Participatory Engineering

Recently, I found a book called “Participatory democracy and Political Participation: Can participatory engineering bring citizens back in?” by Thomas Zittel, Dieter Fuchs (2007). The notion of “participatory engineering” should probably sound eerie, propagandistic and sinister, but apparently it doesn’t to these guys. In fact, it’s part of what seems to be an explosion of reform proposals for participatory democracy. Two websites have collections of such “engineering” ideas. One is a mysterious, seemingly british thing called “People and Participation” and the other is Participedia. Both have nice lists of a bewildering array of methods and cases (Participedia: methods, cases).

What’s interesting about these examples for us, I think, is the way they hew closely to a common-sense definition of what government is (and ergo, what e-government is). It relates to the workings of governments obviously. It’s about participatory budgeting, it’s about planning, it’s about public welfare… etc. The obviousness of this only seems striking in contrast to the kinds of cases we are concerned with as Birds of the Internet… e.g. Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. where it’s just as much about participation and people, and arguably more powerful than many local governments, but also quite obviously not government. So perhaps this is an interesting data-point about the slippage in the use of terms like “democratization” and “participatory democracy”– that they are easily applied to objects that are not obviously governments (even if governance is central to them) without it seeming contradictory.

Pushed further, one might then ask what happens to the common sense notion of what a government is the more tools (blogs, wikis, social networks, etc) are applied to solving problems of participation in those seemingly obvious areas.