Monday, August 6, 2007

The Experts Vs. The Rest of Us: New Book Makes the Case for Deliberative Democracy

Several years ago, I was interviewed for a job at a rather prominent institution by the president who spent several minutes ticking off the names and credentials of the experts s/he had planned to commission as consultants who would advise program staff on all facets of their activities. When I asked whether "real people" -- you know, the ones who are affected by the programs that this institution implemented--would be involved in advising the organization on similar matters, s/he paused for several seconds. Finally, s/he replied: "Well, we'll invite them to our conferences."

This is the kind of attitude that Alison Kadlec, a senior research associate at Public Agenda, addresses in her new book, Dewey's Critical Pragmatism, an examination of John Dewey's writings on pragmatism and a rallying cry for soundly-constructed public engagement programs that fulfill Dewey's vision of "democracy as a way of life." That way of life, Kadlec argues, is not solely the purview of the experts, pundits, and pontificators who deem "the people" as congenitally unfit for effective deliberation. She also takes on "radical democratic theorists" who criticize deliberative democracy practitioners as being blind or ill-prepared to address existing power relationships that they claim are reinforced in the deliberative process.

These "power oriented critics," she asserts, "do not enough and too much when it comes to assessing the meaning of and conditions for genuine deliberation. On the one hand, they operate with an unnecessarily cramped notion of deliberation and on the other, they rely on a counterproductively totalizing and static view of power."

That's laying down the gauntlet, indeed--and it's time that gauntlet was taken up by those who say they care about community organizing, deliberation, and public work. Is community organizing different from deliberative practice and if so, how? Is deliberative practice and public work a part of community organizing or vice versa? To date, however, I haven't seen much public space dedicated to exploring these issues, which bear considerable attention if we're to move foward. A previous post, "The Power Equation in Citizen-Centered Work," generated nary a comment, but it's time to change that. What could be done to facilitate these kinds of discussions? We sure could use them.

In the meantime, you can find out more information about the book at


rlubensky said...

Hi Cynthia,

I've been involved in organising and observing Citizens Juries recently. The expert witnesses (eg engineers, technologists, developers) see their task as "educating" the participants, which they don't recognise as coercive. In fact, they often see themselves as neutral, not actually having a position. In other words, the positivist view of objective knowledge and progress. Meanwhile, the participants are encouraged through facilitation to step back and critically examine the expertise and what values underlie their position amongst all the stakeholders. When the jury makes recommendations that accede to community values, the experts often feel they failed to adequately transmit their message (where was the dialogue?), or that the participants "didn't get it". But exit questionnaires indicate that they understood very well, even with complex technical issues. So it turns out that it is the experts contributing to deliberative events who often need to be better informed.

Thanks for the pointer to the book, I'll go take a look.

gpbury said...

There is so much to learn from John Dewey and those who draw from his writings like Richard Rorty. Thanks for highlighting this on your blog and to Alison Kadlec of Public Agenda for giving us this book.