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Laurens de Graaf

As a researcher of citizen participation I often discuss the functioning of local democracy with, among others, councillors, officers and citizens. These discussions are showing that knowledge of democratic theory in the field is not often very present.

Partly, this is understandable –if the field consisted of political scientists only, would democracy function at all? But it seems as if limited knowledge about democracy creates some practical problems. To put it more precisely, the perspective on democracy appears to depend on the slogan: ‘where you sit is where you stand’. Councillors see themselves as guardians of democracy, because they are (the only ones) elected, and are the representatives of the people. Officers don’t often understand the (seemingly) irrational decisions councillors make and see democracy often as frustrating for their policy process. Citizens are distant observers and only a few committed citizens are actually participating in democratic processes.

Councillors and officers have been aiming for (more) citizen participation since the 1990s. But what effect does citizen participation have on local democracy?

Citizen participation is vital to democracy

Citizen participation is usually seen as a vital aspect of democracy. Many theorists claim that citizen participation has positive effects on the quality of democracy. Theories of participatory democracy, deliberative democracy and social capital assert that citizen involvement has positive effects on democracy. It contributes to the inclusion of individual citizens in the policy process, it encourages civic skills and civic virtues, it leads to rational decisions based on public reasoning, and it increases the legitimacy of the process and outcome. These aspects are summarized in the table below.

Aspects of democracy Clarification Theoretical Perspective
Inclusion Allow individual voices to be heard (openness; diversity of opinions) Social capital & Deliberative democracy
Civic skills and virtues Civic skills (debating public issues, running a meeting) and civic virtues (public engagement and responsibility, feeling a public citizen, active participation in public life, reciprocity) Participatory democracy & Social capital
Deliberation Rational decisions based on public reasoning (exchange of arguments and shifts of preferences) Deliberative democracy
Legitimacy Support for process and outcome Participatory democracy

Table: Aspects of citizen participation and democracy; a framework for analysis

What councillors and officers are telling me is that they are not fully aware of all these different aspects, but like the overview. It helps them to reflect on democracy from different angels.

Local participatory policymaking in the Netherlands

My article – co-authored by Ank Michels – examines the probability of these claims for local participatory policymaking projects in two municipalities in the Netherlands. However, I think that the claims can also be applied to local democracy in the UK and other countries. The article focuses on the relations between citizens and government from a citizens’ perspective.

The findings show that the role of citizens in participatory projects is limited, serving mainly to provide information on the basis of which the government can then make decisions. Nevertheless, the article argues that citizen involvement has a number of positive effects on local democracy: not only do people consequently feel more responsibility for public matters, it increases public engagement, encourages people to listen to a diversity of opinions, and contributes to a higher degree of legitimacy of decisions. One negative effect is that not all relevant groups and interests are represented. The article concludes that for a healthy democracy at the local level, aspects of democratic citizenship are more important than having a direct say in decision-making.

Reflecting on the functioning of (your local) democracy can be a fruitful exercise once in a while. The framework of analysis that was presented here may help, among others, councillors, officers and citizens to understand democracy more broadly and empathise with (each) other’s perspectives and roles.

A full account of this research is available in my recent article with Ank Michels: ‘Examining Citizen Participation: Local Participatory Policy-making and Democracy’. Local Government Studies 36 (4), 477-491.

Laurens de Graaf is a lecturer at Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. In the last ten years he conducted theoretical and empirical research with regard to citizens participation and in a broader sense: the functioning of local democracy. He is often in the field moderating workshops and trainings for councillors, mayors, active citizens and (neighbourhood) professionals about their role and their potential added value to local democracy.

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