PARTICIPATION IV: “THE PARTICIPATION STATE”

“Participatory democracy” is a bit of a misnomer. Democracy is by definition participatory: citizens vote and engage in the making of public opinion into a political force. On this level, the role of citizens is to make demands on the governance that is in the hands of representatives and officials.

But there is now a view that this is not enough of a role for citizens if democracy is to be vibrant and responsive. There is a demand not just for different policies but for a different way of doing politics.

A first response is to improve the channels for citizens to provide political input. Much can be done here, for example with techniques such as deliberative opinion polling. That is important, but still limited: citizens are allowed opinions, but the doing is by “those up there.” Can citizens participate directly in the doing?

They already are. People do voluntary work in the provision of services and make financial contributions to charities that do good works. Governments support this with tax exemptions for charitable givings. This is a form of participatory provision of public goods. More could be done by building on this experience.

Here is a proposal: Governments step up their contributions from tax exemptions to obliging themselves to match the contributions of citizen. Whatever citizens provide, either in money or labour, would generate an equivalent provision from the government. That would be a huge stimulus to citizens to engage in good works.

It would also represent a shift in decision-making. The deciding on what to do would be in the hands of citizens. They would have contributory support from the government but the doing would be theirs. We would then have a model in which citizens are in charge of deciding and doing, with the government in the more limited role of facilitator.

Say, as an example, a group of parents think the local school should offer pupils more physical education. They raise half the money to employ a teacher for the purpose, knowing that the government is obliged to match their contribution. The parents have decided what service should be offered and are able to get it done.

You might argue that it is the government’s responsibility to provide services. Well and good, but if you insist that all the doing must be the responsibility of the government, you are also saying that your own role can be no more than to put pressure on the government. If the starting point of this argument is that the participation available to citizens is too limited, why not welcome the opportunity to take charge directly in the deciding on what should be done? Why not welcome a participation that comes with both power and responsibility?

In the example given, there is a lot in it for citizens, in this case the group of parents. They get a teacher job established by raising only half of the money needed. For every £1 they provide, £2 go to the school. They get to decide what teacher job should be established – they have the power. They get involvement with the local school. They get an opportunity to shift a bit of their family spending from yet more consumption trinkets to socially useful doings under their own control.

There is also much in it for the government. As a result of its facilitation, it sees a useful service being provided. It has let citizens decide which service and helps realise something citizens want. It is cheap for the public purse. Not only have citizens raised half the money needed, much of the additional money the government puts in, it gets back. The money goes into a salary on which the school pays social insurance contributions and the new teacher pays income taxes. The teacher spends the remaining income, generating VAT revenue back to the public purse. That spending in the next round stimulates further economic activity, which generates further public revenue.

Step up a notch and imagine thousands and thousands of such initiatives throughout the land. You then have a democratic structure of social justice: doings are in response to needs identified by citizens and under their authority. Citizens massively decide on the provision of public goods, in a decentralised pattern. Ordinary people here, there and everywhere make decisions. They take power and accept responsibility. The government facilitates and supports their doing. Much of that doing will be in the form of job creation. You therefore have a structure that creates jobs, and by and large good jobs. And an efficient structure free from stifling bureaucracy.

In the aggregate, there is again much in it for the government as well. It offers a way out of the blight of public poverty within private wealth. Things get done which the government itself could not do. When the government is the doer, all doing needs to be funded from taxes. But the raising of new taxes for additional doings is now very difficult. By and large, tax revenues are committed to existing doings, and by and large tax extraction has reached its limit within the constraints of global capitalism. Cynically, the arrangement I am suggesting is a way to get people to pay voluntarily what they would not be willing to pay in taxes.

I have had in mind a country like Britain, which is relatively poor in the provision of public goods and in which tax extraction has (pretty much) reached its social limit, but which is rich in what might broadly be called public provision institutions. That includes, for example, institutions like the National Trust or English Heritage and many similar ones, many local, schools and universities, and a vast network of charities. These are institutions rearing to do more work in their respective fields. Along with a strong tradition of voluntary and charitable participation, they represent an underused national capital. With more stimulus, it would be meaningful for citizens to get together and create their own institutions, small or larger, to work for causes of their interest.

Obviously, there would have to be a regulatory regime for which private provisions would trigger an equivalent government provision and which institutions are eligible partners. Obviously, there would have to be oversight to avoid exploitation and corruption. Not easy, the devil is in the detail, but doable.

My argument is that with strong government encouragement in the form of a 100% matching commitment, a second level of public provision, grounded in citizenship participation, would be possible. On the first level, citizens pay taxes and the government provides services. This, roughly, is the “welfare state.” On the second level, citizens take in hand service provision and are able to do that thanks to government facilitation. This we might call the “participation state.”

 

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