The Crisis of Representative Democracy: Exercising and Experiencing Public Life

The crisis of representative democracy has recently crystallized in government and policy-regulations that show concern with an apparent lack of public trust in current expert institutions. This was very clearly expressed by the European Commission White Paper on Governance in 2001. This document expresses worries with the growing distance between public interests and the state of scientific expert knowledge. This is portrayed as the main reason for an increasing lack of representation and public distrust (EC 2001: 1, 7, 12, 19).

In an attempt to cope with the crisis of representative democracy in the last years, and especially in Europe, there has been a proliferation of public consultations and institutional events of public engagement with science and technology. As Allan Irwin has called attention to the way science and technology policies sweeping across the political landscape of Europe currently coalesce in a ‘frequent talk of dialogue’ and democratic inclusion of public concerns: ‘blend modernistic assumptions of sound science, institutional control and administrative rationality with a language of two-way dialogue and taking citizen concerns seriously’ (Irwin 2006: 304). In this respect, repeated institutional calls for more public engagement is an important democratic gesture that must not least be valued in terms of what kind of actual possibilities for public engagement with science and technology it allows for.[1] Thus, what are the political and ethical implications for democratic life, when technological change is addressed inside institutional structures that seek to govern public opinion?

In practice consultation exercises like citizen juries and consensus conferences, enact a procedural approach to technological change in democracy. Representatives of different kinds of expert institutions stand trail to a small select committee of citizens that perform an interrogation and evaluation of relevant technological issues. A public viewpoint can thus emerge and assent may be given to issues that need more careful attention by experts before a consensus. In this sense the political ideal is that democratization of technology occurs through public opinion-making. Although such institutional venues are important for securing democratic engagements, the following example demonstrates how such procedural approaches may also entail unintended public criticism of the democratic representation involved.

In a revealing study (2005) of the Danish Board of Technology and its consensusbuilding conference on the future of Danish Electronic Patient Recording (EPR),[2] Casper Bruun Jensen experienced how a strictly orchestrated political setting was suddenly reversed. A few ‘disinterested citizens’ had been selected to deliberate and envision the usefulness of EPR before implementation could commence. Experts had manufactured a catalogue of issues for deliberation. This catalogue was based on the idea that EPR was more efficient and entailed better information acquisition of patient data. Thus, Jensen observed the catalogue rather proved to orchestrate the spectrum of salient issues, making other issues redundant. The issues discussed remained largely stable during the process of citizen’s queries; a sign of the way citizens were mainly informed and guided towards certain expert understandings rather than interfering with their own viewpoint.

However, on two accounts citizens managed to voice more critical issues about EPR that also affected the nature of the procedure. Firstly, citizens raised an issue with how to secure better data access seen from a future ‘user perspective’ rather than the present ‘expert perspective’ Secondly, at the public presentation of the consensus rapport citizens voiced an inability to represent the target group of the technology: those too weak or ill to mobilize a public voice (Jensen 2005: 228; 232). However, notwithstanding the emergence of such public concerns the procedure was cast in terms of a consensus.

This is an example of how current institutionalized democracy seeks transparency in consensus-building while, paradoxically, re-enforcing structures of unacknowledged normative powers that restrict the spectrum of concerns to be raised.[3] Similar to Jensen’s observations the public deliberation on the problems of gene modifying technology in the UK 2006 (GMNation? debate), was modelled on the assumption that the ‘ordinary citizen’ equals the ‘disinterested’, and ‘uninformed’ person knowing little about new technologies and related issues to be deliberated (Irwin 2006). Hence, ‘partisans’, those with a recognizable normative concern, were dismissed from participation in the public deliberation exercise (Lezaun and Soneryd 2007). Yet, the deliberative procedures of EPR and GM Nation? engaged an important political momentum. Although both exercises were consensus-driven, citizens in the EPR managed to voice a concern with lacking representation of the ‘absent others’. Likewise, the managers of the GM nation? recognized how ‘partisan’ citizens associated and voiced culturally entranced and often negative concerns with GM technology at local meetings and official websites ‘in the wild’ (Lezaun and Soneryd 2007). In both cases, the exercises entailed unforeseen public formations that questioned the representative powers at work. How might we conceive of such public formations?

Within the last decades, one can observe an increasing tendency to include citizens in roles as ‘users’ or ‘consumers’ in exercises of public engagement with science and technology (i.e. citizens as consumers of new nanotech products). This can be seen in connection with an emphasis on innovation presented as a user-driven process. When the representation of citizens is staged in such reductionist manners, valuable experiences and perspectives of how citizens see themselves affected by technological change are in danger of being ruled out of democratic politics (Wickson et al. 2010). Peoples’ perspectives seem to be useful to the extent that they may help to justify expert reasons and wider institutional needs of generating certain policy-outcome (i.e. economic growth). At the bottom line, such orchestrated policy settings imply that people investing creative visions can primarily provide the means to raise sales numbers of developing technologies. Under such conditions current talk of ‘empowered consumers’ becomes a political oxymoron. The talk conceals new forms of technological domination as citizens involved are effectively relegated to the margins of representational political powers. Metaphorically speaking: in the role of the ‘valuable stakeholder’ or ‘consumer’ citizens’ political concerns with technology easily become significant artillery to be used by different expert institutions in view of their own objectives. The institutionalised ‘participatory boom’ that we have been experiencing in Europe since the late 1990s is an important attempt to regain public trust.[4] But in practice, participatory exercises are also a way of producing domesticated publics, when parts of the citizenry are selected in accordance with pre-given criteria, while citizens not fitting such criteria are excluded from participation.

We suggest that a critical appraisal is needed of how policy-institutions are orchestrating publics into being and the ways in which alternative democratic politics may be emerging. As Sheila Jasanoff has argued democratic society is in need of democratic politics that addresses ethical issues of how people living at the margins of political power are affected by science and technology (Jasanoff 2003, 2005). What we need is new ways of recognizing public concerns in the effort to democratize science and technologies.

  • [1] This theme is widely addressed. For some recent science studies of the obstacles to public engagement in democracy see e.g. Leach et al (2005).
  • [2] The particular conference was modelled after ‘development space’ that differs somewhat fromconsensus-conferences. The former is a more open process by being a more open process of deliberation. However, both procedures relay heavily on technical expert knowledge as key force ininforming citizen’s opinion. The aim is often identically to generate consensus and the writing ofa final rapport with political recommendations to the government (on this issue see Blok 2007)
  • [3] Jensen stresses that consensus conferences are rather to be seen as experimental public encounterse.g. between expert/lay cultures of normative reasoning.
  • [4] “On one hand, Europeans want [politicians] to find solutions to the major problems confrontingour societies. On the other hand, people increasingly distrust institutions and politics or are simplynot interested in them.” (EC 2001: 3).
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