New manifestations of democracy around the world are trying to re-root politics in the experiences of ordinary people
These are difficult days for democracy. European nations struggle to elect governments on low turnouts. Populists wielding half-truths go from strength to strength. Facts are a devalued currency, personalities never more important.
People use ballot boxes to bloody the noses of the political elite. Young people are particularly jaded. Late adopters such as Russia and Turkey are turning their backs.
In its original sense, rule by the people, democracy seems to be in retreat.
Perhaps because of this, or in spite of it, experiments in new manifestations of democracy are proliferating. And some may offer a more tangible experience for ordinary people than the remote, mundane exercise of voting for a stranger once every four or five years.
Who: Healthy Democracy
What: Representative panels of citizens evaluate ballot measures
Where: Oregon, US
How: Random selection of panel members to ensure representative diversity
The US west coast state of Oregon has more than a century's worth of experience with ballot initiatives – single-issue questions put to voters during state and federal elections. They are much more common than Britain's ad hoc referendums, making Oregonians more aware of the pitfalls and associated remedies.
Robin Teater, head of the non-profit Healthy Democracy, says the state's ballot initiatives became corrupted over time. Wealthier interest groups would swamp voters with campaign materials and ads, confusing far more than they clarified. Voters were left ill-informed about how to vote, undermining the whole process – much like the UK's EU referendum, as it happens.
Oregon's response was to mandate Citizens' Initiative Reviews, people's panels run by Healthy Democracy to evaluate proposed ballot measures. Thousands of Oregonians are invited to take part, with representative samples of the population then chosen. Participants spend several days consulting experts, ballot supporters and opponents before drafting a brief report for the state's official voters' guide.
Teater says the result is that voters get fact-based, reliable arguments both for and against any measure.
“It's less a recommendation than it is distilled information that the voters can rely on to make their decision.” That compares with the UK government's first referendum leaflet, a publicly funded text entitled “Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK”.
Oregon's panels have tackled questions as varied as labelling genetically modified food, authorising privately owned casinos, and corporate taxation matters. Other states, including Colorado and Arizona, are now taking up the idea.
What: Randomly selected groups of citizens deliberate on complex policy issues
Where: Various Australian states
How: Political powers undertake to engage with the process
Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, son of the wealthy Australian industrialist Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, got tired of being asked constantly for campaign donations to political parties. So he walked out of a fundraising dinner in 2005, and set up an organisation, NewDemocracy, to test out the use of citizen juries in deliberating policy.
“It sounds counter-intuitive to say that what's wrong with democracy is voting,” says Iain Walker, executive director. “But once you get introduced to the concept, to say that democracy is the taking of public decisions that reflect the informed general will of the people, you start to realise that our current, electorally based democracies don't do that tremendously well.”
Juries broadly represent their communities, just as in criminal trials, quite the opposite of politicians who emerge via elections. Groups deliberate the issue before them, taking evidence and calling on experts before drafting recommendations.
Their outputs are the polar opposite of opinion polls, the fruits of 40-hour, in-person deliberations versus pollsters' four-minute phone calls. Findings enjoy public trust in a similar way to jury verdicts, making them harder for politicians to ignore. Work to date has tackled transport networks, energy generation options, obesity and managing Sydney's and Adelaide's nightlife.
Who: Originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil
What: Giving people a direct say in local budget decisions
Where: 40 countries generally in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia
How: Budget decisionmakers cede some power to citizens
For all the merits of citizens' juries and other democratic innovations, none stands out quite like participatory budgets. Though they vary considerably in design and scope, participatory budgets share the common feature of allowing citizens' greater involvement in local taxation and spending decisions. The founding credo was to boost popular participation in government and to redirect more public money towards poorer communities.
It's something very, very far from the democratic channels that exist today
Their attraction over other sorts of innovations lies in their real, concrete implications for the communities that adopt them, says Yves Cabannes, emeritus professor at University College London. Impacts are quickly felt in people's lives and on their cities, thanks to money generated locally.
“Participatory budgeting is fundamentally about people having a direct say about the future of their lives and their community,” says Cabannes. “The key ingredient is deliberation, the quality of the exchange of ideas.”
Last year, he identified 1,400 such projects in more than 40 countries. The Scots, enlivened by their independence referendum in 2014, are recent but enthusiastic converts, he says.
Research from Porto Alegre, Brazil, birthplace of the participatory budget, shows citizen involvement remains high, more than two decades after their inception. More than 10,000 take part in annual budget deliberations.
“It's something very, very far from the democratic channels that exist today; it's another world totally for me,” Cabannes says, contrasting the budgets with the UK referendum.
“Participatory budgeting is a way to re-establish confidence between citizens and local governments and the politicians – it's one of the good ways to re-establish re-enchantment of the people.”
Who: British Columbia State Assembly
What: Randomly selected group of citizens deliberate on electoral reform
Where: British Columbia, Canada
How: Assembly proposed measures to be decided by public referendum
Referendums seem attractive to voters for the brief influence they offer. Everyone's vote counts, regardless of whether people live in marginal or safe seats. That contrasts with the bulk of effectively redundant votes in first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections such as Britain's, when winners take all and other ballots get tossed.
Disaffected voters like referendums – which give a rare chance to bloody the noses of their political masters, regardless of the underlying question being put. The result is terrible politics, worse still when both sides of a campaign use fear over facts.
Graham Smith, politics professor at the University of Westminster, bemoans the British referendum's lack of an informed, thoughtful debate. “That's a very poor environment to make one of the possibly most important decisions of our generation.”
Far better a ballot preceded by a trusted process of fact gathering and deliberation, done by a neutral group delivering its verdict in plain English for voters to consider. For Smith, an expert in democratic innovation, British Columbia's experience offers just such an example.
The Canadian state created a 160-strong citizens' assembly in 2004 to ponder voting reform, its recommendation going to a public vote the following year. The assembly's proposal to ditch British Columbia's FPTP voting system for a version of the single transferrable vote then failed to get the super-majority of votes required for adoption.
Democracy innovators were nevertheless mightily impressed at the real-world testing of theory. Not least was citizens' evident capacity to engage seriously with a complex, technical issue, gathering facts and drawing clear conclusions.
Random selection of representatives
What: Student government elections replaced by lotteries
Where: Cochabamba, Bolivia
How: Randomly select student governors, study of how they work
Democracy in Practice (DIP) co-founder Adam Cronkright blends experience from the Occupy Wall Street movement with local colleagues' activist knowledge of Cochabama. The latter include veterans of the city's grassroots push to halt an abusive water privatisation deal in 2000.
The non-profit group organises random selections of students to sit on school councils. Bypassing conventional elections makes for more representative student governments, ones balanced for gender, background and character. It is no longer just cute or popular students who get to govern.
The approach takes innovation beyond one-off citizens' juries or assemblies with their single-issue remits. Students face the challenge of day-to-day governing and direct, decisionmaking power.
Three years in, Cronkright and his colleagues report encouraging results: “What we're seeing is that everyday students can effectively govern in a school setting as well, if not better, than elected students.”
DIP's findings show chosen students quickly learn deliberation skills, respect for others' views and consensus decisionmaking. Extending such lessons to all students, on a par with maths or science teaching, would help prepare the ground for randomly selecting representatives for adult governments.
One intriguing finding from the work – albeit still anecdotal – is how often the most conventionally electable candidates prove to be the poorest at government: “The students that struggle the most with being part of a team, and helping others as part of a team and following through with what they say they're going to do, have been the students that are the most charismatic.”
What: Random selection creates panels to identify and deliberate on local priorities Where: Belgium, the Netherlands, slated soon to run in Cambridge, England
How: Original, one-off Belgian edition spawned continuing Dutch offshoot events
Belgian politics hit the wall in June 2010 after federal elections failed to produce the necessary winners to form a government. A year and a half passed before negotiators came up with a workable coalition, leaving the country's politics in limbo.
Out of the void came the inaugural G1000, a citizens-inspired gathering named half in parody of the regular Group of 20 (G20) meetings of leaders from the world's major economies.
The three-stage event featured an online consultation, a one-day citizens' summit and a citizens' panel event held over three weekends. Organisers used random selection to assemble the group, leading a process that eventually chose, and deliberated on, questions of work and unemployment. Its recommendations were not binding on political leaders, nor were they put to popular vote.
The G1000 approach, however, struck a wider chord. The Dutchman Harm van Dijk brought it to Amersfoort in the central Netherlands in 2014, where it took root and spread to other Dutch cities. It looks set for an English debut in Cambridge next year.
Dutch G1000s use lotteries to gather large groups of citizens to decide on local political priorities. Invitations to participate use random sampling to make participant diversity more representative of the host community. Groups then identify priority policies for their local governments while also planning to take actions themselves.
“What comes out of a G1000 is first of all a very strong agenda of issues that the whole of the group thinks is important to work on,” says Van Dijk. “Also what comes out is a very strong common ground.”
Are you aware of other local democracy projects that are working. Tell us about them
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