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


In this volume, Julien Talpin concludes that most forms of co-governance around the world remain consultative. This is because governments prefer them that way. While some have a decisive impact at the local level, they are not, in general, numerous enough to have much effect at the national level and it remains an open question whether, collectively, they have much effect on public policy and decision making at present. When promoted by political leaders, their role tends to be vague and their powers elusive. Moreover, there is the danger that small groups of people initially recruited as a cross section of the population to take part in co-governance institutions will, themselves, come to form a sub-elite of their own over time. Worse still, self-selected participants will most probably show all the special characteristics of the usual small in-group of active and involved citizens.

The three most widely discussed, admired and imitated examples of cogovernance in the world are the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform of British Columbia, Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the community schools and police experiments in Chicago. All three cases seem to be examples to greater or lesser extent of what Fung and Wright (2003) term ‘empowered deliberative governance’. They give power to the people - at least the power to influence agendas, bring about some change, and affect decisions (Fung 2003a; Lang 2007; In this respect, they seem to be clear cases of co-governance in action, with real power and influence.

At the same time, all three were strongly influenced by political elites and the formal institutions and procedures of representative democracy. The British Columbia Assembly was, like its successor the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly, the initiative and the creation of government, which was motivated to set it up in order to gain a partisan advantage over its competitors for power (Carty et al. 2006: 1; Ferejohn 2008). It may well be that most democratic reforms are introduced for reasons of narrow self-interest, rather than a deep concern for the public good, but, nevertheless, such motives may help to explain why the government of the day gave the Assembly a rather narrow mandate, decided its structure, appointed its Chair and kept control of all its resources. Though the Assembly was formally completely independent of the government once it was set up (Lang 2007: 50), some suspect it was consciously or unconsciously steered by the government officials who served it (Fagotto and Fung 2006a: 11; Lang 2007: 51).1 In accordance with its founding brief, its decision was put to a general referendum, and when this narrowly failed to reach its 60 per cent threshold of votes in favour (referendums often come down on the side of the status quo), the government decided to give its citizens the opportunity to reverse the wrong decision of the first ballot. This also failed, but both British Columbian and EU voters, it seems, are given a second chance to make the right decision when political elites do not like the outcome of the first referendum. In sum, the British Columbia Assembly was dependent upon the officials of representative government for its creation and was structured, guided and influenced, to some degree, by elected and appointed officials who, in spite of their best efforts, failed to get its recommendations adopted.

The Porto Alegre experiment was also set up for electoral gain by a newly elected mayor, who used it to advance his national political ambitions. The mayor and his office planned and implemented its structure, and then drove the process through, coordinated its meetings, set agendas and presented information to the main central budgetary forum. The mayor’s office was closely linked to every stage of the Porto Alegre process, providing guidance, support, information and coordination (Bures 2002; Minos 2002). The result was, according to a World Bank report, substantial changes, including: improved facilities for the city; more accessible, higher quality public welfare amenities; and higher levels of participation.2

However, beneficial outcomes do not necessarily reflect co-governance processes and, like the British Columbia Assembly, the Porto Alegre programme was initiated and guided by the elected and appointed officials of representative government. According to close observers, it was ‘an impressive example of state- fostered civic organization" born of a need to gain public support (Abbers 1998: 511, 534; Abbers’ emphasis). Another close analysis of the experiment concludes that it was a case of state-sponsored neighbourhood assemblies and institutions (Baiocchi 2003), and a third describes it as a form of ‘reformist state tutelage’ (Baiocchi et al. 2005: 27).

The Chicago community experiments are similarly heavily dependent upon the formal authorities and institutions of representative government. Their ‘accountable autonomy’ gives them significant independence, but their efforts are supported by central departments of city government that provide guidance, training, money, advertising and expertise. The local schemes are dependent upon departments of the mayor’s office that monitor their performance, hold them accountable, intervene directly when things go wrong, and set a general policy framework within the city’s overall programme (Fung 2001). This degree of central control and coordination has sometimes caused substantial conflict between localities and the centre, with the result that the role of civic organizations has been weakened (Fung 2003c).

When government direction and support for co-governance arrangements is weak or absent, as seems to be the case with the generously funded (US$400 million over 20 years) Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program, then devolved schemes are in danger of under-achieving (Fagotto and Fung 2006b). Equally, when coordination takes the form of centralized technocratic management, as it has in South Africa’s attempts to build local democracy, then participation and deliberation suffer (Millstein 2010). There is, as Heller (2001: 133) puts it, ‘a delicate and workable balance to be struck’. Co-governance schemes can work where they are supported by parties and nurtured by state resources and encouragement, but are likely to fail or underachieve without them.

The danger, of course, is that over-strong ‘mediation’ of direct democracy becomes neither direct nor even especially democratic - it turns into just another form of top-down, elite directed, representative government. Another danger is that political leaders create vague and weak forms of empowerment, as Talpin observes in this volume, or they may hijack direct democratic institutions and use them for their own purposes. They can also ‘cherry-pick’ the policies and decisions they like and ignore the rest (Smith in this volume).

This review of the workings of town meetings, citizen initiatives, election recalls, referendums and experiments with co-governance suggests several conclusions. They are often hedged about with restrictions that limit their power and effectiveness. They are often limited to lower and less powerful levels of government, leaving the matters of high politics firmly located in established democratic institutions. There is the danger that the instruments of direct democracy may be hijacked by special interests groups, especially well organized and well financed ones, although some empirical studies question this fear, finding that referendums and initiatives in Switzerland and the USA are not especially prone to plutocratic manipulation. Nevertheless, democratic innovations are usually the creations of the elites of representative democracy and are typically directed and controlled by them. They work hand in hand with the institutions and practices of representative government, and are moulded in their image. There is the danger that elected elites will pick and choose what they want from the outcomes of direct democratic practices, leaving the rest aside.

Although they rarely work as they are supposed to in theory, or according to the textbook accounts of how they should operate, there is also evidence that direct democratic forms can have indirect effects. Generally speaking, initiatives and recalls are not powerful weapons in the armoury of direct democracy but, nevertheless, the fact that they might work in any given instance may help to keep elected politicians on a tighter rein of accountability. There is also evidence that the instruments of direct democracy employed in some states in the USA and in Switzerland have the effect of encouraging more positive attitudes towards government, higher levels of political engagement, and more effective and efficient forms of public service delivery. It would be ironic, however, if direct democracy was to be judged mainly in terms of its indirect effects.

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