6.5.2 Participative Democracy, Involving Individual Citizens

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 ‘The Moment for Participatory Democracy’, as described in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article for example.  It gives people opportunities to continuously inform and influence governance.  The article cites three possible models and quotes examples of where they have been used in America:

●  Giving citizens government data “enables people not only to view and use information, but also to add it”, and it “has led to the formation of new companies”.

●  Giving citizens a direct line to their representatives, “including interactive public meetings”, enables officials to gather public feedback on policy questions.

●  Giving citizens a seat at the table enables people to contribute to policy making.  “Participatory budgeting” enable them to vote on how money should be spent on public projects, and “the Citizens’ Jury method” involves panels of local residents who are consulted on topics of public interest.

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 it 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 participative democracy are too small a number to claim legitimacy.  They could be seen as merely being unelected representatives.

These problems mean that participative 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/edition04/652.htm.