UBC Political Science leads a team to create new field of study (via UBC Faculty of Arts)

This article was originally published on the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Arts website in December, 2015.

Dr. Mark Warren is a Professor of Political Science, the Harold and Dorrie Merilees Chair for the Study of Democracy, and a recent recipient of SSHRC Partnership Grant funding for leading Participedia – a project that will map and develop information about participatory democratic innovations around the world. The international team includes over 25 universities and 45 individual researchers.

The Faculty of Arts spoke with Dr. Warren about the challenges of building Participedia, how the project may help to improve and deepen democracy, and the team’s plans for Participedia over the next five years.

Is Participedia the first project of its kind?

As far as we know, yes. We were inspired by the idea of crowdsourced science. The first crowdsourced project was Linux, an open source operating system. Another inspiration was Galaxy Zoo – a project which involves splitting up and assigning pieces of the sky to amateur astronomers to map. But we don’t know of any viable crowdsourcing project in the social sciences. Participedia is not a true crowdsourcing project—it won’t be as extensive as these other projects. Rather, we’re hoping to make it easier for hundreds – possibly thousands – of people to collaborate and provide information about democratic innovations. 

What has been the biggest challenge with this project so far?

The biggest challenge is designing a way of absorbing information about a field that doesn’t yet have much definition. We are trying to imagine all of the participatory and democratic innovations out there, and the dimensions – such as equity, justice, efficiency, deliberativeness, intelligence – on which they meaningfully vary. Our biggest challenge is coming up with a manageable number of variables, and to develop sets of questions that will capture those variables and do this across lots of different contexts. For galaxies, you can look up and see a map of the sky right in front of you. But we don’t know what the map of the domain of participatory innovations looks like. So we have to create the sky, figure out how to map the sky we’ve created, and then try to explain what we’ve found.

How can this project assist citizens of countries lacking democratic governance?

There are a number of countries with authoritarian political structures – like China, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia – that are nonetheless experimenting with low-level, segmented democratic innovations. What’s going on is the government doesn’t benefit from electoral legitimacy, so it has to build legitimacy in other ways. So they find other ways of listening and responding to citizens. These developments can introduce some democracy into authoritarian systems, especially in situations where citizens have little bits of power that they can use to punish even authoritarian governments through protests, non-cooperation and so on.

In the case of China, there are probably 150,000 protests every year. Party officials are judged in their performance by how much harmony they’re seeing, so the protests are a black mark against officials. So officials have become very inventive at figuring out what people want so they can avoid protests. And they’re often doing that by creating new ways of engaging citizens. These innovations probably won’t produce regime-level democracy in the short term, but over time they may add up to functional democratization in ways that make a difference for good, responsive government.

Is this kind of democracy less legitimate, if governments are only making accommodations to ward off protests?

Well, we don’t want to reduce the consequences of process to the intentions of the people that are going into it. In the case of China, officials may innovate to co-opt protests, but what they have to give is a little bit of listening. And where that happens, you may get a little bit of democratization, even if the incentives of the officials may be just upward mobility in the party.

Have any success stories come out of Participedia’s work?

We’re essentially trying to establish a new field of study. In political science, PhD students often study elections because there’s a lot of information to study. We have a lot of knowledge of different electoral systems, and data that comes from decades of opinion polling and following election results over many countries.

In the case of new political innovations, we don’t have anything that’s comparable to comparative elections studies data. And we’re trying to form that data, so that people will begin to study these areas with the depth and seriousness that they now study elections. So our long-term successes are probably still out there, in three to five years.

Our shorter-term goals are to begin taxonomies. So to go back to the metaphor of the galaxy, if we can figure out what the sky looks like, that will be a success. And we hope that as we develop denser data, we’re going to be able to distinguish amongst different processes as to how well they work for various purposes. Are political innovations that engage citizens producing better government responsiveness? Better policies? More democracy? And we may be able to answer some of those questions within three years.

What are your plans for Participedia over the next five years?

Our SSHRC funding is for five years. We hope to build up other sources of funding so that it becomes viable over the longer term. But at the end of five years, we hope to have mapped the field of democratic innovation and developed deep enough data so that the priority of democratic innovation can be studied at the level of quality that we now study electoral systems.

We also hope to feed information back into the public sector and into governance. And as we develop more data, we’re hoping to build data visualization tools, rankings, maybe evaluations that assign gold stars on some kinds of processes and while identifying others as “democracy washing”—using the language of democracy and citizen engagement without really doing so. One indication of success will be that agencies, government or NGOs that organize forums or deliver polls will use this data to certify or improve what they’re doing.

One of the interesting things about the political landscape today is that the electoral system doesn’t solve a lot of the political problems that we have. And legislatures, parliaments and city counsellors often hand bureaucracies problems and say, “Go solve this. Develop a plan for this part of the city or that policy problem.” So the bureaucrats are faced with the problem of putting things together in ways that are responsive to the community and don’t produce a lot of political gridlock.

In Vancouver, for example, the planning department floated pieces of a city plan for the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood, which is a neighbourhood of about 30,000 people on the east side of Vancouver. They proposed a number of highrises. The neighbourhood activists didn’t like it, and made their unhappiness known. A smart group of planners decided to rebuild trust in city planning processes with an innovative political process: they created a citizens’ assembly from a near-random selection of 48 people from the neighbourhood. The assembly was tasked with coming up with the outlines of the plans of the neighbourhood for the next 30 years. The planning department is now filling in the details of that plan, and they’ll do a check-in with the citizens’ assembly. And hopefully through that process, they will restore some of the trust in the neighbourhood in the planning department. This is a good example of democratic political work that is difficult to do through electoral democracy.

These kinds of political developments are happening in policy area after policy area, place after place, all over the world. We’re hoping to provide the conceptual and informational infrastructure that will allow us to map and understand what we’re calling, aspirationally, “democratic innovations”.