If only we knew … how to respond to the basic tension between using the instruments of representation, what we think of as the instruments of self-government, and modes of participation.

By David Cohen, Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures; Senior Congressional Fellow, Council for a Livable World

Here are my questions that stem from my experience at initiating, formulating and implementing public policy which has lots to do with policy and politics.

A few words of caution. As important as elections are–after all it is one act that we all engage in as a people– they are not what I have in mind. I say that believing the equality of the vote in participating and counting results is a basic value that is currently undermined in countless ways.

The present systems lead to significant exclusion. How is that overcome? That leads to another aspect of the underlying question: how do we get beyond the current interest group models so that other mediating institutions or approaches will organize, be heard and compete.

I am also not talking about participation as the equivalent of a large audience in the high school gym which may have as its purpose a protest, a rally or even begin to lead to engagement. But the high school gym assemblage does not lead to sustained participation.

Differences on policy and politics are inevitable. How are agreements reached and accepted so people feel that they have been listened to, have had their say and perhaps have had a partial effect.


How can representation be strengthened so it fosters participation?
Is there room for random consultation as in a citizens’ jury. Can that
happen on highly technical questions. If not, how is expertise made understandable so that people don’t withdraw from civic engagement.

How do we educate people–and not limited to high school students– in the life cycles of issues so that their participation is not delegated only to experts. That kin of education develops participation and in the process strengthens representation.

Given the 24/7 news cycle, and the viral capacity of triggering fears that frighten decision makers, what are the immunization and inoculation steps that need to be taken to allow deliberation to breathe? Think death panels in the health care debate.
How can officialdom experiment, value its efforts at learning and learn from mistakes without being hung out to dry. That is where immunization and inoculation techniques come into play.

We value robust debate. At the same time civil discourse has to reject words that wound–racial, religious and ethnic epithets and stereotypes.

Critical thinking should be valued. What are its elements? What do we know when and how people are listened to? There is more to listening than decibel levels. Are there examples? Yes, I participated in its emergence in tobacco control efforts in the earliest internet days, nearly 30 years ago, of ordinary people fighting against a behemoth, the tobacco industry with the deepest pockets. I saw it through the use of the fax on the pro-democracy world that challenged totalitarianism in the Communist countries of east and central Europe.

Public work leads to specific outcomes:

(a) in education that engages the professions but the students and their parents as well.

(b) in health care that engages the professionals as a team and people accepting their own responsibility for healthy, but not monastic, life styles.

(c) in environmental protection and neighborhood life dealing with sorting out the issues of usage (parks, recreation, shopping, size),
housing (lot size, what mixes, shopping and parking), transportation
(what flexibilities via biking, zip car, shuttle service).

How do we elevate such work so that it known as “public work,”
a naming by Harry Boyte in his writing. Public work bridges, but does not avoid the tensions between representation and participation.

What are the ways to learn what has worked, what hasn’t, where improvements lie. This surely greater than a task for evaluators, useful and necessary as they may be.

Underlying the tension between representation and participation is the tension between the experts and informed lay people. They have to learn from each other.

How do they learn? In what ways?


The Tags . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply