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Evaluating new vs old forms of citizen engagement and participation

David Beetham

This chapter offers a different perspective on the evaluation of democratic innovations from those in the rest of the volume. Instead of an internal comparison, whereby innovations are assessed against one another by common criteria, such as their representativeness, deliberative range and political impact, this chapter offers an external comparison, against an age-old mode of citizen engagement, that of the citizen-initiated campaign or demonstration. There are two reasons for doing this. One is to test, and also extend, the criteria for assessing innovations, by including a wider range of forms of citizen engagement for evaluation. The second reason lies in the danger that, by concentrating exclusive academic attention on democratic innovations, we overlook or downplay forms of citizen engagement that may be both politically and democratically more significant.

I take it that most, though not all, of what Ken Newton in his introduction calls ‘bottom-up’ innovations that are the subject of this volume constitute a sub-species of a broader category that might be termed ‘modes of direct citizen engagement with or participation in the decision making of public bodies and officials outside the electoral process’. The term ‘direct’ will exclude indirect or mediated engagement, such as takes place when citizens participate in civil society organizations and these, in turn, engage with public bodies and officials, however important this may be, indeed often supplementing or facilitating direct citizen engagement. Similarly, for the purposes of this volume, we may wish to exclude forms of direct citizen engagement that are individual rather than collective - individual contact with an elected representative or government official, submission to a parliamentary committee or government consultation, the use of redress mechanisms, and so on - on the grounds that there is no interactive or deliberative moment with other citizens involved. This distinction is, however, a fine one, since many examples of individual use of redress mechanisms have a collective dimension, for example where they involve a category of complainants or lead to a collective movement in support of an individual. We should also exclude forms of collective action that have the unintended consequence of influencing public decision making, such as depositors queuing outside a crisis stricken bank to cash their savings, even though this may contribute more to denuding the public finances than to the collapse of the bank itself.

Evaluating new vs old forms of citizen engagement and participation 57

Even with these exclusions, we are still left with a wide range of collective and direct modes of citizen engagement with, or participation in, the decision making of public bodies and officials outside the electoral process. My own far from comprehensive list would include:

  • • submission of petitions
  • • official consultative processes
  • • co-governance arrangements or partnerships
  • • citizens’ juries, deliberative polls, consensus conferences
  • • campaigns and demonstrations
  • • membership of statutory decision bodies (‘lay governance’)
  • • citizen initiatives
  • • referendums
  • • citizen assemblies
  • • public or political party meetings
  • • television forums
  • • e-forums and other uses of information and communications technology (ICT) to facilitate any of the above.

In other words, innovative modes of citizen engagement, supposing we agree on what counts as ‘innovative’, form part of a much wider set of modes of direct citizen engagement or participation that have always been a feature of the democratic process. For this reason, it is worth considering democratic innovations in the context of the much wider set of modes of direct citizen engagement, as this chapter seeks to do.

Taking all these modes together for the moment, we can draw up a set of dichotomies to characterize or typologize them, such as:

  • • taking place within established structures vs outside them;
  • • in invited vs claimed spaces (Gaventa 2007);
  • • through open vs closed participation;
  • • with selected vs self-chosen membership;
  • • by proactive vs reactive engagement;
  • • as a one-off activity vs ongoing or recurrent one;
  • • involving policy or legislative formation vs implementation.

Some of these dichotomies are overlapping, and in any case they are not exhaustive.

For the purposes of this chapter, I am going to compare only two of these modes of citizen engagement - one new, one old - which stand on opposite sides of most of these dichotomies. First are citizens’ juries, which form part of a wider category of ‘mini-publics’ (Goodin and Dryzek 2006) including similar forms such as consensus conferences and planning cells. Citizens’ juries occupy an invited space, with a closed and selected membership, and are typically proactive, in the sense that they are intended to contribute to policy formation or implementation ex ante,

even though the consultative agenda may have been preset by government or other sponsor. Second, and at the other end of the spectrum of public engagement, is the citizen-initiated campaign or demonstration that, in contrast to the citizens’ jury, occupies a claimed space, with an open and self-selected membership, and is typically (though not always) reactive to the decision of a public body already taken or trailed as about to be taken. Of course, this mode of citizen engagement cannot be legislated for or form part of any deliberate programme for encouraging greater citizen involvement.

One notable feature of these two contrasting types of citizen engagement is that both were prominent in New Labour’s period of office in the UK from 19972010. Blair’s premiership from 1997 to 2007 was marked by some of the largest mass demonstrations ever seen in Britain, including Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History; the Countryside Alliance, campaigning against the government’s neglect of rural interests in general and the proposed ban on fox hunting in particular (1998-2000); and the anti-Iraq war movement, which brought over a million people onto the streets of London in February 2003. In autumn 2000 there had been the protests against the increase in fuel taxes, which brought fuel distribution across the country to a standstill through refinery blockades. And the anti-genetically modified (GM) crops direct action campaign between 1998 and 2002 put off the introduction of GM crops for a decade. These were only the tip of the iceberg. A rough and ready count by the Democratic Audit of significant campaigns on issues of national policy under Blair came up with more than fifty, covering such issues as animal welfare, capitalism and globalization, education, the environment and transport, faith issues, farming and the countryside, justice and racial discrimination, social policy and welfare, war and weapons of destruction (Beetham et al. 2008: 58-9).

However, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, he recognised that the government needed to be more proactive in consulting directly with citizens on important issues of public policy. Among his first acts as premier in July 2007 was the publication of a Green Paper, The Governance of Britain, which recognized that action was needed ‘across the breadth of the political system to restore trust in politics and in our political institutions’ (Ministry of Justice 2007: 40). The Paper identified the use of citizens’ juries as one mechanism for empowering citizens at the local level, and its use was also advocated in the proposed nationwide discussion on British values and a Bill of Rights (Ministry of Justice 2007: 49). In a speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations in September 2007, the Prime Minister announced that citizens’ juries would take place on issues related to children, criminal justice and the future of the National Health Service (nine juries, one in each region, meeting simultaneously and linked by video, Brown 2007). And in a speech at a Constitution Unit conference in October 2007, the Minister of State for Democratic Renewal, Michael Wills, suggested that the use of citizens’ juries might become the norm across all areas of public policy (Maer 2007b: 5). It was almost as if the use of citizens’ juries in a proactive way was designed to pre-empt the reactive citizen campaigns and demonstrations that had been such a feature of the Blair era.

Evaluating new vs old forms of citizen engagement and participation 59

For all the obvious differences, then, between citizens’ juries and citizen- initiated campaigns (to be explored further below), their increased incidence is symptomatic of a common phenomenon - a political class perceived to be out of touch with citizens or significant sections of them, or what Ken Newton in his introduction characterizes as a ‘democratic malaise’. Both modes of citizen engagement can be seen as forms of compensation for perceived distortions in the representative process and in government policy making. Representation has been particularly distorted in the UK by the systems of parliamentary election and candidate selection, and the requirements of political parties and their funding. Government policy making is distorted by the huge weight and privileged status given to business and financial interests, and the resulting distortions of evidence and public communication in the treatment of major policy issues. To these ‘distortions’ the two modes of citizen engagement offer different forms of compensation. Citizens’ juries offer a purer form of representation and deliberation, undistorted by personal, sectional or party interest, which conforms more closely to an original idealized model of the representative assembly and its deliberative processes. The citizen-initiated campaign, on the other hand, aims to bring into the public arena issues, points of view or interests that have been ignored in the decision process, or not been given sufficient weight.

So how are we now to compare or evaluate these two modes of citizen engagement, which are so different, and comparing which at first sight looks like comparing chalk and cheese? Well, one way is to use the kind of criteria that have been developed in the literature for evaluating democratic innovations, and apply them to both (Fung and Wright 2003; Beetham 2005: 130-56; Smith 2005). These criteria can be grouped into three broad categories, of which the following components can serve for our purposes (see also Geissel in this volume):

  • 1 Participatory range
  • • how representative or inclusive it is
  • • what numbers of people are involved
  • 2 Deliberative mode
  • • the degree of commitment or engagement of participants
  • • the range of deliberation
  • 3 Degree of impact
  • • on the participants
  • • on public debate
  • • on policy outcomes

One comment is worth adding on the third of these categories. Most of the literature on democratic innovations considers their impact on the participants and on policy outcomes, but ignores the potentially important aspect of their effect, if any, on public debate and opinion, however difficult this may be to gauge accurately.

Once I have briefly assessed the two modes of citizen engagement against these criteria, I shall consider a further question, which takes us to the heart of issues in representative democracy: how much notice should policy makers take of these forms of participation? This might be described as their comparative normative weight, which includes the criteria under (1) and (2) above, but goes beyond them, and requires locating them in an account of the norms of representative democracy.

Assessed against the above three sets of criteria, then, the citizens’ jury scores highly on the representativeness and inclusivity criterion, provided its membership is selected by a method, such as stratified sampling, which guarantees a cross section of the population, including members of minority and marginalized groups. The level of commitment required from participants is high, in terms of the number of days they have to be prepared to devote to the work. The range of deliberation is also extensive, often leaving a marked impression on the participants. According to Graham Smith’s review of citizens’ juries, ‘evidence from the UK, US and Germany suggests that citizens take their role seriously and are willing and able to deliberate on often complex and controversial issues ... deliberation often leads to changes in opinions and viewpoints’ (Smith 2005: 45, 54). The citizens’ jury scores very low, however, on the numbers of those participating - at the most in the 20s or 30s at a time. And while there is no reason in principle why the proceedings and conclusions of a citizens’ jury should not be given wide publicity, and so influence wider public debate, there is little evidence that this has happened to date in the UK. They seem to be treated by government in the same way as a privately commissioned focus group, without involving any wider citizen engagement. And it is correspondingly difficult to assess what impact they have had, or are likely to have, on policy outcomes. This assessment of impact is confirmed by Graham Smith more generally in his chapter for this volume: public awareness of the very existence of mini-publics (let alone their outputs) is very low. Commissioning bodies will simply ‘cherry- pick’ those recommendations or trends in opinions that support their perspective, while ignoring those that are uncomfortable.

When we turn to the citizen-initiated campaign or demonstration, we are confronted with an enormous variety between them. However, they share some typical characteristics that allow for a generic assessment against the above criteria. On national level issues, most score relatively highly on the numbers of citizens involved, and the level of engagement required; they also have the typical effect of politicizing those among the participants who previously considered themselves as ‘apolitical’. Almost by definition, however, they are unrepresentative of the wider population, since they are self-selected and concentrated on a particular point of view or interest. By the same token, at first sight they lack any deliberative quality, since they are not engaged in listening to others, but in promoting a predetermined viewpoint, often at the tops of their voices. However, we should not overlook the deliberation involved in organizing a campaign and deciding which aspects of an issue to prioritize, nor the spread of supportive local groups where the level of deliberation can be quite substantial, though its range will be

Evaluating new vs old forms of citizen engagement and participation 61

Table 3.1 Comparison between citizens’ jury and citizens’ campaign

Citizens ’jury

Citizens ’ campaign




Numbers involved


mostly high




Deliberative range


low to medium

Impact on participants



Impact on public debate


can be high

Impact on policy outcomes



narrow in comparison with a citizens’ jury. Dieter Rucht’s assessment of the levels of deliberation in Global Justice Movements - ‘that the majority of these groups are more successful in reducing “hard” power and enabling deliberation than most trade unions, political parties and big non-governmental organizations’ - provides a caution against writing off this dimension too readily (see Rucht in this volume).

In terms of the impact of a citizen-initiated campaign on wider public debate, much depends on the issue and levels of publicity, but it is typically much higher than that of a ‘mini-public’. Even more variable is their degree of influence on public policy, which depends on the extent to which the legitimacy of a particular policy can be undermined by a campaign, or its implementation hindered. To characterize citizen-initiated campaigns as typically ‘reactive’ to an announced policy is not to suggest they can have no effect on it, or on future policies, even if they may not achieve their stated goal of having a policy reversed or abandoned. The campaign in the UK against the Newbury bypass road in the 1980s, for example, did not stop the bypass from being constructed, but it did influence the government’s road-building programme for a decade or more.

A comparative evaluation of the two types of citizen engagement, then, can be summarised in Table 3.1.

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