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Participatory democracy: the rise of the political citizen and participative power

Academic Discipline: Political Science
Course Name: The Frontiers of Democracy
Assignment Subject: Participatory democracy: the rise of the political citizen and participative power
Academic Level: Undergraduate-fourth year
Referencing Style: Chicago
Word Count: 1,860

A renewal of political philosophy has coincided in most Western countries with the establishment of procedures during the last two decades, in order to indirectly involve citizens in the political decision-making process. These schemes are mostly granted by local or governmental authorities, but can also result from strong pressure from the grassroots and the social movement. It is to this institutional offer of participation that today the idea of participatory democracy refers: a movement that aims, more or less clearly and effectively, to institutionalize the participation of citizens in other forms than the simple designation of elected representatives. An institutional regime that excludes citizen participation in the exercise of power came to be designated as democracy, which by definition refers to an ideal of government in which the legitimacy of a decision rests on those who should be able to participate in it, and whom the decision concerns. In this context, it is believed that the functioning of a democratic system calls for a certain degree of participation by the people in the determination of collective choices. This paper will analytically clarify what the terms ‘political citizen’ and ‘participative power’ mean, and also analyze the political stakes of this claimed support on a specific form of democratic participation, and examine what this discussion brings to the classical opposition between classic theories and the participatory theories of democracy.

The notion of the ‘political citizen’, and the equivalent terms refer to the idea of a constitutional contribution accessible to everyone. Two variants can then be distinguished, which designate rather different dynamics in regards to the justification of the citizens participation in the decision-making processes. The first regards the application of political power as a mobilized notion, while the second regards carrying out transformations that follow the logic of the society and its internal changes in the functioning of the political administration. Having these means makes it possible to adapt and improve the offer of public policies so that it corresponds more to the needs of those to whom it is addressed. Participation at this level goes hand in hand with more accessible public services, and open communication between decision-makers and users. However, in other participatory arrangements, it is not primarily in its dimension of use that the ordinary reason of the citizens is convened and the latter are asked to exercise their collective powers of reasoning.

Despite important nuances, the primary intention is the same: it is a question of completing the institutional regulation of representative democracy in places where the deployment of this broader democratic deliberation is possible, and where the participation of the greatest number of collective choices is encouraged. The effects of rigorous approaches towards greater participation by the people in decision-making can be significant, as it is on the way to becoming one of the dominant currents of contemporary political thought.

Participatory democracy
Participatory democracy, under some of these modalities, enshrines a new political role to the ordinary citizen, whereby the citizen becomes required to pronounce himself, and is supposed to be able to position himself politically when the share of initiative left to participants is reduced to a minimum. This is often the case with the various participatory sittings or public debates that the political authorities set up, but which are in no way part of genuine participation. In other cases, discussions with citizens are part of pre-regulated arrangements that, like conferences or juries of citizens, are the subject of standard procedures. In this case, the citizen is often placed in a passive, experimental situation, with a minimal room for negotiation. In these conditions, the forms of socially assisted democracies do not instrumentalize those who agree to participate. But by questioning the capacity of these procedures to influence the decision-making process, they point to their main limit: their lack of effectiveness. Indeed, under certain conditions, these procedural innovations can sometimes trigger a virtuous political change process and compensate for the effect of structural inequalities on political participation, but in many cases, this type of decision-making approach contributes to polarizing rather than reconciling the different points of view.

The institutionalization of participation, its inclusion in the law and in administrative routines arguably offer more advantages than disadvantages. But this institutionalization of participation can only be achieved on one condition: the emergence and recognition of an intermediary actor, or a neutral power that guarantees the progress of the dialogue, and imposes obligations on all those involved. The establishment of a procedure for participation with the public is likely to produce effects, regardless of the political context. These effects are often indirect and unexpected, and may concern the organizations, the actors involved, but also the decision itself. The expected effects, which are sought to be verified, can be extremely varied. They can relate to the actors at the individual level, their capacity to act, their opinions, their level of information, or acceptance of the other. They can relate to the power relations between groups, situations of domination or injustice or the social representations of a phenomenon. They can finally deal with the decision in a democracy, whose causal relationships, taken separately or as a whole, the participation is supposed to validate or invalidate.

Participative power
The participation of political citizens can then be a means of gaining advantage against organized civil society, suspected of having special counter interests. To be deployed, collective powers of reasoning require sufficient information, pluralistic debates allowing the exchange of arguments, and moments of personal introspection. Consequently, the very notion of democracy, the idea that everyone has the right to participate in the definition of common affairs, if only through the vote of representatives, would be meaningless.

Induced by participatory approaches or, more broadly, by commitment to the problems of society, the idea of participation in the most radical experiments refers to a participative democracy in the strict sense, that is to say a combination between the institutions of representative democracy and the dimensions of democracy direct. An important part of the decision is not a purely technical definition and implies cultural, social or political choices which ordinary citizens can reasonably be associated with when an adequate procedure allows them to have information and to deliberate properly on the matter. The reason behind this is that participation is at best only a small minority of citizens, it is very socially unequal, as every interest, every social institution, is transformed into general, collective interest.

Participatory democracy contributes to politicizing certain populations, as it is always possible to contest the very modalities of the organization of the debate which challenges the organizers in the name of the democratic principles they claim to be, for example, is a common modality of major social operations. More generally, everything indicates that organized groups still have the choice to practice when faced with these participatory mechanisms. While for some of them, the most fragile, these instances of participation constitute places where their real representativeness and strength are put to the test, most have a vested interest in their multiplication. Whatever the approach adopted, and where their intervention is permitted, organized groups retain the possibility of acting simultaneously in other settings.

Instigating positive social changes
This idea of participatory democracy is very often detached from any reference to social justice, as it is a question of bringing citizens closer to political power, of informing the population and introducing effective movements, but not of helping to improve the lot of the most disadvantaged populations. In other words, existing schemes contribute more to the learning of the actors already in place, and to redefining their relations than to transforming citizens into genuine actors in public decision-making. Ideally, participative power is expected to produce citizens more interested in public affairs, more informed, more empathetic, more concerned with the general interest, and to transform their opinions. These approaches call for attention to citizens’ education, civic engagement and empowerment processes. As such, in order to make it more effective there must be an effort to communicate systematically, with the populations furthest from the political sphere through selective incentives for participation, or by a constant search for representativeness. It is at this price that it is possible to avoid the reproduction of the balance of power that is successful only if explicitly and effectively sought.

Because public participation does not spread homogeneously on a national scale in various sectors, including the public policy sector, in the same way, depending on the country, the analysis of the effects requires broadening the dimensions taken into account in the evaluation of participatory processes. There are more comparative approaches between public action contexts in order to analyze their differentiated capabilities. This is done in order to produce a range of participation and how whole areas of public action evade or convert into the new system of political participation. Namely, the influence of participatory schemes are created often to seek out the explanation of this result elsewhere, other than in the devices themselves. As such, a question of the effects on the decision is a question about the relatively low impact of the participatory protocols put in place, contrary to the expectations of the proponents of embedding them in larger systems of action and longer temporalities.

Consequently, the failure of most participatory processes is to transform public action serves in order to inform the ordinary processes of decision-making in our democracies. This reasoning can be used as an argument that democratization of the decision-making process is hardly possible, due to the asymmetries of power and knowledge between the actors corresponding to strong initial normative changes. The first of these refers to the fact that the invalidation of the supposed and expected effects of participation constitutes in itself a significant result or decision. To note that, under certain conditions, the participation of the public in a democracy strengthens the power of the representatives, reinforces injustice and domination or produces strictly no effect can disappoint, it nevertheless constitutes a fact that deserves to be established.

In view of the initial assessments made in this issue and the questions they raise, it can be concluded that this deliberate turn in contemporary political thought and the rise of this participatory imperative in public action are a reflection on the limits of proven operation of current representative democracies. A deviation from the participatory ideal is not only a risk, but a reality that is seen today in many municipalities where consultation councils have neither the means nor the recognition sufficient to make themselves heard. At the same time, it can be concluded that the reference to an ideal of direct democracy or self-management is absent from most of these initiatives. Whether they are as diverse as neighbourhood councils, citizens’ conferences or the public debate, all present themselves as places where an informed public judgment can be built, where conflicting opinions can be made, and where arguments can be exchanged, but where decision-making power is not directly at stake. In particular, the devices which can be associated with this movement are tools or instruments to involve citizens more or less permanently in the discussion of local political affairs or development projects.

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