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Don't let participatory democracy stifle debate

By Caroline Lee On day one of his new administration, President Obama made good on his famously participatory campaign and signed an open-government directive instructing federal agencies to become more participatory.

By Caroline Lee

On day one of his new administration, President Obama made good on his famously participatory campaign and signed an open-government directive instructing federal agencies to become more participatory.

Six years later, antiquated forms of one-way citizen input like public hearings and comment periods have given way to a brave new world of public engagement experiments like "Text, Talk, Act" - an innovative many-to-many initiative to promote a national dialogue on mental health through social media and small group conversations.

We live in the midst of a democratic renaissance across the institutions of U.S. society, besieged with invitations to "Have your say!" and "Join the discussion!" in our workplaces, schools, and communities. Big government has discovered new ways to harvest the wisdom of crowds, and corporations and nonprofits have embraced the "Yes We Can!" spirit of employee, customer, and client empowerment.

However, while more meaningful grassroots participation is now the status quo, it's less and less likely to change the world. That's because speaking truth to power has become an end in itself, invited inside organizations and disconnected from the impolite, expensive demands for reform that accompany demonstrations in the streets.

What do we lose when deep democracy is a top-down affair?

To answer that question, we need to understand the kind of facilitated, discussion-centered engagement that has been supersized in the Obama era. This goes far beyond clicking "like" buttons.

We are increasingly being asked to debate complex issues, including big questions such as how health care should be provided, what to do about shrinking municipal budgets, and how to improve community-police relations. Social entrepreneurs have developed an expansive range of ways to debate - face to face, online, and through apps - all designed to get substantive citizen input. And it's not just talk. The dialogue experts who increasingly run public-involvement campaigns focus on getting participants to commit to doable actions to get their kids moving, their communities cleaned up, and their workplaces profitable.

Can more civil discussion and tech-enabled civic action in a time of stark inequalities possibly be a bad thing? Unfortunately, the result of all this high-quality engagement is likely to be disappointing for those who envision the second coming of participatory democracy.

The reason? Too often, stakeholders aren't weighing in before their leaders' major decisions, but are invited after the fact to consider how they can help soothe the pain caused by administrative failures like inadequate disaster relief, racial profiling, and mass layoffs. This is less about figuring out what went wrong and holding organizations accountable than about containing dissent and creating "citizen accountability" for the outcomes of austerity programs and budget cuts. Public engagement consultants sell themselves by claiming that while talk may be cheap, "conversation is cost-effective." How can deliberating on social problems save money?

It's easy. Does your city need help in the wake of the housing crisis? Let's discuss ways to substitute costly services with community volunteer projects. Which cuts would you prefer to your health plan? Try taking on the role of benefits managers for a day so you can see the tough choices they face. By giving stressed, frustrated people a place to vent and by creating empathy for administrators and fellow citizens, forum organizers can raise "tax morale" and "pluck more feathers with less squawking," in the words of one participation expert.

What about when the public doesn't like the limited options they're given to discuss or refuse to engage? At a community congress I observed on rebuilding New Orleans, Katrina survivors concluded a long day of dialogue with a survey that asked how satisfied they were with their own participation. A woman at my table, still struggling to move back to New Orleans, cried, "Why do they have to put it on us?"

Even when it doesn't work well, experiences with the new world of public participation often reinforce old suspicions of ordinary politics and business as usual. Participation burdens everyday people with new responsibilities without much empowerment, and reinforces the power of conveners as well-meaning collaborators.

Overall, then, the new public engagement reliably mobilizes its participants to pitch in and help out, to "be" the change they want to see, in the wake of catastrophic institutional failures.

Obama's "social gov" staffers are currently beavering away on a participation playbook intended to share best practices for engaging the public as a "strategic partner." Americans in the coming year will be asked yet again to contribute their energies to civic forums and online dialogues on grave problems facing the country.

Given the massive challenges we face, we can't afford for the ambitions of the electorate to be defined down in this way. While the chance to "share your story!" is appealing, our biggest organizations have problems that individual actions, however noble, won't fix.

As the Obama administration burnishes its participatory legacy, citizens should indeed step up, but they should do so to reclaim messier, riskier forms of collective protest from powerful leaders who have a clear interest in making public dialogue manageable.

Real democracy - demanding social and economic equality to go along with the public's expanding political voice - isn't easy, or cheap.