Upvoting Levine’s Shelterforce article

Brad sent me a link to a recent article by Michigan sociologist Jeremy Levine: It’s Time to Move On From Community Consensus

Levine’s article provides an insightful diagnosis of a serious problem.  His critique of the status quo fits with our theoretical understanding of group decision making and accurately reflects my own experience as an elected official (accounting for contextual differences, of course).1

Overall, I see Levine’s article (and hopefully his upcoming book) being a call to arms in the community development field, but also in public decision making generally:

Community development practitioners [...] assume there is in fact a community that has a voice; community control requires the community to control development, after all. When those in power circumvent participating community members, it is clear community control has not been achieved. But how do we evaluate community control when some community members might oppose a project that others pursue—did the community control the project in those cases?

Areas of concurrence

Breaking this down, I see four main areas of concurrence between our thinking on participatory decision making and Levine’s critique:

  1. The importance of selection bias:  Levine points to research that shows that conventional approaches to public engagement (such as public meetings) are generally not representative of the broader community.  These methods are thus inadequate for gauging sentiment.
  2. The myth of consensus: As Levine puts it:

[...] no participatory process can accurately reflect the voice of the community, no matter how well run. The reason is fundamental: there is no such thing as ‘the’ community.” Different sub-populations within any community have different preferences and interests.  Seeking consensus around these preferences and interests is thus futile.

  1. The importance of early, ongoing, and meaningful public engagement:

What if instead of public meetings—constrained by both time and space, where the optimal outcome is consensus and therefore “no” has more power than “yes”—we invested more in low cost, ongoing exercises that produce a high volume of information, persist even after particular projects are completed, make priorities transparent, and neither seek nor assume a singular position from “the community”?

  1. The importance of appropriate methods of preference elicitation: As a potential alternative to public meetings and other conventional forms of public engagement, Levine points to a couple of novel approaches, including “pairwise wiki surveys”.  

Minor differences

Where we differ slightly from Levine is on remedies to the problems of participative decision making (though, to be fair, his book is not out yet).  First, we place a much greater emphasis on value-focused thinking.  In practice, this means keeping the engagement at a high level to avoid getting bogged down in the details of particular alternatives.  It is not that value-focused thinking increases the odds of achieving a consensus.  It does not.  What it does do is increase the odds of having meaningful dialog where people can understand opposing views while still opposing them.

Second, we are a bit more sanguine about established techniques and technologies for eliciting group preferences.  As noted above, Levine points to novel non-conventional techniques, such as pairwise wiki surveys and “creative public art exercises”.  These may be powerful, but it is important to recognize that many tools already exist. For example, pairwise wiki surveys are a variation on a well-established tradition in decision analysis and market research of iterated pairwise comparisons of simple alternatives. Examples of existing techniques include Delphi Surveys, Analytic Hierarchy Process, Conjoint Analysis, and Discrete Choice Modeling.  Of course, the downside of these advanced approaches is complexity.  More specifically: although participation by citizens on the front-end is much easier and more intuitive using these techniques, analysis on the backend gets messy (doubters may scroll down this page).  Widespread adoption of these techniques within local government will require significant investment in people, technology, and new skills.


1Levine’s research is focused on inequality in American inner cities, which is a different context from my on-the-ground experience as a politician in rural British Columbia. I certainly witnessed strong feelings about a range of topics, from fence heights bylaws to the use of motorized vehicles on trails to homelessness and property crime.  However, I think it is fair to say the moral stakes in Levine’s context are higher.  And he focuses on the dominating role of large, well-funded, non-governmental advocacy groups, which we only occasionally see in these parts.  However, I think it is fair to say that social media are enabling large, un-funded, non-governmental advocacy groups to coalesce around just about any issue (except maybe fence heights).  Thus, although the moral stakes are typically lower in the decisions we see, the group decision dynamics are often similar.