Home Political science Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise?
For present purposes, direct democracy may be defined as that form of democracy in which citizen power and authority is exercised without the mediating influence of the elected representatives and officials of representative government. The list of direct democracy-related innovations includes: town meetings; referendums, initiatives and recalls; direct legislation and direct participation in rule-making; ballot propositions; and those forms of co-governance where citizens have real decision-making powers.
Electronic democracy is treated as a category in its own right because, as a means to an end, it cuts across all of the other four categories above. It attracts a great deal of attention and is claimed by some to have a power to transform the political world, and so it deserves special consideration as a separate category of innovations of its own.
There is no reason why innovations of the top-down and bottom-up kind should not be tried in tandem or alongside each other, especially if, as seems likely, democratic quality can be improved in both ways. This book, however, will concentrate on bottom-up, input innovations that try in various ways to raise the awareness, knowledge and participation of citizens in daily political life. It does so for several reasons. First, the number and variety of democratic innovations is so huge that it would be difficult to try to consider them all carefully in a single volume: the result would be superficial. Second, although the topics selected are only part of the whole field of democratic innovation, they have usually attracted the greatest interest. (A preliminary survey of the research produces a list of more than 550 publications covering e-democracy, voting and elections, consultation and deliberation, direct democracy, and co-governance.) Third, innovations that focus on bottom-up attempts to stimulate citizen political activity have been tried in many different countries and in a wide variety of circumstances, which makes it possible to evaluate their effects with a greater degree of confidence. Fourth, it is usually easier to evaluate the effects of what are often small-scale democratic experiments rather than large-scale institutional changes. For example, it is easier to estimate the impact of the trial runs of postal voting or e-voting that have been conducted in selected areas, than to evaluate the effects of administrative courts or the development of parliamentary committee systems. Moreover, innovations that focus on citizens confront some of the timeless questions of democracy. Are voters capable of making sensible decisions about politics? Are they well enough informed? How can we best overcome the problem of rational ignorance? Do voters respond favourably to being placed in the most favourable circumstances for rational deliberation?
Concentrating on citizen-centred innovations does not imply that they are more important than state or government-centred ones. In fact, it may be that some political leaders like to devote much money and time to input innovations because they distract attention from their own role in generating democratic malaise. The claim is not that bottom-up innovations are the most important form of democratic improvement, but that they are an important form that attracts a great deal of popular and government interest, with potentially big implications for revitalized democracy.
To further stake out a manageable field of work that fits without too much overcrowding within the covers of one book, we are concerned here with innovation in the public not the private sector, that is, in government and politics and in organizations that act in the public sphere and have a role in decision making and the delivery of public services. It is true that many organizational innovations have their origins in the private and commercial sectors, but there are, as many have pointed out, big differences between the public and the private, and the transfer of practices from one to the other remains a highly problematic issue. To further specify the limits of our research, we are concerned with general government bodies (international, national and sub-national) rather than public bodies concerned with particular services (agencies of government delivering education, transport or health, for example). The interest here is with general matters of government rather than citizen relations with particular public services. This is not because particular services are unimportant - far from it - but because they may have special characteristics and circumstances surrounding them that distinguish them from general relations between citizens and government.
The rest of this chapter will not describe or review citizen-centred democratic innovations in detail. That is already done comprehensively and expertly elsewhere (Smith 2005, 2009).3 Rather, it will briefly introduce the work that follows and raise some general questions about the importance and effect of democratic innovations.
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