Three major trends, each involving both an escalating crisis and a corresponding set of responses, are inspiring new innovations in democracy.
- The problem: People today have different expectations and capacities than their predecessors of a generation ago, yet in many places, the options for engaging with government have not evolved to address these needs.
- Why it matters: Without accessible and meaningful opportunities to engage with their governments, trust will continue to erode between government and its citizens, and policymaking will continue to be stuck in gridlock.
- The solution: Many new democratic innovations have emerged in the last few decades, all over the world, at all levels of governance. Despite some promising success stories, most are not taking full advantage of these innovations.
First published on Apolitical this post is written by Matt Leighninger, the former vice president from the research and public engagement organisation Public Agenda.
Recent writing about democracy is full of dire warnings and nervous apprehension, as if we were standing at the bedside of a slowly declining patient. Yes, democracy as a system grounded in free and fair elections is facing big challenges. Mistrust of and disaffection from government is too high, many electorates are polarising, social media is driving malicious and often dangerous misinformation, and big-tent parties that can broker agreements between centre-right and centre-left are in decline. In some countries, authoritarian populists have been increasing their appeal. In the US, electoral systems themselves are under attack.
But if you look past these headline dangers, there is much more to the picture. Democracy is far from static. In fact, many new democratic innovations have emerged in the last few decades, all over the world, at all levels of governance. Citizenship — that is, people’s relationships to government — is itself evolving.
People today have different expectations and capacities than their predecessors of a generation ago. They tend to want more involvement with their governments. They are more expressive of their values. They are better organised through civil society organisations. Some governments, agencies, or ministries see these changes as opportunities for better, smarter citizen engagement — and with this, better government. Many are developing more responsive, representative, and deliberative political processes.
The Participedia platform
These innovations are being catalogued, compared, and examined through Participedia, an online resource supported by an international community of researchers and practitioners. Starting from its inception as a partnership between the University of British Columbia and Harvard University, continuing now at its new home at McMaster University, Participedia has grown to encompass over 3,000 entries. The cases, methods, and organisations described in Participedia tell the story of democratic innovation, evolution, and adaptation.
Many democratic innovations have emerged in response to national and global crises. Here are three major trends, each involving both an escalating crisis and a corresponding set of responses:
1) Polarization and gridlock: Many societies are experiencing polarization between people of different backgrounds and political persuasions, often exacerbated by forces such as demographic sorting and misinformation spread by social media. Polarisation often feeds into legislative gridlock, as elected officials are loath to compromise in the face of well-organised partisans who might cost them their next election.
One way of depolarising issues is to involve citizens through ‘deliberative mini-publics’, a kind of democratic innovation that is gaining prominence in many countries because they are comprised of ordinary citizens who invest in learning and deliberating about an issue. In these kinds of initiatives, a small group of people is recruited using various methods of random sampling to demographically represent a larger population. These deliberative mini-publics (sometimes referred to as ‘representative deliberative processes’) meet to learn, hear from advocates and experts, deliberate, and then offer recommendations for public officials. (Many examples of deliberative mini-publics can be found in the Participedia collections ‘OECD Project on Representative Deliberative Processes’ and ‘The POLITICIZE Project’.)
In some countries, ballot initiatives and referendums have become popular avenues for getting around gridlock. But citizens may not be well-informed about the issues upon which they are voting, and ballot measures can become yet another venue for polarisation. The case of Brexit — an attempt to overcome gridlock within the UK’s Conservative Party — put the challenges of misinformed citizens and polarisation on full display.
Can ballot measures be improved with democratic innovations? The US state of Oregon has experimented with citizens’ juries attached to high profile or complex ballot initiatives using the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review. A citizens’ jury is another type of mini-public that is composed of 20–24 randomly selected citizens who learn about a public issue, hear from experts and advocates, and then publicise their findings and positions for the broader voting public. Rather than advising public officials, the process is advisory to the broader public. Research suggests modest but significant improvements in citizen knowledge, as well as movement away from polarised positions.
2) Racial disparities and conflicts: Political polarization is often interwoven with differences in how people perceive race, racism, and past racial injustices. Many different democratic innovations are aimed at addressing these issues. Among the most prominent are Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs), which have emerged to help societies address the historical legacy of racial injustice and find ways to move forward. Participedia includes other examples of democratic innovations aimed at achieving racial justice and equity.
Another way that some societies have worked toward racial justice is by acknowledging racial and cultural differences in their laws. For example, the Bolivian constitution, adopted in 2009, gives formal roles to both geographic communities and tribal communities in public decision-making.
3) The Covid-19 pandemic: The pandemic has reinforced the need for engagement by highlighting the importance of connections and trust in society. Whether people are engaged with one another and with their institutions affects their willingness to wear masks, follow safe distancing practices, and get vaccinated. At the same time, the pandemic disrupted most of the existing patterns of engagement and forced public officials, their staff, and citizens to adapt to a world where face-to-face meetings were impossible.
Many adaptations to the crisis took the form of Zoom meetings and Facebook Live events, intended mainly to replicate the kinds of encounters people could no longer have face-to-face. Moreover, as Thamy Pogrebinschi and her colleagues have documented in the LATINNO Project, newer democratic innovations also emerged to serve five pressing needs:
- generating verified information and reliable data;
- geolocating problems, needs, and demands;
- mobilising resources, skills, and knowledge to address those problems, needs, and demands;
- connecting volunteers and service organisations with people who need their help;
- implementing and monitoring public policies and actions. (See the Participedia collections ‘Covid-19 Response’ and ‘Citizens Voices & Values on Covid-19’.)
“Using a wider lens to learn from these innovations can provide hope and give us guidance as we work to protect, deepen, and advance liberal democracy.”
Democratic progress or regress?
These are just a few of the many areas in which people are finding new ways to strengthen democracy. Most democratic innovations seek to solve problems of governance, expand inclusion, or respond to urgent needs in ways that electoral systems alone cannot. Should these and other kinds of democratic innovations continue to develop, the current weaknesses of electoral democracy can be addressed, though likely on a problem by problem, case by case basis.
There are, of course, no guarantees that these innovations can save democracy.
Yet, using a wider lens to learn from these innovations can provide hope and give us guidance as we work to protect, deepen, and advance liberal democracy. Participedia can help us chart these changes, thereby strengthening our understanding of the challenges to electoral democracy and the potential impact of the innovations that are addressing these threats.
This essay was created as part of a partnership with Participedia & Public Agenda. Participedia is a global network and crowdsourcing platform for researchers, educators, practitioners, policymakers, activists, and anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovations. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan research and public engagement organisation dedicated to strengthening democracy and expanding opportunity for all Americans.