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

Activating the inactive and the marginalized

Participatory democracy aims at opening up the institutional machinery of political decision making to the citizens. Through the organization of public meetings, assemblies and working groups, citizens are offered the opportunity to have their say and eventually to have an impact on public decision-making processes. Despite the high expectations and incantatory discourses of both political philosophers and the promoters of democratic innovations, participation rates in public arenas remain on average fairly low (Verba et al. 1995; Ryfe 2005). Those who get involved in participatory politics appear in this regard as either ‘a happy few’ or new local elites. What types of actors are ready to dedicate their time and energy for the community’s welfare in co-governance arrangements? Are co-governance innovations more inclusive than other participatory designs? Is the decision-making power they are granted enough to reach marginalized citizens? These questions are pivotal as they lie at the core of the legitimacy of democratic innovations.

Co-governance institutions, like most democratic innovations, stem from a critique of representative government. At the very roots of representation lies a desire to filter the passions of the masses and to let competent and enlightened people decide (Manin 1997). Two main criticisms are addressed to representative government by participatory democrats. First, there is the question of the tyranny of powerful minorities (Fung 2007), which raises problems of the democratic legitimacy of the representative government’s decision-making processes. This issue is all the more salient today with the decline of participation rates in representative elections. Second, representative government appears to some participatory democrats as a hurdle to social justice (Pateman 1970; Barber 1984). Those in charge of political decision making emanating from a certain elite - allegedly cut off from the economic and social necessities biasing the judgement of the masses - tend to promote their private interests in the name of a defence of the common good. Far from embodying the whole population, most representatives are white males, relatively old, who went to the same universities and come from the upper economic groups of society. Generally implying an adequacy between individuals’ interests and preferences, participatory democrats therefore fear the orientation of public policies in the interests of the dominant elite. They push forward the idea of a ‘politics of presence’ (Phillips 1995; Goodin 2004) or ‘mirror representation’, forms of participatory democracy providing for the inclusion of social, ethnic or gender groups generally excluded from public decision making (Young 2000).

To what extent are co-governance institutions able to answer these criticisms? The most successful experiences, presented above, even if they remain the exception rather than the norm in the field of participatory democracy, manage to gather either a high number of people (when they rely on open participation mechanisms) or a representative sample of the population through random selection. These two procedural devices - self-selection and lot - and their consequences will be presented in turn.

Porto Alegre’s participatory budget, as well as Chicago’s community policing and Kerala’s decentralized planning, managed to gather large numbers of participants, especially among the poorest, who generally do not participate in other political forums. Kerala’s popular assemblies managed, for instance, to gather over two million people in 1997, with an average of 180 persons per ward meeting, representing 11.4 per cent of the voting population, and about one out of four households (Isaac and Heller 2003: 102). After ten years of existence, 8.4 per cent of Porto Alegre’s population declared to have participated in the PB assemblies at some point in the previous five years.6 Each year, more than

10.000 people participated in the neighbourhood assemblies. The very procedural design of the experiment creates an incentive for participation, since the number of delegates in the district and city assemblies is proportional to the number of participants in the neighbourhood assemblies. If people want to see their proposals passed, they must first of all mobilize in the local assemblies. Porto Alegre’s PB also managed to include the poorest sections of the population. In 2003, the twentieth percentile of the population accounted for 30 per cent of the participants in the neighbourhood assemblies.7 Interestingly, the number of people on lower incomes decreases when representative mechanisms are reintroduced, dropping to 20 per cent for forum delegates and 15 per cent for councillors.8

In Chicago, on average between seventeen and twenty-one citizens attend each beat meeting, which equates to a city-wide attendance of approximately

80.000 citizens each year (Fung 2004: 56). According to surveys, 14 per cent of the citizens attended at least one meeting in 1997, and 79 per cent of the population was aware of the programme (Fung 2003: 139 and 121). Whilst within neighbourhoods, wealthier residents and homeowners participate more than others, participation rates are overall higher in poorer neighbourhoods that suffer higher levels of criminality (Ibid.: 129-31). Participation rates are, however, lower in most American and European co-governance experiences, which also appear less attractive to poor people and immigrants. Apart from the French region Poitou-Charentes high-school participatory budget, gathering between 7 or 8 per cent of all the invited population, most European PB experiences gather between 1 and 2 per cent of the population. In Rome’s 11th District PB, only 1500 people participated in 2004, that is, a little more than 1 per cent of the district population.9 Whilst women participate as much as men - which is true for most PB cases in both Europe and Latin America - elderly people, activists and the middle classes are clearly overrepresented in European PB assemblies. In 2003, in Rome’s PB, 44 per cent of the participants were over fifty, 61 per cent were homeowners, 40 per cent members of an association and 20 per cent members of a political party.10 Similarly, Minneapolis NRP only gathers 2,000 persons every year, that is, 2 per cent of the neighbourhood’s population on average, with a large majority of homeowners (Fagotto and Fung 2006: 644). Overall, European and American co-governance experiences - because they are granted limited decision-making power and community organizations are less active in mobilizing the population - fail to involve the people for whom they had been created in the first place, that is, those generally excluded from traditional processes of political participation.

From this perspective, random selection appears as an attractive alternative mode of selection, capable of involving those who do not participate spontaneously. Whilst random selection does not give everyone an equal opportunity of participation, it offers an equal probability of being selected for the participatory process (see Fishkin, Geissel and Smith in this volume). There is, however, a dilemma affecting mini-publics: they cannot constitute a statistically representative sample of the population, because the number of participants would then be too high to allow a rich and intensive deliberation to take place. The initiators of randomly selected institutions, therefore, predefine a set of criteria they deem important for the selection process. In the case of the BCCA, the organizers wanted as many men as women, and two people from each electoral district. They also realized that having some Aboriginal participants would be necessary: two were therefore selected, even if this category of the population remained under-represented. The British Columbia example highlights the fact that random sampling requires a form of ‘manipulation’ by the organizers, in order to arrive at a group of people mirroring the general population.

Even if embodying the diversity of the population, a randomly selected group has, however, problems of legitimacy and accountability: can 160 persons, unrelated to the general population, take a binding decision in its name? Where is the popular control required by any form of democratic process? How can a group of people leaving their office after a year be made accountable for the decisions they have made? These crucial dilemmas explain why most minipublics remain consultative, decisions being taken ultimately by legitimately elected representatives. The Citizens’ Assembly offered, however, an innovative solution: by organizing a referendum, the burden of legitimacy and accountability did not lie on the mini-public, but on the general public, deciding through a direct democracy procedure.

Whilst they sometimes manage to gather impressive numbers of participants and appear more effective than most democratic innovations to activate marginalized actors, co-governance experiments do not reach the majority of the population. However, the minority participating actively in these institutions do it intensively - so well that they find the experience enriching, thus affecting them significantly.

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