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Dr. Frank Fischer: Experts and public need to cooperate on decision making

The usual, standard concept of decision making regarding social topics has proven to be too one-dimensional in its pursuit of answers to questions of public importance. In order for the process to become more efficient, experts and citizens should find way to jointly make decisions, which assumes cooperation. Professional data is important in decision making, but the social, cultural and ideological contexts are what gives the data its public sense.

Such was the conclusion by prof. Frank Fischer at his Participatory Governance and Cultural Policymaking: Theoretical Perspectives in Practical Context lecture, held as the second introductory lecture on the first day of the international interdisciplinary conference Participatory Governance in Culture: Exploring Practices, Theories and Policies. DO IT TOGETHER. The three-day conference started at the Croatian Centre for Culture on Sušak on 22 November, and prof. Fischer, author and lecturer at Humboldt University in Berling and Rutgers University in New York, was one of the speakers.

While lecturing on his own vision of theoretical perspectives and practices of participatory governance, Fischer said that we live in a society which can no longer hide its democratic limitations, i.e. the low participation rate of many segments of society in public governance, which occurs in times when the country is attempting to thin the borders between the public, private and civil sectors.

Our society is becoming more complex, the stale governance instruments are no longer sufficient for society to function successfully, if they ever even were. New elements constantly arise in the public scene, impacting the functioning of society, and the elements shift the focus to the demand for decentralisation.

Particularly important in this process are local stakeholders, as experts have shown to be too distanced from social issues to be able to understand and solve them adequately, while at the same time, the local level has often shown to be more successful in discovering innovative solutions to public issues.

Additionally, decentralisation of decision making improves transparency, marginalised public groups more easily get involved in decision making, and the practice of transforming decision making into something more easily approachable to local stakeholders is perceived as a step in the right direction for strengthening local democracy.

The decision making process involves everything that we consider to be the standard governance paradigm and its features: classic public administration, insistence on positions of power, hierarchical relationship, opposition between public and private, monitoring, and an emphasised role of governance skills.

On the other hand, the features of the participatory governance paradigm involved innovative governance methods, a focus on governance tools/instruments, connecting the stakeholders into a more harmonious relationship between the private and the public, negotiations based on persuasion, and placing emphasis on training for participatory governance.

Following these conclusions, the story of participatory governance becomes a story of the permanent search for innovative governance practices in applied social environments, and includes awareness of the importance of various types of knowledge, and not just those stemming from the ranks of experts.

Experience has shown that it is difficult to find a government that will shift towards a new governance paradigm without resistance, so the question of governance in such a light always presents itself as an issue of both politics and policies.

At the end of the lecture, prof. Fischer provided two separate, positive examples which he found in public practices in Brazil and Thailand. During the short ensuing discussion, audience members mentioned experiences of (non)-realised Yugoslav participatory self-governance. Additionally, audience members pointed out the dangers of shadow governments, i.e. banking, industrial, military and other elites standing behind political governments, making it more difficult to develop new, more democratic governance models.

Prof. Fischer ultimately concluded that participatory governance in society is a project, and attempting to implement this project does not guarantee positive results.

Photo: Dea Vidović (Kultura Nova Foundation), Frank Fischer and Ana Žuvela (Institute for International Relations) at the press conference in Palach.

Photo by Igor Crnković