Researching and Writing Participedia Cases: The Australian Experience PART 1

This is the first installment of our two-part blog series by Participedia Research Associate Lucy Parry. Lucy worked with Participedia from March 2016 to September 2017 as a research assistant employed at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. Since then she has worked on various aspects of the project formally and informally. Based on her experience, Lucy offers practical advice to anyone interested in sharing their knowledge and expertise with our community.

The Writing Process: Finding the Right Workflow

The time I spent in earnest working on Participedia can be roughly split into two parts. When we (at the Centre) joined the project, it was quite open in terms of how we might contribute. Because we were new partners, and I was the only person actively employed on it in Australia, I had the opportunity to decide exactly what we could do. My first step was reviewing the site and particularly the existing Australian cases; there were around 10. I then drew up a plan for my own work on Participedia with some short and medium-term goals. The initial aim was to build up the Australian catalogue. Australia has been prolific in its use of mini-publics and that was not yet reflected in the catalogue.

To build up the Australian database, I went state-by-state. I knew the South Australian government was big into public engagement, so its webpages were my first port of call. At the very start, I began to make an Excel sheet with details of the cases from which to upload to Participedia. But I found this to be unfeasible – firstly because it required an extra, unnecessary stage, and secondly because using the spreadsheet leaned towards relying on the fixed field data – such as budget or participant number – that I soon realised it was difficult to verify. I also prefer to write in a narrative style. So quite quickly I switched to just writing the cases straight into Participedia.

When I look back now at the first cases I wrote, I can see how much my case-writing improved over the months. That’s partly because I became a better detective, and that’s how I approached the cases – searching out not just the official final reports, but any media stories or blogs, documents from the organisers, or participants. Anything to try and bring a case to life a bit more. Second was the invaluable feedback I received through Scott Fletcher, managing editor based out of the University of British Columbia who reviews all content submitted to Participedia. One example is the ‘History’ section. At first I interpreted this as the history of the issue or policy being deliberated on, but from Scott’s feedback I realised the focus should be more on the history of the government or organiser’s approach to participation and democratic innovation. This made it a lot easier to fill in that section, and it also helped me shift my focus to the processes themselves.

I worked my way through the states in Australia, going first to the major cases I knew about through word of mouth. Through them I picked up on other interesting cases. I then also went to the major advocacy, facilitator and consultant organisations working in this area and went through all their cases and added them as organisations. The amount of time taken to write up a case varied. I generally worked 8 hours a week on Participedia and cases tended to take between 2-8 hours. My aim was to fill in a minimum of two, detailed, complete cases per week – 4 hours each. This would be a fairly recent but finished case, with ample documentation and background available. The older Western Australia cases generally took 2 hours or less due to lack of online records. Some of the bigger cases took longer than this, especially if they were multi-stage processes as many recent Australian cases are. Whenever possible, I tried to not leave a case unfinished. This helped me better organise my time.

Some of the most challenging aspects of the documenting were finding enough details about older cases. There are a range of cases from Western Australia that took place in the early 2000s. Although the organisers had helpful write-ups and some academic papers on these, it was really difficult to track down the long-term outcomes regarding whether the mini-public’s recommendations had been implemented or upheld. This was compounded by the time passed, lack of online reporting at the time, and changes in government with some flip-flopping of policy.

Another thing I worried about was that people involved in cases might think something I had written was wrong or unflattering. Sometimes people mentioned this to me in person or by email – usually just small things, and often about cases I hadn’t written. This requires a bit of diplomacy to handle and can be a bit awkward. I just try to emphasise that Participedia relies on crowdsourced data, and that’s the nature of it. Also trying to encourage people to go on and change and add things if they want – though this has its own risks!