Which democratic mechanisms might increase and deepen popular participation in the political process? This paper for the POWER Inquiry assesses various “democratic innovations” according to their capacity for broadening citizen engagement and deepening participation in agenda-setting and decision-making, as well as their adaptability and cost-effectiveness. It argues that creative approaches can improve democratic engagement, although political resistance and civic suspicion need to be countered through cultural change, well-resourced support and imaginative institutional design.
Recent evidence of low levels of public trust and participation in political processes has been accompanied by growing worldwide experimentation with democratic institutions. Such “democratic innovations” focus on relations between the citizen and state, through developing formal methods for involving citizens in policymaking processes.
Their first goal is to increase the numbers of people participating, through open, random or self-selection, especially targeting marginalised groups. Secondly, to “deepen” participation by increasing citizens’ access to agenda-setting and decision-making processes, providing better information to citizens and improving methods of public deliberation.
Six categories of “democratic innovation” are identified:
- Electoral innovations seek to increase voting in elections by improving convenience (e.g. postal ballots) or changing practice (e.g. reducing voting age). Apart from compulsory voting, electoral reforms have a mixed record at increasing turnout, but some may deepen participation by improving the voting “experience”.
- Consultation innovations relate to standard methods of informing authorities about citizens’ views (e.g. public meetings and focus groups). Independent consultations, with government commitment on implementation, are most effective. Open forums can deter marginalised groups, selective forums hold less weight.
- Deliberative innovations focus on improving the quality of engagement through inclusion and dialogue protected from elite capture (e.g. citizens’ juries). Such approaches have the advantages of independence, diversity of participants and well-considered outcomes, although they can be expensive to run.
- Co-governance innovations aim to give citizens ongoing influence within political agenda-setting and decision-making processes (e.g. participatory budgeting). They enable direct, long-term public engagement, although mechanisms need to be designed to ensure broad-based participation and well-resourced to promote credibility.
- Direct democracy innovations provide citizens with final decision-making power on key issues (e.g. town meetings or referenda). These approaches have the strength of giving citizens direct responsibility for shaping policy; however, well-funded media campaigns may distort outcomes.
- E-democracy innovations refer to online political engagement (e.g. e-voting or e-consultation). Critics suggest e-democracy entrenches marginalisation by deterring excluded groups with little experience of Internet use; proponents argue that inexperienced users are quickly engaged and the anonymity of e-democracy encourages participation.
The success of innovations will depend on their context. However, creativity in designing participatory approaches can achieve not only higher turnout and more representative consultation, but also deeper engagement:
- Various barriers to participation may hinder innovations’ effectiveness and weaken outcomes: insufficient resources, confused objectives, official resistance, inadequate incentives to participate and poor public trust.
- While aiming to increase engagement, innovations should also emphasise political equality and inclusion through careful selection of participants.
- Citizens must believe that participation will make a practical difference through internal governance systems enabling citizens to influence – and receive feedback from – policymakers.
- Citizens should have incentives to participate and receive reassurance about public authorities’ motives (e.g. through the use of independent bodies to facilitate participation).