best to integrate participatory and conventional methods, distinguished as “qualitative” and “quantitative” respectively in Bank discourse’ (Holland 1998: 93).

(6) For additional examples, see Park et al. (1993), Nelson and Wright (1995), Chambers (1997), van der Ploeg (1993), Brown and Mikkelsen (1990), and Liebenburg (1993).