PARTICIPATION III: AN IDEA FOR PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY

The classical theory of representative democracy is that citizens elect representatives who then do the governing until it is time for the citizens again in the next election. That puts power in the hands of the people but gives them no other role in governance than to vote.

This theory has much to it, but has been overtaken by history. The age of deference has passed. There is now an expectation that democracy will be participatory.

But what does that mean? While the classical theory of representative democracy is clean and straight, we have no theory of similar clarity for participatory democracy. Enthusiasts sometimes speak of it as the more participation, or activism, in whatever form, the better and the more democratic. But that is superficial. We have some serious thinking to do about participatory democracy in practice.

In representative democracy, the executive listens to divergent opinions in the legislature and shapes public policy accordingly. In a participatory democracy, one might think, the public is brought into the process directly and continuously. Policy then results not only from the exchange between executive and legislature, but between executive, legislature and the public.

That’s well and good but does not take us very far towards a different kind of democracy. First, representative democracy has never functioned the way the classical model has it: the public is already involved. Second, it does not give the public any other role than to exercise pressure on those who make decisions, which is not much by way of participation. Third, it leaves aside a big problem of unfairness, the interests of those who do not engage, who do not march, who do not demonstrate, who do not write newspaper opinions, who do not have think-tanks working for them. And fourth, there is a cost to incessant participation in decision-making in the form less efficient governance.

A different line might be to think of participation not only in exercising pressure on decision-making, but also in public management. The classical model here is again one that gives the public only limited roles. The government taxes the people to fund public services that are delivered back to the people. The role of the public is to pay taxes and consume services, all managed by the government.

I suggest we think of participatory democracy as involvement by citizens not only around the making of decisions but also in their implementation into practical management.

Here is one way that could be done: Services, broadly understood, are brought to recipients by agencies of various kinds. These may be public or semi-public agencies, say, thinking of Britain, the National Trust, the Environment Agency, the universities. Or they may be private, such as charities of various kind. Such agencies are engaged in works to improve social quality.

Participation in the works of such agencies could come about by government encouragement. Citizens could be encouraged to invest in causes in which they have an interest. The government could do that by pledging to match the investment of citizens. If you give £10 to a charity of your interest, the government contributes £10. If you put in five hours of voluntary work, the government matches that with five hours pay. You are given the power to decide where investments go, and the value of your own investment is doubled in the bargain (and, as a bonus, at a very low real cost to the government). You are a participant with say both in decision-making and implementation, and also, importantly, in a participation which involves both power and responsibility.

That, in a sketch, is the idea. I will elaborate in a future post.

2 thoughts on “PARTICIPATION III: AN IDEA FOR PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY

  1. Is this idea participation or organised philanthropy? My experience as a government official is that direct participation of the public in the work of public agencies is blocked by elected officials and their bevy of media-focussed advisers. Another idea is to create more public forums – beyond degraded legislatures and formulaic media panel shows -where professional public servants can directly engage with their concerned publics. What do you think of that idea? PS I admire your books especially A Nation of Devils

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  2. Jeff,
    Thank you for your comment. I am all for your idea for better forms of engagements between officials and the public and I think there is much that could be done. I’ll be careful to bear this in mind as I go along. But I think we should more demanding of participatory democracy to include also action and responsibility. I am trying to work out something on that and will post furter on it as soon as I can.

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