The challenges of participative democracy

Power to the people!

This is the cry of those who call for more participative democracy. Be they party leaders (or aspiring leaders) like Corbyn and Smith promising to give members more say in policy making. Or be they activists who would like to see our representative democracies move towards a more participative model.

There are other forces pushing in that direction. A more informed electorate, a feeling of empowerment that has been enhanced by the use of social media, the easy availability of sites where everyone can publish their opinion unhindered by the prejudices and power of gate-keeping editors. All of this is driving in the direction of ever more participation in key decisions that have an impact on people’s lives.

But it is not straightforward. For political parties, one thing that can be said with certainty is that their membership is not in any way representative of the general public. Simply by belonging to a political party, members are different – and in a small minority. There is a natural tendency to push for policies that members particularly care about even if they cannot command any significant support among the wider public. This often puts parties that have member participation at the heart of their organisation at odds with the public mood.

As for wider public participation in policy making, this too has issues. Most of the general public usually only takes a passing interest in politics and the policy process. They are then periodically aroused during a referendum campaign on some major issue. Their views are shaped by political campaigners. As we have seen on both sides of the recent EU referendum, such campaigns seem to have scant regard for providing the public with reliable and credible information. Rather it’s  extreme perspectives and demagoguery that end up making the headlines. Neither is it viable to have government by referendum.

Is there an answer to these opposing forces?

Switzerland is one example where there is a more participative form of democracy. Why does it seem to work better there? Two main reasons. The first is that the citizenship is, in general, much more politically engaged and informed than it is in other countries. Every referendum is accompanied by the issue of large amounts of information to voters. What’s more surprising, a surprising proportion of voters actually read through the information provided.

The second difference is that Switzerland is a confederation of states with very little power vested in the central government. Many political decisions are therefore local, they affect people directly and they are generally the subject of much discussion among communities. Localism generates engagement. Centralization leads to disengagement. And the latter is what we have in the UK – except, of course for the self-selected, unrepresentative members of a political party.

There is certainly a strong case for more public participation in the policy making process. However, those who push for it need to accept that it’s not straightforward. By and large we still don’t know how to do it well. The challenge is to find a path that lies between where we are today –  focus group testing of policy ideas simply for electoral reasons – and the other extreme of government by referendum or the belief that it only takes a ping pong of ideas using 140 characters to provide the answer to everything. The effective interaction between leadership and participation is a difficult one to define.

Here at Radix, we are exploring how this might be done more effectively. We believe that the key lies in bringing effective input and public discussion into the policy making process rather than in the idea of having everyone vote on everything. There are several models that have been tried. Largely they have been experimental, very small scale and never tested more widely. We intend to explore further. We would like to hear from anyone who has ideas and experiences that might help us in our quest.

In the meantime, I suggest that we take with a pinch of salt anyone who puts forward greater participation as the solution to all our problems. Such promises may have populist appeal but we are still a long way from knowing how to make it all a workable reality.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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