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Learning democracy: how citizens become competent by participating

According to their promoters, democratic innovations have the potential to reenchant politics, by including large sections of the population. State-sponsored initiatives of participation could, therefore, appear as spaces of political socialization, allowing non-politicized individuals to get their first public experience and thus to be able to participate more effectively in the public sphere in the future. Whilst the limited knowledge of the political system, the difficulty to locate candidates and programmes on a left/right spectrum, the instability and incoherence of individual preferences, have been largely demonstrated by now and are accepted by most social scientists (Converse 1964; Bourdieu 1979), and sometimes conceptualized as ‘cognitive incompetence’ (Sartori 1987), the more marginalized individuals seem, nevertheless, capable of political reasoning in different contexts, and especially in small-group discussions (Gamson 1992; Duchesne and Haegel 2007). While certain people are unable to talk about politics in public, they can express genuine political arguments in more private or intimate contexts (Eliasoph 1998). The question of the role of the (social, institutional and political) context in shaping individuals’ political practices should, therefore, be put at the forefront, in order to be able to understand how and when individuals can become enlightened citizens. The idea that individuals can become better citizens by participating actively in the polity has indeed been at the centre of debates in political theory, from its Greek origins to classical republicanism and civic humanism theorists, before being reformulated by theorists of participatory democracy and partly renewed by writers on deliberative democracy (Mansbridge 1999). People could learn new skills and habits, become competent or even ‘better citizens’ (Ibid.) by participating, with intensive engagement allowing individuals to reach surprising levels of expertise on rather technical issues. Participation is in itself a source of learning for individuals. Most empirical research indicates that when appropriately organized, co-governance innovations represent enriching experiences for participants, who become increasingly knowledgeable and competent through time (see also Geissel in this volume). What do people learn in these empowered democratic institutions?

Participation, first of all, allows individuals to learn to speak in public in an appropriate manner, to manage a meeting, to facilitate a discussion, to increase self-confidence amongst the less competent speakers, to set up an agenda, to mitigate between different interests and sensibilities, and even sometimes to organize a negotiation between irreducible positions. Talpin shows for instance how, in some Roman neighbourhood assemblies, people learnt to deliberate, to listen to each other’s arguments and to speak in a non-aggressive manner, after weeks of messy and unproductive discussions, thanks to the positive influence of facilitators and, as people, became more aware of the inefficiencies of their ways of relating to one another (Talpin 2011). As Fung argues about the participatory school councils he studied in Chicago: ‘After six months ... they began to behave cordially to one another and, more importantly, to deliberate about substantive school improvements rather than using meetings as occasions for political manoeuvring’ (Fung 2003: 135). In the Chicago beat meetings, residents and police officers received formal training in the problem-solving orientation of community policing deliberation. Participation, therefore, teaches groups to deliberate effectively, but also teaches individuals to speak up. As Fung writes of one Chicago resident: ‘For the first few months of our acquaintance, she was so shy that she refused to be interviewed. When I finally spoke with her, I asked her why she had avoided me for so long. She said that: “It took me a while to get confidence to speak [to you]. I have learned from [other community-policing activists] how to speak up.” By the end of the observation period, Mrs. Rivers had become one of the most active community-policing participants in Central Beat’ (Fung 2004: 156-7).

It is through trial and error, to answering problems faced in certain situations (such as a shared analysis of the inefficiencies of discursive messiness), and thanks to the positive influence of enlightened facilitators stressing the importance of simple organization procedures, that a collective learning mechanism can take place.11 Far from being a purely cognitive, discursive or rational process, the learning of democracy firstly requires mastering certain ways of doing, which can only happen in interaction.

Even if co-governance institutions are generally not highly technical institutions

  • - to avoid excluding the most culturally and educationally deprived individuals
  • - participation can nevertheless allow the learning of some technical skills that were, until this point, the privilege of experts. In the BCCA, participants met for six weekends, when they received lectures on the different electoral systems. At the end of that phase, they had basically taken a graduate course in electoral system design (Lang 2007). Participants’ levels of expertise on a rather obscure issue - most of the participants initially did not know that competing voting procedures existed - therefore increased drastically, thanks to participation.

Similarly, in PBs, people learn the organization of a public budget (composed of different taxes and sources, requiring an equilibrium, and so on), and as PBs often deal with urban planning issues, participants can learn through discussion technical skills on how to build a road or a public park, the nature of technical and juridical rules, and so on (Talpin 2011). From this perspective, participatory engagement seems capable of reducing the gap between experts and amateurs in designing public policies. Co-governance organizers sometimes devolve large resources for training, as in the Kerala experience: ‘In the first year, in seven rounds of training at state, district and local level, some fifteen thousand elected representatives, twenty-five thousand officials, and seventy-five thousand volunteers were given training. ... Separate handbooks and guides, amounting to nearly four thousand pages of documentation, were prepared and distributed for each round’ (Isaac and Heller 2003: 83).

Finally, it seems that empowered participation has the potential to increase individuals’ political sophistication. This concept is generally defined as the capacity to understand the political system, to locate politicians and ideas on a left/right spectrum, and is therefore measured through survey answers (Luskin

1990). Participatory arenas are not detached from the local political system, since such participation is a way to increase one’s knowledge of the political game. Being in regular interaction with elected officials, participants can more easily identify their political orientation (which was far from being the case for most of them at the beginning), learn to negotiate with elected officials, to play off the rivalries between parties to get things done. Participants also discover the way the administrative machine works, the distribution of competences among different public bodies, as well as the conflicts between different institutions. The discourse voiced by certain activists can sometimes appear as lectures on the local power relationships or on the way the municipal institution really works, thus embodying a great deal of knowledge for apparently uninformed citizens. Political parties’ members evoke the latest municipal decisions, housing rights militants tackle the homeless situation problems of the city, environmentalists share their knowledge on questions such as global warming or urban planning. This increased political knowledge might, however, result in a greater cynicism from the citizens if they end up disappointed by their participatory experiences (Talpin 2011).

Even if the increase of individuals’ political competence might not have a direct impact on public policies, it can nevertheless be understood as a positive externality of co-governance innovations. As they often manage to gather people with little political experience, co-governance institutions can play a role of political socialization for lay citizens. This might re-boost civil society - by nurturing new members for civic organizations or fostering the creation of new associations (see Baiocchi 2005, in the case of Porto Alegre) - and it could have a wider effect on the political system, transforming non-voters into active citizens. The electoral consequences of participatory democracy remain, however, a contested issue in the literature (see Anduza et al. 2008; Sintomer et al. 2008a).

Whilst the issue of citizens’ capacities is crucial for determining the democratic quality of co-governance institutions, it appears that it is only through repeated participation that citizens become competent enough to take binding decisions. Repeated participation is a condition for learning, but it has also the side effect of closing up groups on themselves: highly active, integrated and expert participants appearing increasingly distant from the grass roots.

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