OpenDemocracy.ca “Sector Spotlight” Interview with Participedia
This profile of Participedia was originally prepared for OpenDemocracy.ca, an organization and network that shares community organizing knowledge, profiling ideas and actions. OpenDemocracy.ca convenes online and in-person across political orientations and borders to contribute to the growth of Canada’s democracy sector.
Tell us about Participedia. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?
Participedia’s mission is to strengthen and mobilize knowledge about new and innovative ways of doing democracy throughout the world. We aim to deepen and expand democracy in an era in which the traditional institutions of representative democracy are under threat, or seem insufficient to peoples’ democratic expectations and to many of the collective problems we face. We do this work by organizing and galvanizing global partnerships and by using new information technologies to crowdsource and curate thousands of public participation initiatives that vary widely in their design, purposes, functions, scope, and effectiveness.
One of the main ways Participedia is unique is in its goal of supporting a new field of study focused on public participation and related democratic innovations. For example, in political science, PhD students often study elections because there is a lot of information to analyze. There is a lot of knowledge of different electoral systems, including data that comes from decades of opinion polling and from documenting election results across many countries. In the case of new democratic innovations and other forms of public participation, there is nothing comparable to data for comparative elections studies. To remedy this lack of information, Participedia focuses on gathering and curating enough high-quality data so that people can begin to study these areas with the depth and seriousness that they apply to the study of elections and other traditional forms of governance.
We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how Participedia is responding to the crisis?
The Covid-19 pandemic is demonstrating that many public participation researchers and practitioners are prepared to provide rapid responses to fast-developing situations, and that they are willing to share their plans, resources, and lessons with others. In mid-April, Harvard University Professor Jane Mansbridge suggested we use Participedia’s networks and platform to gather and disseminate information about participatory practices designed to respond to the pandemic. A few days later we were invited to join a series of Zoom calls organized by one of Participedia’s Co-Investigators, Michael Burgess (Professor and Research Chair in Biomedical Ethics at the University of British Columbia’s W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics), and his colleague Professor Kimberlyn McGrail of the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia.
These connections allowed us to fast-track development of a new ad hoc website that serves as a companion to the primary Participedia.net platform. Citizens Voices & Values on Covid-19 (CVVC) features thumbnail sketches of deliberative public engagement processes that explore citizens’ thoughts and values on trade-offs among health, privacy, and economic concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every initiative featured on the CVVC site is linked to a detailed case study entry in this collection on Participedia.net. The CVVC site also includes a repository of downloadable resources such as process design examples, briefing materials, and participant survey instruments, with a particular focus on resources that are suitable for implementation when in-person, face-to-face contact is not possible.
Participedia’s community of users continues to populate another related collection — Covid-19 Response — that highlights diverse forms of public participation being used to address the pandemic, ranging from protests and mutual aid networks to hackathons and distributed computing.
Over the past few months we have seen groups seize this moment of uncertainty to advance racial and economic justice in their communities. How is this affecting your work?
Shortly after the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis and the resulting large-scale protests that erupted in the US and around the world, Participedia created a new “Public Participation for Racial Equity” collection to feature diverse forms of public participation for securing racial justice, such as protests, advocacy campaigns, and community organizing. We have not yet received as many new entries that focus on these issues and practices as we would like to see. We know that a lot of this activity is taking place and we hope followers of OpenDemocracy.ca will contribute content that focuses on these important issues.
What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?
Canada’s political institutions are based on the British Westminster Parliamentary system, combined with professional bureaucracies and independent judiciaries at both the federal and provincial levels. Largely owing to the design of Westminster systems, our biggest democratic challenge is that of achieving empowered inclusion. Governments are often formed with as little as 38% of the popular vote (especially at the federal level), leaving majorities of Canadians represented by parties that are out of power. In addition, Canada-First Nations relationships remain fraught and certainly unsatisfactory from a democratic perspective. So most Canadians do not feel well represented most of the time, producing unhealthy levels of disaffection from — and cynicism about — government. Possibly for this reason, a few governments have experimented with ad hoc innovations such as citizens’ assemblies, convened for specific issues. These innovations remain the exception, and governments are slow to “discover” them, even when they are in political trouble.
With that said, Participedia has some visibility within the federal Office of the Privy Council (PCO) — Canada’s most important policy body, from which the Office of the Prime Minister often seeks advice. Participedia’s collaboration with the PCO’s Consultations and Public Engagement unit began in 2017 when the PCO asked the following question on Github: “Can you help us make a list of open-source engagement tools?” A series of informal collaborations followed, including a project in which the PCO’s Consultations and Public Engagement unit drew on Participedia resources while creating a Designing Public Engagement Experiences toolkit to help “guide the design and exploration process before a public engagement plan takes shape.” Materials from the toolkit can be downloaded in both English and French from this page on the PCO website.
In 2019 the PCO’s Consultations and Public Engagement unit shared its first round of Public Engagement case studies based on interviews with 30 policy analysts, public engagement advisers, communications teams, developers, and managers who were involved in the planning and execution of consultations linked to major policy initiatives. These case studies are found in Participedia’s Government of Canada collection. On this GCwiki page, the PCO encourages people to help expand this collection by publishing cases on Participedia, an invitation we hope followers of OpenDemocracy.ca will accept!
The Government of Canada’s GCcollab also hosts a Public Engagement Community of Practice that describes itself as a “collaborative home for conversations and knowledge sharing around public engagement for all disciplines.” Anyone is invited to join the group’s mailing list by signing up here.
Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you? This could be related to your work or something you see happening in the sector.
We are hesitant to point to a single example because there is a tendency in the practice of public participation for people to latch onto one of the first methods they see as being successful in a particular situation, and then assume that the same process will work for a wide variety of issues and contexts. This is why one of Participedia’s longer-term goals is to gather a critical mass of data that will allow public participation researchers and practitioners to develop evidence-based insights into what kinds of processes work best for specific problems and issues, for specific goals, under specific circumstances.
That said, it is inspiring to witness the explosion of interest in this field of thought and practice. For example, comprehensive overviews of concepts and practices are found in recent publications such as:
- Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (2015), by Tina Nabatchi & Matt Leighninger
- The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (2018), edited by André Bächtiger, John Dryzek, Jane Mansbridge, and Mark E. Warren
- Handbook of Democratic Innovation and Governance (2019), edited by Stephen Elstub & Oliver Escobar
- The Journal of Deliberative Democracy (open access)
It is also encouraging to see the development within scholarly professional associations of new specialty networks focusing on democratic innovations, such as:
- American Political Science Association — Democratic Innovations Related Group
- European Consortium for Political Research — Standing Group on Democratic Innovations
- UK Political Studies Association — Participatory & Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group (PDD)
Tell us about how Participedia is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers to participation?
Participedia’s mission is grounded in democratic values such as equity, inclusion, justice, accountability, and democratic decision-making. For our work to contribute to democratic innovation and resilience, the processes used to support the project must align with this values-based mission.
One example of aligning our processes with our mission is the design research work of our Design & Technology (D&T) team. Led by Amber Frid-Jimenez, Canada Research Chair and Founder of the Studio for Extensive Aesthetics at Emily Carr University, the team draws on feminist theory to prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion within their team, and to inform the participatory design processes used to produce the Participedia.net research platform.
A key insight from the interdisciplinary processes used by the D&T team is that a project about participatory governance is best served by using an open and agile development structure to design, build, and maintain the platform used to curate and share knowledge. This required shifting from a traditional model in which website development is handled by a private firm, to an open-source technology approach with an in-house, design-led research team. This shift allowed Frid-Jimenez to hire and create research opportunities for women, including women of colour and LGBTQ2+, who are underrepresented in the tech sector. This provides a supportive environment for women and non-binary students who may otherwise face systemic barriers to participating in the more technical aspects of a particular field, in this case political science.
With inclusive and equitable processes in place, we see the results in outcomes aligned with Participedia’s core values. The D&T team continually engages Participedia’s international partnership network in the design of the Participedia.net platform. This approach helps us “walk the talk” of inclusive engagement. For example, it helped us identify and address systemic biases in Participedia’s initial data-collection model that privileged collection of information about democratic innovations in the Northern Hemisphere over methods that are more prevalent in the Global South. It also helped us better understand and address accessibility issues faced by large groups of potential users, such as reduced bandwidth in resource-poor regions and language barriers. Among other responses to these issues, the Participedia platform features a robust multi-language translation system, a simplified “Quick Submit” data entry form that is easy to use on mobile devices, and data collection fields relevant to forms of public participation prevalent in a wider range of communities and nations. This is an ongoing process, and the D&T team is committed to ongoing reflection and action toward equity through participatory design research.
For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?
By joining the Participedia community, you can share examples of participatory engagement happening in your world. It’s as easy as clicking “Quick Submit,” and it takes less than five minutes. Check out our Getting Started Guide for publishers and editors, subscribe to our newsletter for project news and updates, and follow us on Medium, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to connect with our global community of partners and contributors.