Can We Democratise Decisions on Complex Issues?

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Professor Albert Weale FBA (UCL) writes about the challenges of knowledge democratisation

Issues like the funding of highly expensive pharmaceutical interventions, new forms of animal breeding, dispersed chemicals in the environment, the genetic modification of plants or the choice among different forms of energy production make for hard public policy decisions. They are highly technical, involving evidence about complex chains of causality, relative costs and benefits, the assessment of statistical and other models and a judgement as to how far unforeseeable circumstances will change the picture. Yet, they all inevitably involve consideration of social values like: respect for life, justice among potential beneficiaries, prudence in the setting of standards, the responsible stewardship of nature and the obligations that this generation owe to future generations.

As if this were not enough, they all attract high levels of capital funding, often in the form of venture capital, where there are large rewards to be secured from the widespread uptake of the technology, so calling into play the reputations and careers of research scientists who are themselves often reliant on private capital. They can all be the focus of campaigns, not always scrupulous campaigns, by social movements and non-governmental groups. They are the subject of international regulation and control. Finally, they all require some policy response – even if that response is laisser-faire – in a context in which there is intense public concern. So, inevitably they all raise the issue of the public acceptability of technologies and the policies.

Over the last fifteen years or so, the issue of public acceptability has been approached through the use of techniques involving minipublics, selected groups of citizens invited to give their opinion on policy questions after exposure to evidence and argument. Such minipublics have included citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, permanent group like NICE’s Citizens Council, or sometimes just focus groups. These participatory techniques are important, but they are not a panacea. Deliberation in minipublics does not always produce consensus, and, even when it does, there is the unresolved question of the status of the minipublic’s deliberations. What force, after all, might their conclusions have for the wider public?

In this context, there is a powerful case for looking again at how public accountability in such matters can be improved within representative democracies. Too often, for example, we neglect the role of parliamentary committees, including committees like the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, who are in a unique position to scrutinise policy. They can call witnesses, draw upon expert support, question decision premises and produce reports that have a real affect on how governments frame their policies.

Secondly, a well functioning democracy needs effective and well-functioning systems of public consultation on proposals for policy. The House of Lords Committee on Secondary Legislation was rightly critical of the coalition government’s the proposal to move away from a standard presumption of thirteen weeks consultation in their July 2012 statement of Principles of Public Consultation, a document that noted that 12 weeks might be needed for a consultation on nuclear energy!

Will the present commitment to open policy making help? The intention to open up the policy-making process to new voices is to be welcomed. Sometimes crowd-sourcing is the right way to make policy: think for example about the identification of cycling accident hotspots. But the wider the range of inputs into policy – not just of actors but also the type of evidence and information they supply – the harder becomes the task of combining those inputs into a meaningful chain of reasoning. Here again the norms of due process – recording the evidence, providing traceability of argument and making sure that there is no undue influence – become central.

Transparency is a hard discipline on matters of public policy involving science. Transparency and accountability are not enough for true democratic decision making. But in a representative democracy they are essential.

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