Published on October 26, 2016

Can more public participation fix our broken democracy?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Broken egg on tableI’m fortunate to be attending the two week long Open State Festival in Adelaide, South Australia. There are over 60 events covering the future of leadership, of cities, money, technology and democracy. I’m speaking and participating; it’s been both exciting and really challenging to my thinking. In this blog post I thought I’d digest part of what I said to the annual conference of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Australasia.

I started out drawing on two areas of our work. The first was the Open Government Partnership in the UK, and the second the UK government sponsored Sciencewise Programme. Both of these provide strong examples demonstrating how well-designed public and stakeholder participation can have significant impacts in a number of different ways, on:

  • Policy, either in terms of supporting the development of stretching open government commitments, or in the introduction of novel technologies in ways that better meet the needs, and answer the concerns, of the public;
  • Public officials and politicians by developing their capacity to design and commission public engagement processes that have more impact, or take place earlier in the policy process; and
  • Participants, many of who discover that, contrary to their expectations, they have valuable contributions to make to complex, highly technical public policy decisions.

IAP2 members all have their own compelling stories from local, regional and national level that would add depth to this. However, exciting and profound as some of these impacts are, I’m not sure that they get to the root causes of the problems we are seeing in many democracies across the world. Drawing on our experience of designing and delivering public engagement processes, there are two key reasons we need to avoid complacency, and indeed need to think and act differently.

Firstly, both of the pieces of work I drew on, and many of the strong examples around the world, are fragile. They work around current democratic processes and systems. As a result, they are highly dependent on the sponsorship of key people and are at risk when these people move on.

Secondly, except in the rarest of cases, awareness of these processes is extremely limited and often non-existent. They often appear expensive when looked at in isolation, and their rigour and robustness lies hidden. As a result, the critical role that the public and civil society have played in influencing key decisions is effectively unknown. This means that controversial decisions appear less democratic than they were.

There are of course more immediate and obvious reasons that we need to shake off our complacency. The vote to leave the EU is dominating much of the political discussion in the UK. However, we are not alone and populism, on both sides of the political spectrum, is obvious in the US with the rise of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and across the rest of Europe with the Five Star Movement in Italy and Front National in France, for example.

Too many people draw the wrong conclusions from these political phenomena, in fact they often draw offensive conclusions. The vast majority of people who voted for Brexit, who are supporting Trump or the comedian in charge of the Five Star Movement are not stupid. They are not rejecting evidence or experts just for the sake of it. They have lost out through globalisation and the impact of government policies; rightly or wrongly they have been ignored and taken for granted for decades, and they are angry.

My challenge to public engagement professionals is that we are worrying about the wrong things when we design and deliver public engagement processes. We need to worry less about designing a robust process in the room; what I call the ‘how’ of engagement. Instead we need to worry much more about two very different things:

  • the ‘why’ of engagement. Are we dealing with the real issues that the public, particularly the most disenfranchised, are facing in their lives?
  • the ‘where’ of engagement. Are we intervening in the democratic system in a place that will have a sustainable impact on the way decisions are taken in the future? Are we making it more likely that a wider range of views will influence future decisions?

This challenge arises from my reading and thinking around the topic of deliberative systems, pulled together in Involve’s publication Room for a View: democracy as a deliberative system. Two key insights are important to highlight.

The first is that we have to move away from talking as if our democracy rests solely on democratic elections. A strong democracy does not just have lots of people turning up once every couple of years to put a cross in the box. The shift we need to make when we think about democracy is to think in terms of deliberative capacity; the extent to which a wide range of views and perspectives are visible, interacting and influencing decisions.

Deliberative Capacity; the extent to which a wide range of views and perspectives are visible, interacting and influencing decisions.

Next, we need to stop thinking of democracy as only happening in the chambers where elected officials sit and in the offices of government ministers. Drawing on the work of the academic John Dryzek, Room for a View identifies seven components of the deliberative system.

rfav diagram 2

This system can be used to assess the strength of democracy at any level of decision making, from the lowest level of government, to local government, council or state, national all the way through to the international level. When we are invited to join the intergalactic federation, it’ll probably apply there too!

As professional facilitators, we can run the best processes in the world, but if they aren’t helping to bring new views and perspectives, particularly from those groups whose voices are rarely if ever heard, into a part of the system where real power lies, then we’re just papering over the cracks; we’re helping to hide the hollowing out of our democracies, to disempower people and communities. And we therefore shouldn’t be surprised if they vote in ways that appear destructive (to us), but may in fact be the only way to be heard and have their concerns recognised.

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