4 November 2019


Is Participation a Complement to Representation?

Participatory democracy is a popular idea. But the large diversity of public and private initiatives across democratic countries doesn’t mean we’re doing it the right way.

by Lourenço Jardim de Oliveira


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In general, one might say participatory democracy is a consensual idea. Most people would agree there is a lack of citizen engagement in the public debate and that this hurts democracy. Some say people don’t care. Others believe citizens are just disappointed and lack opportunities to engage in politics. Maybe both views are related, or maybe the explanation is far more complicated. In any case, the fact is that few politicians dare to publicly point out the inconveniences of civic participation (assuming there are some) and tend either to avoid the topic or on the contrary to summon the population around the idea that each person counts and has a contribution of vital importance to give. It is likely that this sort of speech happens during election time, usually without the expected actions and follow up when the candidates actually get elected. Some might mistake these speeches about involving every citizen as a campaign promise, but it’s really just a communication style.

Participatory exercises are often categorized or used as communication strategies. They involve a certain type of communication since we’re dealing with the opportunity for citizens to express their points of view, but it is not the political publicity kind of communication. The difference is not difficult to see: the first leads to concrete interventions of citizens in the public sphere and should have consequences; the second is a simple campaigning exercise which follows the instructions of image or communication advisors with the single purpose of promoting a positive image of a certain candidate.

When you try to get politicians truly and deeply engaged in participatory exercises and assume strong and long-term commitments with such initiatives and their results, the feedback you get may be sad but not truly surprising. Politicians will be coming to the events, conferences or whatever form the initiative takes. They will have or demonstrate great will in talking to citizens, answer their questions, explain their theories on current issues and gladly listen to complains or recommendations. They will even give you their official endorsement with a quote or an online post congratulating the organizers and the participants and stressing out the importance of such projects. Indeed, light engagement is easy to get. But politicians do this individually and they won’t go any further, as if they consider their mission to be accomplished and their duty fulfilled. They won’t engage their party for instance, like if it was too risky. And it is highly unlikely that they actually bring citizens’ ideas to the decision-making table or act in order to produce real change based on participatory contributions, even when they are collected with maximum credibility and independence.

When you challenge a public or governmental institution to be a co-organizer or main partner of participatory initiatives – especially at the European level – the most probable thing is that they put you in touch with the communication department which will likely explain to you that they already have several projects where they get to listen to citizens’ opinions. Usually, these are citizens with university degrees and the financial capacity to come to Brussels or Strasbourg to participate. However, this doesn’t seem to bother them, as their mission is to communicate with citizens and civil society. The purpose and goal of that communication is still unclear. Most public institutions still see participation as something that is politically correct: politicians should communicate with citizens.  But this sort of communication doesn’t produce the right consequences nor a concrete value or impact in political terms.

We must stop approaching participation as a politically correct communication exercise. Participatory democracy is way more than that. It’s about the good functioning of our democracies. It’s not a healthy and joyful complement to representativeness but rather a pillar of the concept of democracy itself.

We need participation that leads to concrete action, that produces consequences. This doesn’t mean that decision-makers should apply all recommendations nor to interpret citizens’ contributions as an absolute truth. But it does mean that when citizens demonstrate a concern about a certain topic, that issue must be discussed in the political sphere, resulting in concrete proposals. These must be followed by an ongoing dialogue where politicians explain their progresses and give feedback on the impact of the citizens’ voice on the development and implementation of public policies. Only then can you have a participation that brings the citizens’ voice to the table. It is essential to guide and inspire policy making, to control political action, to help decision-makers understand the reality on the field, to assure the maintenance of the trust bound between citizens and their representatives and to avoid civilizational tragedies usually led by the so-called populists.

Without civic participation, democracy dies. We must stop approaching it as a complement to representation or a social or communication exercise. Participation must become part of the way we do politics. The different institutions of the State must have concrete strategies and goals that include impactful participatory initiatives as an essential part of their functioning methods and their action plan. It can’t be a choice anymore, nor depend on the ideology or goodwill of decision-makers.

* Lourenco Jardim de Oliviera  is the executive coordinator of Fórum dos Cidadãos. Mail: lourenco@forumdoscidadaos.pt 

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Good Lobby.

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