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Participatory Democracy: the Importance of Having a Say When Times are Hard

Three questions to Julia Keutgen

Participatory Democracy: the Importance of Having a Say When Times are Hard
 Julia Keugten
Senior Advisor at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy

The "Yellow Vests" in France, populist politics, a global pandemic and restricted liberties: democracies all around the world have been significantly challenged over the past several years. Meanwhile, the youth is an increasingly active participant in the political debate, and online activism is as effective as ever. This evolution of democratic dynamics has called for a rethinking of the daily practice of political participation. In that light, participatory democracy has gained momentum, fueled by a promise to innovate and instill a new way of making collective decisions. Julia Keugten, Senior Advisor at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, shares her insights on participatory democracy, civic engagement and accountability. 

How has participatory democracy become a new feature of political participation and why is it so pivotal?

Political participation is at the core of democracies around the world, but its application may vary greatly in terms of quality or type. The most common kind of political participation in all democracies is the electoral process. As citizens, we go to vote, seeking to directly influence the people that are going to be representing us. But participatory democracy is concerned with ensuring that citizens are afforded an opportunity to directly participate, or otherwise be involved in the decisions that affect their lives.

Today, people do want to have a say on public policies. When it comes to the development of spaces in urban areas, for example, people are increasingly advocating greener cities. In Barcelona, citizens have pushed for the democratization of public spaces through the creation of "superblocks", which carve out large car-free areas. They are supporting the implementation of this urban policy through platforms for citizen participation, such as Decidim Barcelona. This kind of local and communal engagement is key to participative democracy, which does not stop at the local level. Systemic issues that affect everyone’s lives, such as climate change, have urged people to push for their voices to be heard on a global scale as well. 

Some politicians view participatory democracy as a threat. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Participatory democracy can supplement, if not complement, representative democracy. But in order to make the two coexist, conditions need to be met and a cultural shift must take place in our democratic institutions, one that favors transparency and openness and acknowledges the relevance of public opinion. This remains a major challenge for many democratic institutions and their representatives. 

Some politicians view participatory democracy as a threat. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Participatory democracy can supplement, if not complement, representative democracy.

There are numerous success stories of participatory democracy around the world. At the local level, for instance, many cities, such as Paris, have introduced participatory budgets, where citizens can vote on how parts of the city’s budget are used. Good examples also exist at the national level. In the United Kingdom, over 30 deliberative democracy processes have been held across the country over the past three years. These have consisted in inviting randomly selected citizens to take part in debates and make recommendations on various topics, ranging from climate change to Covid-19 recovery. Overall, democratic processes and institutions are shifting towards higher citizen engagement and civil society inputs are increasingly being taken into consideration. 

Furthermore, it is clear that younger generations crave participation. The Youth for Climate movement is a case in point. Participatory democracy processes can answer this call, enabling generations to have their voices be heard. People want to participate, it’s now a matter of helping them find spaces where they can do so. 

What are the ways and tools available to instill democracy and trust-building?

Participatory democracy needs to be entrenched in representative institutions. Concretely for Parliaments, that means creating spaces for citizens and civil society organizations to voice their opinions. This can be achieved by engaging people through communication channels that consider the questions of "who to bring in", "for what purpose" and "at what level". For example, the UK House of Commons is currently organizing an inquiry on the UK preparations for COP26 in Glasgow. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has collected inputs from citizens, civil society organizations, business associations, academia, etc., over a period of several months, in order to deliver a report that holds the government to account. 

Representation and demographic inclusion remain a particular challenge for participatory democracy. How many people do you need to consider for the participation of citizens to be sufficiently representative? Who participates in these processes? This brings forward the question of equal access, because not everyone has the ability to understand the political processes and legal technicalities, when no effort is made to explain these to the citizens. This has a two-fold implication: firstly, it means that people should be given the tools to understand the content of the debates; secondly, it means that each stage of the decision making process has to be fully transparent. On both of these issues, civil society can be an effective conduit to gathering citizens’ views and feeding them back to the decision making process. 

Similarly, information and communication technologies have been very helpful in facilitating citizen engagement. Many new tools have been developed around the world, mainly by civic tech organisations. However, although new technologies have created new opportunities, especially for the youth, it is important to keep in mind that these tools do not work in the same way for everyone. Technology should therefore not be considered as the only way of engaging citizens, but rather as one of many great options in the large toolbox. 

Representation and demographic inclusion remain a particular challenge for participatory democracy.

That all being said, it is important to point out that scholars are inconclusive on whether participatory democracy leads to more trust of citizens in democratic processes. It is not because people are more involved that they will automatically regain trust and confidence towards the democratic system. But neither does the system need people to trust in it blindly. Rather, we need to seek a middle ground: a "critical truster", a healthy skeptic able to maintain a critical reflection towards a system in which they believe in

In the last few years we have witnessed a democratic backsliding, a pandemic that urged the centralization of decision-making and the spread of authoritarian methods, among other things. Based on your observations of civic participation in this period, how do you see the future of participatory democracy?

The pandemic has really tested a lot of governance systems around the world. Emergency measures were put into place in strong and stable democracies in a way that was unthinkable just two years ago, with little to no public scrutiny, in some cases without time restrictions, and without a test of proportionality or necessity. Ultimately that has really led to a restriction of civic space, a limit on public expression and assembly, both offline and online. These civic spaces are crucial for a healthy democracy, and their restrictions often go hand in hand with the restrictions of political space. The existing trends that tame the two are extremely worrying. 

However, throughout the pandemic we’ve seen examples of civic support, demonstrations, and a range of civil society organizations that have stepped up. A guide from Civicus shows countless examples around the world where citizens and civil society organizations have increased their efforts, despite the restrictions imposed upon them. In Chile, for example, street art has been a vital part of the ongoing protests for political and economic change. It recently moved online, with the creation of a virtual protest mural, while protest images were projected onto buildings in the capital, Santiago.

We have also seen how, in some democracies, new spaces have been created for citizens to participate in the post Covid-19 recovery and beyond. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Taiwan has involved citizens in its decision making using digital tools for engagement. The UK city of Bristol established a citizen assembly to discuss and make concrete recommendations on the recovery. In France, some Members of Parliament developed a national platform to gather citizens' ideas

These three very different examples show us that participatory democracy will not end with Covid-19, even if the pandemic has put a strain on it, as it has certainly been more difficult to engage citizens beyond the online spaces. Going forward, participatory democracy will need to continue to involve more citizens, especially those who are more apathetic to the political debate. It will also need to find innovative ways to target citizens' engagement on issues they care about, while leaving the door open for everyone to participate. 




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