There is a lot of rhetoric around citizen engagement: how to overcome people’s cynicism towards political institutions and increase voter turnouts? How to open up local policy making and Westminster itself to public scrutiny and public input? Yet my feeling is that the majority of people don’t seem to take politicians’ promises to deepen democracy seriously. So I’ve been asking myself: when would I start trusting politicians, what would they have to do for me to take them seriously? My answer: when they start trusting citizens and taking us seriously.
People are searching for (and finding) new ways of political involvement and are increasingly disengaging from politicians’ politics as it’s played out in Westminster’s blame game. Sporadic surges of support for anti-establishment parties reflect the growing impatience with mainstream narratives. And yet politicians still expect people to engage with “their” politics when politics should belong to the public. Meaningful change will require a big change in perspective.
If they’re honest about strengthening democracy, politicians might have to go and engage with people on their own territory, treating them as critical participants rather than consumers to whom they want sell a message. Politicians should help create real opportunities for people to shape the agenda rather than force them to react to top-down policies; they should trust people when the public’s agenda is different from what they had in mind. In sum, they should give out, at least partly, power and control – although I acknowledge this entails taking many political risks.
Practically, what might this entail? As an advocate of public dialogue and participatory democracy, my suggestion would be to truly make the most of online and offline tools and organise wide-ranging citizen debates covering major issues. This doesn’t mean that the public should be involved at all times on every single decision, but they should shape the political agenda on complex, contested, value-laden issues. We should be able to have a clear say on the type of society we want: from the environment to economic models, from developments in science and technology to human and social rights.
These debates would be organised (throughout the year?) in a decentralised manner, tapping into grassroots movements and civil society to raise awareness. In many cases they would involve randomly selected members so as to reflect the socio-demographics of the country, with quotas for the most marginalised voices. They would help identify the most pressing issues for politicians to focus on, providing general recommendations, which would have to feed into the policy process. If recommendations are rejected politicians would have to justify their decision publicly through a transparent process.
Coordinating such a decentralised deliberative system without bureaucratising it is certainly a challenge, but more innovative use of new technologies and new thinking in deliberative democracy could really help. In their blog post Patrizia Nanz and Raphaël Kies put forward a similar proposal of local, regional, national and transnational debates with randomly selected citizens on European issues. In order to manage these debates in the long term, they envisage a European consultative Council of Citizens that overlooks and strengthens the impact of the consultations and sits alongside other European legislative bodies. Is it worth considering something similar nationally? A third chamber made of citizens?
You might argue this whole idea would be unfeasible and too costly. The challenges and pressures that come with austerity will no doubt affect the will of civil servants and politicians to engage the public directly, with departments experiencing deep cuts. However, one might also argue that constraints on spending can be an incentive for governments to avoid wasteful U-turns and get policies right first time round. Involving the public upfront in shaping the agenda and finding the solution might well save time and money in the longer term.
These participatory processes have been tried out many times and very successfully, often on the initiative of civil society (see the G1000 initiative and the Irish Constitutional Convention). But so far they have been one-off events with little impact. This is because of the limited political buy-in in the face of ordinary citizens consistently showing the ability to grapple with highly complex issues and produce articulate and sensible policy recommendations that reflect social needs (on this also see Sciencewise’s work on science and technology in the UK). Involve is currently working on NHS Citizen, which will be a deliberative system online and offline within the NHS – although we have yet to see how this system will work in the long term and how much impact it will effectively have on policies.
I think this is a debate worth having. Our democracies are at a turning point, taking the correct turn might make the difference between a more mature political environment and a more engaged citizenry on the one side and demagogy and populism on the other.