A short exploration of different perspectives on citizen participation and implications for data portal design
This post, part of a deep-dive series providing ground work for exploring potential future developments that could support data portals and platforms to function better as tools of civic participation, looks at the history and development of citizen participation, primarily in the UK context.
A key cause of data portal dissatisfaction is the apparent failure of portals to provide effective platforms for citizen participation in government and governance. The supposed promise of portals to act as participatory platforms can be read into the 2009 Obama Open Government Memo on transparent, participatory and collaborative government, and the launch of data.gov.uk amongst the hackathons and experiments with online engagement that surrounded the Power of Information report and taskforce. Popular portal maturity models have envisioned them evolving to become participatory platforms   and whilst some work has acknowledged that there are different forms of participatory engagement with the state, ranging from monitorial democracy, to the co-production of public services , the mechanisms by which portals can help drive participation, and the forms of participation in focus, have been frequently under-theorised.
In the current policy landscape, there is a renewed interest in some forms of participatory engagement. Citizens assemblies, deliberative fora, and other forms of mini-public are being widely adopted as ways to find or legitimate ways forward on thorny and complex issues. Amidst concerns about public trust, democratic control, and embedded biases, there are calls for participatory processes to surround the design and deployment of algorithmic systems in particular , creating new pressure on participatory methods to engage effectively with data. However, public participation has a long history, and these latest trends represent just one facet of the kinds of processes and modes of engagement we need to have in mind when considering the role of data portals in supporting citizen engagement. In this short piece I want to briefly survey the history of public participation, and to identify potential insights for the development of data portals as a support for participatory processes. My focus here is primarily on the UK landscape, although I’ll try and draw upon wider global examples where relevant.
In the blog post ‘A brief history of participation’, historian Jo Guldi explores the roots of participatory governance ideas, tracing them as far back as the early mediaeval church, and articulating ideas of participatory governance as a reaction to the centralised bureaucracies of the modern nation state. Guldi points to the emergence of “a holistic political theory of self-rule applicable to urban planning and administration of everyday life” emerging in the 1960s, driven by mass youth movements, mass media, and new more inclusive notions of citizenship in an era of emerging civil rights. In essence, as the franchise, and education, expanded, default models of ‘elite governance’ came to be challenged by the idea that the public should have a greater voice in day to day decision making, if not greater direct ownership and control of public authority.
In Guldi’s global narrative, the emphasis of the 1970s and 80s was then on applying participatory ideas within the field of International Development, particularly participatory mapping - in which marginalised citizens are empowered to construct their own maps of territory: in a sense creating counter-data to secure land rights, and protect customary resources from logging or other incursions. Guldi points in particular to the role of institutions such as the World Bank in promoting participatory development practises, a theme also found in Leal’s ‘Participation: the ascendancy of a buzzword in the neo-liberal era’ . Leal highlights how, although participatory methods have their roots in the emancipatory pedagogy of Paulo Friere and in Participatory Action Research, which aims at a transformation of individual capabilities alongside wider cultural, political and economic structures - the adoption of participation as a tool in development can act in practice as a tool of co-option: depoliticising critical decisions and offering participants only the option to modify, rather than fundamentally challenge, directions of development. Sherry Arnstein’s seminal ‘A ladder of citizen participation' article , published in 1969 in an urban planning journal, has provided a reliable lens for asking whether participation in practice constitutes decoration, tokenism, or genuine citizen power.
In the UK, whilst radical participatory theory influenced grassroots community development work throughout the 1980s, it was with the election of the New Labour Government in 1997 that participation gained significant profile in mainstream policy-making: with major initiatives around devolution, the ‘duty to consult’, and an explosion of interest in participatory methods and initiatives. Fenwick and McMillan describe participation for New Labour as ‘something at the heart of the guiding philosophy of government’, framed in part as a reaction to the consumer-oriented marketised approach to public management of the Thatcher era. Yet, they also highlight a tension between an ideological commitment to participation, and a managerial approach to policy that sought to also ‘manage’ participation and its outcomes. Over this period, a particular emphasis was placed on participation in local governance, leading top-down participation agendas to meet with grassroots communities and community development practices that had been forged through, and often in opposition to, recent decades of Conservative rule. At its best, this connection of participatory skill with space to apply it provided space for more radical experiments with community power. At its worst, and increasingly over time, it led to co-option of independent community actors within state-directed participation: leading ultimately to a significant loss of both state-managed and community-driven participatory practice when the ‘era of austerity’ arrived in 2010.
The 2000s saw a proliferation of guides, handbooks and resources (e.g.) outlining different methods for citizen participation: from consultation, to participatory budgeting, citizens panels, appreciative inquiries, participatory research, and youth fora. Digital tools were initially seen broadly as another ‘method’ of participation, although over time understanding (albeit still relatively limited) has developed of how to integrate digital platforms as part of wider participatory processes - and as digital development has become more central in policy making, user-involvement methodologies from software development have to be critically considered as part of the citizen participation toolbox. Concepts of co-production, co-design and user-involvement in service design have also increasingly provided a link-point between trends in digital development and citizen participation.
Looking at the citizen participation landscape in 2021, two related models appear to be particularly prominent: deliberative dialogues, and citizens assemblies. Both are predicated on bringing together broadly representative groups of citizens, and providing them with ‘expert input’, generally through workshop-based processes, and encouraging deliberation to inform policy, or to generate recommendations from an assembly. Notably, deliberative methods have been adopted particularly in relation to science and technology, seen as a way to secure public trust in emerging scientific or technological practice, including data sharing, AI and use of algorithmic systems. Whilst deliberative workshops and citizens assemblies are by no means the only participatory methods in use in 2021, they are notable for their reliance on expert input: although the extent to which direct access to data features in any of these processes is perhaps a topic for further research.
Before I turn to look specifically at the intersection of data and participation, it is useful to briefly remark on two distinct lines of argument for participation: values or rights-based, vs. results based.
The rights-based approach can be found both in theories of participatory democracy that argue democratic mandate is not passed periodically from voters to representatives, but is constantly renewed through participatory activities engaging broad groups of citizens, and in human-rights frameworks, including notably the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which establishes children’s rights to appropriate participation in all decisions that affect them. Guidance on realising participation rights adopted in 2018 by the UN Human Rights Council explicitly makes a link with access to information rights, including proactive disclosure of information, efforts to make this accessible to marginalised groups, and independent oversight mechanisms.
A results-based approach to citizen participation is based on the idea that citizen engagement leads to better outcomes: including supporting more efficient and effective delivery of public services, securing greater citizen trust in the decisions that are made, or reducing the likelihood of decisions being challenged. Whilst some user and human-centred design methodologies may make reference to rights-based justifications for inclusion of often marginalised stakeholders, in general, these approaches are rooted more in a result-based than a rights-based framework: in short, many firms and government agencies have discovered projects have greater chance of success when you adopt consultative and participatory design approaches.
Although there have been experiments with online participation since the earliest days of computer mediated communication, the rise of Web 2.0 brought with it substantial new interest in online platforms as tools of citizen engagement: both enabling insights to be gathered from existing online social spaces and digital traces, and supporting more emergent, ad-hoc or streamlined modes of co-creation, co-production, or simply communication with the state (as, for example, in MySociety’s online tools to write to public representatives, or report street scene issues in need of repair). There was also a shift to cast the private sector as a third stakeholder group within participatory processes - primarily framed as originator of ideas, but also potentially as the target of participation-derived messages. As the Open Government Partnership’s declaration puts it, states would “commit to creating mechanisms to enable greater collaboration between governments and civil society organizations and businesses.”
With rising interest in open data, a number of new modes and theories of participation came to the fore: the hackathon , the idea of the armchair auditor , and the idea of ‘government as a platform’  each invoke particular visions of citizen-state and private-sector engagement.
A focus in some areas of government on bringing in greater service-design approaches, and rhetoric, if not realities, of data-driven decision making have also created new spaces for particular forms of participatory process, albeit state-initiated, rather than citizen created. And recent discussions around data portals and citizen participation have often centred on the question of how to get citizens to engage more with data, rather than how data can support existing or potential topic-focussed public participation.
In my 2010 MSc thesis on ‘Open Data, Democracy & Public Sector reform: open government data use from data.gov.uk’ I developed an initial typology of civic Open Government Data uses, based on a distinction between formal political participation (representative democracy), collaborative/community based participation (i.e. participatory democracy or utility-based engagement), and market participation (i.e. citizen as consumer). In this model, the role data plays, and the mechanisms it works through, vary substantially: from data being used through media to inform citizen scrutiny of government, and ultimately discipline political action through voting; to data enabling citizens to collaborate in service design, or independent problem solving beyond the state; and to the consumer-citizen driving change through better informed choices of access to public services. In other words, greater access to data theoretically enables a host of different genres of participation (albeit there’s a normative question over how meaningful or equitable each of these different forms of participation are) - and many of these do not rely on the state hosting or convening the participation process.
What is notable about each of these ‘mechanisms of change’ is that data accessed from a portal is just one component of a wider process: be that the electoral process in its entirety, a co-design initiative at the community level, or some national market-mechanism supported by intermediaries translating ‘raw data’ into more accessible information that can drive decisions over which hospital to use, or which school to choose for a child. However, whilst many participatory initiatives have suffered in an era of austerity, and enthusiasm for the web as an open agora for public debate has waned in light of a more hostile social media environment, portals have persisted as a primary expression of the ‘open government’ era: leaving considerable pressure placed upon the portal to deliver not only transparency, but also participation and collaboration too.
What can we take from this brief survey of citizen participation when it comes to thinking about the role of data portals?
Firstly, the idea that portals as technical platforms can meaningfully ‘host’ participation in its entirety appears more or less a dead-end. Participation takes many varied forms, and whilst portals might be designed (and organisationally supported) in ways that position them as part of participatory democracy, they should not be the destination.
Secondly, different methods of citizen participation have different needs. Some require access to simple granular ‘facts’ to equalise the balance of power between citizen and state. Others look for access to data that can support deep research to understand problems, or experimental prototyping to develop solutions. Whilst in the former case, quick search and discovery of individual data-points is likely to be the priority, in these latter cases, greater understanding of the context of a dataset is likely to be particularly valuable, as would, in many cases, the ability to be in contact with a datasets’ steward.
Third, the current deliberative wave appears as likely to have data as its subject (or at least, the use of data in AI, algorithmic systems or other policy tools), as it is to use open data as an input to deliberation. This raises interesting possibilities for portals to surface and support great deliberation around how data is collected and used, as a precursor to supporting more effective use of that data to drive policy making.
Fourth, citizen participation has rarely been a ‘mass’ phenomena. Various research suggest that at any time less than 10% of the population are engaged in any meaningful form of civic participation, and only a percentage of these are likely to be involved in forms of engagement that are particularly likely to benefit from data. Portals should not carry the burden of solving a participation deficit, but there may be avenues to design them such that they connect with a wider group of active citizens than their current data-focussed constituency.
Fifth, and finally, citizen participation is not invented with the portal - and we need to be conscious of both the long history, and contested conceptualisations, of citizen participation. The government portal that seeks to add participatory features is unlikely to be able to escape the charge that it is seeking to ‘manage’ participation processes: although independently created or curated portals may be able to align with more bottom-up community participation action and operate within a more emancipatory, Frierian notion. Both data, and participation, are, after all, about power. And given power is generally always contested, the configuration of portals as a participatory tool may be similarly so.