• Opinion
  • October 17, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

It’s time to create models of democracy fit for the technological age

Opinion: We need citizen participation to become a pillar of our democratic systems

citizen participation

This piece was written by Emily McDonnell, Civocracy’s head of communications and partnerships. 


It’s European Local Democracy Week. And it’s a huge honour to say that, for the most part, we’re living in a world in which democracy is an essential part of the fabric society.

Representative democracy is a model that is thousands of years old; constructed by the Ancient Romans, it is the version of democracy that a large number of countries operate on. It’s based on the idea that citizens elect politicians to represent them on all political matters.

But this model isn’t made for an era of universal education and technological innovation, and it functions on legacy systems of decision making. People are far more informed about global affairs, and our politicians simply can’t keep up with the developments happening in every part of society. The frustrations citizens are feeling because of the faults of the representational system show themselves through current political turbulence.

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I’m not saying we do away with representative democracy, quite the opposite. It’s existed for thousands of years for a reason. We can’t all be informed in all political matters at all times, and it’s great to have specially educated individuals taking high-level decisions day-to-day on our behalf  —  I wouldn’t want my dentist fixing my car engine.

But thanks to the siloing of professions and creation of technology, we all have specialist skills in different sectors, and are more connected than ever before. We should harness this incredible potential, and build the inclusion of this knowledge into our political institutions.

Yes, it can be argued that participation is already a part of our representative democracy, as we get to vote for those who we want to look after us. But just think, voting once every five years alienates us. In theory, you can go through life in this “representative democracy” unrepresented in government, while not being permitted to represent yourself.

We need citizen participation to be built as a pillar of our democratic systems

Informal citizen participation methods exist, such as protests, petitions, boycotts and digital campaigns, but they’re often ineffective or very energy consuming. We need citizen participation to be built as a pillar of our democratic systems.

The power of the crowd

A large reason for the lack of integrated participation in representative democracy comes from the belief of a large number of elected officials that there is widespread apathy amongst citizens  —  that we just don’t care about politics. This simply isn’t true. This generation is one of the most politicised, but they don’t believe they’re heard and lack the tools to open an effective feedback loop with government representatives.

Citizen participation in the standard model of representative democracy is typically limited to voting and party membership. But as citizens retreat from parties and find new ways of participating in politics, it is time to consider how our conventional institutions of representative democracy might be reformed to (re)engage citizens in the democratic process.

At present, methods are often clunky, two dimensional and non-transparent. Town hall meetings, focus groups, surveys and feedback via social media prove little opportunity for constructive debate or consistency of discussions. Plus we’re of a time where citizens need to see their personal impact — it drives them to become more constructive and engaged.

Work in progress

Around the globe, experiments in forms of public participation and democratic innovation are taking place, and a number of strong examples of participation being mixed with representation exist.

Around the globe, experiments in forms of public participation and democratic innovation are taking place

For instance, Porto Alegre in Brazil was the first city to hand over control of some of the city’s budget to its citizens. In 1990, the Workers’ Party gave participatory powers to communities: within seven years, the percentage of locals with access to sewers doubled from 46 to 95. The rate of road building, particularly in the favelas, rose five-fold. Tax evasion fell, as people saw what their money was being spent on.

As a result, almost 200 municipalities in Brazil have adopted a participatory budgeting process, as have numerous other countries and cities across the world, such as Iceland’s Your Priorities project.

Another case of positive participatory models being built into representative systems can be seen in Australia. Voices4Indi is an NGO that some have claimed is reinvigorating democracy through kitchen-table conversations. It was started in 2014 with the aim of answering the frustrations of people who felt unheard. Members gathered at someone’s kitchen table, and selected a figurehead to run for parliament and to represent their needs.

Like the transformation in the automotive sector, we need a transformation in our democratic system

The movement managed to mobilise a voting public that is well informed and engaged, and develop political representation that is receptive and open to the broader community. It places particular emphasis on encouraging youth political participation and on ensuring that the impact of government policy on rural and regional communities are considered. Their candidate is still sat in Australia’s national parliament, directly feeding in the local community’s needs and positively affecting national policy agendas.

Of course, negative examples exist too. This is why we must be cautious, and empower citizens with knowledge of situations and structures of decision making, and why we still have a need for specially educated officials. We need them to make high-level policy decisions on our behalf, and to arm us with knowledge about situations. But we also need them to hear our frustrations and ideas.

So here we have it

We are stuck with a redundant version politics. It’s like driving on modern roads with a car handmade by Karl Benz in 1885, and saying we don’t need to update our transportation method because, well, it functions.

Like the transformation in the automotive sector, we need a transformation in our democratic system. One that weaves new methods that serve a modern world into the strong skeleton that exists: upgrade the engine and add a new chassis. We need to fully add participation to our representative system. We have the tools to do it, it’s time to accept the challenge! — Emily McDonnell

(Picture credit: Flickr/Design Innovation Centre)

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