22 November 2023

Participation projects have the capacity to do amazing things. Many of us are fascinated to see what participation can achieve – innovating citizen engagement in ways that create a more democratic society,  at a time when said innovation is sorely needed. But it can also end up distracting from a broader democratic decline. And there are even some individuals and organisations who may be less interested in what it can achieve, than what it can appease.

Participation gives people a sense of agency. But its increasing popularity mirrors a deterioration in representative democracy and the real agency of effective democratic governance. 

Growing participation vs. global democratic decline

According to city governments, civil society organisations and our own report on digital participatory democracy, citizen participation is trending upwards. And not just here in Europe, but globally. That means more people are getting more involved in democratic discourse and activity at more levels of society, and that is absolutely great.

Meanwhile however, trust in representative democracy (and the systems, practices and institutions that underpin it) is trending downwards. That means that elections are seeing diminished engagement and detached or cynical voting practices, that disinformation is eating away at the credibility of political discourse, and that there is a frankly terrifying swing in support towards authoritarian and brazenly anti-democratic political movements.

That is…not so great.

While it would be wrong to draw any sort of causal relationship between the two trends, the correlation alone creates a problem. There is a space in the middle, where diminished faith in the capacity of people to affect change in the big issues that ultimately govern their lives is offset by the sense of community and democratic engagement that comes with smaller scale participation.

Where one positive trend (participation) softens the staggering blow of the other.

We need broader democratic reform

We’ve seen things like this before. We’re seeing some right now. Whether it’s leaning into the narrative of green tech as a solution to climate change, or AI as a solution to… everything.

There is an appeal and catharsis in the prospect. It’s simple salvation. It makes us feel like everything is going to be okay. But it can’t come at the expense of the ‘bread and butter’ of democracy. Better policy, regulation and practices at the highest levels, as well as the broad voter engagement that comes as a result. Hard stuff, not easily won.

The increasing popularity of powerful leaders is a trend that fits the same mould – at least partially. In times of uncertainty and fear, we generally see the rise of more authoritarian leadership styles. They poll well because for many they represent a solution to seemingly impossibly complex problems.

Citizen participation is obviously not authoritarian. Citizen participation is fantastic. But it can be (and often is) used by authoritarian and other anti-democratic forces under the guise of ‘democracy’. Whether it’s state approved and carefully monitored community level ‘decision making’ in authoritarian countries, party-level organisational decision making within authoritarian-minded and anti-democratic groups or a concerted authoritarian takeover of participatory and deliberative bodies such as those now regularly being seen in the United States with education boards and the like – it’s clear that participation alone does not make a democracy.

We all know this. But just knowing it might not be enough. As participation rightly increases in popularity and representative democracy becomes trickier and trickier, there might well be the tendency to lean more and more on it as a broader solution than what it actually promises to be. To treat participation as the green tech of democracy, while we slowly and painfully resign ourselves to the destruction of the democratic environment.

Because in the end, participation alone does not make an effective democracy anymore than a solar panel makes a healthy planet. It’s just a piece.

It’s one part of how we get there.

Participation is only part of the solution

Participation at scale, and I mean serious scale, faces numerous challenges. Not just in people and data management, but also in terms of the level of participation and time/energy investment required. Not everyone can or should be expected to get deeply involved in every decision. Perhaps one day when we’re all living in a post-scarcity Star Trek-esque utopia with precious little else to do except explore strange new worlds and debate urban redesign projects, then maybe. But for now… probably not.

Until then, representation of one form or another is a must. How we achieve that representation, or indeed make it more representative, is a separate matter. There are plenty of options – from liquid to sorted, to ranked choice – that may make innumerable improvements (albeit with their own technical hurdles). Yet the long and short of it is, representation itself as a core part of a wider democratic system isn’t going anywhere.

As innovators, decision makers, leaders, speakers and writers, it’s incumbent on us to avoid overselling participation.

Democracy needs an overhaul. That much is certain. And we are fortunate that in the participation space, there isn’t quite the same risk aversion, gear grinding and stubborn refusal to innovate that there is at the highest levels of government. It gives us the opportunity to try amazing new things. And hopefully, soon, those new things happening at the grass roots start to percolate and influence the top. 

In many places all over the world, they already are.

But unless we take big risks and make big changes at the top, there’s a risk that participation will increasingly become an anaesthetic for the pains of a democratic system struggling to stay alive.

Bread, circuses and participatory budgets is a future we cannot afford.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!