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The impact of co-governance innovations: how can lay citizens sometimes take better decisions than elites?

The main specificity of co-governance institutions, in comparison with other democratic innovations, is their level of empowerment. The question remains as to whether citizens’ participation in the decision-making process of public authorities makes a difference. Does it lead to different decisions from those that traditional elites would have taken? Are those decisions better, being more rational or more just as hypothesized by deliberative theory? Whilst being exceptional, some of the cases reviewed here show remarkable effects on public policies, with co-governance more directly taking into account the will and needs of the most marginal citizens.

When given sufficient autonomy and leverage, co-governance institutions take different decisions from those of traditional elites. The BCCA example is quite telling from this perspective. As Lang (2007) argued, several expert panels had advocated a Mixed Member Proportional System. The choice of the STV system by lay citizens was linked to the fact that they saw it as a system designed to curtail the power of political parties. Citizens simply had different criteria than had experts for defining what constitutes a good electoral system. They especially valued ‘local representation’, while discarding the importance of having a ‘stable government’, which is generally the most important aim of constitutional or electoral systems designs for political scientists. Including non-professional actors in the policy process can clearly produce different decisions.12 As long as democratic innovations are empowered enough and granted sufficient autonomy from public authorities - something that remains exceptional, especially in North America and Europe - the inclusion of the public has an impact on public policies. The question remains open, however, as to whether these decisions are better.

One of the answers to this crucial question on the efficiency of democratic mechanisms is that co-governance innovations have the potential to increase the pool of knowledge available before taking a decision, by integrating lay citizens’ local knowledge in the policy cycle (Fischer 2000), who thus take better decisions. The value of local knowledge was highlighted by Aristotle and has been reinterpreted recently by prominent democratic theorists and tested empirically by social scientists (Mendelberg 2002).13 Usage and practice would thus be the conditions for sound judgment, as John Dewey argues: ‘The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches. ... A class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all’ (Dewey 1927: 207). Empirical evidence of the virtues of local knowledge is plenty, as Fung argues in the case of Chicago’s beat meetings: ‘Invariably, the officers responded that residents usually know crime situations better than police’, that often police surveillance revealed that resident complaints ‘were accurate, and that they were glad to have this kind of help’ (Fung 2004: 159). Local knowledge is particularly useful for pointing out problems that experts and technicians, supposedly cut off from the field, could have missed. Very often in European PB assemblies, participants draw the attention of the public to important issues: safety in a Roman public park, cold in a deprived neighbourhood primary school in Seville, or indecent living conditions in the dorms of a high school in Poitou-Charentes. Technicians themselves learn to value the practical knowledge of users, as testified by a Poitou-Charentes functionary: ‘I remember this high- school director who found it pointless to freshen up the dorms, saying that at his time pupils were raised tough. ... The PB allowed pupils to express their needs, and the dorms were renovated. PB allows the expression of needs that we did not hear before, as the decision makers are different’ (see Sintomer and Talpin 2011). Local knowledge is generally shared through anecdotes or testimonies, illustrating the nature of a particular problem; hence the importance of the mobilization of emotions and personal stories in co-governance deliberations (Young 1996; Sanders 1997).

Beyond local knowledge, it seems that decisions taken in co-governance institutions can be more impartial than those taken in representative bodies. In the case of the Citizens’ Assembly, it was especially designed to solve a conflict of interest, political parties being necessarily biased in the reform of an electoral system. But citizen participation might also have a positive impact in increasing transparency and limiting patronage. Porto Alegre appears exemplary from this perspective, PB reform having substantially diminished patron/client relationships, which used to be the rule - especially in the area of construction. Even if relying on self-reporting (which casts doubt on the reliability of such findings in sensitive issues like corruption), several studies highlighted the decrease of patronage after the creation of the participatory budget. While 18 per cent of community leaders declared their engagement in client/patron exchanges of benefit to political support prior to PB, this dropped to only 2 per cent after the creation of the cogovernance mechanism (Baiocchi 2005: 45). Forty-one per cent of associations received funding from clientelistic relationships before 1989, whereas none relied on such a personalized system after the creation of PB (Avritzer 2002: 37). The transparency in the allocation of public resources, as well as in the choice of private contractors, simply made patronage and corruption more difficult (Gret and Sintomer 2005). Contrary to some sceptics’ expectations, the devolution of political power to citizens did not translate into increased clientelism, because the politicization of decision-making processes impeded such corrupted practices. Co-governance institutions appear, from this perspective, particularly effective in countries where corruption levels are high.

The impact of empowered innovations in developing countries can sometimes be impressive. In Kerala,

from 1997 to 1999, 98,494 houses have been built, 240,307 sanitary latrines constructed, 50,162 wells dug, 17,489 public taps provided, and 16,563 ponds cleaned. A total of 2,800,179 individual beneficiaries received support from the plan for seedlings and fertilizers. 8,000 kilometres of roads were built. These figures far outspace public construction from previous comparable periods.

(Isaac and Heller 2003: 100)

Similarly, in Porto Alegre,

each year, the majority of the 20 to 25 kilometres of new pavement has gone to the city’s poorer peripheries. Today, 98 per cent of all residences in the city have running water, up from 75 per cent in 1988; ... in the years between 1992-1995, the housing department offered housing assistance to 28,862 families, against 1,714 for the comparable period of 1986-1988; and the number of functioning municipal schools today is 86, against 29 in 1988.

(Baiocchi 2001: 48)

In Chicago, community policing led to decreasing crime rates, even if the latter fell nationally at the same time, thus making the origin of the process hard to identify (Wacquant 2005).

Not only are these co-governance institutions efficient, allowing the pace of economic and social development to quicken, but they can also be instruments of social justice, resulting in priority being given to allocating resources towards the most needy groups and areas. In the Indian People’s Campaign,

local bodies have accorded much greater priority to basic needs such as housing, drinking water, and sanitation. ... In contrast to past patterns, investment priorities in special plans prepared for scheduled castes and tribes differed significantly from the overall investment patterns. The low income, asset, and skill position of these marginalized communities has been taken into account.

(Isaac and Heller 2003: 99)

In Porto Alegre, the redistributive impact of the system is encapsulated in the rules of the game, as poorer and more populated areas received more funds, following the will of the Workers Party to ‘invert priorities’ towards the more needy. Similarly, Minneapolis NRP ‘systematically favored disadvantaged neighborhoods through a progressive funding allocation formula that included factors such as neighborhood size, poverty level and dwelling units’ condition’ (Fagotto and Fung 2006: 647). The social justice effect of co-governance is, therefore, neither the product of the altruism of enlightened citizens, nor of other-regarding deliberation - most of the participants mobilizing for the interest of their own communities - but of rules of the game designed by progressive political elites. This is further evidence of the crucial role of the political will of the elected representatives when they design co-governance institutions in the first place.

The same conclusion can be drawn from the study of European cases, where the absence of redistributive effects is first of all the result of a more moderate political will. As this elected official says in one of the nevertheless most empowered French PBs: ‘The investment choices made by the citizens were pretty much those we [town representatives] would have made. And it was really reassuring for us’ (Talpin 2007). Contrary to the Brazilian or Indian experiments, and despite the fact that most European co-governance innovations are led by politicians on the left of the political spectrum, they do not directly aim at fostering social justice through participation.

As the most comprehensive study on European PB concludes, most cases have at best moderate redistributive impacts (Sintomer et al. 2008b: 306-15). Primarily, the reason for this limited impact is the financial dimension of European PBs. Whilst in Porto Alegre, the whole investment side of the budget was allocated through a PB, only a small percentage is decided by citizens in European cases. In the small Italian cities of Pieve Emmanuele and Grottamare, where 10 per cent of the budget is allocated by citizens, the PB nevertheless permitted the rehabilitation of the most deprived neighbourhoods. This was made possible, owing to the massive mobilization of the residents of these areas. Some Spanish experiences, influenced by Porto Alegre’s model, set up ‘social justice criteria’, aimed at allocating more resources for the most deprived areas and the most marginal segments of the population, but with little result. In Seville, the social justice criteria resulted in only 70,000 euros of ‘bonus’ for the most deprived zone of the city (Ibid.: 309), a marginal amount in comparison to the 12 million euros of the PB (which only represents 1.2 per cent of the total city budget).

The comparison of co-governance experiments indicates that five conditions are necessary for democratic innovations to have a social impact: (1) a clear political will to promote social justice from the initiators of the participatory procedure; (2) a significant level of empowerment, allowing citizens to decide on high-stakes issues; (3) a certain transparency, making the evaluation of the social impact of public policies possible; (4) distribution criteria aimed at maximizing the condition of subaltern classes; and (5) a mobilization of civil society organizations to defend the interests of marginalized groups (Ibid.: 314). While these conditions were often present in the Brazilian and Indian cases, they were absent most of the time in those of Europe and North America.

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