6.5.2 Direct Democracy

Direct democracy describes the involvement of individual citizens in reaching political decisions, without politicians as intermediaries.

The voluntary involvement of citizens, in making decisions about their local services, can be of benefit in increasing the responsiveness of governance.  Given the current disillusion with politicians referred to earlier (6.3.9), it can be argued that now is a good time to give people more input to decision-making.  Citizens assemblies are a good way of reaching consensus on difficult subjects, as described in the RSA journal article Assembly required:

“A citizens’ assembly is a bit like jury duty for policy. It is a broadly representative group of people selected by lottery (sortition) who meet for at least four to six days over a few months to learn about an issue, weigh trade-offs, listen to one another and find common ground on shared recommendations.”

“As of November 2021, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has counted almost 600 citizens’ assemblies for public decision-making around the world, addressing complex issues from drug policy reform to biodiversity loss, urban planning decisions, climate change, infrastructure investment, constitutional issues such as abortion and more.”

The OECD report on Innovative Citizen Participation “has collected evidence and data that support the idea that citizen participation in public decision making can deliver better policies, strengthen democracy and build trust. This report focuses on representative deliberative processes in particular, as part of a wider effort by democratic institutions to become more participatory and open to informed citizen input and collective intelligence.”  It contains recommendations for best practice, and it cites numerous examples from all over the world, most notably in Germany, Australia and Canada, which have federal political systems.

Authorities need to adapt their structures to incorporate direct democracy effectively.  Governments need to agree to abide by the outcome, or at least explain why they have not done so – otherwise those involved become disillusioned and the process falls into disrepute.

The involvement of small numbers of individual citizens has some limitations:

●  The appointment of citizen juries, to advise the specialist agencies in some fields, is a workable system but it involves people being prepared to give up their time.  They suffer from the brevity of their involvement, lacking the time to gain expertise or the opportunity to ensure that recommendations are followed through.

●  The people who become involved in direct democracy are too small a number to claim legitimacy.  They could be seen as merely being unelected representatives.

These problems mean that direct democracy might not give balanced representation but, if it is done well, the people involved gain a sense of agency and the government can claim increased political legitimacy.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/652a.htm.