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


It can be exceedingly difficult to overcome the powerful social forces and institutional inertia that result in political inactivity, and community forums, citizens’ panels and consultative groups set up to attract marginal and minority groups have not been particularly successful in activating the inactive (Pratchett 1999; Smith 2005: 33; Smith and Stephenson 2005). They are more likely to involve the unrepresentative and self-selected part of the general population that is already involved. If they do attract members of the inactive target group, there is the danger that they are different in some important respects from the minority group they are supposed to represent (Pratchett 1999: 623), or will become less representative of that group after a period of intensive meetings (Talpin in this volume).

Nevertheless, some innovations have succeeded in reversing the normal pattern of political withdrawal. To their considerable credit, all three prime examples of co-governance - Porto Alegre, the Chicago community projects, and the Citizens’ Assembly of British Columbia - have successfully generated the participation of the poor and unorganized. According to Lang (2007: 65), the British Columbia Assembly ‘circumvented the influence of narrow interests, money and organization and re-focussed decision making around the search for common ground’. The Porto Alegre experiment succeeded in organizing and mobilizing the poor and inactive, serving as a model for successful schemes in many other Brazilian cities and slums (Baiocchi 2003; Baiocchi et al. 2005). Though patchy and inadequate, participation in the Chicago schemes ‘undoubtedly increase the scope for citizen participation and deliberation’ (Fung 2001: 80). The police scheme has actually reversed the normal pattern of low engagement in poorer areas, and has produced higher rates of participation among the wealthier and better educated individuals within these poor areas (Fung 2001: 92).

Not all co-governance experiments are this successful, as we have seen (Fagotto and Fung 2006b; Millstein 2010). Those in Porto Alegre, Chicago and British Columbia were expensive, all three concentrated on relatively small numbers of participants and made it possible for them to meet regularly over a long period of time, and all three were provided with the organizational support of political authorities. They were intensively proactive forms of innovation, rather than the more permissive or enabling forms such as registration and electoral change and the electronic provision of information and discussion forums. The three prime examples of co-governance success also concentrated on a relatively small population within relatively small geographical areas. Whether they can be transplanted with similar success to a higher regional or national level of government is questionable (see also Geissel in this volume).

The conclusion to be drawn from this brief assessment of attempts to activate the inactive is that general, diffuse and untargeted attempts have not been notably successful. Experiments that focus on small areas and specific target groups seem to have more success in including those parts of the population that are normally outside the political arena, provided that they are carefully set up and resourced by political authorities that really want them to succeed.

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