A pressing question for any democratic government is how it can go about knowing its citizens, their values and concerns, and their responses to the government’s own policies. Such an impulse can be traced through the history of the modern state, from the introduction of the census to the development of public opinion polling.
Over the last two decades in the UK this drive has contributed to the development of increasingly institutionalised methods of public participation. These methods seek to increase the intensity and frequency of public engagement with policy decisions beyond communication and polling techniques, and with greater topic specificity than allowed for in five-yearly trips to the ballot box.
What sets public participation techniques apart from other ways of knowing (about) citizens is their emphasis on deliberation between a small number of participants. This gives citizens space and time to reflect on their views and learn about the issue under discussion, providing richer and more nuanced insights into public views and values.
The increasing popularity of these methods in the UK has become especially pronounced over recent years, for example with the BIS-funded Sciencewise programme conducting ‘public dialogue’ projects around science policy decisions with an increasing number of government departments, from DEFRA to the Cabinet Office.
These methods have also been offered a potential boost in the prominence of the ‘open policy’ discourse in Government; and discussions about the potential for ‘open data’ - that is, allowing government-collected data to be accessed and manipulated by others to create alternative interpretations and representations - offering yet more methods by which governments might hope to know their citizens.
But how are we to compare these methods of knowing citizens? Is it even possible to ascertain which – the census or the opinion poll, the participation event or the manipulation of large service delivery data-sets – gives us the truest account of what citizens or the public think and feel?
Take the example of fracking. According to census data and national elections, the British public is a largely stable body with views determined by demographic characteristics, affluence and relatively small ideological shifts over time. Thus consent to make energy policy has been tacitly given to the incumbent government, and public dissent or opposition to fracking is seen as a negotiable and short-term barrier.
But public opinion polling methods, as deployed by researchers at the University of Nottingham, create a picture of a more mobile and fickle public, with perceptions of fracking shifting by the month, in response to economic conditions and high profile events. Instances of intense social protest, such as those witnessed in Balacombe, Sussex create a different picture again. This time the public which emerges is a diverse and multifaceted public or even multiple publics, some of whom are prepared to commit acts of civil disobedience to materially halt the progress of the policy and to make their dissent heard.
Public participation methods have been applied relatively late on in the development of fracking policy. In partnership with Sciencewise, the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil is running a public dialogue project to help shape their policy for consulting with affected communities around future shale gas and oil developments. Here the public is understood to consist of geographically defined communities whose interests around energy are mostly confined to energy pricing or the health and safety risks of developments in their immediate vicinity.
Within the confines of this dialogue there is little scope for a public interested in broader government climate change policy, concerned for distant places and people, or with interests in alternatives forms of energy supply.
My aim here is not to conclude that one of these methods offers a better, truer representation of the public attitude to fracking. Rather, my point in sketching out this example is to demonstrate that these different methods of knowing the British public produce a diversity of representations.
I would argue that all of these representations are conditional or even conditioned; they depend on the methods used and the questions asked. From a dynamic, multifaceted and unpin-down-able citizenry, each method creates a stable, simplified representation which has certain uses and effects as well as potential weaknesses. To compare and draw upon these publics we must be aware of the ways in which they are conditioned and the implications of this for the representations they produce, in the contexts in which they circulate and are used.
In the case of fracking, this requires us to be attentive to what might be emphasised or excluded in the publics which are created, and how such representations might act to reinforce or destabilise certain states of affairs around energy policy and the energy system.
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.