Applying precautionary principles to new technologies to include citizens in decision-making

By Helena Paul

There is a real problem with the fact that voting once every few years is one of the only ways in which people are invited to participate in democracy. Another problem I believe is connected with the party system that most countries have and which seems an inevitable part of the democratic process. The ‘first past the post system’ of voting that we have in the UK adds to the divisions that parties generate. On the other hand, proportional representation in other countries sometimes seems to lead to a difficult process of compromise in order to form a government that does not always seem democratic, in that the public does not have access to the compromise process. Horse-trading between politicians seeking power may not be the best way to achieve democracy.

We need to develop processes of deliberative democracy that are also truly participatory, to draw on the wisdom and experience of the public. That means that ‘we the people’ need to be more engaged – many of us prefer to delegate responsibility to our politicians while we get on with our busy lives. Democracy does not work well that way. Also if people lose faith in the process they will tend to withdraw from it. And we also see quite a lot of protest voting, where people vote for candidate B simply because they do not like candidate A.

I have been involved in two different processes of consultation that I think are apposite: the first was GM Nation, which was:

…an unprecedented event – a special public debate before a potentially far-reaching change in public policy. It was a chance for the British people to come forward and say what they felt about a new technology – genetic modification (GM) – and the commercial growing of genetically modified crops in this country.

It involved public events where self-chosen participants were able to hear speakers from different sides and then take part in round table discussions in different parts of the country. It also involved a narrow-but-deep part that involved a cross-section of the general public who apparently had not participated in the open discussions. The report on GM Nation is a useful reference for the whole consultation, which was a remarkable exercise – see here. It should also be seen in the context of the trials of GM crops in the UK in 1999-2001. These energized some groups to get engaged in local processes in order to resist trials in their localities.

The second process I refer to was the Synthetic Biology Dialogue. This involved the selection of a selectively randomized group of the public, meaning that for example no-one who was a member of an environmental group was allowed to take part (I was not involved in the process of selection). However, the process of developing materials to inform the public about synthetic biology was something I was active in and there were debates about the nature of this information and its bias – we considered some of the drafts to be problematic and needed to revise them.

In general this was a good process and revealed the wisdom of the public when involved in a debate where they had no vested interests and access to good information. However, (as pointed out to me by a sociologist) it is important to clarify that it was not a true dialogue but more in the nature of public attitudes research, which is something rather different.

As a result of their deliberations, the group wanted to recommend global regulation of synthetic biology on the basis that it would impact globally so it would have been particularly interesting if they could have had an interaction with regulators as indeed they requested, but there were none included amongst the experts invited to participate. The experts present consisted of scientists involved in the issues, with varying levels of interest in promoting aspects of synthetic biology; and some social scientists, who played a useful role in commenting on the behaviour and interactions of participants. The public also showed themselves perceptive of bias among the scientists, which was considerable in some cases.

Incidentally, use was made of a voting device for each participant at the workshop – we were told this was mainly to see how their opinions shifted during the process. Questions were fired at them and they had a choice of answers to make by pressing particular buttons. Use of this technology was clearly a top-down process that crudely oversimplified responses and so was undesirable.


  • Citizen Assemblies

These experiences mean that we are very interested in the idea of citizen assemblies, such as were used recently in Ireland and here. It seems likely that citizen assemblies if scrupulously managed as an exercise in deliberative democracy, could help to break some long-standing deadlocks and fixed positions and give a voice to people who are often marginalized and do not usually participate.

Our local council (Camden) recently declared a climate emergency and intends to set up a citizen assembly to decide how to act.

Citizen assemblies in brief:
• A citizens’ assembly is formed of a random selection of citizens from a country, region, or city
• The process used is called sortition. Originally it meant choosing by lot but now there are other ways of doing it.
• They may meet for one weekend a month for a year, or every weekend for a few months – or just a few times
• They provide answers to selected questions through discussion
• They can also call for information and experts to question as and when the need arises
• They typically go through three phases: learning; consultation; deliberation and discussion.
• They will usually make recommendations at the end of this phase
• Their proposals may then be put to a referendum, but this is not essential.

I would also like to draw attention to the importance of the Convention On Access To Information, Public Participation In Decision-Making And Access To Justice In Environmental Matters (the Aarhus Convention) which emphasizes that:
…each Party shall guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.

It is vital to apply this strictly and we should also apply the Precautionary Principle to new technologies and examine them prior to their deployment. Please also see my response to question 3: stage gate process.

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