Archive for March 2007
I don’t want to be rude, but despite all its promise, a first look at BBC’s much-vaunted ‘action network‘ suggest it could be renamed the ‘inaction network’.
This is how it describes itself: “Action Network can help you change something in your local area. Get in touch with people who feel the same way and get advice on taking action.”
Great, another initiative to fuel the rest of the world’s BBC-envy. The site is rightly praised by bloggers like j d lasica for its open nature and action-orientation. It contains useful guides to how you can do all sorts of things in Britain.
1) profits from one of the most trusted brands in news, and the institutional, manpower, and financial support that a not-for-profit organization like the BBC can provide.
2) has had about 4 years to grow.
3) does indeed have quite a lot of members and some traffic. Some numbers circulated include 100.000 members including 10.000 regularly active (I have not checked these).
Nonetheless, all that the recently released ‘Frontiers of Innovation in Community Engagement‘ report from the Center for Citizen Media could point in terms of actual impact is that two guys are bickering about global warming and someone prevented the closure of a community center. And the source is one of the project leaders from BBC herself…
Is it just me, or is this somewhat less than a spectacular success? Would be thrilled to hear some success stories about the action network, as I am quite thrilled by the set-up and idea, and the results seems disheartening.
Though the independence that the action network enjoys seems a valuable chance for mobilization outside the structures of government, I strikes me that the absence of institutional political players will also often be a problem – if the problems people are working to change are things like the environment and local planning issues (and not organizing an independent movement of some sort, something one probably wouldn’t want to do on a Government sponsored site anyway), you may want to actually try to engage decision-makers in debate to try to pin them down on something.
There have been some riots in Copenhagen recently, over the forceful eviction of counter-cultural squatters by the police from a house they had used for about 25 years. I was quite concerned by what to me looked like excessive use of force, documented examples of semi-random imprisonments, also of under-age kids, and several searches conducted without warrants. Being roughly 4000 miles away and by now largely devoid of any meaningful contacts in movements or parties there, I have to admit I resorted to a rather sentimental and therapeutic mean of ‘participation’. I emailed the 15 members of parliament who are on the juridical committee…
So there I was, arguing that they ought to consider an independent investigation into police conduct during that weekend, pursuing a politics of expression, something I have always been incredibly skeptical towards. Two (or their aides, I doesn’t matter much to me) already wrote back (I have to say that I was surprised that I actually got answers from anyone). One from the left, and one from the right, the former to agree with me, the latter actually bothered to express his disagreement with me, and his trust in the police. I am glad he took the time.
Now the left are increasingly pushing for a closer scrutiny of what exactly happened… Obviously, I am not arguing that I, or any other individual email-writer, made that happen. It is impossible to track the traces of any individual communication under circumstances like this. It makes me wonder whether the definition of meaningful participation as something like ‘making a difference’ that I tend to fall back on makes much sense at all – it smacks too much of billiard balls setting each other in motion, or of chains of actions mediated as by a letter-carrying pigeon, ‘A used X to say to B who did Y to C… – but maybe the latter can be used to trace out how I became a part in a network that has one of its more visible tips in those parts of parliament that are now pursuing the possibility of an investigation. Did I take an action that was mainly therapeutical and merely happened to coincide with a wider trust that became the political action of pushing for in investigation? Yes, in a way, and then I and the politics are separated. But the narrative could also be re-construed as: ‘I took action and through that became part of a network that acted to push for an investigation’. Then I am part of the political action. The former is the road to cynicism, the latter to action – but I do not know that I am intellectually convinced by either, or even of their usefulness. The former makes it almost impossible to identify anyone but a few individuals as participants (and that is patently absurd, a form of reactionary romanticism of ‘strong men making history’), the latter makes it impossible to distinguish between action and lack thereof (equally absurd, then everything would not only be potentially political but actually so, and the word political, as well as the word participation, would cease to mean anything in particular). Not exactly thrilling outlooks for someone who makes his living writing, talking, and speculating about politics and participation… Anyway, it made me think. More.
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.