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Participatory Design for Democracy and Wellbeing: Narrowing the Gap Between Service Outcomes and Perceived Needs

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This paper explains how narratives told by Aboriginal service users and Aboriginal service providers form the basis for redesigning the approach to complex interrelated problems associated with unemployment, alcohol, domestic violence and homelessness. On the basis of the case study it develops an argument for how it is possible to mainstream the matching of services to meet perceived needs. It makes the case that (1) it is possible for democracy to be re-worked in such a way that (a) collective needs (and steering for the common good) can be married to (2) decentralized policy making (and steering from below). Sustainable participatory policy based on user perceptions of what works why and how could be the basis for enabling people to set aside narrow difference and to consider different ways to govern democratically. We conclude that bureaucratic and compartmentalized responses are inadequate to address complex multifaceted problems and that the process of engagement is in itself important for democracy and wellbeing. The area of concern is to address identity and social inclusion. The research explores convergent user-centric design. The criteria for UCD are: Improving wellbeing, Enhancing participation in thinking through if-then scenarios, Matching services to perceived need, Enhancing rational decisions, Generating evidence based policy based on mapping and modeling, Attaining sustainability, Fostering creativity and innovation, Building communities, Expanding opportunity. A dedicated website describes the work of the ARC team http://www.socsci.flinders.edu.au/av/pathways/binder.php.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/tv--radio/suffer-the-little children/2008/10/01/1222651093091.html?page = fullpage#contentSwap1.

  2. 2.

    The service users together with the providers designed what works, why and how on the basis of their perceptions of successful outcomes that have achieved wellbeing.

  3. 3.

    User-centric design is based on telling narratives and exploring perceived meanings. The next step is to analyze the discourses for patterns (Christakis and Bausch 2006; Van Gigch 2003; Van Gigch and McIntyre-Mills 2006 on meta modeling). Making sense of perceptions is through identification of patterns and making meaning/sense of the patterns based on weighting the choices. The number of times particular themes were raised or particular service choices made equals a weighting. The approach demonstrates the ability of people to design the content of the software and thus to engage in participatory design, e-governance and e-democracy which could be used to extend democracy to the marginalized and socially excluded. In the Australian context these include Aboriginal Australians, refugees and young people without the vote who will have to live with the decisions in the future. The current research is only with Aboriginal stakeholders aged 18 and above and it needs to be extended in the next phase to include younger Australians.

  4. 4.

    Co morbidity: the coexistence of substance use and mental health problems (PARC Co morbidity Project http: www.parc.net.au/comorbidmain.htm accessed13/09/2005). Culture, Spirit and Wellbeing: looking at the big picture Spirituality and Health Conference 2005, Adelaide.

  5. 5.

    The project has ended and despite many changes in the organization of Neporendi, such as the departure of key board members and staff, the research agenda continues. Some of the original community participants remain, others have moved to non government and government organizations and they continue to ‘talk up’ the project which has expanded the breadth of our connections. All the co-researchers remain committed to extending the project to other contexts in Australia and to that end we are having conversations or presenting papers locally, nationally and internationally. For example a presentation has been made at the Social Inclusion Board in Canberra at the invitation of the director of policy in the Chief Minister’s Department in Canberra. A paper entitled “New directions for social wellbeing through extending deliberative democracy to enhance representation”, was delivered at the Social Innovation conference in Adelaide and papers have been presented at international conferences on various stages of this project.

  6. 6.

    This South Australian based research explores the extent to which it is possible to enable the principles of subsidiarity to be operationalised in such a way that people who are to be affected by decisions are able to have a say in setting local agendas in terms of social, economic and environmental considerations that are vital for wellbeing.

  7. 7.

    Kjaer (2004: 49–58) explores the question to what extent networks are a problem for democracy. She argues:” The basic assumption underlying the parliamentary governance chain is one of representative democracy. The people are sovereign and enjoy the basic political and civil freedoms. The people ultimately hold political authorities (parliament and government) to account. They are able to do this as long as political authorities are responsible for policy decisions and implementation. If the political authorities no longer have full control over policy, in other words if the basic organizing principle is no longer a hierarchy, then the representatives of the people cannot be sure that their decisions are effectuated. Yet one of the characteristics of networks is that power is more diffuse and lies in relations among actors. Hence, responsibility for a particular policy or policy outcome may be difficult to place, and accountability difficult to ensure.”

  8. 8.

    The ideal type of bureaucracy advocated as the ‘best worst option’ to support democracy has become a core project for many leading social scientists (see du Gay 2005), but Savage (in du Gay 2005: 331) argues there is need for caution:” The evidence… indicates that the alignment of bureaucracy with the institutional habitus of the professional and managerial middle class closes down one historical avenue for the advancement of more popular concerns.”

  9. 9.

    I am not suggesting networks replace bureaucracies, but that networks can be used as a means (amongst others) to make human service organizations more responsive so that they can match responses to perceived needs and narrow the accountability gap between agents and principles. The cynicism about network governance is evident in the following quotation: “Another alternative to the market model, as well as the traditional models of bureaucracy, is the ‘dialectical’ or participatory organization. …This change in management is at once a manipulative mechanism for increasing efficiency and a genuine moral commitment to participation …Whether the participation is authentic or not, it is difficult for an organization to deny involvement and access to its employees and even to its clients…The spread of network conceptualizations in the social sciences has been paralleled by a proliferation of network practices in governance… No longer can governments impose their wills through legal instruments and, if necessary, coercion; they must now work to achieve something approaching consensus among a large group of self interested parties who have some influence over the policy… (Peters 2001: 8).

  10. 10.

    The aim is to identify the gaps in service delivery pertaining to social inclusion and complex problems by providing a dialectical (Lind and Lind 2005) means of managing complex knowledge through supporting networking by means of a computer system (Castells 1996) that is empowering rather than disempowering to the workforce and the most marginalized Australians. Usually capacity building is top down. In this research it is bottom up with the service users providing a better understanding of different constructs and perceptions. This is our starting point for so-called ‘knowledge management’ using scenarios, based on possible options to be able to encompass complex social, cultural, political, economic and environmental dimensions (Kahane 1992:3). We worked across a number of domains, in order to address the area of concern.

  11. 11.

    The report entitled “Family violence and sexual assault in Indigenous communities: Walking the talk” stresses that circuit breakers include healing men, women and children (Keel 2004: 19) through working across departments and at all levels of the community. Involvement in decision making and “walking the talk’ are part of the solution and part of the process of empowerment.

  12. 12.

    According to ABS statistics the Southern Region has lower levels of family violence than the northern region, partly because of the Onkaparinga Collaborative Approach set up by a network of government, non government and community participants in 2005.

  13. 13.

    We hoped that if it were possible to create a means by which we could combine both decentralized decision making and steering form below and centralized steering from above based on the common good, prompted by ‘if then’ scenarios that are future oriented and wellbeing oriented, then we would be able to build a system that could be used for spatial and conceptual transboundary decision making.

  14. 14.

    Churchman reminds us that the word ‘decision’ is derived from the Latin, meaning ‘to cut’.

  15. 15.

    Burma and Zimbabwe are two recent cases where peaceful force should have provided the conditions for dialogue to occur. How do we inspire enough solidarity to care for others? How do we inspire quick, careful intervention before too much more suffering occurs? These are the concerns raised by Rorty (1989) in “Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity”. Evidence of primary and secondary research on what works, why and how suggests that it is the process of dialogue and raising awareness locally, regionally and internationally creates solidarity or bonds of mutual understanding, connection or attachment to policies (Bretherton 1992), because people have helped to design then. But we cannot have dialogue with those who do not wish to talk (Rorty 1989: 63) and when people feel they have something to gain and are prepared to ‘unfold values’ and to ‘sweep in’ (West Churchman 1971, 1982) social, cultural, political, economic and environmental conditions. We need to strive to create the conditions for dialogue and the challenge is to ensure that we support freedom to the extent that it does not undermine the freedom of others. When that line is crossed decisions need to include the common good and not those factors that undermine it. But who decides on the nature of power and what the common good entails? We need to be guided by the axioms that we can all share, namely that what matters is freedom from suffering. This is what Rorty (1989) stressed in his argument for expanding the boundaries of solidarity, but he did not draw the boundaries of solidarity sufficiently widely. Expanded pragmatists consider the implications of policy and governance decisions for this generation of life and the next.

  16. 16.

    This phrase was cited by Sarre (2008) in characterizing the policy approach to crime in Australia and many government’s internationally. They have a punishment, rather than a prevention approach which sits uncomfortably with the rhetoric that they wish to achieve social inclusion for those suffering from drug and alcohol-related crimes. Although property related crimes in Australia have decreased, according to him other crimes have not been positively affected by incarceration.

  17. 17.


  18. 18.

    The notion of rights and responsibilities can only be carefully considered when one is mindful of the past: colonization, dispossession, oppression through loss of land and the low points (such as Nuclear testing at Maralinga and mandatory sentencing). Being given citizenship in 1962 without the power to make decisions in parliament has done little to address the learned hopelessness and helplessness born of experience. Nevertheless this is balanced by survival, and gritty determination. Out of the chaos of dispossession comes creativity and renewal. The extent to which a sense of agency is affected by participating in designing and constructing an alternative form of decision making tool is one of the reasons for undertaking this research. Learned hopelessness, helplessness, blame is acknowledged but the next step is to add things to one’s life by taking responsibility and applying a sense of rights to agency and remove the barriers that one is able to remove through individual and community action. This project takes critique one step further and makes an attempt to find a way to enhance service delivery through enabling the service users to design, model and test out the value of subsidiarity and a means to join up the governance decisions through a dialectical computer design, created by and for the users. The design is based on their hopes, fears and passions, in other words their experiences as Aboriginal Australians who have experienced marginalization and dispossession.

    In this research, the area of concern and approach was identified and designed with Aboriginal co-researchers and ensures that the users became part of a community of inquiry and practice together with service providers. It is a praxis approach to research called ‘expanded pragmatism’ (McIntyre-Mills 2006; McIntyre-Mills et al. 2006). Pragmatism (unlike idealism) is an approach to philosophy of science and ethics that stresses the consequences of actions. Narrow forms of pragmatism (such as utilitarianism), considered the consequences for some stakeholders, not all stakeholders. In this sense the research draws on Peirce, Dewey and Addams (see Shields 2003; Hildebrand 2005) and then C. West Churchman’s Design of Inquiry approach (1979, see McIntyre-Mills (2003a, McIntyre-Mills 2006; McIntyre-Mills et al. 2006)).

  19. 19.

    Mapping and modeling systems have been the preserve of linear or positivist thinkers who divide ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’. New science makes it possible to argue that the testing process needs to be done as an iterative, intersubjective process that involves all those who are to be affected by the decisions. This improves both science and democracy and it can help to improve communication and political negotiation (Schoeny and Warfield 2000). Because the starting point for the design is on the consequences of thought and action for service users, the approach is dialectical and responsive, to the ‘wisdom of the people’ (Christakis and Brahms 2003; Christakis 2004; McIntyre-Mills 2006; McIntyre-Mills et al. 2006 on expanded pragmatism). Social cognition is about how individuals and groups perceive the world ‘out there’. The issue of representation is central.

  20. 20.

    Access to water, sanitation, refuse removal, electricity and secure living spaces (ability to lock doors and windows).

  21. 21.

    The idea is to enable them to educate the powerful and not the other way around. Networks can lead to empowerment or disempowerment (Elias and Lichterman 2003) and in this research the partnership design ensures that the service users are able to use their maps of the world, their experiences and strategies to inform the service providers, rather than the other way around. Social learning is through contextual understanding and it becomes part of what Bourdieu calls “habitus” (see Bourdieu 1972: 87). By thinking about these taken for granted ideas and imagining options we can begin the process of reframing our thinking. This is discussed by Deleuze and Guattari in their work on identity that explores being and becoming (see Bogue 1989). “A number of things happened in the sharing of life experiences and narratives. As each person listened in dadirri to the stories of others in the group, they became able to listen more deeply to themselves. They found the same courage in themselves that they had observed and named in others. As participants explored their own stories they began to change they found words to describe feelings and experiences they had never previously given voice to and had never told another person. Shared feelings expanded understanding and deepened relationships.” (Atkinson 2002: 254).

  22. 22.

    The argument made in Critical Systemic Praxis (meaning thinking and practice see McIntyre-Mills 2003b Diagram 1.5, page 14 called: ‘Breaking the cycle through participatory governance and developing citizenship rights and responsibilities’) is supported through the work of Atkinson (2002) and in the narratives shared by survivors of poverty, violence and social exclusion and confirmed by those women and men who are still trapped in the negative vicious cycle of poverty and addictive behaviour which can be seen as both causes and effects (Stafford Beer 1974). An economy that supports the class/culture system is “written”/expressed in the socio-demographic patterns (educational outcomes, unemployment and incarceration), morbidity and mortality and life chances in the Northern Territory where the research that provides a background to this study was based. Similar trends apply elsewhere in the world where marginalized populations are often those with the lowest health outcomes.

  23. 23.

    Critical Systemic thinking and practice can usefully be applied to governance. In this approach there is a place for those with professional expertise and for those who know how it feels to walk in a particular pair of shoes or to go barefoot. It also ensures that the testing of the hypothesis is done by those who will live with the decisions. It embodies participatory democracy (McIntyre-Mills 2003b) and helps to ‘rescue the enlightenment from itself’ (McIntyre-Mills et al. 2006). Critical Systemic Praxis is based on a belief in the potential of human beings to construct and reconstruct their futures. This process is about ‘unfolding’ and ‘sweeping in’ (Singer 2002; and Churchman 1979, 1982; Ulrich 2001) the issues that can be explained retroductively as historical, economic, intergenerational violence associated with marginalisation, alcohol and poverty. The history of Aboriginal Australians spans dispossession, survival and citizenship, the struggle for rights, responsibilities, agency to overcome learned helplessness and hopelessness, creativity and a ‘can do’ attitude.

  24. 24.

    It is adapted from a range of sources and informed by Aboriginal co-researchers and participants and in this project it has enabled the participants of this project to identify the patterns that undermine their life chances and it has enabled Aboriginal citizens to design better matches between their needs and the responses they receive from service providers. It is based on: (1) The critical work of the Frankfurt School and drawn from a critical reading of Marx, (2) C. Wright Mills (1975) for history and biography and (3) C.West Churchman (1979) for religion, aesthetics, politics and ethics and (4) Habermas (1984) and Foucault and Gordon (1980) for an understanding and exploring communication, power and knowledge and knowledge domains, (5) Ulrich (1983, 2001) and (6) Flood and Romm (1996) for critical questioning and triple loop learning and (7) Zimmerman (1994) for sweeping in the environmental issues.

  25. 25.

    Social capital’, according to White (2002: 268) is a concept that needs to be considered critically. Conceptually it can mean different things to different interest groups. Thus merely studying social networks as if they were objective indicators of something uniform and meaningful for all the participants is mistaken from this critical and systemic point of view. Some participants jockey for power at the expense of others and every network suffers from those who are welcomed and those who are not. The challenge is to help people establish links with people with whom they can identify. Age, gender and level of education lead to differing perceptions and an awareness of perceptions is a central aspect of the project. Definitions of social capital mentioned by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) do not include space to be different or for spiritual wellbeing that respects the interconnectedness of self-other and environment. Social capital has a materialist base even if it was originally defined as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate co-ordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Putnam 1995:67) The ABS paper (2002: 3–5) also cites similar definitions by Cox (1995), Baum (2007) and Winter (2000) who apply the concept to Australian society White (2002) citing Bourdieu’s (1986) construct of social capital included an analysis of power and stressed, that it could be in the interests of some rather than others, particularly if it is constructed in a way that is meaningful only to participants who are politically powerful.

  26. 26.

    Self selected service users who are associated with Neporendi. Data collection by Janet with assistance of Kim O’Donnell, Daphne Rickett and Tracey Turnbull; Doug Morgan and Bevin Wilson.

  27. 27.

    The analogy of healing through weaving together strands of experience is central and powerfully resonant to the Narranjiri women, as are the analogies of pathways in the landscape of life and branches in the tree of life.

  28. 28.

    Reason (1988) and Reason and Torbet (2001) argued that knowledge needs to be co-constructed and the viewpoints of multiple interest groups taken into consideration. When undertaking research the expert becomes the facilitator of co-researchers and so the power dynamics are quite different from those in traditional research. Increasingly it is realized that communication is important for management, leadership, problem solving or governance in a range of public, private and voluntary sector organizations. It becomes even more important when working across organizational, geographical (national and international) and cultural barriers. Out of these key narratives and with the inspiration and integrative approaches of Banathy (2000), Capra (1996) and Bausch (2001) I weave the following praxis guidelines/principles to addressing governance in context. Knowledge according to Habermas (1984) can be conceptualized as three domains. These are the objective, the subjective and the intersubjective and now the systemic domain—the most open and the most complete domain as it is not merely humanistic, but eco-humanistic, I situate myself in the ecosystemic domain.

  29. 29.

    Many of the arguments she raised were profoundly relevant to promoting a sustainable environment, but they had an exclusive cultural dimension that the broader membership wished to avoid, in order to encourage diverse Aboriginal service users and partnerships with the wider Australian community.

  30. 30.

    The interactive modeling process could support matching services to need as long as it is seen as an aid to decision making and an aid to e-governance- not as a means to predict and control. It could also be used to enable accountability by making the pathways of choices transparent to users and providers. The narratives and pictures (both abstract and concrete representations) were used to develop metaphors of weaving together strands of experience into baskets that could be used to: Tell their unique personal history shaped by a range of social, economic and environmental circumstances. Explore how it has been shaped by their experiences, for example of violence at home, homelessness, or unsafe neighborhoods and limited networks. Identify with a story that others have told and explain how it is different and similar. Assess positive life lessons and identify assets that they have and need for their in baskets. Discard the problem areas from their lives by taking personal responsibility and seek assistance to address identified needs that have been prioritized through considering their specific circumstances.

  31. 31.

    Poverty, addiction and marginalization can be addressed through creating bonds of support within the community, bridges between the Aboriginal and non Aboriginal community which requires overcoming discrimination and racism through reconciliation and friendship and links with those who can help to bring about change and empower those who are in need ‘to translate private troubles into public issues’ (to use C. Wright Mills 1975, phrase). Weaving strands of experience is the metaphor on which the healing pathways design was based (McIntyre-Mills et al. 2008). Our research makes a strong case for better linkages and pathways to support a section of the service users and thus to triage the users (as per David Calvert 2005, personal communication). Pathways converge on the importance of (a) active participation in the process of healing and (b), building strong networks and (c) respectful and friendly communication as a means and an end for wellbeing. Participants agree that achieving safety (physical wellbeing) is dependent on having self esteem and confidence based on knowledge of one’s rights and responsibilities. Social, cognitive, emotional and spiritual wellbeing rests on access to alternatives which participants learn about through role models, mentors and service providers who can work closely with service users to ensure holistic and specialised care can be provided. The mainstream delivery of services is appropriate for some, but not all service users. Those with the least confidence and the most limited social support networks need to be given additional assistance to negotiate and combine services and social, cultural, political, economic and environmental resources to support wellbeing. The issue is ability of service users to access services, the ability of service providers to match and combine services effectively and contextually on the basis of need. In this research, using PAR the service users designed pathways based on their perceptions and experiences. These findings were compared with the findings from the perceptions of the service providers. The bridge between the two data sets is provided by the service users who have survived negative life chances and have become service providers. Some of the Aboriginal informants who were service users became service providers during the course of the study and some of the service providers became service users for a while, whilst overcoming challenges such as grief over the loss of a partner or illnesses (see McIntyre-Mills et al. 2008).

  32. 32.

    Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Census of Population and Housing. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005 The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’s Report 4704.0.Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2006, Alcohol and Other Drugs Treatment Services in South Australia 2004–2005: findings from the National Minimum Data Set (NMDS). Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2006, Australia’s Health, ISSN 1032.

  33. 33.

    The inference from the analysis of the data is that by providing a combination of factors (safe housing, meeting basic physical needs then accessing education and employment) wellbeing becomes possible. The first Nvivo maps were developed iteratively for discussion with the male and female service users and Aboriginal service providers who formed part of the reference group and later with a wider group of non Aboriginal commentators at a workshop hosted by McIntyre and Morgan with co-researchers and corrections were made. The aim was to find the shortest pathway approach to achieving wellbeing outcomes. But the pathways are based on the perceived lived experiences of the service users as to what constitutes successful, integrated outcomes.

  34. 34.

    See Maslow, A. H. 1970 Motivation and Personality. New York. Harper and Row.

  35. 35.

    Poverty leads to anxiety and anger and the use of alcohol and other drugs helps to make the situation bearable for a short while, until the reality of unpaid bills and hungry children has to be faced again. Escaping poverty becomes even more difficult if one has to acquire skills without having the self esteem and confidence to attend school or training. A sense of hopelessness and helplessness can be addressed through structural intervention to prevent social exclusion. Practical immediate interventions such as public health and dentistry and by building community organizations where people are made to feel welcome and important to others can be helpful. Pathways to recovery can be making sense of experiences to ensure that the individual experiencing the personal trouble understands that it is part of a public issue of racism, social exclusion, poverty, addiction including the misuse of alcohol and other drugs and violence associated with anger, grief and the use of alcohol and other drugs to blot out pain or to conform. These are vicious problems in that they are (a) both causes and effects of problems (on this see Stafford Beer 1974) and they have (b) a value component, many variables and many relationships (see Rittel and Webber 1984) on complex, wicked problems. The way to address problems by abused women is to leave households or communities. This can bring a solution for them, but it is not a sustainable approach. Households and communities need to be supported through developing strong networks. Participants talked of Hackam as ‘the Bronx’ and a place where it was difficult to bring up families safely. Safety was stressed and the value of women leaving a violent home and sometimes a community as a first step towards achieving wellbeing. This is paradoxical, because to achieve wellbeing she will need to establish a sense of community as a priority, once she feels safe.

  36. 36.

    Women and men need to find ways to survive abuse within their personal lives and when they seek assistance. A sense of self esteem and hope for the future can provide a sense of agency, but when people are at their most vulnerable supportive mentors, case workers or role models can make a positive or negative the difference, in the words of Constance:

    “Be able to keep your cool when you line up and wait and when people are rude to you, be able to keep records of who spoke to and make sure you do not make a mistake, literacy and numeracy matter, need to be able to understand the form and be able to have enough social skills to speak with the officers. [Need] money to pay for gap, be registered, have a Medicare card and be registered at Centrelink”.

  37. 37.

    “As Miller and Ferroggiaro (1996) have pointed out ‘respect and self respect are central components of an enlarged concept of citizenship…. Respect affects how we are treated, what help from others is likely, what economic arrangements others are willing to engage in …, when reciprocity is to be expected’. Respect acts as a resource for individuals, and should be considered a component of the norms of reciprocity, trust, and social obligation that are essential for minimising the risks of poor physical, psychological, or social health (Aday 1994). Indeed, mutual respect and the avoidance of inflicting humiliation on people is the central concept of Margalit’s ‘decent society’ (Margalit 1996). …honour and shame are soc crucial to human relations and may often become issues of life and death has long been recognised…” (Wilkinson et al. 1998: 594). This is also supported by the work of Ainsworth and Bowlby (1991), Brewer and Hewstone (2004), Atkinson (2002) as well as Greenfield (2000) all of whom stress the importance of engagement that builds linkages across diverse groups, based on trust. Unfortunately negative racist, sexist communications have an opposite affect which is why supportive networks are vital for wellbeing. The data from two men's focus groups and from two combined focus groups with men and women service users stress the importance of not only respectful communication and interactions, but warmth and friendliness. Borradori, Habermas and Derrida (2003) take up this issue and stress the implications of the quality of communication for democracy. Respect is not enough, warmth and the quality of the engagement matters. Democracy is currently increasingly criticized for not representing the interests of diverse citizens and for not taking into account the social justice and environmental concerns that span national boundaries (Beer 1974, 1994; Borradori 2003; Pape 2005; Devji 2005; Singer 2002; McIntyre-Mills 2003b). As Savage (2005: 330) argues, there are many kinds of bureaucracy and current democratic forms are in need of an overhaul. Revitalizing democracy (Putnam 1995) and democratic institutions by finding new ways to engage the marginalized is the challenge (highlighted by Savage 2005) to which this research is addressed. Florini (2003: 83) sums up the challenge as follows: “…when decision making reaches the rarefied level of intergovernmental organizations or even informal multilateral rule making, the threads of democratic accountability can be stretched very thin. It is often hard to see such decision making systems as a means by which the people of the world, through the instrument of their freely chosen governments, resolve their common problems… Accountability to the general public is at best indirect, and often, for all intents and purposes, it does not exist at all…[The] mechanisms we have put in place to deal with large scale collective action problems seem so thoroughly inadequate when matched up against the scale of the problems…”

  38. 38.

    Mcluhan and Powers (1989) argue that “the medium is the message”. They argued that digital technology would change the world. Clearly digital technology can be used for emotive one-way communication that discourages critical thinking (see Muhlberger 2006) or it can support discursive dialogue and two-way communication. The latter is needed to enable analysis and greater awareness of the different ways in which issues can be constructed (Rosenberg 2002; Gore 2007).

  39. 39.

    The work of Caplan and Surowiecki supports the open market and does not make an argument for controlling the market to support social and environmental justice. Where their work (and that of neo conservatives) fails is that they do not recognise that the economy does not factor in the externalities of poverty and pollution (see Beck 1998, 1992). Open testing out of ideas is important for science and democracy and it is essential for avoiding ‘polarisation of ideas’ and ‘group think’ in small groups (Tyson 1989), but the market needs to be held to account to ensure the common good by factoring in the so-called externalities of pollution and poverty.

  40. 40.

    Florini (2003) emphasized the importance of combining both centralized steering from above (in the interests of the global commons) and steering from below in the interests of holding the elites in business and the state to account and in the interests of mobilizing an interest and concern about public issues. She does not favour leaving democracy in the hands of 'philosopher kings', she believes in democracy as the best worst option and cites Winston Churchill (2003: 209). Participation beyond voting in elections is supported in her vision. She cites the Aarhus convention and regional federalism as the way forward. She believes that networks that are more transparent and accountable will be part of our digital future. But she is concerned about bridging the digital divide. That is the challenge to ensure that we do not have the digital haves living in domed, safe environments whilst the rest face the worst that environmental degradation has to offer.

  41. 41.

    Age, gender, ability, income, species membership or some other constructed category pertaining to position on the continuum of life are and have been used to exclude human and sentient beings from a right to quality of life (see Nussbaum 2006; Singer 2002; Sharpe 2005). The dangers of top down decisions made on the basis of liberal democracies that are out of touch in between elections and not necessarily sufficiently responsive when elected need to be weighed against the dangers of networks that can be captured by powerful interest groups that can exclude some interest groups that do not take into account the common good. Centralised steering from above and decentralised steering from below can be achieved based on new forms of participation. The project set out to assess the extent to which it is possible to improve democratic accountability and the ability of governments to address complex needs.

  42. 42.

    Nussbaum (2006) does not discuss the environmental challenge in ‘Frontiers of Justice’, for this Held adds detail on social democracy and Singer (2002) on ethical implications for public policy. This goes beyond mere capacity building as suggested by Fukuyama (2004) who argues that the ability to think critically and analytically is important and for this reason that government organizations and non government organizations need to develop human capacity. As Sen (2000) argued in ‘Development as Freedom’, we need to be able to think critically and rationally to participate and develop society (see also Sen and Nussbaum in Crocker 1995).

  43. 43.

    The capabilities test for quality of life is also extended to non human species in her argument and in so doing she extends Singer’s (2002) notion of a life free of pain for sentient beings. Sharpe (2005) acknowledges attachments based on communication (verbal and non verbal) and relationships that responds to an acknowledgement that consciousness is a continuum (Greenfield 2000; Bausch 2001). This is relevant for considering the rights of those who are not able to enter into contractual arrangements and thus would provide protection to human and non human beings who are unable to speak for themselves. It thus provides protection for the young, the disabled and for other species. Consciousness of varying complexity spans all life (Boulding 1956, 1968, 1999; Bausch 2001). Science, democracy and governance is enhanced when connections across self, other and the environment are appreciated, based on non-linear, systemic logic.

  44. 44.

    Participation enhances the capability of people to engage in the consideration of options and the implications of the different options for their lives. Could it enable large diverse nation states to enable better participation and thus address some of the concerns raised by Gore (2007) in ‘Assault on Reason’ and Derrida and Habermas in conversation with Borradori in “Philosophy in a Time of Terror”? People are not sufficiently engaged in the polity when they rely only upon voting. Liberal democracy could be effectively extended through participatory processes that enable people to give their points of view and thus design ‘from below’, but also to consider the implications of their ideas before making a choice. Then the choices can be mapped and used as a basis for informing policy making as well as informing those who are the designers. Thus it could help to develop what Banathy(2000) calls ‘evolutionary consciousness’ that could enable us to hold in mind more than one big idea at a time and to consider the implications for ourselves, the next generation, thus ensuring that the global commons are addressed locally by people when they make policy and governance decisions. It is possible to do things differently! Big ideas and big policy to address overarching policy directions of climate change and wellbeing require integrated approaches, such as the 2020 Summit in Australia. We do not need to avoid thinking in terms of either or approaches. We need to consider both ‘social inclusion and sustainability’ and find ways to work with the market to achieve sustainable futures’ (Rudd 20 April 2008). We need both centralised controls and decentralised involvement. Participation can marry the two together allowing for social inclusion, ‘creativity’ and ‘open government’ that is responsive to ideas.

  45. 45.

    Florini cites Petkova, E. and Veit, P. 2000 Environmental Accountability beyond the Nation State. The implications of the Aarhus convention. Environmental governance note. Washington DC: World Resources Institute, April. The paper sums up the potential and pitfalls such as the access to information- needs to be less vague about the extent of access and access to technical information—copyright issues and patents Public participation by individuals and NGOs needs to be supported by protocols and they raise questions about how enforceable the notion of access to justice is in practice.

  46. 46.

    “Tolerance is understood and valued in quite different terms when reconstructed within a systematic (sic read systemic) frame of reference. It is meaningful in terms of its positions relative to other values (e.g. freedom, equality, etc.) and this as an element of an ideology or in germs of its function in the larger social system. Alternatively it may be understood in terms of some higher order principle e.g., one of cooperation oriented to maintaining the systemic integrity of the actors involved. In either case, the meaning of tolerance is defined without reference to specific behaviours or particular individuals or groups. Rather it is defined in more general and abstract terms” (Rosenberg 2002: 389). Despite Rosenberg’s missing the philosophical point about the difference between systemic and systematic thinking he is correct in arguing that linear logic and an inability to think about values undermines democracy. His argument fails in so far as he argues that systematic linear thinking is open. If he had argued for systemic, non linear thinking that is informed by an awareness of socio-cybernetics (which goes beyond cause and effect to include feedback and feed forward) then he would understand that representation and the notion of representation should be the basis for all education, because it is the basis for science and democracy.

  47. 47.

    This is supported by Ashby’s Rule of Requisite Variety and also by the work of Surowiecki (2004) in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, which shows that if crowds of diverse and independent people are asked to give responses, the large, diverse groups are more likely to be correct more frequently than a narrow group of experts. This populist work is widely known. It is cited by Caplan (2007) who argues that collective wishes or aggregated wishes enable democracy to function, because the diverse random and open processes generate sound results. But this is where the similarity with the research of McIntyre-Mills (2006) and McIntyre-Mills et al. (2008), McIntyre-Mills (2008b) and Christakis and Bausch (2006) differs. We argue for the value of discursive democracy, not only do the participation of diverse people at the macro level augment this aggregative potential, it can also be carried out at the micro level and combined with discursive dialogue on complex needs; it can enable people to vote more responsibly and based on more informed ideas. It can mobilise support for the global commons. It thus augments the aggregative potential of liberal democracy based on open voting systems and it finds the most frequent patterns across variables, informing the policy makers of the people’s choices (See McIntyre-Mills 2006; McIntyre-Mills et al. 2006 for a discussion on this point). But equally the potential exists to polarise and to be oppositional, unless the dialectical reasoning process is cultivated through ‘if then’ thinking based on ‘critical heuristic’s and unless the dialogue is open to ensure that the complexity of the decision is matched by the complexity of the decision maker.

  48. 48.

    These links have been exposed in the forthcoming election and the prospects for the Democrats seem promising, despite the bitterness of the competition between the candidates. Energy futures are however, controlled by the ‘big end of town’ and it remains to be seen how far the current democrats candidates will move to embrace the message put forward by Gore (2007).

  49. 49.

    Thus the paper begins where Rorty (1989) ends in ‘Contingency, irony and solidarity. A greater striving to understand ethics and human meanings and values is essential.

  50. 50.

    This is why Churchman (1982) argued that we need the techniques of “unfolding” and “sweeping in” multiple variables. These he argued are dialectical tools that hone in on contextual variables and issues and draw in a range of considerations. The challenge is to work with diversity and to make sense across different constructions of meaning. In Britain the Blair government has suggested that joined-up-governance is a way to deal with the socialist versus capitalist divide between two systems by developing a Third Way (Giddens 1998) that enables people to be involved in all levels of the decision-making and governance, but it has been interpreted in a somewhat neo-conservative manner in recent years in Australia (McDonald and Marston 2003). Behrendt (2005) discusses the implications for democracy of the abolition of ATSIC, the peak representative body of Aboriginal Australians by the Howard government. The need to develop the capacity of public sector organizations to meet service needs and to enhance outcomes is stressed in this paper in a bid to balance the scales towards the public good.


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McIntyre-Mills, J. Participatory Design for Democracy and Wellbeing: Narrowing the Gap Between Service Outcomes and Perceived Needs. Syst Pract Action Res 23, 21–45 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11213-009-9145-9

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  • Perceived needs
  • Participatory design
  • Performance outcomes