Innovations in Democracy

3rd February 2020 - Prof. Nick Pearce (Chair of the Commission)

Last week, the new Centre on the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute of Public Policy launched a major piece of research on global public attitudes to democracy. The headline finding was that public dissatisfaction with democracy has grown substantially in the last quarter of the century: 2019 had the highest level of ‘democratic discontent’ since detailed recording began in 1995. The share of citizens across the world who expressed themselves ‘dissatisfied’ with democracy rose to 57.5% in 2019 – up from 47.9% in 1995. Countries such as the UK, US, Australia, Brazil and Mexico are experiencing the highest ever recorded levels of democratic dissatisfaction.

Much of this can be attributed to ‘shocks’ to democracies, like the global financial crisis of 2008/9, or corruption scandals like those that have plagued Brazil in recent years. These have had the effect of undermining satisfaction with the functioning of democratic government. More widely, the findings also play into a sense of democratic malaise: the view that populists are on the rise and respect for democratic institutions and norms of democratic politics is falling. Some authors even argue that we live in a ‘post-democratic’ age.

Yet when we look around the world, we also see a counter-trend of attempts to renew democracy, particularly at the local or city level. Mayors, city governments and local authorities have been creating new forms of democratic participation and citizen engagement. Inspired by examples from the Republic of Ireland, Canada, Poland and elsewhere, a number of towns and cities have been establishing ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’. These are groups of citizens chosen by lot to deliberate upon an issue or set of challenges and to make recommendations for action. The idea is that if you give people the chance to reflect on all the evidence, and to discuss and debate the options for policies, they will come to a reasoned view that can command widespread support. It is usually called ‘deliberative democracy’.

In the Republic of Ireland, a national Citizens’ Assembly met over a number of weekends in 2016-17 to consider changes to the constitution on abortion. It made recommendations for changing the constitution to allow the Irish Parliament to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn and any rights of the pregnant woman. A referendum was held on the 25 May 2018 on its recommendations, which passed by a majority of 66.4% in favour. A new Citizens’ Assembly is now meeting to consider gender equality.

The German-speaking community of Belgium, Ostbelgien, has gone one further – creating a permanent Citizens Council, with rotating members, to sit alongside the regional parliament. It can initiate issues for discussion by Citizens’ Assemblies and monitor what action the parliament takes in response to them.

In recent months, we have seen the spread of these types of assembly or deliberative forums across Britain. Local authorities – including Newham itself – have been holding Citizen Assemblies to make recommendations for action on the climate emergency. The Scottish Government has established one to discuss the future of Scotland, and a national Citizens’ Assembly has now been set up to look at climate change by the MPs on a number of Select Committees. There are many other examples. In the UK, organisations such as the RSA, NESTA, Involve, DemSoc and the Centre for Public Impact have excellent resources for people interested in these developments.

Citizen Assemblies and other deliberative forums are not without their critics. Some argue that they are a distraction from the real business of politics, which they believe is about the clash of values and ideas, not the pursuit of consensus. Others view them as a means of managing popular expectations, not meeting them. But whatever your view, it is undeniable that Citizen Assemblies are spreading rapidly across the world.

Another form of democratic innovation is Participatory Budgeting. This has its roots in the city of Porto Allegro in Brazil, where a new form of radical participation by the residents to debate, determine and vote on the city’s budget was set up in the late 1980s. It quickly spread to other countries. Nowadays there are many forms of Participatory Budgeting used. The city of Paris is a very prominent example.

In places like Barcelona and Madrid, participation has been combined with innovative uses of digital democratic platforms like Decidem. These platforms give people the chance to feed in views and debate with each other on-line, as well as in face-to-face meetings. A particularly interesting use of these technologies can be found in Taiwan, where policies for contentious issues, like the regulation of Uber taxis, were developed using a platform called vTaiwan. Closer to home, the Mayor of London has the on-line community, Talk London which provides a platform for Londoners to get involved in policy decisions, and the design of services and plans.

Other local authorities have also been pioneering new forms of community participation – such as in Wigan and Barking and Dagenham. These are often driven by the aim of building stronger cohesion between different local communities or engaging local people in running events and setting up new facilities. Citizens who organise themselves in strong community organisations are often able to build relationships across diverse groups and formulate demands to those in power. In East London, perhaps the best known example is TELCO – The East London Citizens Organisation, of which Newham Citizens is a part. This kind of community organising can help redress inequalities in power and political participation.

So the story of democracy is not all one of dissatisfaction and decline. New innovations for giving citizens greater power and voice in policymaking, and making governments more open, accountable and accessible, are taking wing. In the Commission on Democracy and Civic Participation we are looking at what Newham might learn from them, so it can build on the changes it has introduced in recent months and take the next steps on its journey of deepening democracy.

If you want to have your say in the work of the Commission, visit our online discussion portal and feed in your views. We’d love to hear from you.

Nick Pearce – Chair, Democracy and Civic Participation Commission