Next steps in the democracy argument

Any engagement approach not focused on getting the widest possible range of voices, and creating multiple environments in which they feel comfortable will be no improvement on the current system.

Anthony Zacharzewski
18 October 2016


Nigel Farage, ex-leader of the British UKIP party, speaks as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens, at Trump's campaign rally, August, 2016. Gerald Herbert/Press Association. All rights reserved.In the time of Trump, Brexit, and growing populism around Europe, it is difficult to be a democratic reformer.

We campaign for participation, evidence-based decision-making, and calm deliberation, at a time when those things seem farther from our political discourse than they have ever been.

The problem has many causes – economic, social, and political. Democratic reform can only be part of the solution, but it is an essential part. It is impossible to imagine a world in which populist pressures have been overcome, but national and European governments are still working as they do today.

Before allowing despair to take over, we should make a rational assessment of where we have succeeded. The challenges today posed by ISIS are – despite many differences – similar to those posed by the Red Army Fraction and others in the 1970s. Declining trust in government has not led to the sorts of political upheaval seen in 1968 or earlier. There is no plausible anti-democratic world power challenging democracy from a position of strength. Most significantly of all, the former Warsaw Pact countries are stable European democracies, something that only the wildest optimist would have predicted in 1986. It is impossible to imagine a world in which populist pressures have been overcome, but national and European governments are still working as they do today.

But the rapid transition to democracy could become a rapid transition away from it. The rise of populism we are seeing may just be the first murmurs of a wider challenge to democracy, driven not just by those called the ”left behind” but by a combination of dislocating social and technological change, accelerating incessantly, and promising an abundance of automation and replication that might destroy the jobs of whole sectors. What is opportunity to some is a grave threat to others.

A transitional moment

That rise of mass communication and network society is driving a transitional moment in democracy, too. Democracy is moving away from mass representation and the bureaucracy of the welfare state towards something more networked, open and personalised. Like a city that creates new suburbs but can never leave the shapes and patterns of the past behind, we cannot create this new democracy as we please: we have to manage the transition in a way that meets the needs of tomorrow's citizens, while being acceptable to those of today.

The lessons of other such transitions, 1789, 1832 or 1945, is that they do not happen easily, and the comfortable timescales of governments and establishment are easily overtaken by the speed of social change.

It is in this context, rather than its immediate surroundings, that we should read the Brexit vote. As is clear to anyone who followed the vote closely, it stood as a proxy for all sorts of concerns, particularly a concern about disruptive change, as seen through a prism of immigration. At times, the EU itself felt like a bit player in a wider culture war. More EU logos on buildings, or even better understanding of the EU would not have helped – the sense of protest is not really related to governance, it is just as powerful in nation states like France and the US.

The scale of the populist challenge, and the scale of democratic change, mean that those of us who want to see reform cannot just be innovators in the small things and ideas around the edges, implemented where people are friendly and agree with us. We have to understand how reform happens within existing systems, how we handle the legacy of old systems, and how we reach beyond those already engaged or engageable to those whose voices are seldom heard in the public square.

Scaling up or risking sidelining

There is no shortage of innovators, and there is no shortage of good ideas, but there is a serious shortage of the methods and infrastructure that will enable good ideas to scale and replicate. Innovators lack the access to government that would enable us to test at a population scale and on large issues. Democratic innovation risks becoming a sideline.

What are the routes that can lead us away from irrelevance, and enable us to work with governments and European institutions to involve people in new ways?

Start with the local. The area that people know best, and the area where they feel most able to make change, is that immediately around them. Without a strong rooting in the individual and community experiences of citizens, participation in policy can only ever be a minority interest, appealing to the single-minded and articulate educated people with time on their hands.

Understand how to reach scale through networks. National and European institutions work at a far higher level than local, so they need to think about ways in which they can bring their policy decisions and implementation into the local sphere. This is more than communicating in local media or councils, it involves creating a network through which participation and two-way communication can be handled. More than communicating in local media or councils, it involves creating a network through which participation and two-way communication can be handled.

Find opportunities to connect people and ideas. That network will not look the same in every place, and communities will always be different from each other. Joining up existing initiatives can test them in different environments to make them more robust, and gives greater scope for development of good ideas.

At the same time, exposing those with good ideas to the reality of government, and government staff to the possibility of reform, can produce insights in both directions. The Council of Europe's democracy incubator, which has its second meeting at the World Forum for Democracy this year, is a good example of this, bringing together two dozen cities currently experimenting with participative democracy and a global network of democracy experts and theorists. It is not hard to imagine this sort of initiative creating a global learning community, rooted in practical action, as has developed in the open data world in recent years.

Improve the baseline. The difference between an innovator and a reformer is that the reformer knows she has to work on the basis of the system as it is, not in a theoretical model or how she would like it to be. An important part of democratic reform is putting simple practices in place that make the baseline of government action across its whole range a little bit better every time.

This is about embedding new ways of working, whether these are the better regulation proposals for the European Commission, which promise to involve stakeholders more deeply, or international efforts such as the Open Government Partnership.

At local level they could be commitments to engagement and reporting back on the policy creation process. The key point is to make sure that everyone is doing two or three small, measurable, better things for democratic engagement.

Be pragmatically opportunist. Incremental improvement needs to be accompanied by bold experiments. The places where policy, policy team, politicians and potential participants are all open to new approaches are the places where more ambitious innovation can be tried, and both governments and reformers should seek them out. Successes and failures then need to be reported back, honestly, into the community. Incremental improvement needs to be accompanied by bold experiments.

Take diversity seriously. Governments in Europe serve 500 million people, including tens of millions of disabled people, people without access to the Internet, or people with low literacy skills. Any engagement approach that does not focus on getting the widest possible range of voices, and creating multiple environments in which they feel comfortable will be no improvement on the current system.

This has to go beyond merely reaching out for more participants, to rethinking some of the fundamentals of how we designed democratic experiences. Many democratic reformers are rational, articulate and educated people, so an assumption creeps in that the best model for  democracy is rational debate between educated and articulate participants. It is not something that many politicians would recognise as their day-to-day experience, and it is not the way to create environments that are welcoming to those with low skills, or confidence.

Understand the skills needed in government and among the public. It is very easy to demand too much of citizens. This is most obvious when it comes to time requirements, or the demands on attention span that some democratic innovations place on their participants. However, it is also possible to assume knowledge that is not really there. Citizens need the subject-specific information on which they can participate, but they also need the background knowledge and skills to make participation worthwhile for both sides. Government officials, too, need to have the right skills both to create engagement opportunities, to be active participants within them rather than just standing at the back with their arms crossed, and to handle input from large numbers of diverse and engaged participants. An assumption creeps in that the best model for  democracy is rational debate between educated and articulate participants.

Finally, keep experimenting and keep talking. No one knows the one right answer to democratic reform, and no one has built the single platform that fits. It seems to me almost impossible that there could ever be a single answer or a single platform, given how complex and vast the scale of global democracy is. That makes it even more important to keep experimenting, and find the solutions that work in different situations. For that not to be an endless process of reinventing wheels and small-scale innovation, we need to keep talking: governments, reformers and citizens. Through that continued conversation, and by bringing the learning to the surface, we can create the democratic answer to the challenge of populism, and thereby support those who are trying to deliver the social and economic answers.

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