Lyn Carson, "The telephone as a participatory mechanism at a local government level", with commentaries by Ann Moyal, Wendy Sarkissian and Monica Wolf, in Brian Martin (ed.), Technology and Public Participation (Wollongong, Australia: Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong, 1999), pp. 37-60.
local government level
My research and practice as a doctoral student and an elected representative led me to explore various forms of citizen participation in local government decision making. This was done to strengthen the democratic basis of my responsibility to my constituents. During my time as a Councillor in local government, I came to appreciate the significance of the ubiquitous telephone as a medium for both relationship building and decision making. These experiences and findings are contexualised within the writings of others who have commented on the importance of the telephone in modern society. The chapter extends the existing literature by considering the relational and consultative possibilities should the telephone be used by policy makers in a local government setting. The humble telephone is compared with other technologies and found to be superior for its abilitiy to facilitate effective decision making through the use of relationship building, strategic questioning and genuine listening.Ý
I served as an elected representative on Lismore City Council (LCC). During that time I undertook research (for a doctoral thesis) on consultative methods. I had wanted to test participatory theory in action and had a particular interest in innovative methods such as policy juries, mediation, listening posts and so on. These face-to-face participatory mechanisms had an advantage over technology-mediated mechanisms as they conformed to Benjamin Barber's definition of deliberative democracy. However, it is useful to focus on the characteristics of technology-mediated participatory mechanisms because of their potential to provide a useful adjunct to face-to-face mechanisms in the pursuit of genuine democracy. The telephone, ubiquitous in the Western world at least, offers both immersiveness and interactivity and comes closest to satisfying the goal of deliberative democracy. This chapter describes the use of the telephone as a technological mediator in participatory mechanisms. Teledemocracy, which often uses a combination of television and computer technology, might allow for the involvement of larger numbers of citizens and could be described as being either immersive (television) or interactive (computers). The commonplace telephone is a form of technology which does both, albeit in the auditory dimension alone.
This chapter will survey the uses of the humble telephone as a participatory mechanism in local government. Because elected representatives and community members continue to focus on various, often sophisticated, methods of consultation and participation, I will explore some essential tools for the improvement of decision making. Whatever technology is used to facilitate participation, it will not improve the quality of decisions unless attention is paid to the constraints which prevent effective decision making from occurring. These tools--relationship building, questioning and listening--are clearly best practised with technologies which can replicate a virtual reality through the combination of immersiveness and interactivity. The establishment of closer relationships rather than the creation of new ways with which to consult might lead to better decisions, whether the decision makers are using face-to-face or technology-mediated approaches. We might do well to focus on an approach which could best be described as Heart Politics.
Having been unexpectedly elected to LCC for a four-year term in 1991, I embarked on a steamroller approach to community consultation with my two female Community Independent colleagues. I was formerly an activist advocating greater participation in decision making so my colleagues and I were intent on increasing the existing level of consultation. We did so without a great deal of planning or consideration about the effectiveness of the measures for which we were arguing. Simultaneously, however, I researched a doctoral thesis on the topic of public participation in the local government decision-making process. Part of this research involved my Community Independent colleagues in an Action Learning Team and this helped to clarify our thinking about the methods we were advocating.
By analysing the part which power holders (elected representatives, senior staff) played in community consultation, the focus began to shift. By evaluating my own performance and the performance of my colleagues, I began to unravel the real impediments to effective decision making. It became increasingly clear to me that the two most absorbing questions in the consultative experience of activists rarely included a more important question. The two prevailing questions I found were: (1) Can we resolve the 'participatory dilemma' (that is, whether or not citizens should participate or to what extent they should be consulted)? (2) What method of consultation should be used? I saw both questions as futile unless they were coupled with a most important additional question: How can we reduce those constraints which make up a rather large and somewhat impenetrable wall which stands between decision makers and effective decision making? (See illustration, produced by Brian Slapp.)
We need to ask two questions. Why do we participate or wish to encourage or refine participation processes? Do we wish to participate in discussions or to participate in decision making? Anything that is less than the latter falls short of the democratic ideal. Though participation is also about building communities and empowering citizens and many similarly vague notions, it is ultimately about making better decisions. Defining what is better is of course sometimes quite problematic and can be a highly politicised act. Yet the theory of decision making, social change and public participation is most often involved with shifting power from one set of decision makers to another. Little emphasis is placed on how decisions are made or on the constraints which exist for all decision makers or on how these constraints might be overcome.
The work of American social researcher Fran Peavey provides a framework for understanding political activism by presenting a set of attitudes, values and principles. Her wisdom and practical advice proved more worthwhile than all the political writings I explored. The nub of Peavey's work is this:
Instead of adopting an adversarial, siege mentality, Peavey recommends a path between cynicism and naiveté. Peavey's book Heart Politics has been influential for activists in questioning their value base. Peavey's language is the language of negotiation, resolution, compromise, liberation and creativity. When Peavey speaks of power, she speaks of it as connectedness, as having power with people, rather than over people.
Prior to my election I was aware of many successful attempts by activists (including me) to employ the principles of Heart Politics but I was able to use them in a completely different role as an elected representative. Since Peavey is an activist she speaks as one outside the corridors of power. I found myself inside these corridors (albeit within the tame portals of local government), trying to use similar tactics. My whole modus operandi as a councillor was based on a 'heart political' approach.
The key to my research findings could be expressed in two words: relationship building. As a feminist woman I inevitably conducted my research and my Council work in a distinctively different way to my male colleagues. Perhaps not surprisingly, the essential tool which facilitated much of my work was the one with which women are so clearly familiar: the good old telephone. The telephone has a history of relationship building amongst women; what better tool to help me change my local government world?
As I undertook my research, the power of communication and personal contact became obvious. The humble and ubiquitous telephone was the technological tool which proved to be the most valuable. It is humble because of its familiarity and its ease of use; less humble is the sophisticated technology which sustains it. My research was being completed in a regional area in Australia and the telephone is a significant means of breaking down isolation in such areas. It was an instrument with which I felt considerable comfort. It is simple to use, offers anonymity and familiarity (depending on one's need), and it allowed me to step inside homes (at least via the telephone line) where I would otherwise not have been invited.
I had formerly run an information research business for many years in a capital city and was constantly surprised by the extent to which people would divulge quite personal information to a stranger over the phone. In the same way, colleagues who had shown considerable resistance to my political or ideological approach opened up to me as an 'interviewer' with a telephone between us.
The telephone was used in a number of areas of my doctoral research and the positive results were repeated each time. Community members were frank and loquacious with my research assistants who asked them survey questions by phone. Council's mediator used the telephone to good effect when making initial contact with opponents in a dispute. The telephone was an important point of contact for those who had been randomly selected to be part of citizen panels. Perhaps this openness equates with what at least one researcher sees as the more private nature of telephone conversations over those conducted face-to-face. This would certainly be true of male colleagues who might not have wanted to be associated publicly with any of 'the three women' (a phrase they often used to describe us).
When considering the possibilities offered by technological methods of participation, nothing seemed to compare with the reliable telephone with a warm, human voice at each end. Claude S. Fischer, in his comprehensive social history of the telephone in America up until World War II, showed that the adoption of the telephone probably led people to hold more frequent personal conversations with friends and kin than had previously been customary. He notes in particular the importance of the telephone to rural women and, like Ann Moyal in her Australian research, noted the significantly different use which men and women make of the telephone.
Moyal might have been surveying the women of my own regional, rural community, such is the similarity between her findings and my own experience. She noted that for rural Australian women the telephone is not just a route to distant family but is vital for emergencies. Country women were also seen to use the telephone for community networking and caring, much of which went unheeded from a policy making perspective. The telephone replaces transport on many occasions and 'telephone neighbourhoods' were described.
Clearly the telephone is an excellent means by which a relationship can be built. It has been referred to as a 'technology of sociability,' and this relationship building became a central focus of my research. In my four years on Council I steadily began to confirm the notion that it is the existence of relationship which unlocks the door between an existing belief and the acceptance of a new belief, that is, that change is often dependent on the existence of trust.
Lana Rakow talks about the telephone as gendered technology. Her study of women's relationship to the telephone in a small midwestern US community has many parallels with Australian communities. Not just a mechanical device, the telephone is shown to be a system of social relationships and practices which has largely been ignored by scholars:
That the telephone has been seen as a trivial and beneficent technology says more about scholars' perception of women than about the telephone or women's experiences with it.
Rakow noted that women's use of the telephone was related to their restricted mobility and to decisions, often not of their own making, about where they live and what opportunities are available to them. Using the Australian context, Ann Moyal describes the experience of some Aboriginal women living in remote outstations and the way in which Aboriginal men dominated the telephone. Aboriginal women blamed this on the 'white man' who 'contaminated Aboriginal man's attitude to women'; when the women asked to use the outpost telephone they were told that 'men must go first.'
Telephone calls can be critical for the continuation of relationships which cannot be physically sustained. There are other aspects of the telephone which make it important for society in general, beyond relationship building. Research done in relation to the telephone does not stop with gender. Researchers have looked at the history of its widespread acceptance, the technological advances, its power as a therapeutic medium and the isolation caused by its absence.
The telephone is also playing a role in providing support and assistance for latchkey children via community telephone 'warmlines.' The telephone is used to provide supportive therapy, involving social workers offering therapy which might otherwise not be pursued, leaving clients isolated, but for the use of the telephone. Family difficulties can be exacerbated in the absence of a telephone, particularly in the event of domestic violence.
The telephone is an important tool in an educational setting. I use it extensively in my teaching work with external students. It allows me to assist and counsel students at a distance. I regularly conduct teleconferences to link far-flung students and learning partnerships are encouraged via the telephone. Students are able to make oral presentations by telephone as part of their assessment. The telephone is a medium that offers a more equal relationship between student and teacher. The student derives comfort from being in their own surroundings instead of being in a lecture or tutorial room within the teacher's 'territory.'
Of course, comfortable or nurturing exchanges by telephone are not always the case. There are annoyances and even terror attached to telephone use, again in particular for women. One American survey revealed that the majority of women surveyed had received an obscene phone call and another Canadian survey placed the figure as high as 83%. Rather than increasing social relationships, such calls are the source of anger, fear, disgust and degradation for women.
Fear for women is further evidenced when one looks at ownership patterns of cellular phones. Though ownership is more concentrated in the hands of men, the majority of women purchasing mobile phones do so in order to feel more secure when away from their homes. In one survey, most women were shown to have been given the mobile phone by their spouse for safety reasons in the gendered role of husband as protector. It could be argued that the mobile phone presents an obstacle to community rather than a facilitator of it, particularly when a mobile phone interrupts the private and public space of others. The person receiving the call is removed from their immediate community and half of a very public conversation is imposed on reluctant listeners.
Ordinary telephones are also sometimes perceived as harassing. The convenience of having access to others means that they can have access to you, whether the callers are unknown sales people or one's friends and relatives. Increased sociability can be a mixed blessing.
Despite the telephone's massive infiltration into the family home, its coverage is still not total. In one study it was found that the single most influential factor in predicting the presence of a telephone in the US home is income. Low penetration rates were found among women single heads of households as well as amongst African Americans and Hispanics.
The telephone has pitfalls too. The use of the telephone was shown to be problematic when its use became widespread amongst political leaders. Sir Paul Hasluck, a former Australian Governor-General, condemned the telephone as 'that great robber of history' because of the importance of a historical record and the different interpretations that can be placed upon a telephone conversation. The telephone affords a special privacy but generates no record of its own. More recently, political scandals have uncovered the vulnerability of intentional telephone tapping and unintentional eavesdropping (particularly when talking on mobile phones). As a participatory tool it can lead to exclusive and influential lobbying of politicians. Furthermore it has little value alone as a broad-based participatory mechanism.
In my own experience with the regular use of email and the Internet, with which I and my university colleagues have become enchanted and entranced, I have watched a tendency towards the formation of ghettos of like-minded people. (The reverse of this is also occasionally evident with the formation of respectful relationships among those with divergent opinions.) I don't necessarily see this as an example of the apparent inevitability or 'tragedy of technology.' It disturbs me, though, to note that if the viewpoints of participants vary, we now simply 'trash' the deviants. We can happily recoil from exposure to opposing views in a way which is not so easy with the telephone or face-to-face contact. It is more difficult and has more immediate consequences if one slams down the phone or walks away.
Although the telephone provides the means to involve more than two parties, for example through teleconferencing, it is not seen as a means by which large numbers of participants might be involved. For this to occur, practitioners in the political arena begin to speak of mechanisms such as televoting (electronic voting or electronic town meetings) or teledemocracy. This method usually involves televised proceedings coupled with a phone-in facility to enable participants to have their vote on an issue which can be instantly recorded. The phone is sometimes used but its position is no longer pre-eminent. It is used to register a vote, not for its interactive or immersive qualities.
Benjamin Barber advocates teledemocracy as a means of large scale decision making involving new communications and information technology. It has been argued by others that, in terms of its ability to deliver genuine democracy, the advantages of teledemocracy might not outweigh the disadvantages. As a potential system for providing instant and regular voting it has merit but teledemocracy does not provide a forum in which deliberative democracy might be enacted.
Electronic methods can be appropriate for small-scale democratic decision making, such as trade union decisions where a dispersed membership must 'meet' to discuss issues and vote on motions as they are put. This method is being utilised increasingly by trade unions in Australia, where unions themselves are centralised and their membership widely dispersed, and where the technology--video link-up via satellite--is a feature of most large clubs and hotels. This method allows for at least limited interaction and relationship building.
A variation on electronic voting is computer conferencing which allows instantaneous communication between a large number of participants across a country or across the world. Messages can be typed into a computer then retrieved by participants at their own convenience. The potential of computer conferencing is for rapid resolution of national problems or mass input into large-scale planning from citizens with varying degrees of knowledge and diverse backgrounds. However, the widespread use of computer conferencing is dependent on participants' familiarity with the technology and their willingness to use it.
Scott London offers a comparative analysis of teledemocracy and deliberative democracy which is critical when thinking about the telephone as a deliberative mechanism. London considers that the rationale for teledemocracy is consistent with an approach founded on a 'marketplace conception of the political world.' By contrast, he sees deliberative democracy as being
London sees speed as being inimical to deliberative democracy. He notes that democracy is based on the principle of dialogue, not monologue, and that quality, not quantity, is the measure of democratic participation. The telephone comes into its own when dialogue is considered as a prerequisite.
There is constant tension between the importance of relationship/community building and the need to make frequent, hurried decisions. Our world is moving at a pace unlike that experienced by our ancestors or by cultures who had the luxury of leisurely deliberation which might or might not result in a decision. Getting a quick response or clarifying a point urgently by telephone is essential in decision making but such speed is snail-like compared with the speed of other electronic media. Television, radio and computers can provide instant, widespread communication without delays due to wrong numbers or the need for small talk or relationship building. Much of this speed may be attributable to the economic base on which our society is built to the detriment of what Eva Cox terms 'a truly civil society.' We need to be wary of using a fast and efficient consultative method to feed this need for speed, to the detriment of effective decision making.
Electronic methods of consultation and participation have limited success in replicating aspects of face-to-face interaction. Radio and television reproduce auditory and/or visual dimensions but are not interactive. Fax and email messages are largely mediated through the printed word. Though a computer might be interactive it is not immersive. The telephone is blessed with a relationship-building capacity. Nevertheless electronic methods can offer us a great deal including a decentralised approach to decision making. This is good but it is not enough. Can we have a truly civil society in the absence of strong relationships and their familiar technological companions such as the telephone? My belief is that we cannot.
The significance of building relationships, the wall of constraints which I gradually constructed as a model, the tools for dismantling the wall, the importance of listening to everyone, have all been influenced in some way by Peavey's Heart Politics work. A mnemonic for me when I embarked on any project was often 'will this lead to connection?'--connection between myself and others or devising a process that would allow for connection between residents and staff or representatives. This mnemonic alerted me to an early recognition of the importance of building bridges, as well as to the existence of the syndrome I came to recognise as 'spot the baddie.' It is difficult to locate a better technology for connection than the telephone. Indeed, the term 'telecommunication' means 'distant connection.'
The telephone was essential for the development of relationships between myself and my two closest colleagues. We would have a phone link up (or a PLU as we came to know it) at least once a fortnight, often more frequently than that. One Community Independent councillor was a single parent, living forty minutes drive out of town. Without this ability to link with each other spontaneously and regularly we would have been less organised and united in our approach to Council affairs. The PLUs allowed us to allocate tasks so that our many time-consuming jobs could be shared. These tasks often involved research and the phone again became our ally, as we phoned other councils, peak organisations and government departments beyond our own regional city.
Our regular telephone contact also ensured that we supported each other. When our spirits were low (usually because abuse was high) we could track one another down by phone. It also provided a vehicle for self- and peer-evaluation, two areas which were found to be lacking in most everyone I interviewed during my research--councillors, staff and community members alike. We became quite proud of the level of our concern for, and accountability to, each other and to our support group: the Friends of Community Independents (FOCI). We felt that we raised questioning and listening to an art form.
Strategic Questioning is an important aspect of Heart Politics and an important tool for change which goes beyond relationship building. Peavey suggests that what we know of life is only where we have decided to rest with our questioning. Those who ask questions cannot avoid answers. If we rest with where we are and what we know, we miss the chance of working on a new discovery. Peavey recognises the power of approaching a problem with the feeling of 'I don't know.' Perhaps it is not our ignorance that is the problem, it is clinging to what we know.
Peavey, with the help of a friend, Mark Burch, began to see two kinds of communication.
According to Peavey, learning how to ask strategic questions is a path of transforming passive and fearful inquiry into a dynamic exploration of the information around us and the solutions we need. I had been familiar with similar concepts such as open- and closed-ended questions but Peavey's technique takes questioning in a more far-reaching way. Strategic Questioning requires much more empathy and a willingness to let go of one's belief in the answer, to mutually explore answers with the person being questioned.
The skill was invaluable to me in formulating the questions I asked in my research and was used with my Action Learning Team. It was the basis of all the telephone research which I completed with the exception of some quantitative data collection. The results confirmed the significance of Strategic Questioning as a tool for social change. It encouraged new ideas and previously unspoken solutions to emerge. I often found myself replacing the telephone receiver and saying 'wow' after fresh possibilities had been mutually discovered. The telephone allowed me to be undistracted in my note taking because I was not being watched. I did not have to dress neatly for interviews or feel self-conscious about my body language. It provided a relaxed environment in which the participant and I could explore new ideas.
Questioning is often manifested as a poll or a questionnaire and citizen surveys are enthusiastically supported by many researchers. Though I conducted a number of surveys throughout this research project I became wary of the way in which decision makers would happily ignore survey findings if lobbied, usually by phone, to change their position. The possible inaccuracies inherent in surveys and polling also became clear.
There were some occasions when the telephone was less effective than human contact. By conducting surveys door-to-door or face-to-face, using Strategic Questioning techniques I became much more satisfied with the results as did the respondents who were far less likely to want to reverse the decisions that were based on surveys completed in this way.
Benjamin Barber warns against the dangers of seeking undeliberated responses through surveys or polls, often conducted by telephone, and the way in which they can encourage individualism to the detriment of civic responsibility.
An integral part of Strategic Questioning and an essential aspect of relationship building is an ability to genuinely listen. Without this ability there is no opportunity to move forward by building on the responses that are heard in order to create change and there is little opportunity for strengthening relationships. The importance of listening is well covered in communications and group theory. In discussing the possibility of institutionalising the procedures and conditions of communication, Simone Chambers makes the point that 'Everyone might have the opportunity to speak, but if no one is listening, the result is chaos.'
Power holders do a lot of talking: speech making, debate, media interviews, berating staff, placating community members. They do much less listening. For example, at one public meeting I attended in a nearby shire, I timed the speakers: the chair, audience participants and councillors. Even though the councillors were not guest speakers, had not convened the meeting and were not chairing the meeting they absorbed three times as much time as the audience participants. The telephone does not guarantee that good listening skills will be practised but it helps. Reducing the number of distractions can be an important aid to good communication. Because three of my Council colleagues were hearing impaired, I found a significant impediment to good face-to-face or group communication could be instantly removed if we spoke by phone.
Listening is a topic which I never tired of exploring because it had so much relevance to both my research work and to the rest of my life. It proved to be a panacea for so many ills. It is fundamental to the idea of a democratic personality, to the success of mediation, to the effectiveness of social change and to an awareness of the negative consequences of power. Power holders without listening skills are destined to fail their constituents, yet these skills were often absent. Listening can add another dimension to responsibility: responsiveness. Camilla Stivers thinks this responsiveness would 'reduce the tension between administrative effectiveness and democratic accountability, both in theory and in practice.'
Brenda Ueland's research on women's distinctive ways of knowing showed that, due to their gendered socialisation and cultural expectations, women are generally better listeners. Ueland's observations were duplicated by me as I watched and listened to older, male elected representatives who seemed incapable of being silent long enough to hear, so anxious were they to respond. Thankfully, listening skills were evident in other men who I encountered in the political sphere so I was relieved to note that one's sex need not determine one's ability to listen.
Perhaps this is why women have such comparative ease with the telephone. Some community members who participated in LCC's Public Access sessions commented that female councillors listened to them when they nervously addressed Council. Male councillors, in contrast, were observed reading, writing or talking to others. Similarly, community members reported that they had felt 'listened to' by the women councillors when they rang to lobby their representatives.
As a result of my reading I began to appreciate the rare periods of silence. I had always felt discomforted by silence but began to value the richness of non-speech when it occurred. I noted, for example, that in groups made up of Australian indigenous people, silence was much more apparent than in local government gatherings. I am intrigued by the worthiness of silence in the consultative process but found few opportunities to employ and evaluate it.
The literature review I undertook and the action research which I completed to test participatory theory in action revealed to me a number of inappropriate behaviours: that people are treated as though they are their roles; that power must be over others instead of with them; that we indulge in spotting the 'baddies'; that we make frequent and hurried decisions to the detriment of a civil society. Writers such as Fran Peavey offered practical methods which could be applied to my local government world; Strategic Questioning and listening skills informed many of my trials. Relationship building and the need for connectedness provided an early recognition of the importance of building bridges.
The technology which proved not only useful but essential for me as a researcher and as an elected representative was the humble telephone which allowed for skilled questioning, listening and deliberation. Having unearthed writing about the need we have to satisfy our hunger for community and the catalytic effect which community building can have on change, I was able to apply relationship building in the community context. Friendship and unconditional positive regard found their rightful place in my political circle.
My own research with my Action Research Team confirmed the value of relationship and trust building in a political environment and the importance of the telephone in achieving this. The research convinced me that political structures will never be changed in a sustainable way without attending to the hearts of those inside the structures. Decision makers without listening skills would seem to be destined to fail their constituents.
In choosing a participatory mechanism to assist in the making of effective decisions, attention should be paid to the presence of a technology or medium that will allow the above skills to be realised. While being aware of culturally-specific limitations, the telephone has historically-tested, impeccable credentials.
Acknowledgments: My thanks to those who commented on drafts for this chapter: Wendy Varney, Miriam Solomon, Andy Monk, Brian Martin, Stuart White and Kath Fisher.
Commentary by Ann Moyal[*]
It has been fascinating to learn from Lyn Carson's chapter of the role the old 'pots and pan' telephone can, and has in her experience, come to play in building strong consultative and relational links between policy-maker and public. It is particularly rewarding to me as an early researcher on the role of women and the telephone in Australia to discover that women's listening skills, enshrined in their telephone talk, have contributed notably to the building of direct and warm relationships between the Council member and the respondent as 'citizen'. 'The humble telephone,' Carson writes, '...allowed for skills of questioning, listening and deliberation.' 'It was an instrument with which I felt considerable comfort. It offers anonymity and familiarity (depending on one's need), and it allowed me to step inside homes ... where I would not otherwise have been invited.'
Such skills in the feminine culture of 'listening and deliberation' have, alas, been severely underestimated and neglected by federal politicians and telecommunication policy makers. Yet from an ethnographic study of 200 women of all backgrounds, ages and situations in Australia, it was apparent that the telephone communication of women in its function of kinkeeping, nurturing, volunteering and friendship has contributed to building a support system that underlies the health, development and progress of the nation.
Carson's study carries this theme of personal connectedness, of 'intimacy at a distance' which the telephone establishes, into the realm of participatory democracy where her account both of her own use of the technology for discussion among her working (women) colleagues and, as a means of deliberative discussion with constituents (again notably women), marks an important contribution to this gender field. More broadly, she reports from her research and practice that the telephone, with the use of 'strategic questioning' based on asking, listening and readiness to shed old viewpoints, opened up fresh possibilities and 'provided a relaxed environment in which the participant and I could explore new ideas.' The ubiquitous telephone, she concludes, with its immersiveness and interactivity, 'comes closest to satisfying the goal of deliberative democracy.'
Clearly this methodology works most fruitfully in the more informal arena of people-oriented council policy-making than its application in state or federal power structures might induce. Yet the thrust of Carson's approach as a Councillor, through relationship building, questioning and listening, could, I believe, most usefully be transferred to a mechanism I have long advocated for injecting women's views into national telecommunication policy through the establishment of a Women's Advisory Telecommunication Council to assist bureaucrats and carriers on social aspects of telecommunication change.
ÝOn one point only, I differ from the author. Despite the value of US social researcher Fran Peavey's book Heart Politics and her persuasive linking of power with 'connectedness,' let us not adopt the sentimental title 'heart politics' for this form of policy approach in Australia. 'Phonpolitics' perhaps?
Commentary by Wendy Sarkissian[*]
Lyn Carson's work makes a highly significant contribution to the growing Australian literature on community participation. She extends the discourse in important new ways. Particularly in rural areas and in times of economic stringency, local councils need to explore participatory processes for achieving presence at a distance. Yes, the humble telephone offers many opportunities.
This approach offers an antidote to highly problematic 'hothouse' techniques such as charrettes, those popular fast-paced 'design-in' workshops favoured by some architects, councils and developers. They risk reduced participation because of compressed time periods, inadequate time for reflection, 'railroading' the process, and problems with unrepresentativeness of stakeholders. Carson's telephone participation certainly addresses some of these concerns, particularly time for reflection.
As a fan of Peavey's and Carson's work on strategic questioning, I was surprised to find myself feeling somewhat unsatisfied with Carson's chapter. Two concerns arose, neither one strong enough to discredit Carson's model but perhaps meriting some consideration. First, what about urban people? So many of us feel harassed by the telephone; engage in 'phone tag'; live our lives through voice mail and answering machines; and screen calls before answering them. We dread telephone marketing surveys, that bright voice at the end of a harrowing day. How effective would the telephone be in encouraging us to participate in local affairs? I sigh when my home telephone rings. Not an auspicious start to a participatory process!
My second concern is captured by Darryl's bumbling lawyer in The Castle, that wonderful Australian film about home as mirror of self. The lawyer stammers to explain the relevance of the Constitution: It's the vibe of it. Just the vibe of it. In participatory processes, I work largely 'with the vibe,' finding myself in another dimension. Entranced, I am sensing what is happening, processing visual, auditory and kinaesthetic clues. Are we moving toward agreement? Is collaboration possible? How does it feel? What's the vibe of it? On countless occasions, I have sensed things shift, the energy change, as something I cannot describe struggles into form. Sometimes I call it a 'healing impulse.' The urge to cooperate.
I am certain Carson and Fran have sensed this, too, and marvelled at its power. It's primarily a sensory experience. At these times I need all my senses. I listen with my third ear. Glimpse it with eyes in the back of my head. Sense with my skin. It's embodied, palpable and certainly real. Whatever it is.
The telephone admits some of this, to be sure. I just hope that, in these impoverished times, we won't lose all our opportunities for those community moments when the vibe shifts and something collaborative--and wonderful--struggles to be born.
Commentary by Monica Wolf[*]
'Now the telephone business has become strong, its next anxiety must be able to develop the virtues and not the defects of strength.' Herbert Casson, who wrote this in 1910, would be heartened by Lyn Carson's testament to the virtues of the telephone. The centrality of the phone in Carson's work presents a vital argument for a reassessment of the 'humble' phone in political participation.
Carson's exploration of the phone's capabilities to improve decision-making presents something of a challenge. On an individual level, the phone is such an intrinsic part of our daily work and domestic lives that we rarely, if ever, step back to assess its impact or potential. This is also the case on a sociological level, where research on the phone is akin to 'thinking about the invisible.'
As Carson notes, there are certain inherent qualities of the phone that predispose it to being a useful tool in the building of relationships. But beyond this, is the phone a neutral tool able to be applied without bias?
Over the last 120 years, the phone has been imbued with clear norms, and modes of use are highly differentiated.
The three well-known norms decree that if the phone rings, you are obliged to answer; if you answer you are obliged to respond and participate; and terminating the call is the role of the caller, not the recipient. Inherent power, it seems, lies with the caller, a fact well exploited over the years by various sellers, surveyors and the like.
As Carson implies, phone use often reflects and reinforces unfortunate social realities, such as gender inequality and social disadvantage.
Rules governing access also apply. In the non-domestic sphere, power relativities dictate if, when and to whom calls are made, taken or returned. Senior government officials rarely take the direct calls of, say, a community representative. They tend to return them, if at all, within a period of time that one could surmise reflects the relative status given to the call. If a 'superior' does call, it is likely to be mediated by a secretary making the initial connection. Perhaps a reinforcement of the status differential?
Society, as Herbert Casson predicted, has '... fit telephony like a garment around the habits of the people.' And amongst those habits are those that Carson rejects: power over others rather than with and people being 'treated as though they are their roles'.
So how does all this relate to the phone as a participatory tool?
Firstly, who calls who really matters. Carson's entrée to 'the portals of power' elevated the activist to a peer, with rights of access and reception. This might suggest that the phone as a participatory tool in general is most effective where power relations are equal.
Secondly, the motives of the caller are crucial. The caller as an activist and advocate of participative decision making will adhere to the principles of equality and objectivity. But the caller as a political number-cruncher will work to the opposite end and exploit the fact that the phone can be just as easily used to manipulate or subvert the participative process.
Which brings us back to the most important point Carson makes, a point that is so often overlooked in enthusiastic 'how to's' on participation: 'Whatever technology is used to facilitate participation, it will not improve the quality of decisions unless attention is paid to the constraints which prevent effective decision making from occurring.'
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[*] Dr Lyn Carson is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Sydney. Her current research builds on her doctoral studies into public participation in decision making processes particularly at the local government level. She was an elected councillor on Lismore City Council (1991-1995) where she was able to trial a number of innovative participatory techniques: listening posts, street corner meetings policy juries, social impact assessment, mediation and others.
. Evaluations of these mechanisms can be found in L. Carson, 'How Do Decision Makers in Local Government Respond to Public Participation? Case study: Lismore City Council 1991-1995,' unpublished PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, 1996.
. Alan Irwin discusses this in relation to the extent of citizen involvement in the science debate in Citizen Science: A Study of People, Expertise and Sustainable Development (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 137.
. F. Peavey, Heart Politics (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1986), p. 8.
. C. S. Fischer, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 266.
. A. Moyal, 'The feminine culture of the telephone: people, patterns and policy,' Prometheus, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1989, pp. 5-31.
. Fischer, op. cit., p. 254.
. L. F. Rakow, Gender on the Line: Women, the Telephone and Community Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
. Ibid., p. 2.
. A. Moyal, 'The gendered use of the telephone: an Australian case study,' Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 14, 1992, pp. 51-72.
. A. W. Nichols and R. Schilit, 'Telephone support for latchkey children,' Child Welfare, Vol. 67, No. 1, 1988, pp. 49-59.
. P. Shepard, 'Telephone therapy: an alternative to isolation,' Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1987, pp. 56-65.
. C. Feyen, 'Battered rural women: an exploratory study of domestic violence in a Wisconsin County,' Wisconsin Sociologist, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1989, pp. 17-32.
. J. E. Katz, 'Empirical and theoretical dimensions of obscene phone calls to women in the United States,' American Sociological Association, 1993.
. M. D. Smith and N. N. Morra, 'Obscene and threatening telephone calls to women: data from a Canadian national survey,' Gender & Society, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1994, pp. 584-596.
. C. J. Sheffield, 'The invisible intruder: women's experiences of obscene phone calls,' Gender & Society, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1989, pp. 483-488.
. S. Reda, 'Me and my cellular phone,' Stores, Vol. 77, No. 1, 1995, pp. 48-50.
. L. F. Rakow and V. Navarro, 'Remote mothering and the parallel shift: women meet the cellular telephone,' Critical Studies in Mass Communications, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1993, pp. 144-157.
. Fischer, op. cit., p. 268.
. J. R. Schement, 'Beyond universal service--characteristics of Americans without telephones, 1980-1993,' Telecommunications Policy, Vol. 19, No. 6, 1995, pp. 477-485.
. A. Moyal and R. Russell, 'Politicians and the telephone: assessing the Australian evidence,' Australian Journal of Politics & History, Vol. 34, No. 3, 1989, pp. 333-344.
. Irwin, op. cit., p. 2.
. B. R. Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
. S. London, 'Teledemocracy vs. deliberative democracy: a comparative look at two models of public talk,' Interpersonal Computing and Technology: An Electronic Journal for the 21st Century, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1995, pp. 33-55.
. Iris Young and others would argue that 'communicative democracy' rather than deliberative democracy should be our goal. I would not disagree with this redefinition beyond a belief that deliberation is both culturally neutral and universal. See I. Young, 'Communication and the other: beyond deliberative democracy,' in M. Wilson and A. Yeatman (eds.), Justice & Identity: Antipodean Practices (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995), pp. 134-152.
. London, op. cit., p. 34.
. Ibid., p. 47.
. E. Cox, Lecture 1 of the 1995 Boyer Lectures, 'Broadening the views,' Sydney, ABC Radio National.
. L. Carson, 'Lismore: where the men manage pre-schools and the women build bridges,' Refractory Girl, No. 42, Autumn 1992, pp. 36-37.
. L. Carson, 'Spot the baddie!' The Village Journal (Rosebank), No. 76, November 1993, p. 5.
. F. Peavey, 'Strategic questioning,' in T. Green and P. Woodrow (eds.), Insight and Action: How to Discover and Support a Life of Integrity and Commitment to Change (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1994), pp. 90-116.
. Ibid., p.91.
. Ibid., p.93.
. V. Minichiello, R. Aroni, et al., In-Depth Interviewing: Researching People (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1990).
. B. R. Barber, 'Opinion polls: public judgment or private prejudice?' The Responsive Community, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1992, pp. 4-5.
. S. Chambers, 'Feminist discourse/practical discourse,' in J. Meehan (ed.), Feminists Read Habermas (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 163-179.
. Carson, 1996, op. cit., p. 231.
. C. C. Gould, Rethinking Democracy: Freedom and Social Cooperation in Politics, Economics, and Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988) and D. Metzger, 'Personal disarmament: negotiating with the inner government' ReVISION, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 3-9.
. L. Carson, 'The hows and whys of mediation in local government,' Community Quarterly, No. 32, 1994, pp. 49-52.
. K. Shields, In the Tiger's Mouth: An Empowerment Guide for Social Action (Sydney: Millennium Press, 1991).
. F. M. Lappé and P. M. Du Bois, 'Power in a living democracy,' Creation Spirituality, September/October 1992, pp. 23-25, 42.
. C. Stivers, 'The listening bureaucrat: responsiveness in public administration,' Public Administration Review, Vol. 54, No. 4, 1994, p. 365.
. M. F. Belenky, B. M. Clinchy, et al., Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1986).
. Carson, 1996, pp. 105-115.
[*] Ann Moyal, AM, is a historian of science and telecommunications and the author of Clear Across Australia (1984) and Women and the Telephone in Australia (a study prepared for Telecom Australia, 1989).
. Ann Moyal, 'The feminine culture of the telephone: people, patterns and policy,' Prometheus, Vol. 7, No. 1, June 1989, pp. 5-31; 'The gendered use of the telephone: an Australian case study,' Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 15, 1992, pp. 51-72.
[*] Wendy Sarkissian is a social planner who has been working in the field of community participation for many years. Trained as an educator and planner, she has recently completed a PhD in environmental ethics at Murdoch University. She is co-author of Housing as if People Mattered (1986) and the Murdoch University series Community Participation in Planning (1994, 1997), and is the recipient of many awards for planning excellence.
. The Open Government Network, Reaching Common Ground: Open Government, Community Consultation and Public Participation, Proceedings of the Reaching Common Ground Conference, 23-24 October 1996 (Sydney: The Open Government Network, 1997).
. Kathleen Shui Lai Ng, 'Community Participation and How it Influences Urban Form,' unpublished Master of Urban Design dissertation, University of Sydney, Urban Design Program, Faculty of Architecture, December 1996, pp. 23, 56; Wendy Sarkissian, Andrea Cook and Kelvin Walsh, Community Participation in Practice: A Practical Guide (Perth: Institute for Science and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, 1997).
. Lyn Carson, 'Perspectives on community consultation: strategic questioning in action,' Australian Planner, Vol. 32, No. 4, November 1995, pp. 217-221.
[*] Monica Wolf lives mostly in Canberra and works as Executive Director for National Shelter, a peak advocacy organisation which focuses on housing for people on low incomes. In 1995, she spent a year on the Far North Coast of NSW working on a project on community consultation.
. Herbert Casson, The History of the Telephone (Chicago: A. C. Mclurg and Co, 1910), p. 288.
. Peter White, 'Research on the telephone: thinking about the invisible,' in A. Moyal and A. McGuigan (eds.), Research on Domestic Telephone Use, Proceedings of a Workshop, Centre for International Research on Communications and Information Technologies, 1992.
. Casson, op. cit., p. 289.
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15 April 1999