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Home arrow Political science arrow Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise?


What, then, can be concluded from this comparison between the new and the old, the innovative and the traditional? If the purpose is to increase participation, and to engage more citizens actively with issues of public policy, then democratic innovations involving mini-publics cannot compare with the traditional citizen- initiated campaign or demonstration, in the sheer numbers involved and mobilized, and the level of politicization that takes place among the previously ‘apolitical’. If, on the other hand, the purpose is to provide an authoritative and undistorted assessment of a policy issue by citizens themselves, which should carry normative weight with policy makers, then mini-public forums, if well constructed and managed, have qualities that most citizen-initiated campaigns do not. However, their conclusions have to be heard, both by government and the public, if that normative weight is to be made to count in practice. And I have argued that, where a citizens’ campaign is both representative of wider public opinion and set in the context of extensive public discussion of the issue in question, it can approach the normative weight of a citizens’ jury, besides carrying the additional authority of numbers and the impact of wide publicity.

Let me address, finally, a question that directly connects the two forms of citizen engagement, old and new. If more use were made and notice taken of citizens’ juries and other mini-public forums by government at the proactive level, then would the incidence of the reactive citizen campaign or demonstration noticeably decline? Intuitively this seems a plausible conclusion. It is worth citing in this context an assessment quoted by Graham Smith from the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, comparing UK with Danish experience:

The usefulness of consensus conferences can be shown by contrasting UK and Danish experience over food irradiation. The Danish Parliament had available a very negative report by a lay panel and decided that irradiation of food should not be approved for general use. In the UK the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes decided that the process should be introduced. There was a hostile response from the public, and industry was unable to use plant it had installed. That outcome might well have been avoided if there had been appropriate public debate before the decision was taken.

(Smith 2005: 46)

In the UK, we have moved from a Labour Government, which belatedly and perhaps only half-heartedly concluded that the use of citizens’ juries and other modes of citizen consultation should be extended in potentially controversial areas of policy, to a Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition, which is pushing through a contentious programme of cuts in the public finances and reorganization of the health and education services without any form of public consultation whatsoever. It is hardly surprising that we are now seeing the re-emergence of mass demonstrations and direct action campaigns, beginning with students, who feel particularly betrayed by Liberal Democratic parliamentarians, many of whom owed their election in 2010 to a promise not to increase fees for university courses, which was subsequently broken. In this respect, the UK is starting to resemble the countries of the rest of Europe, such as Iceland, France and Greece, where mass protests against cuts in the public sector have been more bitter and prolonged.

From a democratic point of view, the present situation is marked by a potentially dangerous conjunction of three features:

  • • The necessity to reinvent the public sphere after a generation of privatization, deregulation and contempt of government.
  • • Chronically low levels of public confidence in the political class and institutions of representative government charged with this task.
  • • Widespread economic and social distress and deepening public anger at taxpayers having to pay for banking excesses, perhaps over a generation to come.

In this context, and the serious need to re-engage citizens with government, it has to be said that neither of the modes of citizen engagement considered in this chapter seem equal to the situation. Mini-publics are too small scale, and too easily restricted or ignored by government. Citizen campaigns and demonstrations, as already discussed, are primarily reactive. Where they are effective in preventing or delaying a policy, they do nothing to promote an alternative; where ineffective, they reinforce disillusion with the democratic process. That the present situation demands a reinvention of the processes of representative democracy, and new modes of citizen engagement with them, is evident. What forms will emerge best suited to this need remains an open question.

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