Subject: TELECOMM & DEMOCRACY: CITIZENS' REPORT (Loka Alert 4:3)
TELECOMMUNICATIONS & THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY
Link to the final consensus statement of the citizens' panel
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(1) The Citizen's Panel and Its Findings........... (2-1/2 pages)
[Note: All unattributed quotes below are from various Citizens' Panel members, speaking during their April 4th press conference at Tufts University.]
TELECOMMUNICATIONS & THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY
by Dick Sclove, The Loka Institute
"We're not the kind of people you read about in history books . . . . Here was our first chance to shape our world. We didn't just ask what can we get out of technology, but also what has telecommunications technology been doing to us."
"Do people know how BIG this [telecommunications revolution] is? More than the car, more than the airplane. Everyone needs to take an interest . . . . Find out where this is going. Do what you can to make it a good BIG."
(1) THE CITIZENS' PANEL AND ITS FINDINGS
On April 4th a 15-member citizens' panel, representing a cross-section of the greater Boston area, issued a call for protecting First Amendment rights and personal privacy on the Internet, mandating community involvement in telecommunications policymaking, and returning a percentage of high-tech corporate earnings to communities and nonprofit organizations.
"We tried to decide what is best for the country as a whole. . . not just for Massachusetts. Including for Native Americans living on reservations."
"This is a process that I hope will be repeated in other parts of the country and on other issues . . . . I hope to communicate with my colleagues in the Congress on the work that this Citizens' Panel has done and want to make sure that its recommendations are duly considered by lawmakers." --U.S. Congressman Edward J. Markey, ranking Democrat (and former chairman) of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee
Selected by random phone calling and supplementary targeted recruitment to be broadly representative of wider Boston's population, the Citizens' Panel members included an auto mechanic, the business manager of a high-tech firm, a retired teacher/farmer/nurse, and an industrial engineer. There was also an arts administrator, a 1996 inner-city high school graduate, a consultant, an unemployed social worker, a writer/actress, and a homeless shelter resident. Eight were women, seven men. Five of the 15 were people of color. Their life stages ranged from young teenager through elder.
"[Serving on this panel] tore down walls. You don't usually speak to such diverse other people in daily life, like when you're riding on a bus."
"I have greater respect for how tough consensus is, and respect for democracy and how hard politicians' job is. They have to do this every day."
During February and March the panelists met together over two weekends to discuss background readings and introductory briefings on telecommunications issues. Then on April 2nd and 3rd all fifteen panelists braved a city-crippling, two-foot snow storm to hear ten hours of expert testimony from computer specialists, government officials, and business executives. The experts included the president of New England Cable News, an official of Lotus Development Corporation, the Congressional Liaison to the Department of Commerce who helped draft the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act, a school superintendent, public- interest group representatives, and others.
"Many issues--like health policy--are so complex. But [our experience shows that] in a short time together, it is quite manageable to have valid, constructive citizen input."
"We need more panels like this, to give us the opportunity to learn and to take what we learn back to our communities."
After deliberating and drafting their own report, the lay panel reconvened on the morning of April 4th to announce their findings at a press conference organized at Tufts University. A WCVB-TV/CNN television crew was on hand to record their performance.
"At Tufts, No Wonks Need Apply: Citizens Panel Formulates Policy" --Boston Globe headline, April 5, 1997
The full text of the Citizens' Panel
report and additional background information is available from the Loka Institute Web
Having heard diverse expert testimony--including a string of vigorous business perspectives--the lay panelists came out in favor of a judicious but far-reaching public-interest agenda (certainly more far-reaching than anything embodied in the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act). Their report urges governments to establish more forums for citizen participation in policy issues, even on highly technical matters like telecommunications, and finds that:
"Business interests, profit motives and market forces too often dictate public policy to the exclusion of the interests of the people (an example of which is the 1996 Telecommunications Act). The new technology creates an even greater risk of the abuse of power."
The timing of this citizens' report is strategic, because this is a watershed period in U.S. telecommunications policy making. For instance, as required by the Telecommunications Reform Act, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is currently working on recommendations for implementing universal Internet access, and last week it completed the auctioning of digital audio broadcast licenses. The Supreme Court has just heard arguments for and against the free speech-inhibiting Communications Decency Act. And the Clinton administration recently appointed an advisory committee on the public-interest obligations of digital broadcasters and is pursuing its agenda for wiring schools.
Among the Citizen Panelists' specific recommendations:
--Protecting privacy and First Amendment rights on the Internet and affirming a standard of personal responsibility in using on-line material
-- Recommending formation of volunteer citizens' groups at the local level to address appropriate restriction of access to certain sites at public libraries, schools and community centers
-- Urging telecommunications businesses to return a percentage of their profits to the local communities they serve
-- Establishing legal prohibitions on the use of private individual data without prior notification and approval
-- Making Internet-connected school computers available to the general public for lifelong learning outside school hours
-- Extending "universal access" beyond infrastructural development to "universal service" to insure that the general public has both the facilities and the opportunity to log on
"This was a forum on telecommunications and the future of democracy . . . . As a homeless person, no other technology gives me a voice."
(2) WHY THIS CITIZENS' PANEL IS HISTORIC
**This was the first systematic attempt in the United States to solicit informed input from ordinary citizens--including six who had never previously used the Internet, half of whom had also never used a computer--on the complexities of current telecommunications and technology policy. Telecommunications aside, this was also the first time in modern U.S. history that a diverse group of everyday citizens--none previously expert on the policy issues under discussion, none a representative from an organization with a direct stake- (not even from a public- interest group)--gathered to learn and deliberate on a topic of this breadth or complexity.
**This was the first U.S. emulation of a European process (known abroad as a "consensus conference") for citizen-based technology assessment.
**Our topic--"Telecommunications & the Future of Democracy" was broader than the topics that have been addressed in European consensus conferences, suggesting that the methodology may have wider applicability than was previously understood.
Assembled by the Loka Institute, the principal organizers of this event included Loka, the staff and students of the EPIIC Program (Education for Public Inquiry & International Citizenship) at Tufts University, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, and MIT's Technology Review magazine. Other supporting or assisting organizations included the Jefferson Center (based in Minneapolis), UMass Extension and the School of Behavioral & Social Sciences at UMass-Amherst, the National Science Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Benton Foundation, and the law firm of Palmer & Dodge.
(3) SOME PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS (by Dick Sclove)
I have been working toward this event for over three years. During that time, innumerable doubters contended that a participatory process invented in Denmark (where, as the stereotype would have it, "everyone is White, tall, blond, educated, affluent, and civic-minded") could never work in the United States. Americans are too apathetic, too ill-educated, and too different from one another. For instance, a project director at the (now-defunct) U.S. Office of Technology Assessment insisted that the agency had tried repeatedly to involve ordinary citizens in its report review processes, but that citizens simply refused to participate.
This Citizens' Panel decisively proves the skeptics wrong. On a first try we were able to assemble a lay panel more diverse than any gathered in Europe. All 15 members attended both background weekends and the final forum. Watching the lay panelists both listen to and interrogate expert witnesses, I saw no yawns, no wandering eyes, no fussing with hair. The panelists listened closely and asked one astute question after another. (Indeed, because the background weekends had effectively brought the lay panel up-to-speed on telecommunications issues, their questions were sometimes more technical than the experts' testimony!)
Moreover, while European lay panels often need to continue work until 1 or 2 in the morning, amazingly our more diverse U.S. laypanel--deliberating on a broader topic than has been attempted in Europe--concluded writing their report at 9:30 PM on the second day. One of the keys to this success was outstanding facilitation, provided by the firm of Kagan Associates from West Newton, Mass.
"There were no fist fights, no name calling, no partisan politics. If national governments could do this, there would be world peace."
"I became proud of my sense of citizenship. I began to identify with the people of ancient Athens . . . . There was a wonderful sense of belonging, and of being able to make a difference when a group convenes."
A number of individuals--including an independent professional evaluator--will be assesing our Citizens' Panel over the next few months. So my preliminary reflections as the project initiator (and as one of the expert witnesses) should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. That said, here are a few more details and my initial interpretation of them:
**The budget for this pilot Citizens' Panel was about U.S. $60,000. European consensus conferences have typically cost U.S. $100,000 - $200,000. Some of the latter, larger cost reflects the fact that the European versions have been nationwide, and have thus needed to pay for participants' travel and lodging.
I estimate that a nationwide U.S. Citizens' Panel would cost on the order of U.S. $300,000 - $500,000. That's a lot of money--but still trivial compared with the expenditures and social impacts that are at stake in major technology policy decisions. If a small nation like Denmark can routinely afford $100,000, I find it incredible that we can't afford just five times that in a wealthy nation that has 50 times the Danish population.
**From the time of assembling the initial institutional partners for the event, it took five months to do the preliminary planning, assemble the minimal necessary funding, and hire a project manager (Laura Reed who, together with her assistant Kerri Sherlock, was terrific.) Then from the date of hiring Laura (Nov. 1) until the concluding public forum took another five months. This was swift--about the same time required by the Danish Board of Technology (who, having organized 15 consensus conferences over the past decade, already know what they're doing). For comparison, the first British consensus conference, which concluded in November 1994, took about a year and a half to organize.
**U.S. science and technology institutions and decisionmaking processes stand out among many industrialized nations for systematically excluding lay citizen voices. The ordinary argument for ceding judgment and influence to elite representatives of the producers of science and technology-- while excluding everyone else who will be affected--is that lay citizens have neither the competence nor passion to be involved.
Against this argument stands the brute fact that, given the chance, our Citizens' Panelists competently assimilated a broad array of written and oral expert and stakeholder testimony, and then integrated this information with their own, very diverse life experiences to reach a well-reasoned collective judgment. Their conclusions pass a "reality test"--a groundedness in the daily experience and concerns of everyday people--that expert conclusions routinely fail. To me, this stands as strong evidence for both the need and practicability of democratizing U.S. science and technology institutions and decisions across the board.
**For a pilot project, I think ours was a tremendous success. Nonetheless, our relatively low budget, compressed time schedule, and steep learning curve for a first-time U.S. event led to a number of weaknesses or limitations. These should be easy enough to improve in future U.S. emulations. For example:
There was not enough time and staffing to support adequate consultations between the project director and the project steering committee (a diverse group of knowledgeable stakeholders chosen to help ensure impartiality in the organization).
The expert panel was reasonably well balanced between academics, industry, government, and public-interest groups. But as a rule of thumb, I believe that there should be a minimum of three very different expert opinions presented on each contested issue. On at least one sub-issue--computers in schools--we fell far short of this ideal. Our lay panel heard three very similar, upbeat presentations by outspoken proponents of computers in education, and not a single off- setting critical perspective. (There is, of course, no way to know if the lay panel would have reached different conclusions had they heard a more balanced set of experts).
Lacking government sponsorship or a budget to pay expert honoraria, we were unable to secure a commitment from most of our expert witnesses to attend for two days. Thus we had to omit a key component of the Danish consensus conference methodology: the lay panelists' open cross examination of all the expert witnesses assembled together on the second day. Our process seems to have worked reasonably well without this step, nonetheless it was an unfortunate omission. Cross examination gives the lay panel a chance to play off expert witnesses against one another, and thus to take their own knowledge and judgments to a higher level of integration.
(On the other hand, when one lay panelist worried to me that the panel hadn't had time to learn as much as they would have liked, I replied: "Sure, there's always more to learn. But all of you already know more than the average Congressman who voted on last year's Telecommunications Reform Act. For instance, Congressmen have to deal with 100 issues at once; they can't focus like you've been able to.")
So far, the event has received less media coverage than it deserves. The freak April 1st Boston snow storm certainly didn't help--with Logan Airport closed down for two days, a number of national reporters had to cancel out on us. In the future, non-partisan or bi-partisan government sponsorship, and/or a budget to bring in more high-profile expert witnesses, would presumably also help improve media attentiveness.
The Loka Institute remains committed to introducing this process, as well as others for democratizing science and technology decisions, more widely into the U.S. and beyond. Future Loka Alerts and the Loka Web page will announce further results of this first Citizens' Panel, as well as our other projects.
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