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Public participation – a loser’s game?

Jesper Lassen, Annika P. Nielsen & Peter Sandøe expose the politicians

Some societal issues raised by science and technology are examined in participatory processes that engage the public as a whole. Yet other, apparently similar issues are handled with little public involvement. Looking at two specific issues, we tried to explain this contrast — to say why initiatives to involve the public were so much more energetic in one case than they were in the other. The issues were GM foods and functional foods.

Our study showed that politicians who decide whether or not to initiate public engagement are happy to acknowledge its value. However, in deciding whether or not to involve the public on any specific issue, democratic ideals are sacrificed to meet strategic concerns about what decisions serve the politicians best.

Enthusiasm in theory

Our conclusions are based on interviews with key members of the Danish parliament, about the ideal of public participation. We were interested specifically in the politicians’ perceptions of the difference between GM foods, which have prompted many initiatives in public participation, and functional foods, which have not.

Across the political spectrum, the politicians we spoke to agreed that public participation is a good thing, especially  when science and technology raise questions of ethics and values; when they touch upon broader societal problems or potential conflicts of outlook; when they bring about permanent change, or affect people’s everyday lives.

The politicians saw that both GM foods and functional foods meet many of these criteria, and were therefore candidates for public participation. However, it soon became clear that, when it comes to actually setting effective participatory processes in motion, they often give priority to a number of countervailing concerns.

Politics in practice

To begin with, an issue is invariably judged by its ‘suitability for public debate’, as one informant expressed it. Behind this expression lay a concern about the extent to which politicians would be able to control any unfolding debate. This concern was backed by the observation that the media are not interested in nuances, but rather seek out potential conflicts, thereby distorting the real debate.

Then there are anxieties about accusations of ulterior motives. Representatives of both the Conservative and the Liberal (right-centre) parties worried that, while they may be seen as positive on functional foods, they would run the risk of being depicted, by the media and opposing parties, as mere errand boys for the food industry.

A rather different concern related to the division of work between policy processes at EU level and in the Danish parliament, and the need to get the timing of participatory processes right  For example, at the very moment the EU was preparing legislation on functional foods, the time was not considered ‘ripe’ for public engagement on that issue in Denmark. So by the time the Danish political establishment was ready to engage with functional foods, decisions on the issue had already been made by the EU. The ship had sailed.

Concerns like these have conspired to ensure that the functional foods issue has never even been close to being taken up by public participatory processes in Denmark. As the Minister for Family and Consumer Affairs, Carina Christensen, candidly acknowledged when interviewed: ‘This debate would be very relevant, it just so happens that it is a real loser’s case. And that’s not exactly something—especially not in an election year—that politicians will go out and start a debate on.’

With GM, on the other hand, politicians found it in their interests to engage the public because this issue was subject of an intense and ongoing public debate. Thus GM foods caused social controversy, largely forcing the Danish politicians to engage the public.

This piece is a shorter version of Nielsen, J Lassen and P Sandøe (2011), Public participation: democratic ideal or pragmatic tool? The cases of GM foods and functional foods. Public Understanding of Science, 20(2):163-178

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Dr Annika Porsborg Nielsen
Dr Annika Porsborg Nielsen is a consultant with Red Associates
Dr Jesper Lassen
Dr Jesper Lassen is associate professor in sociology at Institute for Food and Ressource Economics, University of Copenhagen
Dr Peter Sandøe
Dr Peter Sandøe is Professor in Bioethics at the Institute for Food and Ressource Economics, University of Copenhagen
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