6.5.2 Participative Democracy, Involving Individual Citizens

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/652.htm)

The voluntary involvement of citizens in the governance of their own local services can be of benefit in ensuring that the community’s wishes are met.  Given the current disillusion with politicians referred to earlier (6.3.9), it can be argued that now is ‘The Moment for Participatory Democracy’, as described in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article for example.  It gives people opportunities to influence governance beyond their voting in elections.  The article quotes three possible models:

  • “Giving citizens government data… enabling people not only to view and use information, but also to add it”;
  • “Giving citizens a direct line to their representatives”;
  • “Giving citizens a seat at the table” by “Participatory budgeting” or “the Citizens’ Jury method”.

Even within a system classified as authoritarian, it is possible to use participative democracy to enable citizens to influence their governance – as is the case in the Chinese experiments referred to earlier (6.3.1.7).

But participative democracy with individual citizens has some disadvantages:

  • The appointment of citizen juries, to govern the specialist agencies in each field, is a workable system but it involves people being prepared to give up their time. People who are inarticulate might be appointed, and they couldn’t then adequately represent their interests or those of others.  And appointed juries suffer from the brevity of their involvement, lacking the time to gain expertise or the opportunity to ensure that recommendations are followed through.
  • If participation is arranged by asking people to attend a meeting if they are interested, the participants will only be those who are politically active or those who feel threatened.
  • The people who become involved in participative democracy are too small a number to claim legitimacy. They can be seen as just a form of unelected representation.

These problems mean that participative democracy might not give balanced representation, but it can nonetheless be useful in some aspects of governance.

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