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The emergence of a new local elite

Despite the will to build inclusive institutions, embodied in different selection mechanisms - random or self-selection - it must be stressed that co-governance innovations always face a similar dilemma: since they require repeated participation over time, a small core of participants always ends up assuming the lion’s share of the work in mobilizing the population, refining proposals, negotiating with elected officials, monitoring project implementation. Institutions based on random selection gather, by definition, a small group of people, who become increasingly specialized and expert over time. Similarly, institutions based on open participation at the grass roots level either reintroduce representative mechanisms at the higher stages (as in participatory budgets, for instance) or let people with more time and energy (often retired people, housewives, students) have a more decisive role in the participatory process. It has, indeed, been shown that biographical availability is a decisive factor explaining participatory engagement (Talpin, 2011).

As a consequence, all co-governance experiments based on self-selection mechanisms end up with a small in-group of highly active citizens. In some cases, the in-group is even institutionalized, as in Seville’s PB, where they created ‘motor groups’, seen as the pillars of the participatory process. The existence of a new sub-elite in co-governance institutions appears all the more evident, since turnover rates are high in these institutions. Whilst data are scarce on this issue, we know that in Rome’s 11th district PB, for instance, more than 50 per cent of the 2003 participants did not take part in the 2004 PB cycle. Despite the diversity of the reasons explaining citizens’ withdrawal from the process, this reinforces the centrality of the few actors who participated regularly and repeatedly over time, appearing increasingly as the core of the institution.

Theoretically, rotation procedures should prevent the emergence of a new subelite at the local level. Most PB institutions and neighbourhood councils follow a rule of rotation of the delegates, impeding a former delegate to run for office two years in a row. In practice, however, the most committed actors continue to participate in one way or another (prevented from running for PB council, they might serve in the monitoring commissions for instance) - which appears necessary to the survival of the experiment, given the low participation rates.

Furthermore, the learning processes that have been observed transform the few highly active participants into experts. They acquire skills and competences, a form of expertise that they are able to reinvest in other civic organizations, from local associations to political parties. Trajectories of notabilization have thus been observed (Talpin 2011), with some highly integrated participants becoming locally elected representatives. This raises a crucial dilemma for co-governance innovations: while repeated participation always ends in closing up the groups on themselves, thus jeopardizing the legitimacy of participatory institutions, it also allows learning processes to take place (Fagotto and Fung 2006), the level of citizens’ capacities appearing crucial for determining the democratic quality of co-governance institutions. Such processes could recall the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ highlighted by Michels in the case of political parties, with delegates becoming increasingly competent and specialized and thus cut off from the language, needs and interests of the masses (Michels 1914). Similarly, ordinary citizens could feel betrayed by participatory democracy institutions’ insiders, who reproduce the traditional delegation mechanisms they were supposed to overcome in the first place. Such criticisms have not been frequently observed in the case of co-governance experiments, however, simply because most citizens ignore the existence of these participatory institutions or do not care about them. The closing up of co-governance experiments on themselves makes the enlargement of participation harder, as it appears increasingly difficult for newcomers to integrate into an institution ruled by certain implicit norms, routines and shared assumptions, only known to the regular and specialized participants.

The closing up of co-governance experiments on themselves raises another dilemma for participatory democracy: if participants increasingly become a new sub-elite, to what extent can such institutions promote innovative public policies, alternative to those of the traditional elite? Whilst one of the justifications of participatory democracy is precisely the inclusion of non-specialized actors in the policy cycle, does it lose its raison d’etre when the public gains expertise and gets professionalized? The policy impact of empowered democratic innovations appears contrasted from this perspective.

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