The literature on and experience with “public engagement” in science is large and growing. There are now plenty of studies of experimental forms of promoting deliberative “public engagement” with various aspects of what the US and EU government funds and carries out. One could even see this as one case among many of a general trend towards “participatory engineering” by governments (and other entities as well). More on this soon…
A recent article in BioSocieties by Carlo Caduff is the first one i’ve seen to coherently question the design of public engagement schemes in a particular case, viz. the question of distributing the influenza vaccine. The punchline of his story is that although the government earnestly engaged a subset of the public, and sought to make those engagements representative and deliberative, it nonetheless forecloses on the ability of those people to actually express what they perceive as the nature of the problem. In the specific case Caduff looked at, a public engagement exercise concerning influenza vaccine distribution, the exercise occured just after Katrina, which of course could not help but determine the context of issues like “society” “protection” “emergency” etc, and yet such a context was not part of the “engagement” as such.
So is such engagement a form of participation? Can we make sense of it in terms of our work here? In our terms, the organized public is brought into being by the formal social enterprise: in this case it is complex of people from the CDC, Institute of Medicine, National Academies of Science, and other “stakeholder” government agencies, perhaps most importantly the Department of Homeland Security (see these details on the project and the report). The structure of the organized public is also determined in advance, and Caduff explains how the project chose the “right” public. So the OP’s formation and its constitution were heavily guided by the FSE.
The goals of the organizations are not open to dispute in the exercise, but the tasks and their outcomes are. Participants were asked to rank a series of options after a deliberation amongst themselves. By doing so, they “express” the values of society, and thereby serve a representative function by which government decisions become legitimate. But I think our framework helps identify that it is only at the level of tasks, and not at the level of goals that the exercise is a form of participation. I take this to be Caduff’s point in highlighting the many alternative things such people could be saying by rank-ordering a series of alternatives, that they might be arguing about the goals of our government, but only given the tools to express a narrow opinion on how to carry out those goals (ie. the tasks)
As Caduff puts it “At the US Department of Homeland Security it was abundantly clear what the citizen voices were trying to say when the protection of ‘society’ was invoked. What the ‘public’ apparently was asking for was ‘critical infrastructure protection’ (211).” So although citizens were engaged in a narrow sense (ranking certain alternatives) they were also pretty obviously there to legitimate a certain technical and political rationality.
Interestingly, given our framework, the notion of “resource” is confusing here. The resources is not really the vaccine, but something more like the collective public opinion about what to do with the vaccine. Contrast this with other cases we have looked at, such as PatientsLikeMe, where the resource is collective shared representations of data about individual disease course.
In the end, I suspect we need to distinguish between these forms of public engagement and forms of public participation that are less heavily engineered in terms of process. It creates a question for comparison: where is the engineering of participation? Is it in the technical platforms (the Internet) or the structure of an application, the affordances of a medium or the legal constraints, or something more like the nature of the process to which people are subjected?