Thinking Like A Citizen


Need Public Policy for Human Gene Editing, Heatwaves, or Asteroids? Try Thinking Like a Citizen
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In “Need Public Policy for Human Gene Editing, Heatwaves, or Asteroids? Try Thinking Like a Citizen” (Issues, Spring 2021), Nicholas Weller, Michelle Sullivan Govani, and Mahmud Farooque call on President Biden to invest in opportunities for Americans to meaningfully participate in science and technology decisionmaking. They argue this can be done by institutionalizing participatory technology assessment (pTA) at the federal level.

I’ve worked for many years as a pTA facilitator and researcher, and have spent the last three years researching the factors that make pTA successful (or not) in federal agencies. Like the authors, I would underscore the value pTA brings to decisionmaking. Participants in pTA forums—including those who normally think of “politics,” “government,” or even “public engagement” as dirty words—learn through their participation that they can engage with their fellow citizens on topics of importance in productive and generative ways. The authors suggest that, given the tremendous potential pTA has for improving democratic discourse and decisionmaking, now is the time for federal investment in and institutionalization of these approaches. 

But such investments should be made thoughtfully. My research team’s work on pTA in federal agencies underscores three important realities. First, pTA efforts are vulnerable to shifting political and administrative priorities. Seeking ways to institutionalize engagement efforts within agencies—and not just as one-off “experiments” or as part of more ephemeral challenges, prizes, or grant-making—is more likely to lead to lasting change. The creation of Engagement Innovation Offices within agencies, for example, would increase long-term capacity and organizational learning. Such offices should be separate from communications offices, whose remit is different, and should focus on experimenting with and developing dialogic forms of public engagement. 

Second, our research shows that successful public engagement requires skilled engagement professionals who understand the importance of deliberative approaches. These are agency personnel who are technically literate but also formally trained in public engagement theory and practice. They understand agency culture, are good at collaborating across departments and directorates, know how to navigate administrative rules, get how leadership and power function in the agency, and have enough technical and political knowledge and agency clout to innovate in the face of tradition and resistance.

Third, academic programs in science and technology studies (STS) have an important role to play, and agencies should develop partnerships with them to create pipelines for these skilled professionals to move into the federal government. Academic programs should prioritize training in pTA and other public engagement tools, and provide experiences for STS students with technical training, literacy, or both to be placed in agencies as a form of experiential learning. Agencies should facilitate such placements, perhaps via the proposed Engagement Innovation Offices.

The federal Office of Science and Technology Policy will be an important player in these efforts. It can provide training, organization, funding, and influence. But running pTA efforts out of a centralized office may prove to be less robust and sustainable than embedding Engagement Innovation Offices and professionals within agencies, making them more resistant to, though not totally insulated against, political headwinds and shifting budget priorities.

Professor of Public Policy and Administration

School of Public Service

Boise State University

Like Nicholas Weller, Michelle Sullivan Govani, and Mahmud Farooque, I am encouraged by the current surge of interest in how science and technology policy couples with social policy. But I am somewhat concerned by the authors’ narrative of participatory technology assessment (pTA) as a new breakthrough of “postnormal” participatory engagement into heretofore isolated scientific-technological domains. Enthusiasm for such participatory breakthroughs has a more than 50-year history, which offers some warnings. I submit two examples from the work of historians of technology.

Jennifer Light’s book From Warfare to Welfare (2003) follows the migration of defense analysts into urban policy in the 1960s and ’70s. During that period, these analysts and their liberal allies in municipal politics readily embraced citizen participation as a means of quelling urban “alienation,” leading them to champion cable television as a way to create new avenues for local engagement. Those efforts floundered before cable later flourished in the hands of media companies uninterested in such matters.

In his book Rescuing Prometheus (1998, note the title’s implied narrative), Thomas Hughes prefigured the current authors’ interest in postnormal policy by announcing the advent of “postmodern” technological systems characterized by stakeholder engagement. Unhappily, his exemplar of such efforts was Boston’s then-in-progress Central Artery / Tunnel project, which did eventually reform the cityscape but also became notorious as the project management boondoggle known as the “Big Dig.”

Emphatically, my point is not to imply that participatory decisionmaking is a fatally flawed concept. Rather, it is to encourage a healthy awareness that, instead of displacing a perceived plague of scientific-technical solutionism, initiatives such as pTA could end up writing new chapters in the checkered history of social scientific solutionism if they are not thought through. Solutionism is no less solutionism and an expert is no less an expert simply because the innovation being proffered is social in nature rather than a gadget or an algorithm.

By portraying their pTA approach as a breakthrough social intervention, the authors arrive quickly and confidently at their recommendation of instantiating it as a new box on the federal org chart. I would challenge them to grapple more openly with the lessons of participatory decisionmaking’s long history and the difficulties facing their particular branded method.

Critical questions include: At what points in the decisionmaking process should such exercises be conducted? How much additional burden and complexity should they impose on decisionmaking processes? What sorts of decision should be subject to alteration by public opinion, how should issues be presented to public representatives, and how should contradictory values be reconciled?

More fundamentally, we may ask if this is a true method of participatory decisionmaking, or is it an elaborate salutary regimen for cloistered program managers? With a public deluged with requests for feedback on everything from their purchases to their politicians, is feedback into the multitude of technical decisions within the federal government what the public wants, or is that notion itself a creation of the expert imagination? 

Senior Science Policy Analyst

American Institute of Physics

Author of Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960 (MIT Press, 2015)

Cite this Article

“Thinking Like A Citizen.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 4 (Summer 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Summer 2021