The Policy Uptake of Citizen Sensing, exploring what makes civic monitoring influential on policy decisions

November 23, 2021

academic law, environmental law

by Anna Berti Suman, SensJus Principal Investigator

Drawing by Alice Toietta for SensJus

The research journey captured in this book began with my curiosity towards civil society’s responses to the complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty of environmental risk to public health. In past experience with communities affected by environmental issues, I realized that civil society actors – especially when they distrust institutional interventions – tend to engage environmental monitoring initiatives (‘citizen sensing’) in order to track the environmental risk in a way that is alternative to the institutional system. In a context where science is losing social authority and laypersons acquire increasing skills and capabilities, and can rely on constantly evolving technologies, concerned citizens push to enter the debate on environmental risk governance. Over time, I realized that the practice essentially voices demands for accountability associated with the dissatisfaction of affected stakeholders towards institutional risk governance.

Often, such grassroots initiatives manage to obtain the support of peer citizens – which I frame in the book as social uptake – and to even influence governmental actors – here understood as policy uptake – who may ‘adjust’ their interventions as a consequence of a citizen sensing initiative. From the acknowledgement that studies on citizen science and sensing mostly focus on the learning gains for the participants, I decided to demonstrate the potential for the sensing citizens to concretely influence and complement risk governance through the policy uptake of the practice.

Are you curious to discover which factors (can) contribute to the policy uptake of community-led citizen sensing, responding to a risk and eventually generated by distrust’? This is – in a nutshell – the original contribution that this book brings to the broader debate on civic participation in policy and social responses to environmental challenges. The ‘Policy Uptake of Citizen Sensing’ performs such an inquiry by ‘situating’ citizen sensing, its characteristics and manifestations in the reality that I could observe. I explored its representation in the literature and its meaning as framed by those experts, policy-makers and sensing citizens that I encountered. I identified and studied gaps where institutional risk governance fails to respond to the demands of the individuals and communities affected by the risk. In the empirical stage, I assessed how technology, the grassroots-drive, the risk element and distrust from the sensing citizens towards the responsible institutions influence the policy uptake of a sensing initiative, adopting a mixed-methods approach.

The book demonstrates that sound technology, good data quality and an effective data visualization strategy are almost ‘condicio sine qua non’ to obtain the interest of policy-makers.  In addition, the fact that the initiative responds to a pressing risk that is mismanaged by the competent authorities (and manages to demonstrate that) particularly facilitates the policy uptake. Lastly, unexpectedly, a distrusting discourse from the sensing citizens towards the institutional status quo seems a triggering factor for governmental adoption, as if this was a way for the institutional actors to cope with their failures. In alternative, one could conceive that the distrusting discourse shows to policy-makers that the risk is an important source of concern for their electorate and thus officials are motivated to listen to the initiative or to its data.

For increasing its chances of policy uptake, the initiative should collaborate from the beginning with governmental actors, targeting their data needs and jointly addressing relevant risk problems. This finding is problematic for two reasons. First, partnering with governmental actors from the beginning may be unfeasible or undesirable for projects starting with a strong anti-institutional drive. Consequently, pushing this cooperation from the start may change the very nature of the sensing and also undermine its potential to be a critique of the status quo. Second, as noted above, distrusting discourses are not necessarily Overall, this study opens avenues for future inquiries on several fronts. After having assessed the factors that could stimulate the policy uptake of citizen sensing in the present book, it is worth exploring how this uptake can concretely occur, through a process of integration. Moreover, a needed inquiry is on whether this book ‘just’ suggests the possibility for authorities to use data from citizen sensing or rather if – as a result of targeted legal interventions – policy-makers could be under an obligation to resort to citizen-sensed data when certain conditions are met (e.g. information is inadequate from the official side). A critical and attentive reader will enjoy engaging in these and further questions, and will find stimuli for more inquiries and dilemmas within the book.

The Policy Uptake of Citizen Sensing

Anna Berti Suman, European Commission Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy

Read Chapter 1 free on Elgaronline



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