New Website Explores Participatory Governance
By Jessica Engelman – Communiqué: Spring 2010, Volume 6
As the Ash Center’s Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship, Archon Fung spends his time thinking about the impacts of civic participation, public deliberation, and transparency upon public and private governance. Now, he is turning research into action by actively promoting citizen participation with his new website, Participedia. Developed with Mark Warren of the University of British Columbia, Participedia’s goal is nothing less than strengthening democracy with its user-generated library of examples and methods of participatory governance, public deliberation, and collaborative public action. From citizen involvement in budgeting to oversight groups that ensure better health care and social service delivery, government initiatives that encourage democratic participation demonstrate powerful results.
Launched in September 2009, Participedia uses the same wiki platform as Wikipedia to tell stories about efforts such as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil; municipal evaluation meetings in China; and the CaliforniaSpeaks health care dialogue with citizens. Participedia’s open platform allows any user to contribute or edit content. This offers researchers and practitioners a unique one-stop source for information that is normally maintained, to varying degrees, by government agencies and individual funders. In this way, Professor Fung hopes to connect theory with practice. In addition, there are articles on participatory methods, including deliberative polling, citizens’ assemblies, and participatory budgeting, as well as articles about the organizations that sponsor, implement, and study participatory governance. Over time, the project directors anticipate that Participedia will garner hundreds and perhaps thousands of articles.
By employing a semantic wiki extension that enables the organization of articles into databases, Participedia becomes a much more powerful tool, allowing users to conduct comparative and trend analyses. Articles are associated with properties through simple form-based templates that authors populate. These properties include, for example, geocoded location, number of participants, sponsoring organization or government, and methods of selection, participation, and deliberation. The properties identify key contextual and design variables in order to provide comparability among cases and methods. This allows research into their strengths and limitations and enables users to identify the processes that fit particular challenges and interests.
But Participedia is not just about success stories. Failures also belong in Participedia. Failures include processes that are inappropriate for particular issues, contexts, or goals. Cases of participation that involve patron-client relationships, government attempts to co-opt opposition, or processes which are merely labeled “participatory” or “democratic” are an important part of Participedia. To know what kinds of processes work best, it is imperative to know as much as possible about missteps, and inappropriate and ideological uses of participatory processes. Therefore, Participedia is designed to systematically collect information about the original intentions and functions of processes to distinguish which are more and less inclusive, deliberative, and effective.
Currently, Participedia’s project directors are focused on generating content. One way that Professor Fung is tackling this challenge is by recruiting professors to integrate Participedia into their own curricula. By assigning students to write a Participedia entry, professors will help to expand its coverage while giving students the opportunity to methodically evaluate a participatory governance project and have their work widely disseminated.