Participatory Engineering? By whom and for whom?

In Participatory Democracy and Political Participation, a collection of essays just out on Routledge, Thomas Zittel formulates the concept ‘participatory engineering’. His starting point is an interest in “informing political elites” (p. 2). This is certainly a valid one, but throughout the interesting collection of essays, I kept wondering: where it the perspective of the citizens, the participant, in all this?

This absence seems to be a broader problem, and not a trivial one. When people do not react when faced with participatory measures, especially those developed from a ‘top-down’, or, to be less condescending and more precise, ‘institution-out’ perspective (institution here being state, municipal government, or for that matter a firm), the first hypothesis as to ‘why’ should always be that passivity is meaningful, not that it is morally suspect ‘apathy’.

Two obvious possible reasons for skepticism even amongst those who do want to be civicly engaged and exercise power as citizens are:

1) They may not want to take upon themselves the identity that a concrete form of participation offers to them – for instance as someone assumed to be somehow ignorant, and who is to be educated by authorities (deliberative polls).

2) They may see participatory measures as an elite attempt to procure legitimacy without conceding any actual influence (consultancy measures where policy is already decided).

Participation designed by authorities and for authorities with little attention to the participant perspective easily ends up taking forms with these two characteristica. Such institution-out participatory engineering has a taste of the procurement of legitimization rather than actual strengthening of the organization of participant power and active granting of legitimacy by citizens.

Under those circumstances, people are quite right not to participate. I would quite obviously suggest that citizens participation should always also be understood from the perspective of the citizen-participant. And this perspective is in sense as much a point that could inform elites as any made in the anthology edited by Zittel and Fuchs.


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