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Activating the inactive

Many innovations of the citizen-centred variety attempt to broaden the base of popular participation by increasing the number and variety of groups involved. Experiments with community participation, consultation and co-governance have targeted the politically detached and marginal. Some have aimed at the poorest and least well educated sections of native populations and others have concentrated on minority and immigrant groups. New forms of electronic communication have been exploited by those claiming that they have nothing less than a revolutionary potential for reaching those parts of the population that other means cannot reach. The simple question follows: what success have democratic innovations had in informing and mobilizing the groups in the population that are typically the most uninformed and inactive?

The diffusion of innovation

Can innovations from one country be transplanted to another? In this respect, political innovations differ from those in science and engineering. The internal combustion engine works irrespective of the country, its social conditions, and its political and economic climate. But political innovations that work well in one country may not travel well or thrive when transplanted to another. Similarly, innovations that work well at one level of a system, or in one institution within it, may not work well in others. For example, the Chicago community policing experiment, operating separately in each of the 285 small neighbourhoods of the city, has been successful in encouraging participation, especially among minority and disadvantaged groups, and has speeded up the implementation of new ideas and practices (Fung 2003). However, it is unlikely to be successful at a city, state or federal level, because it depends on the close social relations of small urban areas. The conclusion that it could not be effectively transferred to a higher level political unit does not detract from the success of the Chicago experience, but it does suggest that its applicability to larger political arenas is limited. Which innovations travel well across time, place and levels of the political system, and which are limited in their effectiveness to particular circumstances?

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