Democracy and apathy, CityGypsy11

I’m on a fortnight’s writing retreat to read up on democratic theory and reflect on our work of the past 6 years. My conviction that fixating on voting reform (while important) won’t miraculously lead to meaningful democratic reform has been reinforced. 

Involve’s work is based on both the theory and practice of public engagement. This is important because our system of government and democracy is complex and interconnected. Diving in to engage the public on an important issue will give us (and government) the feeling of ‘doing something’. However, unless we properly understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, we can have far less confidence that we will have a positive impact.

It’s one reason why we’ve got a team with wide experience, skills and knowledge able to draw on both theory and practice to try to make our work as effective as possible.

I’ve been in my role as Director now for more than six years, and as is inevitable with such a role it’s nearly impossible to find quality time to think. Thinking comes at the margins, on the train, the walk to work, in ideas sparked while grabbing a short time to read. That’s why I’m feeling very privileged to have got two weeks to sit in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University, read up on the theory of democratic reform, and of deliberative and participatory democracy. I’m just under a week in and I’ve found the experience incredibly helpful. It’s done two things for me:

Firstly, I can see echoes of our work across the literature I’ve read. This feels right; while we consider ourselves democratic innovators we don’t want to diverge too far either from what is politically possible (where I spend much of my day job), or from what appears theoretically sensible.

Secondly, in seeing echoes of our work in the literature I have had the time and space to reflect on what we are doing, where we could be stronger, and where we can be proud.

There is lots I could digest from my reading, but I just want to pick-up on one aspect which is how spaces of participation fit into the wider system of democracy.

The election we’re in the middle of demonstrates quite how important this is to think through and understand. To read any of the party manifestos you could be mistaken for believing that there will be a simple line of causality between the votes cast on 8th May and lots of ‘good things’ happening; that we elect our MPs to form a government that ‘leads’, pulls legislative levers and makes things happen.

This obviously isn’t true, our country is governed and services delivered by a network of organisations very few of which are under the direct control of MPs. Our work on NHS Citizen demonstrates just how complex the system is; there is barely an elected politician in sight.

Recognising this highlights flaws in some of the claims about representative democracy. Specifically it gives lie to the claim that our democracy works through the aggregation of individual preferences expressed through voting.

Theories about deliberative democracy arose from recognising this flaw and claim that democracy must include discussion on an equal and inclusive basis. But in order for this discussion to have an effect on decisions it must connect to them.

Deliberative democracy theorist John Dryzek identifies seven different components which are required to make a democratic system deliberative. Each of the components needs to be present in a governance system to make the system as a whole democratic. However, individually they can be more or less deliberative without necessarily affecting the overall democratic nature of the system.

His seven components of a deliberative democratic system are:

  • The private sphere or what happens at home or between friends, for example
  • Public space is visible and accessible to most people. Public space is found in connection with the media, civil society, religious groups, but includes formally constituted spaces such as citizen assemblies or juries
  • Empowered space for individuals who are part of institutions making collective decisions including parliaments, committees, courts etc
  • Transmission between the public space and empowered space in order to provide the public space with a way to influence the empowered space
  • Accountability of the empowered space to the public space which is critical for ensuring legitimacy for collective outcomes
  • Deliberation about the quality of the system as a whole which is important for ensuring that all actors are able to affect the way the democratic system as a whole works
  • Decisiveness to ensure that the components of the system have power to influence the collective decisions, in other words that an strongly deliberative parliament isn’t bypassed by presidential decree, for example*

As I read this list of components I felt all the aspects of our work lock more firmly into place; the list helped me confirm that we’re on the right lines.

For many people who know us I suspect that they will think of us primarily in terms of the work we do to set-up and run what Dryzek calls public spaces (whether through supporting their commissioning through Sciencewise or delivering as in much of our work).

However, most of our concerns are actually around the final four bullets in Dryzek’s list of components. Which leads us to ask questions such as:

  • How do we create the space for public engagement in a way that the decision-makers (normally civil servants and politicians) will listen to what citizens are saying and act on it?
  • To what extent can we make sure that the decisions taken are transparent, evidenced in relation to what the citizens in the space say and fed back to them and wider society?
  • How do we learn and improve our practice? How can we find ways to support citizens to impact on the way they are involved?
  • How do we ensure that the citizen voice has the maximum impact on the decision?

I must confess that I started this fortnight with some trepidation; it’s a long time since I darkened the doors of academia and my background is as a scientist rather than as a social scientist; would I drown in gobbledegook? However, so far its been immensely rewarding and given me increased confidence that the work we are doing with our partners inside and outside government is broadly on the right track, heading in a direction that has some chance of giving citizens voice and influence in the system more often than voting once every five years.

Picture credit: CityGypsy11 on Flickr

* Summarised in Owen, D. and Smith, G. (2015) Survey Article: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Systemic Turn, The Journal of Political Philosophy