organizations and the politics of “good” work
Fellow guest blogger Ellen Berrey asked in a previous post how “powerful, elite organizations” can “lessen inequality” or “advance broad progressive causes like social justice.” As someone who has studied the progressive consultants who produce public engagement processes on behalf of corporations, governments, and non-profits, I’m excited to take up her challenge to go beyond cataloging wrongdoing and “foreground power and meaning making.” I think one reason people have trouble understanding the good work organizations do is because it’s complicated. We bring in lots of cultural assumptions about where and when “good” work should be done, and by whom. See, for example, this piece on the EPA’s complicated relationship with “public comments”– the political stakes here are high.
In presenting my research on public engagement consultants and how they make sense of their everyday work to bring democracy inside powerful bureaucracies, audience members have a tendency to want to label top-down public engagement as universally bad or good. Is it an empowering win-win for all involved? Or is it just cooptation? Sometimes public participation practitioners themselves talk about their evolution from adversarial practices to engaged interaction within “enemy” institutions.
In Chapters 3 and 4 of DIY Democracy, I explore how practitioners live within these tensions differently in different moments. Sometimes, they look like entrepreneurs, adeptly negotiating competing and contradictory logics to reform organizations. This coincides with the agentive views of “inhabited institutions” scholars. At other times, they perform a great deal of work to perform rituals that integrate their challenger identities with their elite status as management consultants. Instead of these contrasting practices demonstrating “institutional indeterminacy,” as some scholars have argued, I think that we must link micro-level institutional work to its macro-level consequences to understand how power fits in. At what times do practitioners use either of these strategies to produce democratic authenticity? What are their concrete consequences? Answering these questions can help us to understand meaning-making within organizations as capable of both politicizing and depoliticizing “good” work— sometimes at the same time.
Below: a suggestion wall from a dialogue and deliberation practitioners’ conference