The following is an excerpt from a paper I intend to submit to a peer reviewed journal. I must confess that this is a long delayed endeavor. Last semester, I took a course where every student writing a final paper was expected to submit it to a journal of their choice. The idea seemed so foreign and unrealistic at that time that I conveniently nelgected to submit the paper to a journal that semester. The truth is that I was paralyzed by the notion of an audience for my writing. I did not feel ready enough; my arguments did not seem sohisticated enough. But, six months of steadfast nudging from my advisor is slowly eroding my reluctance and here I am sharing my writing for your feedback and comments before I send it off.
I spend a lot of time constructing sentences, deciding appropriate punctuation marks and basically making sure the sentence says what I intended. So it would greatly help if I receive feedback on how successful I am in conveying my thoughts in grammatically sound sentences. I also usually try to establish a rhythm and flow. I look forward to know how I’m doing. Thanks!
Evaluation of a web-based public participatory platform in the context of regional planning
Planning variously described as ‘visioning’, ‘‘articulation of a vision’ (Ramasubramanian, 2010) or ‘engaging the future’ (Klosterman, 2009) is about the future. It is also agreed upon that it needs to be knowledge-based (facts, figures or, data) to be realistic and rewarding. This brings to fore two aspects that make planning special. First, it is an imaginative/creative process rooted in reality and the second, it is, or at least, needs to be collective.
Historically, the question of representing the collective voice has been addressed by the process of election in a representative democracy. While generally the electorate has little direct say in decision-making regarding policy and administrative affairs beyond electing representatives to office, planning is distinguished by the active voice that the participating public can have in decision-making and policy making. In practice, however, this is true only in local community planning. A quick look at the websites of most Regional Planning Councils or Metropolitan Planning Organizations in the United States will reveal that they are composed of either elected representatives from the constituent local governments or public administrators appointed by the constituent local governments. Further exploration will reveal that the implementation of regional polices presumably arrived at by the constituent local government representatives after much deliberation is subject to the discretion of the local governments. Though none of this is new or unknown, a discussion of this scenario is important to bring home the fact that regional planning is heavily reliant on local government support. And, since local governments are responsive to public opinion there is a need for public support of regional policies for their implementation by local governments. I refer to such public support as ‘regional consciousness’, a reflection of a collective mode of operating or being that is marked not so much by shared ideals as it is by the willingness to share burdens and responsibility – an ill-received notion that becomes palatable when viewed as a form of prioritizing. Recast as prioritizing, the notion of regional consciousness does not seem far-fetched, in fact, as every individual can attest, prioritizing is a part of everyday living framed by finite time and resources. However, prioritizing for collective action takes transparency -essentially open communication among stakeholders – in discussing interests, accompanied by a commonly shared knowledge base to support informed decisions, and a will to accommodate opposing points of view. It also pre-requires direct participation of the stakeholders.
Though public participation in governmental decision making has been discussed prominently in recent times, the notion of public participation as the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy is not new; presently, all planning activities that have the power and legitimacy of the State associated with them include some opportunities for citizen review (Ramasubramanian, 2010). However, situated within the tenets of open government, collaborative governance, participatory politics and deliberative democracy (Barber, 2004 ), a notion that gained political impetus through Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and policy status thereafter, participatory planning is now more entrenched than before. Alongside these political strides there exists an uncomfortable realization that State-sponsored citizen participation has been reduced to a series of formalized bureaucratic rituals (e.g., designated periods for public comment) that are ineffective and sometimes counter-productive (Innes and Booher 2004).
Klosterman (2009) cautions that is important to recognize that new ideals of citizen-based planning are much more challenging to implement in practice than the models of professional expertise and limited citizen participation they replace. He comments that achieving the sustained and meaningful involvement of public officials, stakeholders and the general public requires a trained and committed staff, an appropriate organizational setting, and support from the leaders of the organization. It must also include planning agencies and officials who are aware of and support the technology to do so, and most importantly, stakeholders and private citizens who are willing to accept the technology and use it to help guide their collective decision making. Achieving this essential component requires the long term commitment of organizational champions and community members and a proven record of local success.
Which brings us to the question of whether web-based participatory platforms can be a game changer in the context of regional planning? Can this combination of ‘democratizing’ technology and participatory planning techniques be instrumental in mobilizing regional consciousness, an essential requirement for any kind of regional action to flourish?
The relevance of web-based participatory platform for regional planning
This paper takes the view that a web-based planning support system (PSS) can aid and facilitate the creation of a collective consciousness by virtue of being web-based, knowledge based and interactive.
Web based participatory platforms are identified for their capacity to provide a one-stop platform where participants can access comprehensive plan-relevant data and communication related to the planning process (Poplin et al. 2013). In addition, the internet has become one of the primary sources of information in everyday life; it is easier to reach out to citizens in places where they are willing to receive information. Websites dedicated to the planning process make it easy to facilitate, moderate and even enable discussions amongst members of the public. This paper focuses on how a web-based PSS can aid in mobilizing public regional/collective consciousness with the view of reviving regional planning in the United States. It is based on the premise that regional consciousness among the people is key to revive the floundering practice of regional planning in the United State.
Regionalism, though floundering, is a routinely discussed idea in American government and politics. Many people from academics to corporate leaders to politicians argue that regionalism is still relevant. They insist that regions are critical functional units in a worldwide economy and are critical functional units in individual American lives as many of us travel across city, county, state boundaries on our way to work, study or recreation. (Katz & Bradley, 2013). The underlying message is that cities, suburbs, and rural areas cannot be considered in isolation; they are related and interconnected. Despite clear evidence of the relevance and significance of regions in everyday life, why is regional planning such a nonstarter in the US?
An excerpt from Seven50, the website of the seven-county 50 year prosperity plan of the South East Florida Regional Planning Council is self-explanatory:
“The plan has no enforcement mechanism other than simply providing good ideas for people to consider in the future as they plan their communities. At the end of the day, each county will decide whether or not to implement those ideas. If any county doesn’t like something in the plan, they don’t have to do it – it’s that simple.” [i]
In such a scenario, gaining crosscutting local support for regional policy implementation is the only way forward to ensure that regional plans are implemented. In other words, cross-jurisdictional solutions as those suggested by regional plans demand strong cross-jurisdictional coalitions (Katz, 2000). It is reasonable to assume that such coalition building will be possible only in the light of regional consciousness, an awareness of interconnectedness, among the public. Authors such as Katz believe that any action at the regional scale requires the creation of new collaborative alignments among interests who previously either didn’t believe that they shared issues in common, or who knew it but felt no compelling reason to do so. In their opinion, regionalism is always going to be about the search for cross-cutting issues. I am inclined to believe that such a view is inadequate for true coalitions to build and operate. The search for cross-cutting themes, should be balanced by adequate space for deliberation over competing/conflicting interests followed by negotiation. For, it is the thorny issues that weaken a regional identity. Just as collaboration involving a large number of organizations and individuals is seen as making much better use of the resources; collaborative problem-solving and collective decision-making should be seen as a means to resolve confrontation (Geertman et al, 2013) and engender regional action.
From dualist to pluralist: reframing participation as collaboration
Noting widespread participation measures targeted towards citizens only and no other actors, such as, nonprofits, for-profit businesses, community groups etc., Innes and Booher (2004) cautioned against seeing public participation as involving citizens on the one hand and the government (or the planning agency) on the other, as that approach implicitly places groups in direct opposition to one another and encourages adversarial participation. Citing that a dualist frame ignores the pluralist system, which is much closer to the multifarious stakeholders of the planning realm, pluralism in the form of collaborative participation is suggested as a way ahead. In the context of regional complexity, new avenues for dialogue between civic leaders, interest groups, citizens and pulling together stakeholders to address difficult problems are required. Can web-based participation platforms be the answer to this requirement? Can these platforms present venues for nontraditional forms of dialogue and interaction?
Despite the early recognition for the need to reframe participation and develop a model of participation that is collaborative and multidimensional (Innes & Booher, 2004), dualist participation models continue to be the mainstream. The central outcome that is aimed for in the regional context is collaboration, dialogue and interaction. Focused on anticipating and defining future actions, collaborative participation should challenge the status quo and ask hard questions. It should seek a ‘shared understanding’ more than ‘shared common ground’ as a basis for awareness and critical reasoning about relevant issues that impact the region. The collaborative participation model is centered on dialogue, in the spirit of give and take. Ideally, such a process will addresses the interests of every stakeholder in a transparent manner, such that cross learning takes place facilitating conflict resolution and joint problem-solving.
The differences between the methods legally required in the US and collaborative approaches include: one-way talk vs. dialogue, elite or self-selected vs. diverse participants, reactive vs. involved at the outset, top-down education vs. mutually shared knowledge, one-shot activities vs. continuous engagement, and use for routine activities vs. for controversial choices. Innes and Booher (2004) believe that practice will increasingly be defined by the collaborative model because it better serves the purposes of participation. These methods allow decision makers to learn more accurately about preferences because participants are more representative and have more opportunity to provide thoughtful, informed input than in the standard required methods. They can incorporate citizen knowledge into the collaboratively arrived at recommendations because citizens can place their knowledge in the larger context of what the experts and planners know and vice versa. The collaborative approach is more likely to advance fairness and justice goals if process designers and collaborative groups make sure that the dialogue is inclusive and that weaker stakeholders are given assistance to assure their effective representation. The authors believe this method has more legitimacy than the legally-required methods because it does so much better on these purposes.
Arnstein, Sherry. 1969. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” JAIP, Vol. 35, No.4 216-224.
Barber, Benjamin. 2004. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley and California: University of California Press.
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