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What makes consultation "better"?

David Newman asked the following questions in a couple of e-mail discussion lists.

When we tried to do a review of literature related to e-consultation, we found that it didn't neatly fit together. For example, deliberative democracy theorists, and feminist critics of existing democratic processes are concerned with the ongoing relationships between citizens, community organisations and government staff. They are looking for more citizen empowerment (climbing Arnstein's ladder). On the other hand, people studying or working in public sector management seem to be mostly concerned about making a decision in the current consultation. They want to effectively and efficiently collect information and opinions from citizens to help the civil servant make the decision. Then try to join that with the literatures on conflict resolution, computer supported co-operative work, group decision support systems, and the psychology of computer mediated communication. You get a mess, not a coherent synthesis.

Ignoring, for now, arguments on research techniques, by what values should we judge consultations? What do you think makes a better or worse consultation? How would you judge?

If the overall goal of all our work on e-democracy is to enhance democracy, then how do we know when we have got there? How do we recognize or measure the extent to which democracy is enhanced, or (in the context of e-participation), consultation is better? In particular, what are the values we should use when judging outcomes and processes? People throw around terms like citizenship, citizen engagement, balanced participation, effective partnership, or richer decision-making, without agreeing on their meanings. Should we accept as equally valid any value defined by a participant (even authoritarians like Robert Mugabe or Lord Vetinari, or some of our Northern Irish politicians)? Or should we base evaluation criteria on values defended in democratic theory or human rights? If so, which ones?

Not only are the values contested, but different people seem to be observing different things. Which is more important to look at? The processes in a single consultation to feed into making a decision? The long-term effects on relationships between citizens and, say, a local authority of their interactions over the year? Consensus formation between competing groups of citizens during a particular e-consultation activity that is part of a consultation? Are we positivist managers looking at the efficiency of inter-organisational decision-making, or interpretavists looking at the evolution of relationships as civil servants and citizens interact with each other? What kind of organisation theory is relevant here?

Some of the participants have given me permission to reproduce their answers on this site. As these are wiki pages, we can start to edit and reshape these pages to pull together these different perspectives.